Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think

This author says, “Mold your kids less and enjoy your life more. Your kids will still turn out fine.”

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun. Written by Bryan Caplan.

In this title, the author says most parents have turned parenting into an unpleasant chore, even though research shows that genetics is more important than upbringing. He points out that if you spend less time trying to mold your kids and enjoy life more, your kids will still turn out fine.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, when Bryan Caplan released his book in 2011, it was met with some controversy because his advice is very different from many other parenting books.

Vincent: That’s right. Caplan is a professor of economics and a New York Times bestselling author. Many parenting books give parents interventions or things they can do or say differently with their children to have a positive impact on their future.

But Caplan says that all of this creates a lot of stress without much benefit. Here’s a clip from an interview that he did with NPR.

Bryan: You might think that it’s a matter of opinion as to how much and in what ways parents can change their kids for life, but actually there is excellent scientific literature on this that doesn’t get much attention but is worth paying attention to. By studying kids who are adopted, you’re able to find out how much do parent’s change you, apart from changing your genes. The punchline is that for most traits there is little or no effect.

Karsen: What does he mean by traits?

Vincent: Well, it’s the parental wish list. It’s all the things that parents want for their kids, so health, intelligence, happiness, educational success, financial/occupational success, character, values, and appreciation.

Karsen: Ahh, that makes sense. So the author is really focused on parental happiness. Are most parents happy with their decision to have kids?

Vincent: One of the studies the author talks about in the book looked at buyer’s remorse, or whether parents would say they’d have their children again. The outcome of the study was there was very little parental buyer’s remorse. 91 percent of parents didn’t regret the decision to have children… saying that they’d do it all over again.

Karsen: And what about the adults who decided not to have children?

Vincent: This side was very different, there was a different survey that showed that among adults over the age of forty, two-thirds said they had regrets over not having children.

Karsen: So most parents seem to be happy with their decision to have kids, while adults without kids often regret the decision later in life. What if you look at actual measurements of happiness?

Vincent: The data there was a bit surprising. On the surface, parents tend to be happier than non-parents on average. However, parents also tend to be older, married, and go to church. All of these factors separately are correlated with happiness. So when you adjust for those factors, there’s a slightly negative correlation between having children and happiness.

This negative effect is really small though, and after the first child, each subsequent child only adds slightly to the effect. So the author's main argument is that you can reverse the negative effect by changing your parenting approach and improving your life.

Karsen: Caplan says that the modern parent has turned kids into a heavy burden. And that parents are harder on themselves than they should be. What would the alternative be?

Vincent: He mentioned one study that showed that parents today spend more time on childcare compared to parents in 1965. Fathers have doubled their parenting time from three to six hours a week, while mothers have gone from ten to thirteen hours a week.

This doesn’t even include other time spent cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and using weekend time to drive kids around to various activities.

And Caplan argues that parents don’t have to make their life revolve around their children. Instead, they should free up more of their time for themselves.

Karsen: From a practical standpoint, what would that look like?

Vincent: Well, instead of pushing kids into activities that they may not even like (like ballet or piano lessons), you should cut those activities out of your schedule and let your kids decide how they want to spend their time. Many will choose at-home activities like playing video games, watching tv, or playing in the backyard.

Karsen: It sounds like letting kids do what they love may be just as good, if not better, because parents don’t have to drive them around town. Are there other ways to reduce parenting anxiety?

Vincent: Yes, there were two other tips. The first is around travel and vacations. If your last trip was a nightmare, then don’t be afraid to make the next trip shorter to free up time for yourself.

And he says that sometimes you can get more time by paying for it. So when you feel stressed out, it may be a better choice to pay for take out food, a babysitter, or a cleaner for your house. If it helps you be happier and a better parent, he says you should spend the money.

Karsen: Aren’t activities like ballet and piano lessons beneficial for your children? What happens if you remove them?

Vincent: That’s the exact reason that parents schedule these activities, they want to help their children in the future. And they worry that not doing so might ruin their children’s future. However, the research shows that this fear may be unfounded.

Caplan says it’s nature, not nurture, that explains why children resemble their parents in different areas of life. He points to studies with adopted children as proof.

When the children are younger, they resemble both their adoptive parents as well as their biological parents. However, as children grow older, only the resemblance to their biological parents remains.

Karsen: And what about in other traits like life expectancy or income as an adult?

Vincent: The studies show that upbringing doesn’t have an effect on things like life expectancy or income after the age of 30. Even areas like overall health, intelligence, or happiness as an adult don’t show differences based on upbringing.

