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"Kids Are Cheaper Than You Think! Have Lots!" Says Economist

What would make you have more kids?

Kids are cheap! Stock up! Have lots! Tell your friends!

That’s the message from economist Bryan Caplan, whose new book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids makes the case for bigger families.

In a nutshell, Caplan believes that parents are “overcharging” themselves for their children by buying into intensive parenting standards for attachment parenting, quality time and enriched home environments. The kids are all right, Caplan says. And it they’re not, there’s not much you can do about it. So have a bunch, and have fun with it.

Caplan is using economics to assess parenting, and coming up with some pretty surprising conclusions.

Caplan tells the New York Times Economix blog that many people would have more kids if they felt like they could afford them. Not just monetarily, but in terms of all those precious parenting resources: time, energy, love, sleep. He’s got a point. Nearly every parent I know has a story about why they don’t have more kids: the sleep deprivation, the time, the money, the energy to chase after toddlers.

As one friend likes to say, every family will have one more child than they can easily handle. You have one, you get the hang of it, so you keep having more until it’s too much. You’ve run out resources and can’t “afford” another kid.

But does all the effort of parenting pay off? Not really, says Caplan. Looking at twin and adoption research, he argues that the actual impact of nurture on kids is pretty minimal. Yes, there are big things that affect how kids turn out, but they’re mostly not in our control. The small stuff, like how much TV they watch and whether you coddle them all night or let them cry it out doesn’t really make a difference in the long term, he argues. Given that, we could easily lower the “cost” of parenting by investing in less babywearing, more TV time, and fewer enrichment activities.

Caplan’s point is that many of us put too many resources into the one or two children we have. We’re investing a ton of time, money and effort for little to no return, and as a result we’re stressed out, drained parents with no resources. If we just lightened up, he says, we’d have more fun parenting and want to have more kids. Caplan writes:

…the parenting experience can and should be improved. Instead of fruitlessly playing Pygmalion, focus on enjoying your journey together. Raise your kids with kindness and respect. Find common interests. Use discipline not to teach lifelong lessons, but to persuade your kids to treat you and others decently here and now. If you use these strategies, parenting and bigger families really are a lot of fun.

I’m a bigger believer in nurture than Caplan is, but I’m inclined to love any parenting expert speaking up on behalf of a more laissez-faire approach to parenting. Not just because I’m selfish and want more time and energy for my own stuff. Because I truly believe it’s better for kids. In his NYT interview, Caplan talks about the issue of “secondary stress” affecting kids. Parents are stressed or unhappy and their stress rubs off on the kids. Caplan says kids cite their parents’ stress as a main issue, bigger than lack of time together.

Becoming a more relaxed parent is great advice, and a clear win for the whole family if you can pull it off. I know that when I quit everything and stopped running around to gymnastics classes and swim lessons and book clubs, my life became a lot better.

It didn’t make me want to have more kids, though. I took that energy and time and invested it in my career instead. I’m not sorry. I love the family I have, and my life feels more balanced with time for writing and self-care alongside parenting. If I’d had another baby, I’d still be up to my eyeballs in mothering all day long. I wouldn’t be more overwhelmed than I was back in the days of gymnastics classes and babywearing, but I wouldn’t be less. I’d just have the same level of parenting demands, with more kids.

As it is, I do less parenting and more of other things I love. I’m happy with the choice I made there.

How about you? Would you have more kids if you felt you could afford them? What stops you from having a bigger family? Does Caplan’s economic argument hold water, or did you base your decision on something else?

Photo: PinkStock Photos

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