SELFISH REASONS TO HAVE MORE KIDS
By Bryan Caplan
Basic Books, $24.99, 228 pages
In an economy that has given one in five Americans the liberty to delay life-changing decisions such as marrying or having children, Bryan Caplan’s book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think” stands as a bridge across an economic and psychological gap.
This isn’t your average parenting book spouting psychologist-laden babble about the inner workings of the human psyche, inherent selfishness and bearing children. Rather, Mr. Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is a father of three, including twins, and he hopes to persuade interested parties that it’s not only better to have children in the first place, but to have lots, or at least more than the number you originally were planning to have.
Mr. Caplan methodically and with a surprisingly cheerful, even humorous tone, starts to build his case by analyzing the state of the American family - much of this we already know. The “American family has drastically downsized. Women in their forties were about twice as likely to have one child - or none - as they were thirty years ago.” No one knows exactly why this is happening, but Mr. Caplan asserts: “[W]e’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain.”
Any parent - or even prospective parent - can attest to this. Many times the memory - or fear - of sleepless nights, a tantrum-throwing toddler or rebellious teen breaking curfew sends adults into a fetal position. Mr. Caplan’s solution? Parents should loosen up and let live. “Children cost far less than most parents pay because parents overcharge themselves.” Improve your child’s sleep (and yours) with Dr. Richard Ferber’s method: Pare down activities to ones both of you love, be clear and consistent and enforce consequences to maintain discipline, and look for creative ways to supervise your children less. They gain independence, and you get a well-deserved break.
If taking your activity-laden kid out of dance class in favor of letting her watch Disney sounds like the beginning of a lifelong guilt trip, Mr. Caplan’s not concerned. He backs up his suggestions with the thesis of his book: According to studies of adopted children and twins raised together and apart, the effects of parenting are short-term. Mr. Caplan cities study after study that shows nature overpowers nurture regarding traits parents care about and slave over most - intelligence, health, happiness, character, success - though parents are able to assert some influence on a child’s appreciation level and religious and political identity.
Mr. Caplan claims confidently: “Kids aren’t like clay that parents mold for life; they’re more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is released.” While this might sound unbelievable, even depressing to some parents, Mr. Caplan beckons his readers to view this with the kind of optimism that will lead them to increased fertility. “Behavioral genetics offers parents a deal: Show more modesty, and get more happiness. You can have a better life and a bigger family if you admit that your kids’ future is not in your hands.”
The latter half of Mr. Caplan’s book covers a range of topics related to parenting. From overpopulation - Mr. Caplan claims more people equals more ingenuity, which does more good than the myth of too many people - to chapters that describe strategies to become a grandparent many times over and how to use the best of modern science to achieve your newly formed fertility goals. While interesting, these chapters aren’t as compelling as the first.
It’s hard to be persuaded to applaud human cloning or store away ideas to “tactfully reward your kids for each grandchild” when you’re still wondering how you’re going to pay the bills associated with each child you selfishly decide to bring into the world - or you’re still mulling over what’s so rewarding about an 18-year, gut-wrenching, all-out investment in a child who effectually will become whoever he was going to become without your constant love, attention and care.
Indeed, Mr. Caplan rarely touches on the financial costs associated with producing one or more children, a concern for many would-be parents. Nor does he explain why parents should choose to have one or more children if their parenting is so useless in the long term. On the latter, Mr. Caplan just claims if you and your child’s other genetic half are intelligent, reasonable, decent human beings, your kids probably will be, too.
Most parents don’t become parents - on purpose, or accidentally - because they can get away with fewer dance lessons than their peers or because they hope on a whim and a prayer their kid will turn out as decent as they are; they are trying to add value to their lives and to the world. For reasons economists can’t explain, that sense of purpose - though it’s only a sliver - means more than all the selfish reasons one can conjure up.
Nicole Russell, recipient of the American Spectator Young Journalist Award, has written for Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator.