Excerpt from the Introduction
During my lifetime, the American family has drastically downsized. Women in their forties are about twice as likely to have one child – or none – as they were thirty years ago. Big families have all but disappeared. In 1976, 20 percent of women in their early forties had five or more kids; by 2006, less than 4 percent did.
If you ask people to explain why we don’t have as many kids as we used to, the answers are all over the place. “People can’t afford big families anymore.” “Women have real careers now.” “We don’t need kids to help out with farm work.” “Women want to live like men.” “Americans have lost faith in God.” In Athens, the Greeks blame air pollution.
If you make the question personal, however, the answers are very much alike. When asked,“Why don’t you have as many kids as we used to?,” both men and women respond with groans. As best as I can tell, the English translation of these groans is “Kids are a lot of work,” or maybe “Imagine all the dirty diapers and sleepless nights!,” or perhaps “Are you trying to kill me?”
To be brutally honest, we’re reluctant to have more children because we think that the pain outweighs the gain. When people compare the grief that another child would give them to the joy that the child would bring, they conclude, “It’s just not worth it.” As Bill Cosby puts it, “The reason we have five children is because we do not want six.”
You could easily call this a very selfish outlook. How can you focus exclusively on whether another child would make you happier? What about the child? Unless your baby is truly unlucky, he will almost certainly be happy to be alive. Aren’t you? This is your child we’re talking about. If you have to make yourself a little less happy in order to give a son or daughter the gift of life, shouldn’t you?
The question is serious, but I’m going to dodge it. While I accept the natalist view that more births should be encouraged because they make the world a better place, asking others to sacrifice their happiness for the good of the world seems futile. Preaching against selfishness is usually about as productive as nagging a brick wall. When people weigh the costs and benefits of having another child, I’m not going to call them sinners for using a scale.
The claim of this book, rather, is that current and prospective parents have accidentally tipped their scales against fertility. We may feel sure that the pursuit of happiness and kids (or at least more kids) are incompatible, but it is the average person’s enlightened self-interest to have more kids. That’s right – people are not having enough children for their own good. Prospective parents need to take another look before they decide not to leap. Current parents need to take another look before they decide not to leap again.
My theory is not one-size-fits-all. The claim is not that everyone should have lots of kids, but that the average person should have more kids. More than what? More than they were otherwise planning to have. If you live in a tiny urban apartment and love fancy foreign vacations, this might mean one kid instead of zero. If you live in a suburban McMansion and love theme parks, this might mean five kids instead of three. I’m here to provide information,not run your life.
There are many selfish reasons to have more kids, but there are four big reasons to put on the table right away:
First, parents can sharply improve their lives without hurting their kids. Nature, not nurture, explains most family resemblance, so parents can safely cut themselves a lot of additional slack.
Second, parents are much more worried than they ought to be. Despite the horror stories in the media, kids today are much safer today than they were in the “idyllic” 1950s.
Third, many of the benefits of children come later in life. Kids have high start-up costs, but wise parents weigh their initial sleep deprivation against a lifetime of rewards – including future grandchildren.
Last, self-interest and altruism point in the same direction. Parents who have another child make the world a better place, so you can walk the path of enlightened selfishness with a clear conscience.