Economist Bryan Caplan: Kids Can Be Cheaper Than You Think…


…so maybe you want more of them than you think you want. He makes the case for this controversial proposition at length in his fascinating and well-argued new book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

He makes a much shorter version of the case over at the New York Times's "Economix" blog today. One of his central contentions is, roughly, that since research shows that the effect of upbringing specificially as opposed to genes on how kids turn out in the long run is very small, Western parents especially are often wasting their time with much of their high-cost efforts in raising up their kids right. Some excerpts from the Times interview touching on this stuff:

Q. … On the one hand, genes clearly matter. On the other, young children of college graduates, for instance, know hundreds and hundreds more words on average than young children of high-school dropouts. That difference is not mostly genetic. 

You seem to have a different sense of the research. You write, "Adoption and twin research provides strong evidence that parents barely affect their children's prospects." What's the brief version of how you try to persuade skeptics like me?

Mr. Caplan: ……what does the twin and adoption data say? Language fits a standard pattern. Consistent with your skepticism, upbringing has a noticeable effect on the vocabulary of young children. But as children mature, this effect largely fades away. The Colorado Adoption Project found, for example, that 2-year-olds adopted by high-vocabulary parents had noticeably larger vocabularies. But as the kids grew up, their vocabulary scores looked more and more like their biological parents'. By age 12, the effect of enriched upbringing on vocabulary was barely visible.

Admittedly, there's a sense in which upbringing is all-important: If a baby is raised by wolves, he won't know any words. (There's also a sense in which genes are all-important: If you had wolf DNA, you wouldn't know any words either.) But twin and adoption research focuses on questions that are much more relevant for parents: how your child will turn out if you switch to another parenting style…..

Mr. Caplan: Happiness researchers consistently find that people with kids are less happy than otherwise identical people without. The result holds up, but there's a lot more to the story. First of all, the "depressing" effect of kids, while consistent, is small. Married-with-kids is far happier than single-without-kids, but happiness researchers rarely bemoan the plight of childless singles. Second, kids do extremely well by another plausible standard: customer satisfaction. Over 90 percent of parents say they'd make the same decision if they had a "do over," and over two-thirds of childless adults over 40 say they wish they had kids when they had their chance.

The finding that parents are slightly less happy is actually one of the main motivating facts behind my book. The problem isn't that kids "ruin their parents' lives," but that parents need a little more tranquility and time for themselves. That's why the evidence from twin and adoption research is such good news for parents: Parents can make their lives better today without making their kids' lives worse tomorrow.

A few of my favorite specific suggestions:

1. While parents often lose sleep for years, getting kids to sleep through the night is not hard. Real experiments confirm that the Ferber method — let your baby cry in his crib for 10 minutes, briefly comfort him, leave, repeat — works wonders.

2. Improving kids' behavior isn't hard either. Experiments confirm that clear, consistent, mild discipline — like putting kids in the "Naughty Corner" — works even on difficult kids. The problem is that if parents stop imposing discipline, kids soon revert to their old tricks….

Caplan says: it's perfectly OK and harmless to your kids to rely on "electronic babysitters" such as TV and video games as well to make parenting less costly on you. Which leads to the core of his economists argument: if you make having kids less costly on you, you'll likely want more of them.

Mr. Caplan:  ….Most people think that raising decent kids requires decades of unpleasant sacrifices. No wonder they're tempted to keep their families small — or remain childless. The good news of twin and adoption research is that sacrifice is overrated. Parents are "overcharging" themselves for their kids. And what do economics and common sense tell you to do when prices turn out to be lower than you thought? Buy more. Stock up. Tell your friends.

….Instead of fruitlessly playing Pygmalion, focus on enjoying your journey together. Raise your kids with kindness and respect. Find common interests. Use discipline not to teach lifelong lessons, but to persuade your kids to treat you and others decently here and now. If you use these strategies, parenting and bigger families really are a lot of fun.

Caplan's last controversial book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, was the basis of a classic Reason magazine cover story back in 2007.

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  1. […]so maybe you want more of them than you think you want.

