Caplan on Parenting and Having Children

One of the books I read this summer was Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Having already read works like Judith Rich Harris’s excellent books The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, I was not unfamiliar with much of the evidence Caplan adduces to support his thesis. And Caplan’s thesis is easy to state: A growing body of evidence suggests that the effect parents and their parenting style have on the kinds of people their children grow up to become is far less than they might have thought. Genes and peers seem to account for nearly ninety percent of children’s personalities as adults, which leaves a paltry ten percent for everything else, including accident, other environmental factors—and parents.

The moral Caplan draws is that parents should lighten up. If you are worried sick about your kids, about doing everything you can to make sure they lead good, happy lives, relax: Whether they lead such lives is largely not up to you, and little you do—beyond providing them the most basic nutrition—is going to make much difference.

Caplan also argues that if you took the long view of having children, focusing not only on the first two years of life, which are admittedly difficult, but on your whole life with your children, which includes the likely prospect of grandchildren, then you would see that the balance is decisively tipped in favor of having more children. A few years of difficulty is greatly outweighed by decades of pride, companionship, and love, and of course grandchildren are an almost unalloyed good. By contrast, the absence of children and grandchildren as one reaches one’s golden years can be a source of deep pain, regret, and loneliness. The lesson, then: There are good, rational, and selfish reasons to have more kids.

I highly recommend reading Caplan’s book: It is entertaining, lively, and provocative. But there are three things I believe Caplan missed.

First, Caplan argues that once a parent understands that he bears considerably less responsibility than he thought for what his children ultimately become, this can be a liberating realization enabling the parent to relax and have more fun with his kids. Perhaps that is true. But I think Caplan underestimates the extent to which this realization can also be dispiriting and dejecting. “Your efforts are unnecessary and largely pointless” does not strike me as an inspiring liberation. Imagine telling a priest, “Great news! We have now definitively proved that God does not exist. So now you don’t have to be as worried about saving people’s souls as you were before!” Okay, but the other side of that coin is that the proposition to which you have dedicated a substantial proportion of your life turns out to be false, and thus your efforts were pointless. Relaxing? Maybe, but perhaps just as likely depressing.

A second point relates to those “helicopter parents” whom Caplan particularly has in mind when he tells parents to relax. We all know the type: they schedule every minute of their children’s lives, drag them all over hell and gone for lessons and camps and enrichments, and worry, even obsess, about every little detail of their lives. The result, for both the parents and the children, is anxiety and frustration—and likely also disappointment when children inevitably fail to live up to their parents’ dreams and children perceive and even internalize their parents’ disappointment. Yes, such parents should surely take a deep breath.

On the other hand, it seems Caplan fails to realize that being helicopter parents is precisely what gives those parents’ lives meaning. That is their job. It is what gives them purpose, it is what gives them a sense of being needed, and its daily busy routine is precisely what gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them going day after day. We may think they are making some kind of miscalculation, or engaging in ultimately irrational behavior, but that is only if we assume that the point of their behavior is only to gain some end to which their efforts are not likely to conduce. But their daily fretting and racing largely is the point; what it leads to is a secondary concern. So telling them to knock it off misunderstands what they are all about.

Third and finally. A thought I had recurringly throughout Caplan’s book was, “I’ll bet he doesn’t have teenagers yet.” And indeed he doesn’t. He has three kids, none yet a teenager. I am afraid to say that that explains a lot of his “just relax” attitude. Caplan substantially underestimates the difficulties and pain that the teenage years can cause, and the lasting effects that bad decisions of teenagers can, and lamentably often do, have. There is a sweet spot in parenting, when one’s kids are roughly four years old until they are about ten, when parents can think they’ve figured everything out. “Timeouts” work, children listen to their parents, a relative peace can reign. That often ends when children become teens.

Several times in Caplan’s book, he counsels parents of difficult pre-teens to “try a little discipline.” Timeouts work remarkably well, he tells them with only a hint of smugness. Yes, discipline, including timeouts, often does work—with pre-teens. Once a kid is ten, eleven, twelve, however, they don’t work. And what then? By the logic of Caplan’s own argument, the behaviors the kid will engage in are largely outside of the ability of the parents to control. Then that sweet spot is gone; all your theories about how great your parenting is, how cool and relaxed you are, all the relative peace and happiness that reigns in your family, can come crashing to a halt. What then?

Telling parents to “just relax” at that point is not only pointless, it can be inappropriate and even cruel. What if they also have pre-teen children and the teenager is effectively taking the whole family emotionally and psychologically hostage? This is the stuff sit-coms (not to mention reality TV shows) are made out of, so common and pervasive and intractable can the problems be.

I am not suggesting that all teenagers are terrible, or that the prospect of having children is no longer a good idea because children inevitably become teenagers. On the contrary, my own belief is that the tumultuous teenage years are part of the natural course of a family’s development, and in any case I reject the whole notion of doing cost/benefit analyses to determine whether one should have children. My point is instead that if one believes one should engage in that kind of cost/benefit reasoning—as Caplan’s argument presumes and recommends—then one has to take a full reckoning, which will include those potentially terrible teenage years. Will that tip the balance? I am not sure. But it would certainly make it far less obvious than Caplan seems to believe that selfish reasons to have more kids clearly outweighs reasons not to.

3 thoughts on “Caplan on Parenting and Having Children

  1. Marvelous review. I’m about halfway through Caplan’s book and although I am enjoying it, I have many of the same thoughts and hesitations (particularly your point #2 about “helicopter” parents).

    I’m certainly not as extreme as most (at least I hope!), but when he speaks of things like letting your kid see a movie in theater #1 while you enjoy an “adult” movie in theater #2, I can’t help but think we’re on completely different pages on how we view parenting (and our kids). I would *want* to be with my kid in theater #1 because I would *want* to be hanging out with my kid, regardless of how stupid I think the movie is. This similar to how I don’t usually want a babysitter on the weekend: I work during the week and *enjoy* spending every extra second with my kids.

    In short, I think he misses a big piece of the “selfish” puzzle. Many “helicopter” parents may indeed *need* to give their children more freedom (for their children’s sake), but for many, excessive involvement with their kids is *part* of the “selfish” experience. I hang out with my kids because it’s fun and they make me happy. They also seem to like spending time with me (at least, at the moment). In the future, I’ll coach my son’s soccer team and teach him about Adam Smith and the Bible for similar reasons. Whether that stuff actually sticks with him is, as you say, a secondary concern.

  2. In the face of a realization that parents have less influence directly than previously thought, wouldn’t a thoughtful parent then be more motivated to take advantage of the indirect means available to influence his or her child’s development?
    If it turns out that peers are far more influential than parents have hitherto wanted to acknowledge, doesn’t that simply raise the stakes for exerting parental influence over who a child’s peers are?
    The attitude of resignation you describe Caplan as having puzzles me, because I just don’t how these new insights about development should change parents’ motivations. Change their methods, certainly, but not their desire to influence their children.

  3. I haven’t read Caplan’s book nor do I know what assumptions are in the studies that show peers have a much larger share in determining how kids turn out. Are any of these studies done in non-Western societies where intact families are more common and where intergenerational relationships within extended families are more normative? In other words, I quite believe the studies when they are of parents who have already ceded their influence to a child’s peer groups by immersing them (largely through benign neglect) in social and educational settings where children are the defining influence.

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