“Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy,” writes Bryan Caplan in The Breeder’s Cup, published in The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition. Readers will remember the widely promoted study of a few years ago declaring that having children made parents less happy or, depending on the writer, outright unhappy.
In yet another example of the mainline press picking up on what our own David Goldman had been saying for years in his Spengler columns (search “demography” and “population”) and in Demographics and Depression, Caplan argues that the studies we have show that this equation of limited families with the good life is wrong. After challenging the study I just mentioned, he writes:
Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?”
The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.
You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided.
While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.
He goes on to argue that parents could make themselves happier, but his reason is a little uncomfortable: “the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.” Having found out how to make themselves happier parents, parents they have more children, he continues:
Once parents stop overcharging themselves for every child, the next logical step is straight out of Econ 101: Buy more. When you raise your children the easy way, another child is more likely to pass the cost-benefit test.
As you weigh your options, don’t forget that the costs of kids are front-loaded, and the benefits are back-loaded. . . . Focus on the big picture, consider the ideal number of children to have when you’re 30, 40, 60 and 80, and strike a happy medium.