    Yeah, right – I know what my wife would say to that: “Ok, but this time, YOU give birth to them!”

    1. I’m with Mrs. OM on this one. 8 solid weeks of morning sickness plus the last month of pregnancy indignities — Oy vey!! But, yes, they are worth it.

  2. The problem is that if parents stop imposing discipline, kids soon revert to their old tricks….

    …. to become politicians… or “Great Literary Geniuses.”

    1. or Constituional Scholars

    2. The point of discipline, as the article notes, is to make YOUR life better, by not having spoiled brats dissing you and being pains in the okole. As a great side effect, that also happens to prepare them for being happier when they leave the nest.

      Adam Smith’s invisible hand, indeed.

  3. The problem is that if parents stop imposing discipline, kids soon revert to their old tricks….

    Re: Libya

  4. How would having to fully fund your fucking offspring factor into this?

    1. Perhaps if the government stopped the generational wealth transfers known as Social Security and Medicare, people would go back to thinking of children as investments for old age the way they used to. And the childless wouldn’t be so mindlessly smug.

      1. I’m pretty sure I’m paying “generational wealth transfers” in both directions. Maybe if parents had to bear the full weight of their decisions they’d make better choices and be more invested in the children. Decisions have consequences and they should be limited to the decision maker as closely as possible.

        1. kilroy is fucked because no matter where he lives he can’t avoid the school taxes. Even though I benefit by non-parents subsidizing my kids’ education, I don’t support the tax. Despite my willingness to fully support and educate my own family, The Left will still call me a greedy libertarian.

          1. I’m fine with non-parents not subsidizing my kids’ educations so long as my kids aren’t asked to subsidize their retirements once they join the working ranks.

        2. Maybe if parents had to bear the full weight of their decisions they’d make better choices and be more invested in the children.

          I don’t make the rules, I just get to enjoy them.

        3. FWIW, I entirely agree.

    2. People with less money would have somewhat fewer kids if the government quit subsidizing them.

      Not all that many fewer, though, would be my guess, because money isn’t the biggest constrain on how many kids you have in a wealthy society like ours, but rather the opportunity cost of enjoyment and career and whatnot you have to give up to have kids.

  5. I haven’t read the NYTimes interview but I’m almost certain that it would go well with this WSJ column from last Fathers’ Day. It’s Bryan Caplan making his own case in his own words (and shorter than reading an entire book!):

    The Breeders’ Cup

  6. When Stockholm Syndrome goes toxic.

  7. This is an excellent article. More people should be encouraged to have children, and to raise them responsibly. I’m glad to see someone making that case, instead of the usual nihilistic nonsense about all the sacrifices involved, “tiger parenting”, etc.

    1. You fucking suck. Get a new gig. We already have Grego.

    2. I had to look up “tiger parenting”. Now I know where eating disorders come from.

  8. Mr. Caplan ought to spend a few days in my shoes.

    My single and DINK friends sure seem a helluva lot happier and more fulfilled than I do, with their copious free time and disposable income. My wife and I, OTOH, are fucking beat, not to mention, strapped financially.

    1. My single and DINK friends sure seem a helluva lot happier and more fulfilled than I do

      We are. I took a bath in caviar just last night. I smell like fish twat, but I feel fabulous.

    2. Just curious, are your single and DINK friends paying for your kids education at all?

      1. Just the ones who live in the ‘burbs. I also drive on the ROADZ!11!!.

        Most of them live in the city, which means I, and everyone else too, pay for most of their free stuff.

    3. You should have had only one. One is much easier.

      1. Shouldn’t you have two, so they can keep each other company? What would they do all day in the house by themselves?

        1. What would they do all day in the house by themselves?

          Fuck if I know. I cut open a large bag of candy in the morning and say, “Daddy be back” as I walk out the door.

          1. You irresponsible fuck.

            I cut open a large box of Cocoa Puffs, because I care about my kids.

            1. I had to learn to use a can opener by 6 and cook my own spaghettios. I managed to fix my own lunch and not burn down the house.
              Thanks to being a free range kid and learning the benefits of self reliance, I can now afford spaghettios with meatballs.

