Why don’t more people have more children?

by Harry on May 31, 2006

I used to have a friend who was a very energetic adulterer. We never talked about it much, because I was too repressed to ask, but it seemed to me that he and his many partners, all of whom he met in ordinary social situations, were giving out signals that could only be detected by one another (ok, I have lots of stories that would reveal that my own social antennae are, well, deeply defective, but in my defence no-one else seemed to notice either).

I sometimes think that in a low-fertility society like ours something rather similar is going on among people who have children. Now, I should declare that I never doubted that I’d want children (only, for a very long time, that anyone would want to have them with me). But even I, away from children for most of my late-teens to late-twenties, as most childless adults are in these low-fertility times, was much more vividly aware of the downside of having children than of the upside. As Laura says:

Last week, we briefly talked about why people, especially Europeans, aren’t making babies like they used to. I’ve got a new theory. Childless people are having too much fun. They are congregating in urban areas and when they outgrow body shots and apple core bongs, they move on to nice restaurants, museums, and last minute trips to Anguila. The breeders get stuck going on the DisneyLand cruise and posing for pictures with Goofy. And why are the Europeans having even less kids than the US? Ibiza.

Kids really are fantastic, but you don’t really know it until you have one of your own. When you take the love for your kids out of the equation, all you have is a comparison between fun and no fun. And without the social pressure to procreate, many people choose no kids.

The upside isn’t just the love; there’s also the challenge of directing another person’s life for their rather than your own benefit and so that eventually they will be able to direct their own; the pleasure of their company; the joy of sharing aspects of yourself and of discovering aspects of them that are so unlike yourself; watching them grow…etc. But none of this is visible unless you are intimate with other families with children, something that few of us are in that in-between phase of life after leaving our childhood but before entering parenthood. In a society with higher fertility rates, by contrast, children would be unavoidable, and so would their parents, so the upside would be more visible to all. The downside — loss of the ability to do pretty much what you want when you want — is obvious. whatever the social arrangements. Of course, I have to admit that I’m nothing like Laura:

last night I wanted the kind of fun that involves staying up all night, smoking a pack of cigarettes without guilt, and doing body shots in a Mexican restaurant on West 3rd Street.

Yeah, yeah. You can’t maintain your party-hardy, couch slacking ways for long. I mean nobody wants to see a forty year old woman licking salt off a guy’s neck and coughing up big phlegm balls from the smokes.

I’ve never wanted, or had, that kind of fun, which may explain a great deal. In fact, and here’s the most shocking thing I tell my students in most of my classes…

I’ve never been drunk.

I discovered how shocking it was to say this by accident; I commented to a student that he looked really rough:

“Yeah, well, I’m really hungover, you know how it is”
“No, I don’t actually”
“You know, hungover, like you are after you’ve been really drunk” (suspecting, perhaps, that this is one of those disagreements between American English and English English)
“No, I don’t know. I’ve never been drunk”.

The whole class stared at me as if I had just told them that I was an unreconstructed Stalinist and eat babies. No, as if I’d told them something more bizarre than that. So now I always find an opportunity to tell my smaller classes, just so that they get to know that it is possible to get through life that way, and even have a laugh once in a while.

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Carlos 05.31.06 at 2:45 pm

No wonder you’re homesick.


David Weman 05.31.06 at 2:49 pm

Me neither, Harry.


harry b 05.31.06 at 2:52 pm

Wow. Anyone else want to confess? (You’re disqualified if you have religious reasons, btw).

Extra points if you’ve never been drunk and you’re an unreconstructed stalinist.


hitch 05.31.06 at 2:53 pm

I’ve never been sober.


todd. 05.31.06 at 2:53 pm

I am a tremendous stick in the mud, as twenty-somethings go, and whenever I find someone older than 25 who’s never been drunk I’m thoroughly impressed by something about them. The specific “something” alternates between “fortitude” and “lack of curiosity,” depending on the mood.

I used to brag about never having been hung over, though. Then, the night after the 2004 election, some friends and I poured a very large bottle of very cheap vodka into the remains of our deflated hopes.


KCinDC 05.31.06 at 2:56 pm

What counts as drunk?


harry b 05.31.06 at 3:01 pm

todd — I’m curiously incurious. But I’ve seen enough drunkenness to have a pretty good sense of what its like, so I don’t think it is lack of curiosity in this case. But its also not fortitude –I have that in spades too (though its rarely tested) but I’ve never thought it was connected to the dunkenlessness.


harry b 05.31.06 at 3:03 pm


I don’t know. Good question. I have drunk (and do drink) small amounts of alcohol very infrequently, so it is not pure teetotalism (I was pretty much teetotal well into my thirties).


