Andrew Ladd reviews two new books with very different messages about child rearing.
Dads, if you had a particularly nice Father’s Day this year and are feeling warm and fuzzy about your kids, maybe now is the time to consider having more. Oh, I know what you’re thinking—in this economy and/or political climate and/or global population crisis, it’s a bad idea to bring another person into the world. But according to Bryan Caplan, author of the recent book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think
(Basic Books, $24.99), you ought to stop worrying and just get on with it.
In fact, says Caplan, everyone should consider having more kids, even those who think they have enough, and even those who think they don’t want any. Once you’re older and wiser, you’ll see what a good idea it was. Kids just make everyone happier.
Actually, according to some studies, they make everyone unhappier, but with some rhetorical yoga Caplan manages to make those statistics look irrelevant. And that’s only in chapter one—for the rest of the book he methodically addresses all the other typical concerns people have about raising kids. Won’t they be expensive? (At first, he says, but in the long run you’ll see a clear return on your investment.) What about all the sleep and spare time they’ll take up? (By the time they’re teenagers you’ll wish they were taking up more.)
The largest chunk of Caplan’s time is spent addressing that perennial parental concern: “what if I raise my kids badly?” He says that’s a silly worry to have. In fact, citing a gazillion twin studies—social experiments that compare the life outcomes of identical twins, fraternal twins, and adopted siblings—he claims it’s more or less impossible to be a bad parent because, short-term happiness aside, genes determine your child’s future more than anything you’ll ever do. (That means it’s also impossible to be a good parent, which is precisely Caplan’s point. If you’re less concerned with being perfect you’re more likely to just enjoy having the little sprogs around.)
And if you’re still fretting—worried about your prospective kid getting hit by a car or abducted or murdered or addicted to drugs or whatever—Caplan has studies for you, too: turns out the chances of all that happening are smaller today than they ever have been, almost without exception. So take your wife to bed already!
The argument is, in an extremely limited sense, a valuable one. Middle-class American parents today do worry about their kids too much and do try too hard to engineer a successful adulthood from an early age. (Some Kumon early learning centers now enroll children as young as two.) So for all those pathologically proactive parents who fill their kids’ days with extra-curricular activities, send them to private tutoring, and generally try to leech all the fun out of childhood, Caplan’s sober reassurance that they can back off is undoubtedly a good thing.
But it’s important to realize that his argument is extremely limited and is, more importantly, extremely middle-class. All Caplan’s twin studies focus on relatively well-off families in the developed world, and for “poor inner-city kids” or “Haitian orphans,” even he freely admits that genes probably aren’t enough to ensure a happy, healthy, untraumatized life.
While it’s kind of galling, though, to read pages and pages about how genes determine all aspects of a child’s future only to have “unless you’re poor” tacked on as an afterthought, the bigger problem is that Caplan seems to think admitting his narrow focus exonerates him of any moral failings. It doesn’t.
That’s because the “selfishness” in the book’s title is less about indulging your own desire for a bigger family—as Caplan says it is—and more about pretending other people’s problems don’t matter. It’s downright chilling to see so many serious social ills lost beneath Caplan’s mechanical, never-changing mantra. Inner city violence? Let’s have more babies! Disease, war, and famine in the developing world? Throw out those condoms, honey! Global overpopulation and resource depletion? Procreate, procreate, procreate!
And OK, yes, you might be happier if you stick your head in the sand, ignore the world’s long-term structural crises, and keep on churning out the babies. But in that case you’d better be ready to selfishly ignore the problems you’ll be leaving your kids with, too. They’re going to have a bunch.
In a way, Caplan’s point about kids turning out okay no matter how they’re raised is spectacularly confirmed by Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption
(Crown, $24), the unconventional—and brilliant—recent memoir by John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks.
Prendergast, for a start, endures a childhood of constant upheaval and a father who is alternately absent and emotionally abusive, and he still goes on to a high-profile job in the Clinton administration. And Mattocks, a kid from the D.C. suburbs who, at seven years old, gains Prendergast as a lifelong “Big Brother,” faces all the stereotypical troubles of inner-city life—homelessness, an unstable family, drugs, violence—and still emerges happy, successful, and with a well-tuned sense of ethics.
At the same time, though, you have to wonder if their upbringings really had no effect. Mattocks still became a crack dealer for years before straightening himself out, and meanwhile suffered the violent, untimely loss of several friends and family members. As for Prendergast, it’s obvious, through his matter-of-fact but deeply moving prose, that he was left psychologically and emotionally transformed by his father even if they ultimately reconciled.
Case in point is Prendergast’s charity work: all he does with his life, from Mattocks to Washington to poverty-stricken Africa, is try to help others. Throughout, however, it seems as if he’s doing so to fill the emotional void left by his father. Ultimately that selfish need to prove himself a better man—a need just as selfish as Caplan’s desire to have more kids—is what drives him to do such good in the world.
Of course, some might argue that charity driven by self-interest isn’t really charity, and that Prendergast’s good deeds are cheapened somehow if they’re not motivated entirely by altruism. But if the end result is less suffering in the world I’m not going to quibble with the means. Indeed, if there’s a message to be taken from Unlikely Brothers it’s that we need fewer selfish reasons to have more kids, today—and more selfish reasons to look after other people’s.
—Photo Seller Patton/Flickr