Large families – think Kate Gosselin’s crew of eight, the Duggars’ 19-kid-family and Nadya Suleman’s dozen+ – have been depicted by pop culture as old timey circus acts, something for which you’d pay admission at a county fair in order to enter a shadowy tent and marvel at this oddity. These families got reality shows and the attention of the media because you just don’t see families as large as theirs running around anymore, given that the average number of children families tend to have these days is about two.
So while the media and pop culture have been focusing on the usual nature of those super-sized families, we’ve been hearing environmentally activist folks warning about the negative impact that each new child has on the environment. Just recently, Toni Nagy wrote on The Huffington Post that she was having a hard time reconciling her eco-conscious life with having a child. “Now that I have a baby, I realize that every choice I make is a potential environmental catastrophe,” Nagy wrote. “How do I reconcile the fact that I am glad she is alive, but that every life is a budding threat to the health of the earth?” A quick perusal through the comments section yields a raft of babies-wreck-the-planet sentiments.
It was in this context that I read a new book urging those who already have children to have more. Many more. This seems to go against the “Hey isn’t that weird?” vibe of the extra-large family reality shows and the “green” mantra admonishing us to keep our family sizes small (although some extreme environmentalists would prefer that we not procreate at all), never mind that some feminists urge women with careers to limit the number of offspring to one, at the most, lest their maternity negatively affect their work.
George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan has stuck his neck out with his provocative treatise "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think." On the cover, there’s a cartoon mom and a cartoon dad accompanied by six cartoon kids. Yeah, Caplan’s not playing around here. He wants American families to start gettin’ busy.
Why? How can he make this kind of recommendation given the strikes against having big families, chiefly the cost (including college costs which are rising exponentially), the impact of maternity on mothers’ careers and the environmental impact of adding more people to the planet? Caplan addressed those questions, most of ‘em anyway, though he didn’t really tackle the college issue to my satisfaction because for me, a mother of three, that’s a looming concern. Given that the conventional arguments are against him, Caplan took several objections to his “have more kids” axiom (except the paying for college issues) head-on:
Child-Rearing is Too Time-Consuming
“Modern parenting has turned kids into a heavy burden. But it’s not the kids that changed; it’s us.”
One of the most intriguing arguments Caplan makes is that modern parenting has turned into a 24/7, blood sport where “good” parents are those who’ve sacrificed everything -their time, money and everything that they as individuals. When the bar for what constitutes “good parenting” is set so stratospherically high, it can make you utterly exhausted just thinking about having to rear yet one more kid. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Caplan says, especially if you recognize that parents’ influence over most things such as their children’s intelligence, future career success, overall health and their behavior once their offspring are adults, is either extremely limited or altogether non-existent. He cited study after study saying that parents “grossly overestimate” their influence on all of these things and knock themselves out trying to bolster their child’s success, smarts, health and social mores, but those efforts, in the end, have previous little, scientifically proven benefit.
“Today’s Typical Parents strive to mentally stimulate their children and struggle to protect their brains from being turned to mush by television and video games,” he wrote. “Yet by adulthood, the fruits of parents’ labor is practically invisible. Children who grew up in enriched homes are no smarter than they would have been if they’d grown up in average homes.” (Bet the Tiger Mom would like to have a sit-down with this guy.)
But parents’ efforts aren’t completely without impact because what they can influence is how children, once they’re grown, will remember their childhood. “Your chance of transforming your child’s adult health, intelligence, happiness, success, character or values is slim,” Caplan said. “Your chance of hurting how your child feels about you – his appreciation – is very real.”
His bottom line: It’s not so hard to be a parent once you cut yourself a break and stop worrying so much. Let ‘em watch TV, drop all the crazy activities that you, the parent, hate and enjoy the heck out of ‘em. The more the merrier, ‘cause they’ll be out of the house before you know it.
More Kids = More Money
The start-up costs of having a baby are high, Caplan says, both in terms of money and effort. But once you get beyond the toddler years, Caplan says things change, moreover, he says that because our society has become richer overall, we can afford to have more children but don’t.
“Big families are more affordable than ever, because we’re more than three times richer than we were in 1950,” Caplan said. “You can see our mounting riches in our homes. Compared to the tiny dwellings of the Fifties, modern families live in castles, with air conditioning. Why hasn’t the size of our families grown in step with the size of our houses?” He added “our real incomes have more than tripled since the 1950s.”
(Again, as the mom of three kids whom I expect will go to college, that price-tag is my chief concern. Plus, I wonder if the fact that we’re having smaller families plays any role in the nation’s overall affluence?)
Environmental & Societal Concerns
“We’re not running out of food, fuel or minerals. Despite setbacks and exceptions, resources have been getting cheaper for well over a century. Air and water quality have improved in recent decades too, despite large population increases.”
While Caplan concedes that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, he said: “. . . [Y]ou don’t have to reduce the number of human beings on the planet. You just have to get humanity to reduce its carbon emissions.”
Caplan sees having more children as creating new sources of ideas that’ll propel society forward, expand our choices and financially support our retirement systems. “Our population and our standard of living have risen side by side for centuries and it’s no coincidence,” he said. “The source of new ideas, without a doubt, is people – creative talent to make discoveries, and paying customers to reward their success.”
“How many kids will I want when I’m sixty?’
His biggest piece of advice is that, once you’ve completed the labor-intensive years of child-rearing, you’ll realize when you’re older, what joys adult children, and hopefully grandchildren, can bring. “Many of the benefits of children come later in life,” he said, throwing in this little chestnut, “. . . [E]ach additional child substantially cut the chance of [a parent] ending up in a nursing home.”
But if you decide to limit how many children you will have when you’re in your 30s and in the thick of child-rearing, you may be selling your future, sixtysomething, empty-nester self short.
Bottom line: I don’t know that I buy all of what Caplan’s selling, but I like the do-less-enjoy-more philosophy. At least that’s something with which I can persuade my husband to agree. Having a fourth kid, well, that’s another story.