"Q" the Enchanter 05.31.06 at 3:07 pm

Baby eating is far more common than perpetual sobriety, so the comparison is inapposite.


Wickedpinto 05.31.06 at 3:08 pm

It’s a good thing for you. It says less about your rejection of booze, and more about the fact that you are able to more directly cope with problems than sinking into a stupor, at least for people who get drunk in adult years.

In youth it could be written off as peer pressure and curiosity, but to carry on the occasion regularly into the thirties is generaly an expression of situational misery.


toadman 05.31.06 at 3:14 pm

As a man who has been drunk in the past, and is now a “breeder,” I have to say that having children is a mixed blessing. Not because I can’t get drunk anymore, I could if I wanted to…it’s not like that. I don’t get drunk anymore anyway, but that’s neither here nor their (I used to be a college student also, and am, indeed, a post-bac at the moment, but again, that’s neither here nor there either). What?

Sorry, that was just silly.

Anyway, I love my children, but they change lifestyles (or should, in my opinion). Many people don’t want to change their lives. Many people don’t want to feel trapped. This is admirable and perfectly acceptable, I think. If people don’t want to have children for these reasons, they are, then, good candidates for being childless. The decision to have children should never be taken lightly (also, in my opinion). One does not decide to have children the same way one decides to have a Cocker Spaniel (at least they shouldn’t – again, my opinion). Children are people. This is someone’s life you’re screwing with, in other words. Be careful.

Still, I have no problem with people deciding not to have children, so long as they don’t look down on me for deciding to have children. People are different, as we all know.

Whoa…that was disjointed. Sorry.

Good Afternoon Everyone!


Seth Gordon 05.31.06 at 3:21 pm

I make enough of a fool out of myself when I’m sober. I really don’t want to find out what I would do if I became intoxicated.


Jor 05.31.06 at 3:32 pm

Do kids really make people happy? At least in Gilbert’s book, he seems to make the point that preliminary studies suggest watching TV is more entertaining than watching over children. Taking care of kids is not fun. Although, it probably still is fulfilling, and there are an awful lot of people (esp women) who regret not having kids.


todd. 05.31.06 at 3:35 pm

That’s interesting, Harry. Going into college, I considered adopting a policy of never drinking (my patrilineal line has a history…), but alcohol is such a part of society that I figured there had to be something more to it than looking silly, which made me curious, and I have never had the fortitude to withstand my own curiosity.


ingrid 05.31.06 at 3:37 pm

I’ve never been drunk either, but think that after 1 pregnancy and several months of breastfeeding (without hardly any alcohol) I could get drunk right now from only one glass of wine! Taking about efficiency indeed.

Anyway, this drunkness issue is not very interesting — the question why people don’t get or don’t want babies much more interesting — but since my little one is going to wake me up for a night feed in a couple of hours, I’d better go to bed now
But quickly: I don’t think that “ibiza” explains why Europeans have such low fertility rates — I think the within-Europe explanation has lots to do with facilities to combine parenthood with paid work, and with gender relations. I thought that the US had higher fertility rates than the EU – and if that were the case, then my first rough guess is that this can be traced down to religion. Hopefully someone has better-informed guesses !


abb1 05.31.06 at 3:38 pm

Apparently Yuri Andropov was a (mild) Stalinist and anti-alcohol crusader.


Sutton 05.31.06 at 3:40 pm

“Cope with problems”? So, when I knock back enough champagne to feel it on New Year’s Eve, that’s because I’d rather not be “dealing with [my] problems”? I liked how Harry avoided making any value judgments about his “accomplishment” (although I don’t know how I’d feel about having my children taught by someone like him, and by that I mean, yes, incurious — sorry to be blunt, Harry), but I think wickedpinto is taking this a little too far…

But perhaps wickedpinto has more than his or her share of problems. To each his or her own…


Martin 05.31.06 at 3:43 pm

Your post invites the question: To what extent is child-bearing a result of getting drunk?

(And I bet actual data are available if one looked.)

(At least for short term effects-I don’t know about effects of drunkeness on marriage rates and stuff.)


Harry 05.31.06 at 3:46 pm

That’s ok sutton. A completely different topic; I want my kids to be taught by a variety of kinds of people, including the incurious (well, not in my case, since they get plenty of exposure to an incurious person). I meant, btw, incurious about such things as other people’s private lives, what experiences like drunkenes s feel like, etc — I’m intellectually curious, of course!


