Are Kids Cheaper Than We Think?

As the author of this blog, my personal life will inevitably affect my writing.  With that said, it’s probably a good time to announce that I’ll be the father to a daughter any day now!

I must admit that the whole idea of having a child, let alone raising one, is daunting.  If most fathers are anything like me — which I suspect they are — they have that “oh shit” moment just seconds after they hear that their wife/significant other is pregnant.  It’s during this time that most of us men realize that we don’t have the faintest clue about how to raise a child, let alone change a diaper.  Then, the unnerving thought about how expensive fatherhood is sets in, both monetarily and in terms of having a “life” — I mean “time”.

Are kids really as expensive as we may make them out to be though?  Well, that obviously depends, but in his book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan’s central argument is that kids cost the average person less than they think.  In other words, thanks to the flawed advice of the Tiger Mothers out there, the perceived economic price of having great kids is higher than the actual economic price.  Finally, a bit of good news to help assuage the financial anxiety I’ve been feeling!

Better yet, we also grossly underestimate the benefits that kids will bring to our lives.  The idea that we are terrible at predicting what impact future events will have on our lives is not only currently fashionable in psychology, but it’s also true.  This idea is especially relevant when we think of the impact that kids and grand-kids will have on our well-being and happiness.  Kids may sound like a drag now (especially if, like me, you like to travel), but the joy most of them will bring to your life in later years is not only difficult to measure, but immeasurably valuable.  I must concede, however, that at least a few parents out there may be overestimating the benefits of their kids (hopefully I’m not one of them), but I digress.

I decided to do some empirical investigation into this claim to see if Caplan was onto something.  I asked several adults with grown children if they regretted not having more kids and the answer was unanimously “yes” (warning: I had a sample size of four and two of these individuals were my parents, who were obviously biased by the joy they experienced in raising a wonderful kid like yours truly).

Due to the idea that we are prone to overestimate the costs (and underestimate the benefits) Caplan goes on to suggest that the average person ought to have more kids than they are currently planning on.  Please note: this isn’t to say that everyone ought to have more kids (or even any kids at all), but rather that the average person ought to have more kids.  If you can avoid looking into the rose-colored mirror, you’ll probably realize that you’re more average than you think; therefore, you probably ought to have more kids.

The reason kids cost less than we think is because we place too much value on nurture, and not enough on nature.  In other words, most of what will determine how your kids turn out will be determined by you, and who you choose to mate with. Caplan cites plenty of scientific evidence to support the claim that genetics matter more than nurture, so I won’t get into that here.  Again, I think it’s important to reiterate that this is not to say that nurture doesn’t matter all, it does; however, it matters less than the average parent thinks.  According to Caplan, nurture works more in the short-run, but nature has its way in the long-run. For example, disciplining a child at a young age may make a certain behavior go away temporarily, but the child’s genes will eventually trump his parent’s attempts to impart discipline into him.

Many parents (and soon to be parents ) find Caplan’s argument disturbing because it means that parent’s monumental efforts to improve their kids lives through a chaotic schedule are mostly for naught when it comes to how the child will turn out as an adult. I, however, think this is great news. It means that once you’ve married the right person, as I most certainly have, then having kids will be less work then you think.  The fact that screwing up your kids is hard is a liberating thought indeed!

Caplan also points out that many of the structured activities parents try to force their kids to do are for naught. In other words, if a kid doesn’t have an iota of natural athletic ability, there is no amount of practice (or expensive lessons) that will make them an elite athlete, or even a decent one.  The same goes for things like musical ability.  So if a kid doesn’t show the faintest interest in something then you and your kid will be better off by simply dropping that activity.

Although Caplan never mentions Nassim Taleb’s work on antifragility, I think the idea of antifragility blends in nicely to this kind of parenting style.  Once you realize that your kids have antifragile properties (like all humans), then the dangers in over-parenting become more apparent.  You want to let your kids make a bunch of small inconsequential mistakes instead of one big mistake that is of great consequence.  Over-parenting removes some volatility from the child’s life, which magnifies the harm when it does occur.

In the end, I think Caplan makes a compelling case that children don’t really cost as much as most of us think. Considering that my first child is now on the way, I sure hope he’s right.  Before I read Caplan’s book, I was certain that being a father was going to be at least two things: 1) an amazing experience and 2) really hard.  It turns out it may be less expensive than I think too.  Then again, perhaps I’m being naive.

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