Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids…Not?


In the Wall Street Journal today, Jonathan Last reviews the new book by Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:  Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. “Mr. Caplan’s book,” Last writes, “is cheery and intellectually honest….

And the bedrock of his argument is solid:  Modern parenting is insane.  Children do not need most of what we buy them.

So far, so good.  But then Last gives the review a nasty, and–to me, at least–startling twist.

But….[i]n study after study, researchers find that parents are consistently less happy than non-parents.  No matter how you control the sample, if you have two identical people–one with a child and one without–the parent will be 5.6 percentage points less happy.  Mr. Caplan bravely acknowledges this problem but is never able to say clearly what, exactly, the benefits of parenthood really are.

Parents, less happy?  I’d missed all these studies.  More to the point, the finding runs counter to pretty much all I’ve observed throughout my life.  When my college buddies and I were in our twenties, those who remained single, making good money as consultants, jetting here and there, buying sports cars–sure.  At some superficial level, they may have remained “happier.”  But by the time we were all in our mid-thirties, that had changed.  I think of one friend in particular who had a rocket of a career as a management consultant, living the life while the rest of us settled down and raised our families.  On his own admission, he got sick of it.  At 49, he finally married.  At 50, his wife had a child.  He’s happier now–incomparably happier.

None of this is to suggest that non-parents can’t be happy.  Manifestly, they can.  But the idea that non-parents are systematically happier–well, as I say, it runs counter to all my experience.

Can anyone help me here?  Has anyone seen these studies?  What am I missing?

There are 82 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    You’re not missing anything. I think the reviewer misses a much larger point, and it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with modern parents and society generally. If you’re having kids because you think they will make you happier (or not having them because they won’t) you’re having kids for the wrong reason.

    Of course being a parent is more work than being single. It’s more worry, more expense, more germs in the house, less alone time, fewer meals where someone isn’t picking off your plate… It’s all that and profoundly worth it. Being a good parent and working hard at it makes us all — kids and parents — better, stronger people. It makes the world a better place. Isn’t that enough?

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member

    As a parent of 4 myself, I am always flummoxed at the assertion that parents are less “happy”. But then our society measures everything by “happiness”, even going so far as to make happiness the moral and spiritual imperative, the benchmark by which all are judged. No one measures joy or satisfaction in life. My family brings me joy, a deeper and non- transitory state which includes “happiness”, but also pain, anguish, and love.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member

    He uses a definition of happiness that seems to be an emotional state, which is a peculiar invention of the modern world. I prefer the ancient and medieval use of Happiness and by that measure Caplan’s thesis makes no sense.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Podcaster

    How do you measure hapiness? How does someone who has never held their own baby know that their life is better?

    Measuring humanity and their activities is about as unscientific as it gets as it is impossible to do an adequate control. There are no alternate universes and Clarence the Angel is not going to show you what could have been.

    The only thing I know (or at least hope) is that when I die I will be surrounded by my children and not the uncaring and hardened staff of the local nursing home.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member

    Peter, I have not seen the studies and, like in your case, they do not square with my experience. I have three girls: 22 – 30 and now have a 4 year old boy. The difference in my before and after my son’s arrival is, while not night and day, pretty darn profound.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member

    The prerequisite for having kids is to have a mate. The prerequisite for that is to be able to form a committed relationship with another human being. Ah, that’s the rub.

    Lots of people who don’t have kids or never marry can do all that but the ones that have stable marriages and well-adjusted kids certainly can. So it stands to reason that on average they more likely to find the keys to happiness. Singles after a certain age with no kids (to speak of) are suspect as to whether it is their conscious choice or whether they just couldn’t get along with another person long enough to make a family.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member

    (Note to Peter: I think you have the title transposed in your original post. The image shows “Less Work and More Fun”, and you wrote the opposite.)

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member

    Here’s a link to an article on (surprise!) The New York Times website that may be what the reviewer is talking about.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member

    And by the way, doesn’t the kind of happiness matter at all? How do you quantify the difference between 1) the happiness you get from buying a new car, and 2) the happiness you get from seeing your child ride a bicycle on her own for the first time?

    The first kind of happiness comes and goes; the second will last and last. There’s no comparison.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Contributor
    Peter Christofferson: (Note to Peter: I think you have the title transposed in your original post. The image shows “Less Work and More Fun”, and you wrote the opposite.) · Apr 16 at 10:14am

    Thanks, Peter. Made the correction. I plead my rotten cold.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member

    There are lies, there are filthy lies, and there are studies about parenting.

    You’ve missed nothing, and your life experience matches all of ours. This is just the latest foot-stomping insistence by the self-absorbed educated childless class that “I AM happy. Really. I AM.”

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member

    I can only speak for myself and by no means am I refuting you Mr. Robinson. It is not responsible to assert something (i.e. that people without children are happier vis-a-vi conducted studies) without citing whatever materials one happens to rely upon in presenting such an assertion. The author of the review should have cited specific studies or at least one. It is also much the same error to cite andedotal evidence to support an opposing position.

    I am neither married nor do I have children but will be taking the plunge in less than 2 months and I look forward to the day that I am a father. I find children to be wondrous therapists as they remind me of the simple joys of life. So, in theory, I would agree that parenthood can and usually is a happy and fulfilling venture though I cannot point to anything else but my own experiences.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member

    The first recorded directive from God to man is “Be fruitful and multiply…” Of course we can expand that to include intellectual and creative fruitfulness, but clearly the plain meaning is to welcome the gift of children as God enables you to do so. Why am I not surprised to read that “they” have “research” to show that following the natural impulse of God’s original purpose does NOT result in “happiness?”

    Sounds like the same slithering, hissing voice that said “Has God really said not to eat the fruit of the tree? You surely will not die!”