Ted 05.31.06 at 3:50 pm

The thing that shocks my students more than anything else I can (honestly) tell them is that between my mid twenties and early thirties I didn’t have a television in my home….

As an impending parent, I’m hoping this topic shifts away from drinking and over to parenting. I can say that I was very conscious of the fact that for me the costs of parenting are very real while the benefits have to be imagined. I hope it turns out to be worth it!


Martin 05.31.06 at 3:51 pm

At the risk of overstepping bounds of privacy, I must note that your post also invites the question (relevant to the evaluation of your level of weirdness or priggishness or healthy psychological groundedness or whatever it is that is revealed by your revelation): Have you sought the (rough) equivalent of drunkenness by other means?


Kelly 05.31.06 at 3:52 pm

But none of this is visible unless you are intimate with other families with children, something that few of us are in that in-between phase of life after leaving our childhood but before entering parenthood.
Yeah, but there are those of us who’ve hit our 30s, have friends with kids, enjoy playing with the kids, and are very happy to return them at the end of the day. ;)

Just sayin that I don’t think it’s only that there’s no exposure, since in my experience, as the single and childless person, I’m the odd woman out just about everywhere.

So far as drinking goes, I’ve never had a hangover (so as far as a lot of people are concerned, I’ve never been good and drunk). The thing that raises eyebrows around here is hearing I’ve never experimented with illicit substances. They just blink when I quote that “rhetoric is a more than sufficient tool for inducing extraordinary states of mind.”




ingrid 05.31.06 at 4:00 pm

There was a television program in the Netherlands some months ago where they asked women with university degrees whether they were planning to have kids. A very large percentage said they didn’t want to have kids because they tought that having kids cannot be combined with having a demanding career. Since in this country the dominant cultural values are that you should not put your child in child care for more than three days a week, this implies that if these women don’t have partners who are willing to share the care work equally (most men aren’t), then they can’t continue their intersting jobs. Faced with two options – one being primarily a mother without an intersting job at their level, and the other having this interesting job wihtout kids, many choose for the second.

If the social institutions/welfare state refrom doesn’t solve this dilemma, then fertility will remain low among people who are not very strongly religious.


Stacy 05.31.06 at 4:01 pm

I got drunk for the first time when I was 20, which was pretty old considering the people I went to high school and college with. Since then it has been something of an annual occurrence, but I didn’t have a hangover afterward until I was 24.

Now that I’m 27, I hope I’m past the making-up-for-lost-time stage, and find it a lot more pleasant if I stop right at that point where I’ve almost had enough and anymore would be unwise.


Philip Brooks 05.31.06 at 4:04 pm

I don’t know if I could say I’ve never been drunk. I’ve had enough alcohol that I noticed my reactions were slowed, but I’ve never had so much that, say, I had trouble standing, couldn’t stop hiccupping, or suffered memory loss or a hangover. Neither do I indulge in any other recreational drugs like nicotine or marijuana.

Nevertheless, I intend to remain childless the rest of my life, and I think if I were to have children I would be a much less happy person. You don’t have to look to the binge drinkers to find young adults who don’t want children. There are at least a few us among the more reflective hedonists, as well.


tps12 05.31.06 at 4:04 pm

God could I use a baby right now. Take the edge off.


a different chris 05.31.06 at 4:08 pm

Kids? Ah.

newborn- blah. Battle with the wife for Oscar, category “Best pretense of sleep so spouse has to deal with crying”.

pre-speech- a pain in the butt. Cry cry cry. Gross food byproducts barfed everywhere all the time.

learning to speak- a wonderful, fascinating stage because not only do they start to communicate with you, but you learn how much listening and comprehending they were doing before they could express themselves.

learning and unlearning to swear- the downside of above. A little funny until it happens in front of non-relatives.

Speaking well- exciting when it starts, not so fun when you learn that “your child” doesn’t think of itself as an appendage like “your arm” as you were believing, but instead has little annoying opinions of his/her own about what we should be watching on TV, where we should eat: McDonalds!! and endless unanswerable questions.

Between learning to talk and adolescence: Opinions are even more sure and more annoying, like what kind of car we should own (new and expensive), where we should go on vacation (far and expensive), and other stuff along the lines of “when am I going to get that swingset you promised me for my 5th birthday” which you don’t remember anything about. Fortunately the endless unanswerable questions have suddenly stopped, as they have concluded you are simply an idiot with a wallet.

