"Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids"—You Just Have To Stop Believing The Conventional Wisdom About Nurture

We constantly hear that books are a dying medium. Yet 2011 is turning out to be a surprisingly good year for nonfiction books. Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think is the second intriguing book by a George Mason University economist this year, following Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation. (For my review of The Great Stagnation, see here).

GMU figured out a couple of decades ago that there was an unfilled market niche for libertarian professors in the imperial capital's metropolitan area. (Yes, it is ironic that this haven for libertarians is a government university paid for by Virginia's taxpayers.)  GMU also realized that eccentricity isn't a debilitating drawback in an economist.

Caplan argues that decades of twin and adoption studies have shown that nature (genes) has more impact on how your kids turn out than nurture (your parenting). So parents should helicopter less—and the time and money they would save by, say, letting their kids watch TV instead of driving them to their Mandarin lessons would mean they could afford another child.

Caplan contends that nature dominates, so it's smart to be a slacker dad. Your kids will "turn out fine" whether you sweat the small stuff or not. So why not have some more?

In contrast, Amy Chua has famously argued that nurture matters, so "Tiger Mothers" will win.

I liked Caplan's book a lot more than I expected. Perhaps that's because, when I got to p. 3, I found the following quote in a boldface call-out:

"A second child always undermines parents' belief in their power to mold their children, but child-rearing books hush this up because their market is first-time parents." --- Steve Sailer, The Nature of Nurture

A fine fellow, this Caplan!

One reason I've been so intrigued by this year's talked-about books by Caplan, Cowen, David Brooks, Amy Chua, and Andrew Ferguson is that they have been, overtly or covertly (Caplan is unusually gracious), influenced by my work. My essential approach has always been that there isn't some unbridgeable gulf between the world of ideas and daily life. Prestigious intellectual concepts need to be tested against mundane reality.

Let me say that Caplan has written a delightful book, breezy in prose style, but reasonably rigorous in its handling of the nature-nurture statistics. I hope people who like Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids do have more kids. And I hope people who put it down immediately to see what the Kardashians are up to on reality TV have fewer kids.

Caplan is much influenced by the 1998 book The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris. (The line from me that Caplan quotes is from my review of the book.) Harris made a splash by systematically reviewing twin and adoption studies to show that—surprise— parents have less direct influence than they thought.

I suspect, however, that the biggest market for Caplan's book will turn out to be among wannabe grandparents. As he points out:

"You can have too many children, but not too many grandchildren. Like your kids, they're cute, they're playful, and they bring hope. Unlike your kids, you can send them home when you've had enough."

Caplan suggests that people who want grandchildren begin working now to establish a reputation with their son-in-law or daughter-in-law that they are "quietly useful. Tread lightly. Don't bundle your babysitting or other assistance with unwanted advice …" That describes my mother-in-law, a woman of impressive energy and tact. (Tragically, she was killed in car crash months before our first child was born.)

Caplan also advises younger people to have more kids so they will likely have more grandchildren. And, being an economist, he advises prospective grandparents to promise their adult children sizable amounts of cash for producing grandkids. (Reportedly, one prominent economist, whom Caplan certainly knows, has actually done this.)

Unfortunately, Caplan doesn't quite mention the inherent tradeoff: the fewer children you have, the more money you can offer each one to have grandchildren.

And this quantity v. quality tradeoff isn't unique to this situation. It's one that parents confront frequently, especially as their children get older and more expensive.

In the classic comedy Ninotchka, Greta Garbo plays a Stalinist commissar who explains: "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." 

Inverting Garbo's Ninotchka, Caplan's contention is that there's little you can do make your kids better—so you should have more, not fewer.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Selfish Reason to Have More Kids, that doesn't mean I'm convinced by the author's argument. Personally, I'm going broke with just two. And on p. 182, the third page from the end, Dr. Caplan admits that even Mrs. Caplan isn't totally onboard either:

"If you can't fully persuade your spouse, welcome to the club. Although my wife and I have three children together, she still thinks I'm a little crazy."

 (Mrs. Caplan is not the only GMU economist's wife who is bemused by her husband's enthusiasms. Prof. Robin Hanson, for example, wants to have his brain cryonically frozen when he dies so that when technology advances enough, his memories can be downloaded to a computer, allowing his personality to live forever in cyberspace. His wife, a hospice worker, won't allow him to mention "cryonic resuscitation" in their house.)

The Caplans have identical twin seven-year-olds and a new baby boy. So Caplan thinks he's seen it all. And, at least according to the male of the couple, it's not so bad.

Well, perhaps he has seen it all, although he's only 40.

Or perhaps not. I suspect that Caplan is a little like Chua; when their first kids did well, both decided that their parenting theories had been validated.