              1. I’m a geek in the Old School tradition, which used to mean that you had talents in hard science in order to get that label and not nowadays where you just have to play WOW. My geekdom came from being a latchkey kid back in the early 80’s!

                My parents used to leave me alone at about age eight, which turned out to be problematic from their point of view, since my time alone was when Star Trek reruns were on. I wanted to be in Star Fleet sooo bad that the USS Enterprise started to influence my behavior when I got bored.

                If you could plug it into the wall, then I took it apart like I was Spock performing ship’s maintenance. My Dad beat my ass with a garden hose for an HOUR when he came home from work and found I had dissected his shiny new Commodore64! The entire ass whopping he was screaming about how it had been still in the factory shrink wrap when he left for work that morning!

                You could call that beating an American version of tiger parenting, since I had that C64 pieced back together and purring like a kitten by the time he got home the next day. Think he was proud of me? FUCK NO!!! I got ANOTHER ass beating for my trouble since I had skipped school to fix the fucking thing!

                Of course I’m the one my Dad calls whenever he can’t figure out anything digital…

        2. Yes. I can confirm it works better.

    4. Maybe you should have gotten a better job. Or been born smarter. Or less ugly. Or…well, you know.

      1. Sez you. I was fine until that brain surgeon Mexican with movie star looks tuuk my jerb.

        1. “Hi, I’m Dr. Nick Riviera!”

          1. “Well, if it isn’t Mr. McGreg, who has a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg!”

            1. “These gloves came free with my toilet brush!”

              1. “Did you go to Hollywood Upstairs Medical College too?”

                1. Inflammable means flammable?

    5. I hear you about being beat and strapped for cash. I’ve got a three year old and a three month old who wear me the fuck out and whose monthly daycare bill is more than my mortgage. But I love it.

    6. You’re not alone. My kids are 7 and 9 and it’s certainly better than when they were infants and toddlers, but even now and with both parents working, it’s a prison sentence in terms of free time (and I’m not looking forward to the teen years). At the risk of sounding immodest, at times I feel like a race horse tied to an apple cart. So many lost opportunities, so much lost adult fun.

      That’s not to say I regret having my kids, but, my god! Everyone contemplating having kids should realize that it’s about 10X more work than you’re imagining, and nearly everything you do now for entertainment will come to an end for at least 10 years.

  9. My observation from a lifetime in a large family (immediate and extended) with a variety of parenting techniques:

    Sometimes you get a good one, sometimes you get a loser. And even the losers are kinda fun, so… fuck it. Chill out and have more kids.

    1. SOMEBODY’S kids have to make french fries for the Rocket Surgeons!

  10. DO NOT WANT.

  11. I wouldn’t say kids are entirely “cheap”. Mine costs me $600 a month in daycare alone.

    1. where the hell do you live? I have two under 2-years old, and daycare would run me about $2100 per month, making it a null proposition for me to bother working – hence, I am a SAHM at the moment.

      To be honest, though, even if I could daycare gratis, I would likely stay home with them. I don’t trust these early developmental years to anyone but myself or the two or three family members I trust enough to guide my kids into my perceived appropriate behavior patterns.

      1. Seattle. And I only have one. I don’t remember what daycare cost us when she was under 2. I don’t recall it being cheap.

        And at the daycare we pay for isn’t an all-day day care, it’s an hour in the morning and a couple of hours after school. She’s nine now. So $600 a month for about 3 hours a day seems pretty steep to me.

        1. We’re averaging about $10 grand a year, with aftercare and summer camp. We just took the eldest out of aftercare, so that will knock about $3 grand off the bill.

          She hasn’t burned the house down, yet.

          1. Screw summer camp. That’s what family members are for. My daughter goes to Camp Cousins across the water. My sister’s a homemaker and her husband works out of the house.

            1. Having a family network really helps. I don’t have any family here, so I had to do the daycare thing when the 2 kids were young ($1900/month). Now that they’re 7 and 9 I have to do the after-school care and summer day-camp thing. It comes to about $7K/year now.