Early to mid-adolescence: Sometimes moody but quite often chatty, funny, engaging, and amazingly quick to learn things, both sports and books. Quite a help with “fun” things like working on the car, the house, etc. Not so thrilled with repetitive tasks, but who is. Unfortunately this chatty, funny engaging clever person is quite naturally gravitating to spend his/her spending time with other equally chatty, etc. instead of Dad who can’t help being old and boring. Damn.

And that’s all I know. Next week: learner’s permit. Which brings me all the way around to the other subject in the post:

I’m going to get rip-roaring drunk. I don’t have to explain why to anybody with a teenager driver.


minerva 05.31.06 at 4:24 pm

I came from a family with many children–there are many children in my immediate and extended family. But there is also poverty in my immediate and extended family. I loved my siblings and cousins but I didn’t see any way to have lots of children and keep my parents’ hard-fought battle to move up the ranks of society.

My (very) speculative idea is that it has less to do with our inability to imagine the pleasure of children and more to do with the higher personal cost of having a child. The cost paid by the individual–the social, the professional, the economic and other costs–over time have increased for each child at the same time that women have become less able to bear the costs to them. The dismantling of the welfare state and the loss of industries one could build a life on only contribute to this but there’s more to it I’m sure. Having lots of children is more than most people are willing to bear if they want to maintain their class status or if they want their children to share it. If they want to be upwardly mobile, having children carries even more risk than just maintaining. (I’m not sure how much downward mobility there is. But it might not matter, since all that people need is the perception that downward mobility is a danger. And everyone has that.) Middle and upper middle class people now need more people than ever to work except the educational demands have gotten longer and longer. (We could solve this problem if we could figure out a way to put the kids to work early, like at 12! Maybe as test marketers or as web designers.)

And there’s the price you pay as a woman. I’ve found that the time issue is offset by my husband’s involvement. But there’s little I can do about people’s perceptions. All my friends went into motherhood a bit terrified of what it would do to them professionally. I know many women who lost out on jobs, etc. because they are mothers. One graduate student friend told me that the graduate students involved in a hire explicitly decided not to vote for the mother since they worried she would be distracted and so less helpful to them! I think I cried a little bit after she told me that. It’s so untrue in my own case.

This isn’t to say that you aren’t right that there are some issues of the experiences we in the U.S. seem to value. People in less industrialized countries appear to enjoy children much more than here, both their own and others. That’s probably an absurd stereotype but there’s some truth in it.

My fears about my income and my career, etc. and the negative cost of a child seemed very reasonable until I actually had one. And then I felt duped. What hadn’t been conveyed to me was that it would be so wonderful, it would be worth the cost. It seemed sad, first that the choice had been surrounded by little else but fear and second, that I hadn’t done it sooner. I hope it’s not too late to have more but I literally can’t afford it. How absurd is it that unless one is somewhat wealthy, having more than two children is deemed irresponsible? Moreover, people will doubt my commitment to my career. And yes, it is quite likely we will be less well-off, maybe a lot less well-off than we would have been otherwise. Still, I’d now give up a lot to have a larger family and I’m currently trying to balance this against what’s best for the kid I have.


elLoco 05.31.06 at 4:28 pm

I must admit I haven’t been drunk either… at least since Saturday (or so I seem to remember). By the way, I like how these topics are related in someway that many have not yet touched upon: drunkeness facilitates occasions for making babies (sure… probably unwanted babies, but babies nevertheless).

Ok, now to the question. How do fertility rates correlate with “marriage” (reasonably broadly defined) rates in Europe and in the US? In other words to what degree are people making less babies because they remain single (for longer periods of time) vis-a-vis because couples are choosing to have less babies?


marcel 05.31.06 at 4:43 pm

My second (& last) child just finished her first year at college, so mhy wife and I qualify as empty nesters. God, do I miss those years of child raising. The first 2 years were not hard, we were in grad school then. The next few, after we no longer outnumbered them, were difficult, especially the first two, but for us, this period lasted unusually long due to several unsuccessful attempts to have more, during each of which my wife was quite ill.

Until my son turned 14, (lasting for 18 months) and again a rough period of about a year when he hit 17, it was wonderful. Raising my kids was the most emotionally intense and enjoyable and fulfilling and satisfying experience that I have ever had, and I don’t expect anything will ever come close.

