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Economists Debate: Are Big Families Really Better?

Does twin research prove big families are better?

Last week, I wrote about economist Bryan Caplan’s belief that parents are “overcharging” ourselves for our children.

Caplan’s message to parents is that kids are cheaper than we think, because nurture matters less than we believe. If our ability to shape our children’s destiny is essentially nil, he reasons, we should all just chill out. Once we’ve abandoned the project of trying to individually craft perfection in each of our kids, they become less resource intensive. This makes them effectively cheaper, so why not have more?

As Caplan put it, “When you learn that something you want is cheaper than you thought, both common sense and basic economics tell you to buy more.” In this case, he’s advocating that parents “buy” more kids, and then just kick back and enjoy them without all the tedious work of high maintenance helicopter parenting.

Even if we accept that nurture has little impact on kids, as Caplan’s study of twin research suggests, does his argument for having more make sense? Economists debate both sides in the Wall Street Journal.

Caplan makes his own case in the pages of the WSJ, describing his initial trepidation and later joy at having twins. Twin research, he argues, persuaded him that nurture makes little difference to adult outcomes. As a result of his disbelief in the power of nurture, Caplan adopted an approach he calls Serenity Parenting:

The obvious lesson to draw is that parents should lighten up.  I call it “Serenity Parenting”: Parents need the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and (thank you twin research) the wisdom to know the difference.  Focus on enjoying your journey with your child, instead of trying to control his destination. Accept that your child’s future depends mostly on him, not your sacrifices. Realize that the point of discipline is to make your kid treat the people around him decently—not to mold him into a better adult.  I can’t say that I completely convinced my wife on any of these points, but we made reasonable compromises—and we found that raising twins was a lot of fun.

Caplan’s argument is compelling, but it wasn’t enough to persuade me to run out and get knocked up again (I’m sure my husband is grateful for that, since he’s not in a hurry to have more kids either).

It’s not that I think Caplan is wrong about Serenity Parenting. Many parents do make the job harder than we need to, in our quest for perfection. Backing off on some of the intensive parenting I did in the early years, as well as my kids getting older and more independent, has given me access to more personal resources. I have more time, money and energy than I would if I shuttled the kids around constantly to enrichment activities and spent every waking moment reading to them, playing with them and nurturing them. A little benign neglect goes a long way for my sanity.

So I have more resources at my disposal. That doesn’t mean I want to spend them on more kids.

This is where the counterargument to Caplan’s thesis comes in. Will Wilkinson writes in the Wall Street Journal that Caplan makes no sense. Wilkinson points out that all over the developed world, family size has been shrinking for some time. Women, he figures, just don’t want more kids. He writes:

The story of declining family size is to a great extent the story of women’s liberation. As the struggle for women’s equality has proceeded, women have enjoyed rising levels of education, income, autonomy and increasing access to effective birth control. And as women’s liberty and capability to deliberately control the conditions of their existence has expanded, family size has declined.

It’s not an erroroneous belief that we can influence our kids adult lives be driving them to violin lessons and soccer practice that stops us from having more kids, Wilkinson reasons. It’s that women want to do other things with their lives.

This is certainly the case for me. I love being a mom, and I could totally muster the resources to have another child. I’d rather spend those resources on my career, my existing family and my other interests. As Caplan says, if nurture plays no part in outcome, then the goal of parenting is to enjoy the journey. I’ll enjoy the journey more making it with the kids I have. Just because I could “afford” more doesn’t mean I should have them.

What do you think? Has Caplan persuaded you to have more kids, and be more relaxed about raising them? Or does a smaller family suit you better?

Photo: funbobseye

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