But Chua's faith in Tiger Mothering was shaken by her more willful and less amenable second daughter.

Caplan could say that, unlike Chua, he's already on his third child. But his identical twin older boys have more like one personality than two. (Moreover, my Aunt Irene in Minnesota always said that her twins were less work than her three singletons because they entertained each other.) Hence Caplan is just beginning to experience what a second child really does to your confidence in your parenting plan.

In particular, Caplan hasn't yet had to put up with much sibling rivalry among his children. (He touchingly describes his identical twins' relationship as literally "brotherly".)

In the early 1970s, sociobiologist Robert Trivers explained the selfish gene logic behind sibling rivalry. Since you share half your variable genes (relatively speaking) with your brother, you'd like for your brother to thrive. But you would like twice as much for yourself to thrive.

Thus children tend to exhibit behaviors to out-squabble their sibling rivals for their parents' resources, such as food, toys, and attention. And they behave in ways designed to tire their parents, thus reducing their parents' urge to procreate more sibling rivals.

Identical twins like Caplan's, however, are a partial exception to this tendency. They share 100 percent of their genes.

The same logic is behind the studies cited by Caplan of the similarity of outcomes among identical twins (100 percent genetic similarity) versus fraternal twins (50 percent).

I'm a big fan of twin and adoption studies. But let me point out some often overlooked shortcomings that explain why their typical findings of minimal parental effect aren't unquestionable.

For example, Caplan reports, based on a large Swedish study:

"Suppose you earn more than 80 percent of your peers. You should expect your adopted brother to make more money than 58 percent of his peers when he is twenty to twenty-two years old, and 55 percent when he is twenty-three to twenty-five years old. By the time your adopted brother reaches his late twenties, however, the effect of upbringing on income completely fades out."

So who you are raised by doesn't have a big long-term effect on your income.

It will, however, affect how much money you will eventually inherit. So adoptees are advised to choose their adoptive parents wisely. 

Something else that stands out in these examples: a very large fraction of twin and adoption studies was done in the Nordic countries. Indeed, the center of twin research in the U.S.A is the University of Minnesota (which is, amusingly, in the Twin Cities).

In other words, social science research of this sophistication was carried out mostly in high parental investment cultures—rather than in, say, Nigeria or El Salvador. Further, most twin and adoption studies were done in middle class countries during a middle class era, using largely middle class participants. For example, adoption agencies don't let you adopt a child if you don't meet their standards.

It may well be that, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, everyone was above average, parenting-wise, in these populations. Which means that, within them, variations will tend to lose their predictive power.

Not that social science correlations have much predictive power, anyway, for individual cases—they are only true across very large samples. So it's still possible that Tiger Mothering may help (or irritate) on the margin.

We don't know all that much from these studies about the dangers of falling out of the middle class. Nor do we know much from them about the opportunities available to people near the top of the social pyramid—the glittering prizes that Professor Chua craves for her daughters.

Consider a fictional two data-point adoption/twin study: Mark Twain's novel The Prince and the Pauper. In 1547, the young Prince of Wales trades clothes with his double, a street urchin. Twain's point was that in a class-based society like Tudor England, it mattered profoundly what kind of clothes a child wears.

America in the 21st Century is casual about clothes. But there are signs that we're becoming more of a class-based society than during the heyday of twin studies.

For example, The Nurture Assumption author Judith Rich Harris, Caplan's mentor, also argued that children's peers have great influence—even if parents don't. Thus accent is determined not by a child's parents, but by his peers between ages five and fifteen.

Of course, accent isn't as determinative of one's place in the world in America today as in the England of My Fair Lady. Yet peer groups really matter—and the good ones are getting more expensive. Apart from anything else, government-sponsored mass immigration means that middle class American children make up an ever-shrinking portion of the population, so the competition for desirable peers for your children is getting fiercer. Similarly, government-tolerated illegal immigration—and arguably school integration—exacerbates the stress on American parents in the lower part of society.

One big change at the upper end of society over the last generation: finance now pays vastly better than other white-collar careers. When I was getting my MBA during the recession of 1981-82, I concentrated in both marketing and finance. Therefore, I had to decide whether to look for jobs on Wall Street or in corporate market research. Strange as it seems today, the pay wasn't all that much better in investment banking, and the company was more congenial in market research.

Needless to say, just a half decade later, I was kicking myself for missing out on the Mike Milken / Gordon Gekko / Sherman McCoy years on Wall Street. Should I switch careers and move from Chicago to New York?

Well, by then I was on track in my career and my life in Chicago. So I didn't. The concept of tracks is a key one to understand how 21st Century society works. The blogger Half Sigma emphasizes:

"Once people wind up on a career track, they tend to stay on that career track for the rest of their lives. Switching costs are usually very high if it's even possible to switch at all."