I don’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t think it is for them. But it sure was for me and my wife. I may be unusual – years later, college girl friends and former roommates told me that I used to talk about having children in the future, something that is/was apparently uncommon among young men in their late teens and early twenties, at least in my circles.


Maynard Handley 05.31.06 at 4:54 pm

Hmm we have this post immediately before a post lamenting global warming.

There is a real problem in the world — too many people leading to too much stress on the physical environment.
There is also a pseudoproblem in the western world — changing demography means that the future will be different from the past in some respects.
Both of these appear to get about equal coverage, both in the mainstream media and even on blogs that should know better.

This is basically why we are all fscked — and why I don’t have and won’t have children. People are too damn stupid to tell the difference between something that actually matters in the grand scheme of things and something that doesn’t matter in the slightest.
So Europe will have half the people it currently has now in fifty years, and will have a mean age of 40 — so freaking what? How is this a problem? There’s be more parks, more parking spaces, people can have larger houses, life will generally be better for everyone. Yet we have a certain class of Europeans running around crying it’s the end of the world, as though their penis size was directly linked to the population of Europe, and a certain class of Americans (including people who don’t appear to be idiots at first sight, like Tom Wolfe) eagerly pontificating how this will lead to the demise/collapse/end of Europe so that America can take it’s rightful place as super-ultra-hyper-hegemon.


Maynard Handley 05.31.06 at 5:01 pm

Ok, now to the question. How do fertility rates correlate with “marriage” (reasonably broadly defined) rates in Europe and in the US? In other words to what degree are people making less babies because they remain single (for longer periods of time) vis-a-vis because couples are choosing to have less babies?

There is a claim that the relevant variable is not marriage (sorry religious nuts) but how well society implicitly (as opposed to legally) treates women. Societies that give women legal choices but retain a culture that treats them badly (Spain, Italy, Japan) have women rebel/cope by avoiding children as much as possible.
I’m not in a position to evaluate this claim, and I am sure that other variables (eg how many people are packed into each small space, leading to a generation of people saying “as god is my witness, I’ll never have less than 600sq feet again”), that aren’t as sexy to those who want to rebuild society according to their particular morality, play an important role.


stalinwantsmybaby 05.31.06 at 5:01 pm

Making babies is for proles. The state has better uses for everyone else.


JR 05.31.06 at 5:07 pm

Harry, how can you be a proper Englishman and never get drunk? I work with English clients and my greatest difficulty in dealing with them on a personal level is that I can’t keep up with the drinking. Socialising means a few rounds at a pub and then off to dinner with a half-bottle of wine per person. Then fall into a cab and meetings next morning. (Some of the younger ones will head out to an after-hours club for a couple of fancy drinks first). I can’t manage it but they seem to do it twice a week. I’m too far in age from American college students to know what they’re like but English business people can drink their American counterparts under the table.


JR 05.31.06 at 5:11 pm

Marcel- on the hard part after 14: I suspect that as an evolutionary matter children evolved to leave their parents after 6 to 8 years- then would run in a pack with other children under the supervision of adults until about 14. Keeping them in the nuclear family up to 14 isn’t so bad, but after that, the instinctual desire for independence on the one hand, and the rapid fall-off of the parenting instinct on the other, makes life in the close quarters of the ordinary family very tough.


radek 05.31.06 at 5:14 pm

UR a []

Just kidding. And as far as people who want kids detecting other people who want kids, I believe there was something in the Economist on it recently.


mijnheer 05.31.06 at 5:21 pm

“…there are those of us who’ve hit our 30s, have friends with kids, enjoy playing with the kids, and are very happy to return them at the end of the day.”

Being with other people’s children isn’t the same at all. Not even close. People who are childless have (and can have) very little idea of the joys and woes of being a parent. But if you’re not sure whether you are willing to risk the experience: don’t. Becoming a parent means opening a door and crossing a threshold into another universe, one from which you can never return. That’s all anyone can tell the childless person: it’s another universe, and there’s no going back. The rest, you can only discover by stepping across the threshold.


Scott Martens 05.31.06 at 5:23 pm

I’ve never done coke. Does that count for anything?

I’ve been drunk. I’ve been so drunk that there are two bars in Canada I’m banned from for chucking all over them. I once got tanked at a company party and… no, I’m not going there. Let’s just say I’m not a pleasant drunk.

If there is any fun in being drunk, I managed to miss it. I discovered early on that whatever charms I have with women all involve coherent speech. That took most of the fun out of being drunk right there.