    2. I’ll second that. I’m paying a few grand a year and I don’t even have any!

      1. My kids’ public school appreciates it. Her teacher just got back from a trip to Europe.

        1. I bet she doesn’t have any kids.

      2. dude, its bad enough those without kids pay for public schools but those of us who have kids and refuse to use those public schools are paying twice. Awesome. Since you are paying anyway, I wonder if you could just sponser a private school kid. You know, like mine.

  12. Redux, revealed:

    More white people should be encouraged to have children

    1. That’s what I heard!

  13. I’m never having kids until I can afford to send them to the nice military boarding school where Damian went in The Omen II. Now THAT’S how you raise kids!

    Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

    Underage and want a drink? Join the military in Alaska.…..itary.html

    1. Don’t be silly, GREGGOOOO. Sockpuppets can’t procreate.

      1. Then how do we get more sockpuppets?

          1. Rosebudding?

          2. No shit. I always figured it was cell division. I should have taken the Bio class for science majors.

            1. Although given the nature of trolls, SugarFree may well be right. Disgusting, but right.

  14. When I see breeders with their broods of fat, overbearing larvae, I am frightened and confused.

    I’m just a gay caveman, I don’t understand how the interplay between environment and genetics helps to shape behavior.

    1. You say that now, but when you’re 45 you and your gay caveman life partner will adopt an Asian caveman baby.

    2. No wonder you got extinct.

  15. over two-thirds of childless adults over 40 say they wish they had kids when they had their chance.

    I can see this–look at all the emotionally and mentally broken Hollywood celebrities that go through fertility treatments in their 40s.

    1. I just thought that all the kids that the celebs were adopting and pumping out was due to Scientology being secretly conquered by the Mormons!

  16. Me, I think he’s onto something. I raised three kids with not much money and no desire to make a science project of it for myself or a grind for them; mostly, we just improvised. Sure, at times it was tiring, frustrating, or scary, but I can’t imagine any way in which the last 26 years would have been more rewarding without all 3 of them. The freedom of having all 3 grown and on their own feels like a reward for a job well done, not a release from bondage.

  17. Having watched the Dog Whisperer the past 2 years and successfully using Cesar’s techniques on my twice weekly guest dog, I’ve been struck by similarity between dogs and kids. Namely, that steady and gentle discipline works. Too bad my kids are 18 and 13, sigh.

    1. Maybe I’m going to completely fuck everything up with my three kids, but so far (the oldest will be five in July) it seems like the discipline stuff is pretty intuitive. Don’t beat the shit out of your kids, but don’t let them do whatever the hell they want, and try to make them understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ve yet to come across a book that refutes any of these tenets; they just make it all sound far more complicated than it needs to be.

      1. Good luck, you’re on the right track. I thought it was a breakthrough when my kids started understanding the If, Then, Else logic construct. My oldest got back from college at Spring Break and told my youngest how to edit a paper, per my instructions – I was so proud.

        1. My ten year old is teaching his five year old sister how to read and do math.

          It’s quite sweet.

          1. My proudest moment so far was when my 4-year-old taught my 2-year-old to say “Ha ha!” like Nelson Muntz.

          2. My ten year old is teaching his five year old sister how to read and do math.


            /dink asshole

          3. My 10 year old just figured out what the cable box passcode last night (hopefully so he can watch porn). He was so elated, it was like he won the Nobel Prize For Just Being Pure Fucking Awesome.

            I actually high-fived him for that. And changed the passcode.

            1. Whatever. All your anti-porn precautions will be for naught after he comes to stay with Uncle SugarFree for the summer.

              “Daddy? What’s a pus-shitting fuckbooger?”

              1. He still talks about that NAMBLA meeting you took him to last year.

            2. Remember how back in the day when our generation had to make due with the scrambled porn channels?

              Get carpal tunnel AND eye strain!

  18. The secret to having kids is to have them when you’re too young and stupid to understand what kind of trouble you’re getting into.

    1. Seven: “Daddy, where do babies come from?”

      Al Bundy: “Generally speaking, a six pack and two horny teenagers!”