Karsen: So when parents believe they’re molding their children, the results are only temporary?

Vincent: That is Caplan’s primary theory. He says that parents should think of children not like clay that you can mold, but rather like plastic, which you can bend with pressure but they’ll snap back to their original shape when the pressure is released.

Karsen: So what are the areas where parenting does have an impact on children?

Vincent: The biggest impact you’ll make as a parent is how your children will remember you and how appreciative they’ll be of your effort. Children really want to have “good memories” from their parents.

Karsen: Parents often worry that something bad may happen to their children. This leads to a lot of stress and anxiety for parents. What is the author’s perspective here?

Vincent: He says that kids today are safer than ever before. Although we see child murderers and abusers on TV as if it’s a common occurrence, the reality is that kids are much safer today than they were 50 years ago.

Studies show that children under the age of five are about five times safer, and children between the ages of 5 and 15 are about four times safer.

In the past, disease was the number one cause of death for children, which accounted for 94 percent of deaths. Luckily, with vaccines and other medical innovations, deaths from infectious diseases have almost been eliminated.

Accidental deaths have also declined sharply with better car seats, airbags, and seat belts.

Karsen: It sounds like kids today are safer than they were in the 1950s, and parents could benefit from worrying less. There’s a common perception that adults are having less babies because they are hard to raise. Is there any truth to this?

Vincent: Fertility rates have declined in many areas of the world. In the fifties, American women were having on average almost four children, whereas today that number is just over two. There have been similar trends in other countries as well.

Some people believe that big families are too expensive to raise, however, today’s families are richer than in the past. Incomes have tripled since the 1950s.

Caplan says that when you decide to have more children or not, you shouldn’t focus too much on the immediate negatives… like sleepless nights. Instead, you should focus on long-term rewards like the pride that you’ll have in your children’s accomplishments.

Karsen: That could be hard for parents who are in the thick of things though… especially if you have two toddlers running around making a mess.

Vincent: That’s true, but that also won’t last forever.

Karsen: It sounds like as children grow, parenting can become less exhausting and more rewarding.

Vincent: Sure, kids that you can interact with are more fun than newborns who cry, eat, poop, and sleep. Caplan says that many parents wish they had more time with their kids by the time they become teenagers. And once your kids move to college, you may even find yourself thinking that two or three children wasn’t enough.

Karsen: How does the author say that parents should decide how many kids to have?

Vincent: He says to think about how many children you would ideally want at each stage from infant to adult children. Then take the average of the answers. So for instance, you might only want one infant, because they’re so hard to take care of, while you may like the idea of having 4 adult children who drop in occasionally and bring grandchildren. This would mean the right number of children for you is 2.

Karsen: So the big takeaway here is that you don’t want to only look at the first few years of a child’s life when basing your decision to not have more children. There’s benefits to society if you have more children too, right?

Vincent: Yes, Caplan says that more people means more ideas, which leads to more innovation in society. He also points out that fertility is needed for our current social security system, which requires children as future taxpayers to support the sick and elderly.

In the 1940s, there were ten working people for every retiree. However, today, it’s just three working people to support each retiree. So, either we need more babies or lawmakers will have to make radical choices like raising taxes or the retirement age.

Karsen: You mentioned grandchildren earlier. How can parents increase the probability of having grandchildren?

Vincent: The author says there are three main ways to increase the probability of having grandchildren. The first is to have more children of your own.

The second is to offer help in raising their children, while ensuring that you don’t criticize their parenting. Parents often don’t like unwanted interference and criticism of how they’re raising their kids. If the parents don’t like what you’re saying, they may decide not to have more children.

The third way for getting more grandchildren is to subtly reward your children for each grandchild they give you. In much of the research, monetary rewards work surprisingly well in boosting birth rates. One way of tactfully doing this is by setting up a trust for your grandchildren, with the parents as trustees. Then, they can use the trust to pay for expenses like college or future weddings.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that many parents end up overwhelming themselves with busy schedules of activities for their kids. A more laid back parenting style would make parents happier, while still not hurting their children’s future.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


We’ve needlessly turned parenting into an unpleasant chore. Parents invest more time and money in their kids than ever, but the shocking lesson of twin and adoption research is that upbringing is much less important than genetics in the long run. These revelations have surprising implications for how we parent and how we spend time with our kids. The big lesson: Mold your kids less and enjoy your life more. Your kids will still turn out fine.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is a book of practical big ideas. How can parents be happier? What can they change — and what do they need to just accept? Which of their worries can parents safely forget? Above all, what is the right number of kids for you to have? You’ll never see kids or parenthood the same way again.

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