Monday, July 18, 2011

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

I spent the last few days reading through economist Bryan Caplan's new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. The title is a bit of a stretch but the argument is a fascinating one when viewed through the lens of the whole parenting advice industrial-complex.

Caplan's main argument is that within the norms for First World, middle-class homes, nurture doesn't make a whole lot of difference to children's long-term outcomes. Parents can have an effect in the short run, but mounting evidence from identical vs. fraternal twin studies, and adoption studies, shows that over time, these effects become less and less pronounced. Parents have their biggest effect in the moment of conception. After that, there are very few effects that last. The only ones that really seem to are religious identification and political affiliation, but even there it's a shallow affinity. Devout Presbyterians who go to church twice a week might raise a child who identifies as Presbyterian, but he's not much more likely to attend services regularly than other people. The biggest effect may just be whether the child remembers the home as being happy or not.

As for what this means for one's fertility, Caplan suggests that people overestimate how much effort modern parenting requires. If you are a normal, productive adult, odds are your children will be too, and if you raise them within American middle-class norms, any odd outliers are probably not to your credit or blame. The flash cards don't matter. The activities don't matter. The focus on strict TV limits doesn't matter. Discipline matters more for making your life more pleasant in the moment than for anything it will do down the road. So he suggests that people relax and try to enjoy their time with their children, possibly more children than they were otherwise planning to have. After all, bigger families are good for nurturing social ties -- one of the key components of human happiness -- and if items are cheaper than you thought, economists will tell you to stock up.

I'm not sure on the "stocking up" advice, but I do think it's fascinating to ask the question of whether nature or nurture matters more. There's an old joke that parenting advice books are all written for first time parents because once you have the second one, you realize how little of it you actually control. You feed kids the same things and interact with them the same way at dinner, and yet one will lustily eat lox, capers, tomatoes and anything else you put in front of him, and the other screams when a strawberry touches his vanilla yogurt, thereby tainting it. Some children love to sleep and others decide that sleep is for the weak and flabby. Most disconcertingly, I recall reading not long ago an essay in O magazine from the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. There is really no evidence that she raised her son in anything but a normal fashion, the same as plenty of his peers. And yet look what he did.

As Caplan notes, no one likes to believe that nurture matters as little as it does -- though you could view it as a relief as much as anything else. But I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think. There are always anecdotes that point one way or another, but in a world of 7 billion people, it is possible to find anecdotes of anything...


Heather said...

I think it is impossible to separate the effects of nature and nurture from each other. It is like weaving a plaid--both the warp and weft add up to the over all pattern--but if you take them apart all you are left with is string.

So I think as parents we have to look at what kind of "warp" (genes) our children come with--because our nurture will have some effect on the pattern.

But I also think we can relax more than we do--because we don't have control over the ultimate outcome.

Katie said...

I think this is a dangerous and completely wrong idea. The things we do with our children do matter. There's a reason why the stereotypical therapy session eventually comes back to your parents. You cannot control you children, but what you do with and around your children lays the groundwork for how they will they think about themselves and about the world. You can't predict whether your child will be an engineer or a teacher, necessarily, but you can have a big effect on your child's lifelong happiness by being involved and loving and in teaching them how to deal with life's problems.

'Nother Barb said...

I saw a t-shirt . . .
"Nature or Nurture?
Either way, it's
your parents' fault."

Anonymous said...

I see this as a pendulum swing back from the idea that parents seem to subscribe to these days. The idea that every stinkin' thing your child encounters MATTERS IMMENSELY. That parents need to monitor every bite that goes into their children's mouths, that parents need to protect their precious children from the grouchy man at the end of the block who is always telling them to keep off of his lawn, that parents need to think through every decision they make in regards to their children carefully, as if their whole future depends upon it.
Personally, I think that relaxing a bit would do us all a world of good. Let's ride the coattails of our middle class-ness a bit more!

JP said...

I definitely went with the "nature" side of the argument.

As I explained to my wife, the reason that I selected her was because her family demonstrated sufficient intelligence that we would have the best chance of having high-I.Q. children.

I wasn't going to come out and ask her what her I.Q. was when I we were dating, but that's what I was thinking.

Naturally, she got annoyed with me.

Ray and Gail Gretz said...

I have four kids (I'm pretty selfish!) and I think it's a combination. You have to nuture the gifts they were born with or you won't get the best out of them. You have to model the behavior you hope to see in them (can you really expect them not to lie if they hear you make up a tale to a friend to get out of an obligation?) It is true that they are all SO different despite them having the same parents, but THEY were born to different families- our first was born to two parents and the last was born into a family of five!