The rise of Wall Street is one aspect of our becoming a more class-based society. It may have pushed the critical junctions for getting on track to a point much earlier in life.

Thirty years ago, when Procter & Gamble was considered an ideal employer, P&G was happy to hire at Big Ten universities. They needed a lot of white collar employees, and they were content to wait and see which ones worked out on the job.

But today, when working for P&G is passé and Goldman Sachs is where the action i.e. money is, Goldman mostly hires from Ivy League colleges. Indeed, it mostly hires just from Harvard, Yale, Princeton (and maybe Stanford). Unlike P&G, Goldman doesn't want to wait around a decade or two to see which state college grad turns out to be an outstanding executive. So it delegates much of the making of the first cut to the admissions departments of the top few universities in the country.

Thus the logic of Tiger Mothering.

Caplan admits: "Parents are pretty good at putting their children on the right track, but not so good at keeping them there."

At the lower end of society, this is important for keeping kids out of gangs. And at the upper end, society is organized around the belief that parent input matters hugely. For example, in The Devil Wears Prada, the character played by Meryl Streep (based on the editor of Vogue), hires as a secretary an Ivy League graduate with no interest in fashion. Why? To do her daughters' homework, of course.

These days an enormous amount of cheating goes on in education. On the rare occasions when schools and colleges do think about who might actually have written the papers they are grading, they tend to reason that if your mom is rich and powerful enough to hire an Ivy League grad fulltime to do your schoolwork for you, well, then you are the type of alumnus we want!

But—outside of the rarefied world of Goldman Sachs—does all this high-end hoopla over college admissions really matter? This question hasn't been well researched. Elite colleges are prospering under the current uncertainty, so why try to figure out the truth?

For that matter, another question that hasn't been analyzed adequately is the one that may most motivate parents: how their grandchildren will turn out. They want good genes and good parenting for their grandchildren, which means they want their children to marry well. In turn, that means they want to purchase for their children our society's preferred class markers, such as elite educations. If race is about who your biological relatives are, and ethnicity is about who the people who raised you are (two categories that usually overlap, but don't have to in the case of adoptees), then class can be thought of as whom your future in-laws will likely be. 

I believe that's behind much of the college admissions frenzy. Do you remember the man who found out that Harvard wants a $5 million bribe (excuse me, donation) to move your kid from "Wait List" to "Accepted?" Well, he explained why he'd been making those discreet phone calls: he'd met his wife at Harvard and wanted his child to have the same opportunity in the marriage market.

This is a common parental desire. Is it a sensible one? I don't know. Do 21st Century Harvard undergrads typically marry other Harvard students? Or do Harvard students generally delay marriage so long that their having gone to Harvard becomes less relevant?

These are highly interesting questions in the age of The Social Network. But evidently not to  elite university researchers. I found a 2003 book entitled Who Marries Whom: Educational Systems as Marriage Markets in Modern Societies by Hans-Peter Blossfeld and Andreas Timm -, but it's largely devoted to Europe.

But all this does point to an oversight in Caplan's confidence in slacker father parenting: by age seven, which is where his eldest children are now, the question of class just hasn't arisen insistently for most parents—other than for those trying to get their heirs into the Manhattan overclass or keep their kids out of the South Bronx underclass.

Nevertheless, the question of class does arise eventually for all American parents. And they can be hugely expensive in terms of money and time.

Class competition in the U.S. is organized around how much resources parents bring to bear upon advancing their children in various competitions, such as college admissions, that might (or might not) have some value besides the mere acquiring of class markers.

Moreover, Caplan's suggestions for less debilitating parenting don't touch on the financial heart of the issue: what I have called affordable family formation, the tradeoffs revolving around buying a home in a neighborhood with public schools with good peers.

There are a handful of alternatives: rent instead of buy, or private school instead of public, or mom stays home instead of works. An economist like Caplan is well-equipped to tackle the data pertaining to these difficult questions. But, instead, he gives the big questions of cost a pass and focuses on minor bits of advice such as cutting back on after-school ballet lessons.

And let me suggest another possible way to approach this topic: ethnographic. For example, in 2009, white women were giving birth at a rate of 1.78 babies per lifetime, below the replacement rate. In contrast, Hispanics' total fertility rate was 2.73.

Now, nobody has ever noticed the existence of Jaguar Mothers. Latinos were following Caplan's slacker parent advice avant la lettre. How's that working out for them?

Caplan could have looked through the data and explained for us whether the heavy dropout rates and low levels of high achievement seen among Hispanics are the product of slacker parenting, genes, or of something else.

But he doesn't.

Too bad.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]