Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Why being a great parent is less work and more fun than you think

By: Bryan Caplan

Published: 2011

Read: 2020


Parenting absorbs ever more time and people wrongly believe that happiness and having (more) kids are incompatible.

Based mainly on adoption and twin research, this book asserts that (within the developed world and on average) the long-run effects of parenting are shockingly small. While parenting may have some impact on kids’ behavior in the short run, this influence mostly fades over time.

If that is true, parents can materially cut back on their parenting efforts and improve their own lives without worrying that this may impact their kids’ future. Kids become a better “deal” than they seem: short-term costs are over- and long-term benefits are under-valued.

Since kids are “cheaper” than you think, as long as you are open to being a parent, you may as well have more kids than you were planning to have (one instead of zero, two instead of one, etc.).

Worth Reading

The most valuable lessons in this book are its practical suggestions on what to do less of without (hopefully) causing long-term harm to the child (less supervision, scrapping activities, etc.). This somewhat contrarian perspective about “what to leave out” is a good place to start.

The book’s main claim is modest and resonates: limited differences in nurture / parenting have limited long-term impact, so within reason and selectively, you can cut back on a lot of things without too much harm. Other books have similarly argued that nature (parents’ genes) and a child’s unique environment (experiences, peer influence) have a stronger influence than nurture / parenting / the shared environment.

The underlying science (mostly adoption and twin research) and the book’s supporting argumentation are not always convincing.

The adoption/twin research tracks and compares average behaviors over time. This seems an overly crude approach to explain complex long-term behavioral patterns (see “The End of Average” about the likelihood of individual patterns getting averaged out and overlooked in this type of approach).

The nature versus nurture approach to explain behavior may be outdated. The debate has probably moved on. Most research seems to recognize that complex issues are more effectively explored through the dynamic interaction of nature and nurture and environment over time, as opposed to looking at each factor in isolation.

The book’s arguments can be too simplistic. For instance: parenting either has almost no influence or it achieves the opposite effect (rebellion). Two options only. And since both are ineffective, the author concludes, no need to try so hard…

It’s helpful to recognize the limitations of parenting and cutting out unproductive parental behavior is a good start, but before you start pruning too heavily, you probably need to have a better understanding of relevant underlying processes and patterns (as discussed in the EconTalk podcast with the author: it’s good to have some perspective on “what makes sense in the long run”). You’ll need other books for that.

A good start in understanding what to do more of is probably books such as “Prepared” or articles like “The Fragile Generation”: what can you do to help kids figure out what they are interested in and good at, to curate their choices, to help build good habits, to encourage and allow for plenty of free play to help them build social skills, etc.

Finally, a point about safety. Yes, general safety may have improved substantially. That doesn’t necessarily make it more rational to be less concerned about safety: even at smaller odds, the consequences can still be very large (“Precautionary Principle”).

Key Takeaways

  • Get more sleep.
    • Ferber method.
  • Make your kids decent roommates today.
    • Clear, consistent, mild discipline.
  • Scrap activities.
    • Do parents and kids like the activity?
    • Is there a long-term benefit?
  • Free play.
    • Kids don’t need as much supervision as parents think they do.
    • Kids don’t complain about parents not spending enough time with them.
    • Free play to learn social skills.

Key Concepts


  • Parenting takes up too much time.
    • The amount of parental investment has gone up materially.
      • True for both parents, even for working moms.
    • Parent unhappy = second hand stress for kids.
      • Kids generally wish parents would have a better attitude.
  • Solutions.
    • Fewer activities.
      • Get rid of activities that neither your or your child enjoys and that are without long-term benefits.
    • More sleep (Ferber method).
      • Train children to self-soothe.
      • Allow child to cry for some time before providing comfort.
      • See also this New Yorker article.
    • Less supervision, more independence.
    • Use money.
      • Services: babysitting, cleaning, etc.
      • Reward kids’ behavior.

Adoption and twin studies: nurture matters a lot less than you think, especially in the long run

  • Within the advanced, developed world.
    • Nurture doesn’t make much of a difference within similar environments.
  • On average.
    • Some kids are more moldable to impact of nurture, others rebel against it.
  • Comparing relative impact of nature + nurture + environment.
    • Nature: heredity, genes.
    • Nurture: upbringing, parenting, shared environment.
    • Environment: “none of the above”, non-shared unique experience.
  • Evidence from adoption and twin studies.
    • Generally, by comparing identical twins and fraternal twins.
      • Identical twins are much more similar than fraternal twins.
    • Specifically, by comparing separated identical twins and their adopted siblings.
      • Separated twins are much more similar than the twin and the adopted sibling.
  • General conclusion: nurture has short-term behavioral impact that fades out over time.
    • Health (nurture: keep kids off tobacco, alcohol and drugs, not much beyond that).
    • Intelligence (nurture: very limited long-term effect).
    • Happiness (mostly nurture: function of genetic set-points).
    • Success (nurture: very limited long-term effect).
    • Character (nurture: limited impact on “OCEAN”).
    • Values (nurture: religious and political stance; nature: intensity of convictions).
    • Appreciation (nurture: lasting effect through memory of childhood).
  • On rebellion.
    • Parenting efforts only have moderate short-term impact.
    • Or, they “backfire” and kids rebel.
    • Either way, extra parental efforts are unlikely to be effective.
  • On spouse.
    • Assortative mating: we don’t pair up randomly, but pair up with similar mates.
    • Siblings are genetically closer than assumed because of this.
    • If you want certain traits in your kids, look for them in your potential spouse.
  • On memories.
    • Experience of childhood is likely the only lasting impact of upbringing.
    • Principles that are helpful in that context: love, kindness, consistency (discipline).
  • On safety.
    • Parents may be overly concerned.
    • Generally, kids’ safety has improved and today is as good as it has been.
  • On family economics.
    • Foresight.
      • Humans form beliefs about the costs and benefits of kids.
      • Plan a family based on those beliefs.
    • Quality over quantity.
      • Fewer kids -> invest more in each kid -> more resources / kid.
    • Too little foresight.
      • Short-term costs are weighed too heavily.
      • Long-term benefits are forgotten.
  • On impact on the environment.
    • Adding a kid = adding a consumer, not a producer = same pie, more people = strain on resources.
    • Paul Romer (see “EconTalk — Paul Romer”)
      • More people = more ideas = more resources = a larger pie.
  • Where to set the bar.
    • If a typical adoption agency would consider you a fit parent.


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