But I can tell you that fat, ugly middle aged Europeans in Ibiza are not any more attractive than “a forty year old woman licking salt off a guy’s neck and coughing up big phlegm balls from the smokes”.

Now, as for child raising: I doubt very strongly that these fun-loving middle-aged childless folks are having that much fun. There’s this sense that hits, somewhere in the early 30s in my case, that you’re just done with that stuff, and it’s time to have kids and move on. It starts to feel pretty pathetic to keep trying. Considering all the kids I saw the last time I took one of those quickie vacation to somewhere warm, I don’t think Ibiza is really something folks give up with kids these days.

But you might be onto something indirectly. Having children is a huge economic liability for someone young and starting their career. Later on, if you’re a professional anyway, it’s not such a big liability. You’re already skilled. Your employment may well be secure enough that children won’t interfere with it. Yeah, maybe having a kid will keep you from ever being a Senior VP, but how likely was that anyway? You can still afford to take the rugrats to Morocco for some sun, and nowadays the hotels hire professionals to play with your kids while you get sloshed at the beach bar. I know, I see ads for them at the unemployment office.

But how many kids are you really going to want later on? How much will greater age diminish your fertility? Clearly, the mean age of childbearing has risen both for men and women. It strikes me as a more likely explanation.


Matt 05.31.06 at 5:27 pm

To my mind Seneca had the best view on this sort of thing (drunkenness, not kids). In one of his letters he says (I paraphrase) that one should do everything in moderation, including over-indulgence. That seems the most reasonable by far to me.


Dan K 05.31.06 at 5:48 pm

We have few kids in the West because we can. Personally, I don’t think there is one over-arching reason for this. It is rather a set of reasons that plays out towards lowering fertility rates: birth control, gender equality, the welfare state, proper health care, careerism, to name but a few. I don’t have kids myself due to lack of great desire to have kids, demanding career, lack of partner pressure, and, perhaps most important, the gift of reliable birth control. I can’t really see the downside of low birth rates. Kids are wanted, loved and properly cared for. The sustainability of Western lifestyles is more likely if world population decrease. The wealth per capita goes up with lower birthrate, all other things equal. And nobody forces you to not have kids, at least not outside China. What’s not to like?


relev 05.31.06 at 6:01 pm

I think I understand the part about never having been drunk (I was last drunk when I was 16, which is now nearly 30 years ago; I have never smoked pot or cigarettes, or done any illegal drug).

I think I understand the part about how the joys of child-rearing are not always clear to people who are stuck in the partying life-style. (Though I have always wanted kids, and my wife and I agreed that we both wanted to have kids pretty much on our first date. Then we waited to actually *have* them another ten years till we were out of college and grad school).

I think I get all that. But for the *life* of me I still cannot figure out why you decided to preface all of that with an anecdote about some pathetic friend of yours who sleeps around a lot.

What is the connection supposed to be? Sleeping around with unhappy married losers is really great fun, only you don’t know until you’ve tried it? Unhappy married losers send signals to people who are willing to sleep with anything, and not-yet born children send signals to people who might have them some day?



Brett Bellmore 05.31.06 at 6:08 pm

I got drunk in college, ONCE, purely as an experiment. The appeal of being simultaneously outspoken AND incoherent was lost on me, and alcohol ruins the flavor of anything you add it to, so I didn’t repeat the experience until after my divorce, when I rediscovered the classic truth: Get drunk with a problem, and you wake up with a problem and a headache.

Why don’t people have more children? We’re not evolved to have a drive to reproduce, we’re evolved with a drive to have sex, which in the natural state of affairs leads to reproduction. Having reproduced, other instincts kick in to inspire us to raise the resulting children.

Contraception and abortion severed the link between sex and subsequent birth, leaving us with a gap in our instinctive behaviors which culture so far seems insufficient to bridge. I suspect we’ll work out SOME kind of fix before we go extinct.


Gray Lensman 05.31.06 at 6:37 pm

I’ve never been drunk. I drink about one beer or wine a month. I have never tried pot or coke or ?. Never saw any point in it.

I taught middle and high school and college for years. I think that experience will either make you want kids a lot or not want them at all. My wife and I agreed in 1973 ( I was 31 at the time) that we didn’t want to raise any even though we love our nieces and nephews and friend’s kids. We haven’t regretted it a second. Thirty-three years in July.


Laura 05.31.06 at 7:29 pm

Never been drunk, Harry?!! I’m drunk right now. No, really. I am. We’re celebrating our 9th anniversary, so this comment will be short (or excessively long and rambling).

