Continuing the debate over fertility and decadence that Matthew Schmitz has mentioned  on this blog, Samuel Goldman suggests  that underlying the low birth rates of wealthy nations is not just selfishness but a very high estimation of the requirements of parenting. The occasion for his post is a report on the low birthrate of Germany. Goldman writes :

While Germans expect relatively small personal and social benefits from childbearing, they see childrearing as an extremely intensive activity. That makes family a low-reward, high-investment arrangement. With these attitudes, it’s no wonder that they have few children.

However, he continues:
It’s not that Germans don’t care enough about the future to have babies. In a sense, the problem is that they care too much: children seem like an unacceptable burden precisely because Germans (especially German women) place so much emphasis on being good parents.

He then examines the changing standards for parenting in the United States and concludes :
If high expectations for responsible parenting are important obstacles to reproduction, the social changes needed to promote fertility might be counterintuitive. Rather than encouraging people to value children more highly, advocates for family like Douthat might have more success if they argued that children are not such a big deal.

Research on fertility and parenting styles in the U.S. suggests that Goldman could be right: Declining fertility rates not just in Germany but also here may be partially explained by an ever-rising standard of parenting.

It seems significant (though correlation is not causation, etc.) that more educated women have  fewer children  and that middle-class parents spend more time and energy on their kids than working-class and poor parents do. Judging by the articles on parenting—-like this one (language warning)—-that my friends share on Facebook, people struggle to live up to today’s high-intensity ideal.

So Goldman’s suggestion that family advocates should argue that “children are not such a big deal” seems wise. One resource for making this argument would be economist Bryan Caplan’s recent book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think . In his Wall Street Journal  review of the book, Jonathan Last provided  this summary :

Analyzing scads of research on the effects of nature and nurture in child-rearing, [Caplan] determines that, as a matter of both time and money, “children cost far less than parents pay, because parents overcharge themselves.” Parents take it upon themselves to constantly entertain and “enrich” their kids with a course-catalog of activities (Capoeira, violin, Mandarin lessons) in a desperate effort to give them “the best” and set them on the path to a triumphant adulthood. But it turns out that parenting has almost no effect on children’s life expectancy, intelligence, happiness or success . . . .

[Moreover,] if you are a reasonably well-adjusted and happy person, your kids probably will be, too. All of which means that parents don’t need to invest nearly as much time and energy in parenting as they think they need to.


Social conservatives and natalists, take note: Instead of accusing your fellow Americans of selfishness, convince them that raising kids may be less difficult than they think.

Articles by Anna Sutherland

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