Why you should have four kids

Because it works so well for me!

Anyway, how could I not love this article,”What Number of Kids Makes Parents Happiest?”
in the Atlantic that makes the case for four as the optimum number of children?

Bryan Caplan is an economist and a dad who has thought a lot about the joys and stresses of being a parent. When I asked him whether there is an ideal number of children to have, from the perspective of parents’ well-being, he gave a perfectly sensible response: “I’m tempted to start with the evasive economist answer of ‘Well, there’s an optimal number given your preferences.’”

When I pressed him, he was willing to play along: “If you have a typical level of American enjoyment of children and you’re willing to actually adjust your parenting to the evidence on what matters, then I’ll say the right answer is four.”

Four does happen to be the number of children Caplan himself has. But he has a rationale for why that number might apply more generally. His interpretation of the research on parenting, which he outlines in his 2011 book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, is that many of the time- and money-intensive things that parents do in hopes of helping their children succeed—loading them up with extracurriculars, sending them to private school—don’t actually contribute much to their future earnings or happiness.

In other words, many parents make parenting unnecessarily dreadful, so maybe, Caplan suggests, they should revisit their child-rearing approach and then, if they can afford to, consider having more kids, because kids can be fun and fulfilling. No sophisticated math brought him to the number four. “It’s just based upon my sense of how much people intrinsically like kids compared to how much needless suffering they’re doing,” he said. Caplan even suspects that more than four would be optimal for him.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m a proselytizer of the gospel of Caplan on having more kids because if you think they are too time-consuming, you are probably doing too much.

And, no, there is no scientifically-determined optimal family size (but, really, don’t just stop at two as it seems the vast majority of educated Americans do these days), but there is a nice round-up of the research on family size in the Atlantic article:

A handful of studies have tried to pinpoint a number of children that maximizes parents’ happiness. One study from the mid-2000s indicated that a second child or a third didn’t make parents happier. “If you want to maximize your subjective well-being, you should stop at one child,” the study’s author told Psychology Today. A more recent study, from Europe, found that two was the magic number; having more children didn’t bring parents more joy.

In the United States, nearly half of adults consider two to be the ideal number of children, according to Gallup polls, with three as the next most popular option, preferred by 26 percent. Two is the favorite across Europe, too….

The two-child ideal is a major departure from half a century ago: In 1957, only 20 percent of Americans said the ideal family meant two or fewer children, while 71 percent said it meant three or more. The economy seems to have played some role in this shift. Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, says that the ideal during the Baby Boom was in the neighborhood of three, four, or five children. “That number plummeted as the cost of rearing children rose and as more women entered the workforce and felt a growing sense of frustration about being reduced to childbearing machines,” he said.

The costs of raising children are not just financial. “As a parent who prizes his own mental and physical health,” says Robert Crosnoe, a sociology professor who is also at the University of Texas at Austin, “I had to stop at two, because this new style of intensive parenting that people feel they have to follow these days really wears one out.” (He added: “I am glad, however, that my parents did not think this way, as I am the third of three.”)…

Parents may decide that a certain number of children is going to maximize theirhappiness, but what about the happiness of the children themselves? Is there an optimal number of siblings to have?

Generally speaking, as much as brothers and sisters bicker, relationships between siblings tend to be positive ones. In fact, there’s evidence that having siblings improves young children’s social skills, and that good relationships between adult siblings in older age are tied to better health. (One study even found a correlation between having siblings and a reduced risk of getting a divorce—the idea being that growing up with siblings might give people social toolkits that they can use later in life.)

There is, however, at least one less salutary outcome: The more siblings one has, the less education one is likely to get. Researchers have for decades discussed whether “resource dilution” might be at play—the idea that when parents have to divvy up their resources among more children, each child gets less. Under this framework, going from having zero siblings to having one would be the most damaging, from a child’s perspective—his or her claim to the household’s resources shrinks by half.

But this theory doesn’t really hold up, not least because children with one sibling tend to go further in school than only children. “Resource dilution is attractive because it’s intuitive and parsimonious—it explains a lot with a simple explanation—but it’s probably too simple,” says Douglas Downey, a sociologist at Ohio State University. “Many parental resources are probably not finite in the way the theory describes.”

A small example: Parents can read books to two children at once—this doesn’t “dilute” their limited time. A larger one: Instead of splitting up a fixed pile of cash, parents might start saving differently if they know they’re going to pay two kids’ college tuitions instead of one’s. “They put a bigger proportion of their money toward kids’ education and less toward new golf clubs,” Downey explains.

Anyway, lots more good stuff in there.  I’m sure I’d still be a super-happy dad with just David and Alex.  But I sure cannot imagine live without Evan and then without Sarah.  More kids means more love and so many new and different opportunities as a parent (piano recitals, dance recitals, barbie dolls, band concerts) and all sorts of other stuff we’d have missed out on with only two.  Of course, by this logic why not stop at 11?  That said, I strongly suspect most modern American families who stop at two could definitely handle one or two more kids and would be glad they had them.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Why you should have four kids

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Seems to me we are talking affluent people here. Since we read that 40% of Americans can’t afford to pay for a $400 emergency, I can’t see that maximum happiness would be in any one number of children. Women have been killed for getting pregnant in certain situations.
    I can reconsider once Americans join the civilized world of guaranteed health care and good quality child care.

  2. Ferris Daniel says:

    I think there is an ethical case to be made to limit the number of children to 1 or 2. Every human on Earth will be responsible for lots of greenhouse gases for the foreseeable future.
    I’ve been thinking that pets, especially dogs should also be limited, probably to smaller dogs.
    Voluntary only.

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