I love your point about the benefits of children being nonintuitive. The benefits are something that are only sort of understood by being around other people with kids, but really are only understood when you have them yourself. I have a hardcore city friend with pink hair and a big fish tatoo over her right breast that had no love of kids, until she had one of her own and now she’s a big mushy mom.

Well, I will admit that, like you, I have no social radar. I dated a guy for a year and a half who I’m fairly certainly has officially joined the other team.

Never been drunk. Still having a hard time getting past that one. Am I going to turn this post to the dark side and have everyone admit to their “first time?”

Going to APSA this year, harry?


derrida derider 05.31.06 at 7:40 pm

Still, I have no problem with people deciding not to have children, so long as they don’t look down on me for deciding to have children.
– toadman (post 11)

I’d prefer to say:

Still, I have no problem with people deciding not to have children, so long as they don’t look to my children’s taxes to pay their bills (including their health ones) when they’re old.


greensmile 05.31.06 at 8:26 pm

never been drunk? thats what friends are for. I would expect a confession about the sort of people you associated with to come next.

I will be referring to your post when I get around to responding to Amanda Marcotte’s slightly defensive rant against having children.


greensmile 05.31.06 at 8:36 pm

But where is the rest of your essay…I may be a bit slow but I don’t find in the post an answer to the question. Laura’s “fun” answer doesn’t persuade me at all.


greensmile 05.31.06 at 8:39 pm

do you suppose it is just possible that some people are born with a receptor that detects they are in an environment with too damn many people and their baby drive [but not their sex drive] just shuts down in response?


Andrew Edwards 05.31.06 at 8:39 pm

I’m hoping this topic shifts away from drinking and over to parenting.

Good luck. Which is more bizarre: Never drinking or never having kids?

IMHO, someone who’s never been drunk (religious reasons excepted) is seriously missing something. Seriously. If nothing else, fine scotch and French wine are far too good to be enjoyed in moderation. If you’ve never had a third glass of Burgundy (and 3 glasses should get you drunk if you’re not used to alcohol) you need to. Now.

There’s a fine French restaurant near you, there must be. Go and order a duck confit and a bottle of Burgundy and live properly.


LogicGuru 05.31.06 at 9:18 pm

I’m an only child; my husband is the only child of an only child. Sometime around the Industrial Revolution our families figured out that the way to move up in the world was to cut down on having kids–so we don’t have many relatives.

As a child during the Baby Boom, reading _Cheaper By The Dozen_ and watching the family sitcoms of the period I was miserable. I felt left out of all that family fun. My fantasy was having a huge family. I wanted (at least) 7 kids but it didn’t work out so we only have 3. The trouble was that I didn’t much like taking care of kids, particularly little kids–I just wanted to be part of a family.

I loved it when the kids were kids. I dressed them up in tee-shirts that said “I’m the big brother,” “I’m the little sister” and “I’m the middle child.” We live in a suburban house and did all that family sitcom stuff I so envied as a child–I loved every minute of it. It was what I’d dreamed about all my life–a real Dick-and-Jane family. Now the last kid is about to go away to college and I’m sad because family is over.

The bottom line though, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned, is what do you do when you’re old if you haven’t got kids? I suppose it’s less of a problem in affluent European welfare states with ample social safety nets. But without those guarantees you have to have kids as insurance. Even apart from money, you need kids for social insurance or you end up old and alone.

I simply don’t understand how people can take the risk of not having kids to look after them. Not having kids is very risky–having kids is selfish.


lw 05.31.06 at 9:37 pm

I think only Minerva in #28 has mentioned how wonderful it is to love a child, and how little this is mentioned in either pop or in high culture, where children are discussed as status objects or as responsibilities, not as pleasures.

As an industrialized welfare state provides more and more generous solitary retirements, the economic motivation for having kids vanishes, and there are penalties, as others have pointed out. Late-starting careers owing to long educational requirements are another important factor in my opinion.

I’m 40 and have one– I think that age is an important part of one’s stance in this. I feel very differently about kids than I did at 25.


Gene O'Grady 05.31.06 at 9:38 pm

Dear LogicGuru,

Perhaps I’m misreading, or overreading, your post, but Cheaper By the Dozen is hardly a baby boom book, since it takes place in the very early 20th century, and the protagonist is a major social scientist/ industrial engineer in spite, or maybe along with, her twelve kids. In many ways it’s kind of a reproach to the baby boom. (I should note that I read it in my 30’s when I was already a parent.)

