“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
University economist this year, following Tyler Cowen`s The Great Stagnation.
(For my review of The
Great Stagnation, see
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
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
smart to be a slacker dad. Your kids will
“turn out fine”
whether you sweat the small stuff or not. So why not have
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
fellow, this Caplan!
One reason I`ve been so intrigued by this
year`s talked-about books by Caplan,
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
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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
(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
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.
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.
Chua`s faith in Tiger Mothering was shaken by her more
willful and less amenable
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
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
Identical twins like Caplan`s, however, are a partial
exception to this tendency. They share 100 percent of their
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
But let me point out some often overlooked shortcomings that
explain why their typical findings of minimal parental
effect aren`t unquestionable.
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
you are raised by doesn`t have a big long-term effect on
It will, however, affect how much money
you will eventually
inherit. So adoptees are advised to choose their
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
In other words, social science research of
this sophistication was carried out mostly in high parental
investment cultures—rather than in, say,
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
Keillor, everyone was
above average, parenting-wise, in these populations.
Which means that, within them, variations will tend to lose
their predictive power.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Needless to say, just a half decade later,
I was kicking myself for missing out on the
Milken / Gordon Gekko /
Sherman McCoy years on Wall Street. Should I switch
careers and move from Chicago to New York?
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
“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.”
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
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
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
logic of Tiger Mothering.
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.
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
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
For that matter, another question that
hasn`t been analyzed adequately is the one that may most
motivate parents: how their
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
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
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.
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
researchers. I found a 2003 book entitled Who Marries Whom: Educational Systems as Marriage Markets in Modern Societies
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
Manhattan overclass or keep their kids out of the South
Nevertheless, the question of class does arise eventually
for all American parents. And they can be hugely expensive
in terms of money and time.
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
buying a home in a neighborhood with public schools with
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
high achievement seen among Hispanics are the product of
slacker parenting, genes, or of something else.