on August 3, 2011
I just finished reading the book, and then read through all the negative reviews. Basically, my sense is that all of those who wrote negative reviews misunderstood what the book is about, and instead focused on single statements taken out of context.
First: This book does NOT tell you that you should just put your child in front of the television all the time, because your parenting makes no difference. It also doesn't tell you that you should feed your kids fast foods, stop monitoring them altogether, or otherwise neglect them, because it won't matter. This is NOT what the book is about. The fast food and TV instances that (defensive sounding?) people seem to cling to like a last straw are given as examples in specific cases: If both you and your child are stressed out, and you're trying to force the kid to do something they don't want to do because YOU think it's important for their future (e.g. practice violin or go to ballet class), and you're stressed and screaming at them to do it, and no one's happy, THAT'S when the book suggests to relax, take an hour for yourself, and let the TV babysit. The idea is that a relaxed, happy parent, is FAR more important to a child's long term well being than an hour of ballet. And any parent who's ever been stressed (i.e., ALL parents), know that their stress does not rub off very well on the kids.
Second: This book doesn't say that parenting doesn't matter AT ALL. It says that REASONABLE parenting, with love, affection, attention, and fun times spent together is sufficient to let your child make the most of their potential. You do not have to be a SUPER parent, just a loving attentive normal parent, to achieve the same results.
Third: This book doesn't say everyone should have more children. The guy is very much a libertarian who believes in personal choices. What the book is saying is, if you think you might have liked more kids (or kids period) but ruled it out for very specific reasons, that he then outlines, THEN, you should rethink those reasons. Those reasons, among others listed in the book, include (1) if you think parenting is all about stress (it says you can be more relaxed, and explains why), (2) if you dread the early years (they pass quickly), (3) if you think that for a kid to be the best they can be, they need ALL of your free time and constant attention (they don't). If you hate kids, it doesn't claim you should have them anyway. If you've always only wanted 2 kids for whatever reason, it doesn't say you should have 3 or 4, it's just asking you to consider why you want 2, and if your reason is one of the ones listed, to rethink it.
Forth: The science stated in the book is SOUND. Those are REAL studies with REAL results. He also quotes twin/adoption studies that show small effects of nurture, but those effects are always small/not replicated in larger studies. You can look up the publications yourselves. ([...]
Fifth: Whatever variations are NOT accounted for by genetics, are probably driven by epigenetics (not mentioned), parental nurture, and social (outside the house) nurture. But those are the SMALLER part of the equation, the variations are driven MOSTLY by genetics.
Sixth and Last: This book does *not* claim, and I repeat, does *not* claim, that all you do as a parent doesn't matter. It absolutely states, gives personal anecdotes, and points out studies that confirm that what parents do DOES matter in the short run, where short run can be years, basically as long as the kids LIVE in the home, or just left it. If you teach your child to be polite, they'll be polite. If you don't, they probably won't be. What the book IS saying, is that in the LONG RUN, into their 30s and later, THAT is when your upbringing with begin to fade away. It doesn't matter how you bring up your kids, they're likely to end up with roughly the same earning power, roughly the same IQ, roughly the same level of happiness, and a couple of other measures, whether or not you insisted on taking them to ballet class when they objected, or to practice team sports even though they hated it. And THIS is why the book says (see point 1), RELAX. Have FUN with your kids, rather than stress them and yourself out over activities neither one of you is enjoying. Give them your attention when you're happy and relaxed, and if you need to let them watch TV for an hour to get some quiet time for yourself so that YOU can relax, and then spend QUALITY time with them, allow yourself to do that. You won't be hurting your kid's future income.
I am giving the book 4 only stars because I think the chapter of mock conversations is ridiculous and boring and feels like a space filler, because I think he didn't always do a great job of emphasizing some important points, and because I think he should have at least mentioned epigenetics, which likely explain most of the variations in personality between identical twins raised together (basically, conditions in the womb determine later gene expression, and twins never experience the same conditions, one is always more squeezed that the other).
Lastly, I'd like to mention that I also think his idea for how potential grandparents could maximize odds of getting grandchildren (or more grandchildren) is amusing and makes some very good points.
on April 5, 2011
I recommend this book to anyone who has ever thought about having children.
The central message of this book is based in simple economics. Right now you have some sense of the costs and benefits of having children, and you use this idea to determine the optimal number of children for your family. The book explains how and why most people are wrong about these costs and benefits: children are almost certainly less costly than you think, and they are probably at least as beneficial as you think.
