Some thoughts on having children

Dis­claimer: I am not a par­ent.

I’ve seen a bit of dis­cus­sion here on whether or not to have chil­dren. Most of the dis­cus­sion that I have seen are about the moral case, but there are fac­tors as well. I’d like to talk about three as­pects of par­ent­ing that I sus­pect are the main rea­sons why peo­ple choose to have kids or not: the fi­nan­cial case, the moral case, and the prac­ti­cal case (for lack of a bet­ter term). The fi­nan­cial case is straight­for­ward—how ex­pen­sive is rais­ing kids? The moral case has to do with the best use of re­sources: is it bet­ter to di­vert re­sources away from hav­ing kids to­wards char­ity? The prac­ti­cal case has to do with the ac­tual pro­cess of be­ing a par­ent—the effort it takes and the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The Prac­ti­cal Case

I sus­pect that the main rea­son for why peo­ple don’t have kids is be­cause they think that kids are a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity be­cause:

1) It takes a lot of work and effort to raise chil­dren—effort that could be spent on other ac­tivi­ties.

2) Great par­ent­ing is ex­tremely im­por­tant for rais­ing well ad­justed, in­tel­li­gent kids that will grow up to be suc­cess­ful and lik­able adults.

Re­gard­ing 1) yes kids do take a lot of time and effort, but that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing—lots of things that are re­ward­ing re­quire a lot of effort, such as learn­ing a lan­guage or a new skill. I don’t know what its like to a par­ent so I won’t say much more on this topic.

Re­gard­ing 2) it is ac­tu­ally far from a set­tled ques­tion whether par­ent­ing style sig­nifi­cantly af­fects the kind of per­son that your child will grow up to be. There has been some dis­cus­sion here on the effects of par­ent­ing on chil­dren. The ten­ta­tive con­sen­sus seems to be that within the range of nor­mal par­ent­ing, par­ent­ing style has only small im­pact life out­comes per­tain­ing to hap­piness, per­son­al­ity, ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment. That doesn’t mean that how you treat your child doesn’t mat­ter. Steven Pinker puts it quite nicely:

Ju­dith Rich Har­ris is com­ing out with a book called The Nur­ture As­sump­tion which ar­gues that par­ents don’t in­fluence the long-term fates of their chil­dren; peers do. The re­ac­tion she of­ten gets is, “So are you say­ing it doesn’t mat­ter how I treat my child?” She points out that this is like some­one learn­ing that you can’t change the per­son­al­ity of your spouse and ask­ing, “So are you say­ing that it doesn’t mat­ter how you treat my spouse?” Peo­ple seem to think that the only rea­son to be nice to chil­dren is that it will mold their char­ac­ter as adults in the fu­ture — as op­posed to the com­mon-sense idea that you should be nice to peo­ple be­cause it makes life bet­ter for them in the pre­sent. Child rear­ing has be­come a tech­nolog­i­cal mat­ter of which prac­tices grow the best chil­dren, as op­posed to a hu­man re­la­tion­ship in which the hap­piness of the child (dur­ing child­hood) is de­ter­mined by how the child is treated. She has a won­der­ful quote: “We may not con­trol our chil­dren’s to­mor­rows, but we surely con­trol their to­days, and we have the ca­pac­ity to make them very, very mis­er­able.”

The mes­sage I would take away is not to worry too much about cre­at­ing an op­ti­mal child. Don’t worry about find­ing the op­ti­mal set of ex­tra-cur­ricu­lar ac­tivi­ties or the perfect bal­ance of au­thor­i­tar­i­anism and per­mis­sive­ness. In­stead, try to cul­ti­vate a healthy re­la­tion­ship with your child and most of all en­joy the par­ent­ing pro­cess.

The Fi­nan­cial Case

In agar­ian so­cieties (and most so­cieties quite frankly) chil­dren were/​are cheap, in some cases free la­bor and a life in­surance policy for when you re­tire. But in the post-in­dus­trial Western world that is no longer the case. For a mid­dle-up­per class fam­ily, hav­ing a child is a very large cost for two rea­sons: the first is that chil­dren cost a lot of money to raise. The sec­ond rea­son is that hav­ing a child might hold you back from ad­vanc­ing your ca­reer as much as you would have been able to do oth­er­wise. I will fo­cus on the first prob­lem here. Ac­cord­ing to the United States de­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the av­er­age cost of rais­ing a child to age 18 was about $241,080 (in 2012 dol­lars). This doesn’t count the cost of col­lege which can ex­ceed $250,000 at elite in­sti­tu­tions. I’ll as­sume the $250,000 figure for the pur­poses of the fol­low­ing calcu­la­tions.

As­sum­ing that you are able to in­vest your money at a mod­est 5% rate of re­turn, this amounts to hav­ing to put aside $8887 each year from your child’s birth for col­lege only, and ap­prox­i­mately $13,000 (2012 dol­lars) per year on other ex­penses such as hous­ing and food. That $13,000 per year figure does not ac­count for in­fla­tion and in re­al­ity that figure would grow each year but this is just to provide a rough ball-park figure. This figure goes up if you have more than one child but the per child cost goes down.