    That familiar voice is now saying “Has God really said to be fruitful? Consider the problems that causes! Environmental degradation! Needless suffering! And besides that, YOU will be less happy in the long run.”

    I am not raising six kids with my wife because I am on some search for personal happiness. They came along as gifts as a result of taking our love seriously, like responsible adults. With God’s grace I can finish the course and raise them to live in the same manner, eschewing fruitless illusions of the kind of “happiness” talked about in the New York Times.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Podcaster

    When I’m president you must be both married and have kids or you won’t be allowed to vote…

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member

    As a singleton who enjoys having other people’s kids around as long as I can teach them fun stuff, and has no responsibility other than hanging around til someone picks them up, parents do seem to [sugar doodle] more about time constraints and tiredness more than others.

    However, they do positively glow with pride. And doggone it we need people to breed and spawn. Else who shall remember us?

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    EJHill: When I’m president you must be both married and have kids or you won’t be allowed to vote… · Apr 16 at 10:50am

    Edited on Apr 16 at 10:58 am

    …and be a property owner? And pass a literacy exam? Now we’re talking :)

    Kennedy Smith: And doggone it we need people to breed and spawn. Else who shall remember us? · Apr 16 at 10:53am

    …so long as the right folks breed.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member

    “I find children to be wondrous therapists as they remind me of the simple joys of life.”

    Yes, not just my own, but all kids. My next door neighbors have five and they put a smile on my face everyday. I’ll be working on the compter upstairs, glance out the window, & see them coming up with the most creative games & adventures. Overhearing their conversations is hysterical. We left the massive swingset up in our backyard years past the time my kids used it just because I like having neighborhood kids around. Children are a delight.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member

    Any attempt to study the measure of happiness is a fools errand… Raising children and maintaining the family unit is a true challenge… Some simply choose not to perhaps driven by the simple observation of the success or failures of others. There are so many variables there.

    In the end, having children just may boil down to some idea that one might be confident someone will show up at the your funeral…

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Member

    Any attempt to study the measure of happiness is a fools errand

    A cartesian squaring of a Rousseanian circle.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Podcaster
    J. C. Casteel …and be a property owner? And pass a literacy exam? Now we’re talking :) …so long as the right folks breed. · Apr 16 at 11:24am

    Still formulating that. But the left is always saying everything is for the children… OK. Then if everything is for the children then the folks actually having the children should have more say.

    Maybe a vote for every child we have…

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Member
    EJHill: When I’m president you must be both married and have kids or you won’t be allowed to vote… · Apr 16 at 10:50am

    Edited on Apr 16 at 10:58 am

    EJ – You are constructing quite the platform. Keep us posted on additional planks.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member

    Maybe we parents have a deep-seated guilt about our contribution to climate-change which prevents us attaining true happiness? Personally, I think arriving home from work to a loving family is one of life’s great joys.

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Member

    I think the writer of that article very carefully used Scott Adams’ (Dilbert) definition of “analysis” in coming up with that. “The word ‘analysis’ is a combination of two greek words – ‘anal’ and ‘ysis’ which means ‘to pull out of'”

    I have a soon to be 21 year old son majoring in Theology and Educational Ministries and a 17 year old daughter who is the apple of my eye. My life would be immeasurably less happy had they never entered it.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Contributor

    I was happy before I had children and I am deliriously happy now that I am the mother of young children.

    But the way I gauged happiness then vs. now could not be more different. They’re almost impossible to compare, so I would like to see more about these studies.

    Either way, I didn’t have children to be happy. I had children because I was given them. I don’t look at them as a consumer choice or a decision — they’re just the natural product of marital love. We’re very thankful that God blessed us with the two we have and hope for more.

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Podcaster
    Songwriter EJ – You are constructing quite the platform. Keep us posted on additional planks. · Apr 16 at 11:52am

    Yours would be my second vote. The boys in the backroom tell me I’m now only 8,999,998 short of locking up the nomination…

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Member

    The problem with the study is the word “happy.” “Happy” is a fluffy piece of lint of an emotion, insignificant, and passing. Change the word to “satisfied” or “contented” and you’ll have a question worth answering.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Member

    My husband and I are deliriously happy with our six children…. at least, I think he is. But he’s asleep on the couch now so I can’t ask him. Maybe he’d be happier if our 2-year-old stopped jumping on his legs. I am happy that I don’t hold a “real” job and get to “stay home” with our homeschooling brood. I think I’d be a lot less happy if I had to put on panty hose every day… hmmm…

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Contributor

    This is why I have such respect for the social science profession: a lazy discipline without rigorous standards of measurement might say someone is five percent less happy – but when you can calibrate things so precisely you know someone’s 5.6% less happy, well, you’re talking real science.

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Contributor

    I have lived life both ways — without children until I was fifty, and with plenty (now four) since I was fifty. I enjoyed life when I was single, was seriously unsatisfied while married to someone who did not want children, and would not now give up the pleasures of having a sizable family for anything. The social science data needs re-examination.

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Coolidge

    Thank you for the helpful comments. I am not on “the other side” regarding marriage and parenting. Far from it. Like I said initially, I want those things, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet. (I think I’m in that phase Mollie mentioned where it feels like it is likely to be forever, but meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy myself) I fully understand the pressure against having children and know full well of the view of feeling under attack. My concern was the insinuation in some of the comments that those who are single without children, by default, represent one of your attackers. I have many conservative friends who want marriage and family but are simply unable to find the right person. They are not selfish, screwed up, or choosing not to have children. We are on your side, so please remember that.

    In the meantime, I’m going to continue helping my sister and her husband raise their twin, two-year-old boys so they won’t commit suicide from the stress and challenges they bring (and of course, the joy). I do it because I want to and because I can.

    • #30

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