Whether or not you're convinced to have more kids, this book contains practical parenting advice. Key to idea that having children isn't as costly as you think is that most parental effort intending to change a child's long-term outcome is wasted. Caplan cites decades of research in behavioral genetics to make his case, to borrow one of the book's best metaphors, that children are much more like plastic that responds to pressure in the short term and eventually returns to its original shape than they are like clay.
The curious but skeptical reader should be glad to know that Caplan devotes a considerable portion of the book to anticipating and responding to criticism. In the months of pre-release debates about the book I have not seen one criticism that isn't addressed in detail within the text. So even if the idea of the book seems nearly implausible to you, I still recommend giving it a shot: it probably addresses your objection directly.
On a personal note, reading this book convinced me that I should want more kids than before. For that reason I think it will end up being among the most influential books I've ever read in my life, without exaggeration. I hope it does the same for you, because (as also noted in the book) your children aren't only good for you, but they're good for the world. So go forth, get the book, be fruitful, and multiply.
on April 5, 2011
If you do nothing else, just read the introduction. It summarizes everything, and is excellent. The book goes straight to the premise and evidence without any dancing or pre-selling. And the book concludes with hypothetical conversations with various real-world critics, which are also fun to read. More books should be structured in this way.
And in the middle, you get one jaw-dropping result after another that can be basically summarized as: RELAX. Your day-to-day parenting may have some short-term consequences but in the long-run, your children will basically turn out just like you. Want proof? You turned out like your parents, didn't you?
The book can be summarized with two results: one is that parental nagging or reminding or anything else DOES NOT AFFECT DENTAL HYGIENE.
This is pretty remarkable.
If you can't control your kids dental hygiene, a process that you can monitor and schedule and confirm -- meaning, if no matter what you do, the health of their adult teeth will ultimately be determined by genes anyway, unless of course you knock them all out -- then what hope do you have of affecting their grades or their IQ or their future income? Turns out those things too are genetic.
So Caplan's conclusion is, since your actions matter very little at the margin, just relax. Have some more kids and just hang out. Don't stress out.
I've read Freakonomics and Parentonomics and The Idle Parents and a bunch more. This is the clearest evidence-based parenting book that your actions don't matter (though the last two chapters of the original Freakonomics make essentially the same point about the importance of parenting essentially ending at birth, they do not go to the next logical step of recommending you have more kids).
Which brings us to the second most important result: when asked what kids would change about their parents, the most unpredictable answer for the parents was that they would want their parents to have less stress, a better attitude, more fun, etc. So have some vacations without the kids, or at least date nights, and do things with the kids that you find fun, rather than "sacrificing" for their sake. If you're not really enjoying yourself, neither are your kids.
So bottom line: chillax. And procreate.
on September 22, 2014
This book started out strong but lost me in the middle. I am an engineer and had my first child this year at age 30.
> Like other posters have noted, this provides an economic context for having more kids. I was looking for something other than my gut telling me to have more.
> The book starts out heavily research-based.
> Research takes a back seat in the middle. After he concludes that your parenting can't mess your kids up too bad, he starts in on why families are smaller and getting started later. He doesn't actually cite studies which ask women why they are delaying having kids or only want one. This would have been hugely helpful and could help dispel/support some of the things we tell ourselves (e.g. it'll ruin my career, it'll delay my career, it'll ruin my body, we won't have any more fun, etc.)
> *Severely* downplays the risks of waiting to have kids on the basis that fertility treatments can always make it happen. His pie-in-the-sky treatment of this grossly misunderstood option is further harming women (and men) who delay having kids. Only 35% of IVF treatments result in a baby, and only 30% of treatments result in a live birth (on average). That's a lot of miscarriages. And, those numbers go *down* with each successive attempt. He doesn't even satisfactorily address fertility (i.e. that only 10% of eggs are capable of being fertilized at 40, versus 40% at 30).
> Makes a lot of libertarian-type statements, completely clueless to how laws like FMLA, anti-discrimination laws, breastfeeding rooms, and job-protection statutes have helped women, especially those who are the primary breadwinners in their families. His case would have been a lot stronger if he'd accepted the laws as necessary (after all, regulations are reactive to conditions) and researched the impact these have on women today. This is particularly galling given how elegantly he discredits the Idealistic Fifties.
Final judgment: If you must, read the first few chapters for the economic and child-safety research summaries. You could probably just get that on the internet for free. Definitely skip the rest.
