Does Having Kids Make You Less Happy?

Put aside adorableness for a moment

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Two Saturdays ago, libertarian economist Bryan Caplan made the case for having kids--the "selfish" case, that is. This comes despite recent surveys showing that having children tends to decrease one's overall happiness. Caplan's argument is relatively simple.

The "happiness gap" between the parents and the childless is actually pretty small, and most of it occurs with the first child. "Beyond that, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch." Meanwhile, he points to a competing study showing that parents, in fact, asked if they would do things differently, overwhelmingly do not regret having children: 91 percent were happy with their choices. Meanwhile, among the childless, only 24 percent said they'd choose again to remain childless.

In addition, Caplan posits that parental happiness does not have to go down as much as it does: though parents feel under a lot of pressure to be perfect parents, it turns out that "parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children's outcomes are much smaller than they look." Nature is more of a force than nurture. Finally, there's a big reward at the end: grand kids. Is he right?

  • This Is a Bizarre Argument for a Libertarian  "Who knew that lazy permissiveness would become a calling card of libertarian parenting ideology?" writes Salon's Andrew Leonard. He also points out that, in general, the whole have-more-kids- idea "is a problematic thesis for a libertarian economist to push. People are freely choosing not to have as many kids as previous generations; to argue that they are making the wrong decision seems like exactly the kind of busybody interference into private lives that libertarians normally deplore."
  • Let's Get Back to Those Surveys  Will Wilkinson, writing at The Atlantic, tries to pin Caplan down on his surveys. Maybe the second kid doesn't change happiness much, he says, but " it remains that if one is trying to maximize happiness, no kids appears to be the best bet and fewer is better than more." Nor is he convinced by the survey Caplan cites involving regret for one's choices. Wilkinson's bottom line: "If Bryan really thinks rising education, wealth, and gender equality have somehow made us worse at evaluating the costs and benefits of children, he probably ought to turn in his economist card."
  • I Don't Know About These Definitions of 'Happiness'  "Having kids means constant diversion from doing what you want to be doing at any given moment," muses James Joyner at Outside the Beltway. But wondering whether the "momentary inconvenience" of his 17-month-old disrupting his writing is "outweighed by the joy she brings," he responds, "of course." He's just not sure one can "develop measures to quantify the thousands of instances of 'unhappiness' that come from the annoyances of parenthood and the less frequent but far more potent joys"--certainly "not in a way that satisfies an economist's notion of 'happiness.'"
  • What If 'Happiness' Is Overrated?  Tony Woodlief gets points for originality. Writing alongside Wilkinson at The Atlantic, he suggests children's real value comes in their ability to make us better, less "self-centered" people. We learn to "put someone else before ourselves." If our goals in life include not "becoming (remaining?) a jerk," then we must admit children are valuable in this pursuit.
  • The Joys of Parenting  Rod Dreher agrees with Woodlief. He also points out, though, that upon becoming a parent, "You will lose the freedom to go out on Friday and Saturday night, without a care in the world. You will lose freedom, period. You damn sure will lose sleep. But once that child is here, you'll wonder how you ever lived without him. You will know contentment at a level beyond your imagination."
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