This brings up the is­sue of whether or not you “owe” your child an all ex­penses paid col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. I wouldn’t rule out only pay­ing par­tially for your child’s col­lege ed­u­ca­tion es­pe­cially since this calcu­la­tion as­sumes only one child. I would be in­ter­ested to hear more thoughts on this mat­ter.

The Mo­ral Case

Some effec­tive al­tru­ists have ad­vanced the idea that hav­ing chil­dren is im­moral be­cause the money spent on hav­ing kids would be bet­ter spent by donat­ing it to char­ity. This as­sumes util­i­tar­i­anism, and in­deed if GiveWell recom­mended char­i­ties were perfect or even pretty good util max­i­miz­ers then this ar­gu­ment would suc­ceed, since by de­sign what­ever they did would be the best use of money un­der util­i­tar­i­anism. How­ever, I do not be­lieve that this is the case. GiveWell recom­mended char­i­ties that fo­cus al­most ex­clu­sively on pub­lic health ini­ti­a­tives, and ex­clu­sively fo­cus on pro­vid­ing aid to the poor­est coun­tries. While a sim­ple diminish­ing marginal re­turns ar­gu­ment might sug­gest that this is the low­est hang­ing fruit and hence the best use of money there are other things that need to be con­sid­ered.

As Ap­pren­tice points out the her­i­ta­bil­ity of proso­cial be­hav­iors such as co­op­er­a­tive­ness, em­pa­thy and al­tru­ism is 0.5, and I think most peo­ple here are aware that IQ has a her­i­ta­bil­ity around that num­ber as well and is a pretty good pre­dic­tor of life out­comes. If you want to in­crease the num­ber of peo­ple in the world that are like your­self, then hav­ing chil­dren is a great way of do­ing so. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant since high IQ col­lege ed­u­cated in­di­vi­d­u­als in Western coun­tries have fer­til­ity rates that are be­low re­place­ment lev­els and are some of the low­est in the world.

Rachels an­ti­ci­pates this ar­gu­ment by point­ing out than one child is un­likely to pro­duce the same re­turns as an in­vest­ment in char­ity. I be­lieve this is a mis­take be­cause it is short sighted. If you stop the util­i­tar­ian anal­y­sis at one gen­er­a­tion into the fu­ture then yes hav­ing a smart al­tru­is­tic child will not give the same re­turns as sav­ing lives through char­ity, how­ever con­se­quen­tial­ism need not be short sighted. If you have more than one child, and/​or if your chil­dren have chil­dren then the re­turns get mag­nified sig­nifi­cantly—and it is worth not­ing that in­tel­li­gent peo­ple con­tribute a lot to so­ciety not just through char­ity but through their work as well. More­over, the peo­ple you would save by donat­ing to char­ity would also have chil­dren and those chil­dren would have chil­dren all of whom might re­quire yet more aid in the fu­ture. Thus the short term gains in QALYs that giv­ing to GiveWell recom­mended char­i­ties pro­vides lead to a long term drain of re­sources and hu­man cap­i­tal. And as I have already men­tioned, in­tel­li­gent peo­ple already have the low­est fer­til­ity in so­ciety, I’d rather not see it go even lower.

Jeff Kauf­man pro­vides two coun­ter­ar­gu­ments that caught my eye: that this is an ar­gu­ment for sperm dona­tion rather than hav­ing chil­dren; and that ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing will solve the dys­genic fer­til­ity prob­lem. How­ever, sperm banks are already eu­genic (in a sense) and it is fairly easy to sat­u­rate the sup­ply of high qual­ity sperm. Sperm dona­tion is good idea for highly in­tel­li­gent in­di­vi­d­u­als (and to my sur­prise there are ac­tu­ally sperm donor short­ages in some parts of the world mak­ing it an even bet­ter idea), but it is not a sub­sti­tute for hav­ing chil­dren—the bot­tle­neck quickly be­comes the de­mand for said sperm. This is cer­tainly a po­ten­tial area worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing as a light form of eu­gen­ics, but I don’t know of any­one who’s try­ing to mar­ket eu­genic sperm dona­tion right now. With re­gard to ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing, I have se­ri­ous doubts that the field will de­velop to the point of com­mer­cial­iza­tion in the next hun­dred years, and I have even stronger doubts that it will be widely ac­cepted and used. While I re­al­ize that pre­dic­tion of the fu­ture is very difficult, I would be very sur­prised if in a hun­dred years the av­er­age Joe will think about hav­ing ge­net­i­cally en­g­ineered chil­dren. Any men­tion of eu­gen­ics already in­vokes fear in the hearts of most peo­ple, and its pretty hard to deny that ge­net­i­cally en­g­ineer­ing ba­bies is the scariest kind of eu­gen­ics. Hu­man ge­netic en­g­ineer­ing might well solve the dys­genic prob­lem, but I wouldn’t bet strongly on that hap­pen­ing any time soon, whereas hav­ing chil­dren is an al­most guaran­teed way of helping to solve the prob­lem.