Parenting Is Overrated: Why the Secret to Happier Parents Is Doing Less

Listen up, Tiger Moms. Science tells us that being a parent is much easier than we think ... and should be much cheaper. Here is the economic case for hands-off parenting.


Like any multibillion industry, parenthood took a hit in the recession. A 2009 FindLaw study found one in five Americans are delaying "major life decisions" like getting married and having children because of the poor economy.

No wonder: It costs $190,000 to raise a child from infancy to high school graduation, according to U.S. government data. College, health insurance, and additional post-graduation expenses can easily double that bill. And then there are the emotional costs. In a happiness survey that appeared in Science magazine in 2004, mothers ranked their enjoyment in taking care of children below exercising and making meals and just above housework and working. Maybe that's why the number of women ages 40 to 44 without children has doubled in the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But parenting should thrive in an age of austerity, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, and author of the new book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

The secret joy of being a parent, Caplan argues, comes from understanding the limited liability of parenting. Studies have found that child-rearing is, if you can believe it, a little overrated. In surveys of twins raised together and apart, behavioral scientists consistently found that nature overpowered nurture in almost all categories, from character and intelligence to happiness and health. Once you accept that bad parenting won't always keep your kids from being great (and good parenting might not make a difference!), it's easier to relax and enjoy the state of being a parent.

If the seeds of a good person are sown in a child's DNA, it follows that parents are probably paying too much to improve their children. Caplan suggests that parenting doesn't have to be so expensive. Kids don't need the latest gizmos or the ceaseless, and expensive, attention we provide them. You can easily raise a great kid on a modest budget.

Caplan suggests marginal improvements in four areas -- sleep, discipline, activities, and supervision - would ease the emotional and financial costs of parenting. Parents typically lose "three years of sleep per child," Caplan says. Instead of rushing parents should use the Ferber method to let children "cry it out" for a period of time before rushing to soothe them. He says discipline should be enforced - "[don't let] your kids run around like animals" - but put in perspective. Putting your child in the naughty corner for a spell might be the right message to send in the short-term, but "it doesn't mean it will change [children's] adult behavior."

In a direct blow to Tiger Moms around the world, Caplan excoriates the view that every child needs seven activities at once. If your kid hates soccer practice and you hate chauffeuring your son to soccer practice, stop it with the soccer practice, already! Go to the park. You'll both be happier.

If Caplan calls too much discipline overrated and too many activities overrated, guess what attitude he has toward too much supervision? (Hint: rhymes with overrated.) Citing statistics showing kids are safer now than they were in the idyllic 1950s, Caplan encourages parents to loosen the reins a little.

"Children are costly," Caplan acknowledged in an interview. "Everyone knows that." For families already struggling to put food on the table--let alone pay for college--it's not fair to say they can afford four kids if they just avoid expensive babysitters and high-tech strollers. But if you zoom out to the national level, more rugrats means more innovation. He reminded me that "there are long-term benefits for an increased population for progress. The key to progress is new ideas. Ideas are the cause of progress. Where do they come from? People! More people, more progress."

It's not just GDP that benefits from babies. It's older parents, too. "Many of the benefits of children come later in life," Caplan writes. "Kids have high start-up costs, but wise parents weight their initial sleep deprivation against a lifetime of rewards" ranging from grandchildren or valuable friendships with adult children. The Caplan Theory is a bit like the Ferber method writ large: If you stop worrying and let the kid be for now, everybody will be happier tomorrow.