    2. Yeah, and as a bonus having kids young means never getting used to having disposable income only to have it ripped away.

  19. I park my kids in front of Golden Girls reruns to turn them gay, so I won’t have to deal w/ teenage pregnancies.

  20. Why is it people can say to me “Jeff, you really should have had kids,” but if I say “you really shouldn’t have had kids” I’m the asshole?

    1. Your comment reads well in Vyvyan’s voice. Thanks for the larf.

      1. I was gunning for Alexi Sayle, but I’ll take it.

        1. Being able to hear the Young Ones’ voices improves blog comments by at least a thousandfold. Try Brian Sorgatz’s comment in [p]Rick’s voice.

  21. Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think
    Absolutely. My kids are all a joy. Of course, they’ve got my genes, so they would be.
    And the eldest just got a full-tuition ride to a top 25 law school. (Of course, I might have mentioned that before.)

    1. Yeah, now they’re awesome.

      I suspect that mine will be as well, once they’re grown and out of the house.

      1. Well, in addition to the one just graduated from TOSU, I’ve also got five-year-old twins (and another in the middle, but he attends Ohio University, so we never speak of him).

        1. “No, daddy hasn’t gotten his drink on for about 5 years now. Why do you ask?”

          My hat’s off to you, good sir. Yes, they are awesome and I really wouldn’t trade them for anything, but they are a fuck lot of work some days.

    2. Congrats on the scholarship. Now your kid won’t be stuck with any loans to pay when he/she graduates without a job!

      (I keed… I keed… sort of. As someone who graduated from a top 10 law school right before the market went to shit, I generally try to talk people out of going to law school, but if you’re gonna do it anyway a full ride to a top 25 program is about as good a scenario as any. And hopefully the legal market will be better in three to four years; it can’t be much worse.)

      1. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if, in three years, he learns “Nope, I definitely don’t want to be a fucking lawyer,” while incurring no debt from this valuable lesson.

        1. Yeah, while I got lucky and found a job I actually like, my student loans meant that I could never seriously consider anything other than a big law firm job. It’s definitely nice to have that flexibility. Best of luck to him; our profession can always use more non-douchebags.

  22. Seven: “Daddy, where do babies come from?”

    Al Bundy: “Usually, a six pack and two horny teenagers!”

  23. Single and no kids. Gots money, and gots plenty of free time. I can do what I want without getting permission or having to take care of responsibilities first. I’m pretty happy. Don’t see the need for kids and wives to mess it all up and make me a miserable drone.

    1. So what you’re saying is that nobody will have you.

      1. Every time someone tries to set me up with a girl, or a girl makes her intentions known, I run away screaming in terror. I’ve been in enough relationships to know that I want no part in it.

    2. You don’t know the power of the dark side!

      1. My roommates just had a kid… no thanks!

    3. Thank you for taking yourself out of the running.

  24. For God’s sake, don’t be such a hands-off parent that you allow your child to endure the bullies and bureaucrats of the government school system. He might just grow up to hate you and exploit your good will out of spite. I speak from experience (mildly NSFW). I would love to know what Caplan would say about my particular case.

    1. This I read in [p]Rick’s voice.

    2. Brian, join the army, it will do you a world of good to be around men with a sense of purpose.

  25. I don’t mind paying full price because then you get *good* ones. plus its so cute when I call then my little million dollar babies!

  26. The Colorado Adoption Project found, for example, that 2-year-olds adopted by high-vocabulary parents had noticeably larger vocabularies. But as the kids grew up, their vocabulary scores looked more and more like their biological parents’. By age 12, the effect of enriched upbringing on vocabulary was barely visible.

    Gasp! Could it be? Is intelligence a heritable trait?

  27. Just for fun, let’s get it straight. This, Bryan Caplan often does.

    He makes the case for this controversial proposition at length

    But this is something he very rarely does.


    Bryan Caplan is a controversy junkie who has no other reason for being.

  28. This will inevitably lead to “well, since we don’t all have the same opportunities because some are born gifted, then they have a responsibility to support the ones who are less gifted. They will have their money forcibly taken away in order to support those less fortunate.”

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