Overall, I agree with Bryan Caplan's basic premise that babies are blessings and that the hyperparenting popular among middle-class Americans today is not necessary for the child to have a decent outcome. It very much saddens me to hear all the anti-child rhetoric today and worry about the possibility of a "demographic winter" in this country as is already happening in Europe and Japan. Many families probably should take seriously Caplan's advice to have just one more child than they were originally planning. He rightfully points out that for all the doomsaying about supposed "overpopulation" since the time of Malthus, human ingenuity has actually made our environment cleaner in many ways and also allowed us to increase living standards around the world.
Where I think Caplan's book falls short is in overlooking the primary reason I believe women today are having fewer children: they are starting much later than in the past. I got married one month shy of my 22nd birthday and had my first child at age 25. Because I started my family early by today's standards, I can have a larger family while still managing to spread them out such that it doesn't become overwhelming. My college friends who are having their first baby at 35 won't be able to have 3, 4, or 5 kids unless they are VERY closely spaced. That's hard on a woman from both a physical standpoint as well as an emotional one. I can't imagine being middle-aged and having a large number of very young children- talk about exhausting even if one is a laid-back parent like Caplan advocates. Honestly, I don't think Caplan has a clue the toll that pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding takes on a woman. He may think that women are being "myopic" in deciding not to put themselves through all that a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time, but that's easy for him to say as a man. I would love to know if Caplan's wife shares his sanguine view.
The other factor that I believe Caplan overlooks is the dramatic increase in the number of special needs children. Autism rates have skyrocketed from 1 in 1,000 children in the 1970's to 1 in 91 in 2009. While some of that is probably due to better diagnosis, much of that increase is real. Cerebral Palsy has similarly increased from 1 in 667 children to 1 in 278. Other disabilities are also on the rise, probably because there are so many more preemies born and modern medicine has been able to save a much higher percentage of very premature babies. The demands of having a special needs child and the risk of future children also being disabled weighs heavily on the minds of the parents and could tip the balance towards limiting family size. And even families with neurotypical children likely have friends, relatives, or acquaintances with a special needs child. The awareness of the risk could lead someone to decide not to roll the dice but just stick with the existing healthy offspring.
Despite these overlooked factors, I do recommend reading "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids". Caplan makes a good case for being more laissez-faire in one's parenting and to consider the long-term benefits of having additional children rather than just the short-term hassles. Recommended.
on August 5, 2014
I was very disappointed with this book, even though I'm a fan of Caplan's other work. It completely ignored most of the counterarguments to having more kids, such as:
1) you're a woman and having several children may adversely impact your career
2) the high probability that if you have 4-5 kids, one or more will be disabled or special-needs, which substantially increases your expenses
3) your extended family may fail to provide the substantial support that Caplan assumes
These counterarguments seem obvious to me, so I feel that failing to address them is unforgivable in a semi-academic treatise like this one.
On the other hand, I did like the first few chapters of the book, which argued fairly persuasively that intensive high-stress childhood extracurriculars are not worth the expense.
on August 16, 2013
I originally wrote this in response to another reviewer (H Wright) who was unhappy with the author's perspective on adopted kids. I was so certain I would see more reviews that shared his/her viewpoint...and am a little shocked, or perhaps disappointed to see they don't exist.( I think this means that people with more contrary perspectives, don't even bother to read the book!)I decided I wanted a larger audience and to rate the book myself, so have turned that response into a review of its own.
I have a biological son and an adopted son. They are both good kids but in different ways...and I can really see the ways that my adopted son (6yo) is more empathetic, compassionate and generous than my biological son (11 yo), who would have thought? My older son, who is white, is a great guy in his own ways, he is mellow, gentle and easy going---but not nearly as tuned into others as is my younger son, who, btw, is African American and whose mom was for many many years a drug addict and thief (though I think she is doing better now). One day I woke up and went into the LR and the tv was on, but I could barely hear it. My adopted son, who is 6, said--well I didn't want to wake you up. These little considerations happen frequently, and it isn't that my biological son is mean, it just seems like the nuances of someone else's possible needs don't come across his radar to nearly the same extent. He will rarely share a bit of candy with me, or let me have a french fry off his plate, things my adopted son says yes to without thinking or hesitation. And I love my older son to pieces, the two kids are just different. (The younger, because he reads and understands emotions so well, can use them to, occasionally, manipulate, whereas my older son never does--that is the other edge of the sword). I have noticed these traits in my two boys pretty much from toddler-hood on.
I don't know, I enjoyed this book--as a science teacher, science major and someone who likes arguments that are not fuzzy. But I was VERY disappointed that his chapter that went over all the intricate ways to have more children if you are infertile, never mentioned adoption. There are millions of kids with criminal parents who are great citizens, and millions of adopted kids whose parents were drug addicts, who grow up to be amazing adults. I am sure the author would agree--but what is statistically significant, translated into real numbers and real kids, is often meaningless. My older son, can also suffer from a lot of anxiety and in some ways seems a bit more fragile than my adopted son, though I suspect, intellectually, he will always outshine the younger. There are so many characteristics that go into making a 'great' kid. Which ones do you choose to value?
This is a good book in many ways, but something is definitely missing from the equation. Now that I am getting older (49) and see how much lonelier life can feel in a fast paced modern life where friends seem to come and go (I live in the SF Bay area--a playground of fun things to do but kinda impoverished when it comes to deep, long-lasting relationships) I do wish I had more than two kids. But, alas, I did find the early child-rearing years, from about 1-4 or 5, so, so painful that it was hard for me put the long-term ahead of my short term misery (which was interspersed with moments of joy and love). Seven is the golden age, kids become so much more independent while also still being incredibly loving and fun. My 6.75 year old is already there, for the most part. I also wish I had started building my family earlier.
In any case, read the book critically--it does make a lot of great points about over-parenting, but I don't think the author is the definitive authority by any means--an interesting perspective.
on December 13, 2011
Parents expend vast amounts of effort trying to mold their kids; all for naught. While nurture (parenting) matters in the short run, nature (behavioral genetics) has the final say.
Parenting efforts will have little impact in many areas: Happiness (it has a biological set-point), IQ (adoption gains disappear by adulthood), character (Wow!!), education (museum visits won't help), and more. Nurture matters most in how fondly your kids will remember you. They'll recall the good times and their parents' love and kindness. This is true of children in their 70s and 80s.
Freakonomics put together a terrific podcast on the parenting styles of economists. While agreeing with Caplan, even they couldn't stop themselves from over-scheduling and over-enriching their own children.
Caplan finds many reasons to procreate. Large families are cheaper than ever. Technology makes parenting easier. And money can buy happiness: a part-time nanny, for instance. Furthermore, most parental worry is unnecessary; kids today are 4 times safer than they were in the "idyllic" 1950s.
Caplan's take-away message is apropos an economist: A FREE LUNCH can be had by ending the hyper-parenting. Drop the stuff (piano, ballet) that you and your kids dislike. Instead, enjoy your time together.
The book just barely earns 4 stars. It's a bit dry. And the format is untidy; with headings and sub-headings haphazardly placed. A final thought: If you read Tiger Mother, you MUST read this.
on August 13, 2011
Middle-class family sizes across the globe have been declining. Women are having children later, and are having less of them or none at all. In economist Bryan Caplan's view, this is mostly because prospective parents have been caught up in the view that their potential children are `blank slates' - they will underperform or turn to the bad side unless parents invest huge amounts of their own precious time in launching them on an optimal life-trajectory. No wonder kids are such a poor investment!
This view is, however, almost entirely false. The life prospects of your children, their intelligence, personalities and even potential criminality are outside your control, consequences almost exclusively of their genes. If you're from good stock, then almost certainly your kids will turn out all right, whether you over-invest in them or not.
In a field full of diverse opinions underpinned by a library of popular books, it's important to state what's different about Caplan's entry into this crowded field. Quite simply, it's based on real empirical evidence and research (which we technically call `science'). The way to separate the effects of on-board genes and family-upbringing is to look at twins, especially those separated at birth and raised by different families. The other piece of the puzzle is provided by the fate of adopted children, where the child's outcome can be compared with the traits of the birth-parents and also with the adopting family.
What does all this tell us? The genes win hands down. Chapter 2 is the main meat in this book, reviewing numerous `behavioral genetics' studies with the following results:
1. Parenting has little to no effect on overall lifetime health of offspring. Parents don't affect height, weight or teeth-quality.
2. Mozart in the womb or no Mozart, parenting has zero long-term effect on a child's intelligence as measured by IQ tests (the gold standard). Separated twins correlate almost perfectly with each other; adopted children correlate with their birth parents.
3. Exactly similar conclusions hold for: life happiness, success in life, educational attainment, character, values, sexual attitudes and religion.
The only area where nurture seems to matter is whether your children will appreciate you later in life: it pays to be nice to them.
Why do so many parents believe otherwise? Their evenings are spent working over the homework and sponsoring life-enrichment classes for their little ones; weekends involve chauffeuring their offspring to sports matches or dancing classes; summers bring improving camps, while piano lessons occupy any remaining time.
The answer is that families, like the army, are a total environment with asymmetry of power. You can control the experiences of your little one and so you do, whether what you offer conforms to your child's likes and aptitudes or not. For a period you can force a child to go against its genes but be forewarned, it will not stick.
Chapter 3 re-iterates some of the points in chapter 2 and rebuts charges of `genetic determinism': we are not zombies controlled by a genetic `program'. Since the consequences of genes are so powerful, however, Caplan suggests that you `choose a spouse who resembles the kids you want to have': assortative mating implies you probably did, but if you applied this level of rationality to your romantic engagements you're probably in trouble anyway. Surprisingly, Caplan argues that `if you want to dramatically improve a child's life, adopt from the third world'. Good for the child perhaps, but did Caplan really review the solid, scientific work on ethnic differences in IQ and personality?
Chapter four shows, with statistics, that children are a lot safer today than they were in the 1950s (which themselves were a golden age as compared to 1900). The difference is almost entirely due to the fact we have largely conquered childhood diseases. Parents tend to worry more about abduction, kidnap and murder and these have, if anything, gone up but the actual rates seen by middle-class families are vanishingly small.
The rest of the book is devoted to arguments as to why having more children is good both for you and for the world. Briefly, your kids will enrich your old age even if they are a pain in the short term; and large populations sustain and nurture culture and the new ideas which drive progress. I agree with both these ideas but they're hardly earth-shaking or new.
One curious section in chapter 5 (p. 116) explores the reasons why - as a matter of fact - middle-class people are choosing to have fewer children today. After rejecting the standard economic argument (diminishing marginal returns to extra children) he comes up with three reasons: changes in values, self-imposed rules and changes in foresight. This comes down to the decline in religion, the time-consuming urge to over-parent and an alleged civilization of our basic urges.
I have never heard of a flimsier and less convincing set of reasons. The elephant in the room is the pill: contraception which is universally used and which doesn't impact the pleasures of intimacy (unlike the condom). So having children is now solely a conscious decision for any woman with enough `foresight' to take the pill. No wonder something with such a negative short-term impact on finances, career and recreation tends to be put off. Not so hard, is it?
So this book is a mish-mash of solid science, common-sense and Bryan Caplan's unsubstantiated opinions mixed in with too much information (Caplan wears shorts to work in the winter). Even at 184 pages it feels padded and it must be said that Caplan is not a good writer. He adopts the slightly folksy, informal style which most populist academics seem to like but his writing is dry, unstructured and far too repetitive. Caplan should have followed economist Steven Levitt (of `Freakonomics' fame) in signing up a real writer (like Stephen Dubner) to add the anecdotes and sparkle which keeps the reader glued to the page.
Caplan's previous book, `The Myth of the Rational Voter' was similarly overly-dry but that was targeted at his fellow economists and had a sizeable dragon to slay (the theory of Rational Ignorance). Here he's aiming at the general public: the arguments are fine but it could have been a far, far better book - the result is that it won't have the impact it deserves, something to bear in mind for the second, improved and expanded edition, Dr Caplan.
on October 5, 2011
I've always thought it might be fun to have a big family. My husband, not so much. But after reading this book, which appeals to logic instead of sentimentality, my husband is much more open to having three or four children. I won't go through Caplan's whole argument (which he very skillfully lays out), but here are a few points that stuck with me:
** Nature over nurture. Your kids, for the most part, are who they are, and very little that we as parents do will change that fundamentally. So forget all the angst about trying to be the perfect parent.
** But, while nature almost always wins over nurture, it is important to be a good parent because only good parents can provide a happy home for children (and parents!).
** When considering having more children, don't be shortsighted. Yes, it's hard to change diapers and lose sleep in your 20s and 30s. But don't forget to consider the joy and fulfillment your children will bring in your 50s and 60s (as they become adults and have their own children). Only a calculus that factors both in will be accurate.
Caplan's book is the perfect antidote to the zeitgeist obsessed with trying to be "perfect" parents in order to turn out "perfect" kids. As parents we should be kind, respectful, impose reasonable discipline, and try to enjoy our time with our children. If "enrichment" activities are fun for you and junior, great, but there's no point in increasing the stress of your household in a bid to put your child on the yuppie-approved "correct" path.
Like another reviewer, I think this may end up being one of the most influential books I've ever read, since it may result in us having one or two more children!