My own experience with Europeans and the low fertility rate of the last thirty years is interesting (if a little based on after-the-fact speculation). When my daughter was not quite a year old my wife and I took her (and no money!) to Italy for an academic year, and the single most memorable thing was the number of instant grandmothers she acquired, women maybe fifty to seventy who fussed over her interminably — and often gave us unsolicited parenting lessons (usually “fa freddo” and feed her more). It occurred to me many years later that what we were seeing was the beginning of the large decline in the Italian birthrate and our little girl was a surrogate grandchild for (mostly) women who didn’t have grandchildren of their own.


Miranda 05.31.06 at 9:49 pm

The old cliche about children–you’ll feel different when they’re yours–is totally true. So it is hard from the outside to see how fun it is. I also think it’s hard from the outside to see that it is manageable. Young people aren’t able to see how it is possible to have children and a job and a life. Sure, we bitch endlessly about it, and it is far more difficult than it needs to be, but some of us do have it all.

Before I got pregnant, it seemed I was bombarded with negative messages–don’t have kids too early (and take yourself off the career track!) don’t wait too late (you’ll be infertile!) you’ll never crack the glass ceiling, they’ll be harmed by daycare, you’ll go insane from the isolation and depression, etc.

And then the process of actually having the kids is not a walk in the park–take your temperature everyday–is today the magical ovulating day? well then, have sex immediately! This can suck the fun right out of sex. did you miss the day? read your temperature wrong? did you get your period this month? well then, break down and cry. Miscarriage followed by miscarriage. Finally, a viable pregnancy (and then you feel like you have gotten on the rollercoaster and as Plath says, there is no getting off). And talk about negative messages–don’t eat anything with a speck of alcohol or caffeine. Don’t dye your hair, don’t get a manicure, don’t eat lunch meat, peanut butter, sushi, etc. How many of these messages do you accept? Ignore? Everyday on a number of levels, pregnant women are bascially told–how dare you think of giving yourself the transient and minor pleasure of a peanut butter sandwich if there is a chance you will endager your child’s health by imparting to it some life-threatening peanut allergy–you selfish, selfish, bad mother. Morning sickness, cramps, can’t sleep through the night without peeing, 24 fun hours of labor and delivery, 3 epidurals that fail, spinal block, emergency c-section, later 2 bouts of mastitis. It was still totally worth it–the baby is a bargain at twice the price, but almost every message women (and I am sure men) are given about pregnancy, children, and child-rearing from society is negative.


John Emerson 05.31.06 at 9:59 pm

Coming in late, alas.

Unfogged is doing a reading group on Montaigne’s “On Drunkenness”. Y’all come on by.

Montaigne drank very little but sometimes wondered whether he should drink more.

On childraising, the costs are very considerable and very tangible, and the benefits are unquantifiable and intangible. Without enormous social reinforcement it doesn’t happen as much. It really isn’t a very good deal. I was glad I did it but I grew up with many younger siblings and just ended up likeing kids.


Maynard Handley 05.31.06 at 10:06 pm

“The bottom line though, which I don’t think anyone has mentioned, is what do you do when you’re old if you haven’t got kids? I suppose it’s less of a problem in affluent European welfare states with ample social safety nets. But without those guarantees you have to have kids as insurance. Even apart from money, you need kids for social insurance or you end up old and alone.”

Gee, way to have your kids love you.
Your kids are autonomous human beings. They owe you NOTHING. You had the choice to have them; they had no choice in the matter.
If they want to help you in your old age, great; but they owe you nothing, and anyone who has them in the expectation that they’re cheaper than a nursing home deserves to be left at age 70 both a whole lot poorer and with kids who’ve moved to the other side of the world and have no interest in being any closer to mom and dad.


mijnheer 05.31.06 at 10:46 pm

greensmile: If someone doesn’t want children, that’s fine with me. But I doubt that overpopulation is the real reason anyone decides to stay childless. The birth rate in Western nations is already below replacement level, and having one or even two children yourself keeps you below replacement. More than that, a child born to well-educated, socially and environmentally aware parents is likely to do more good than harm in the course of her/his lifetime. So it would be a foolish person who said, “Having a child would be so fulfilling for me, but my environmental duty tells me I mustn’t. Darn!”


John Emerson 05.31.06 at 11:18 pm

Maynard, that’s shit. A free gift to the world in general is a wonderful thing, but it’s a sucker’s game, especially if you’re going to be there to punish the needy parents. Without a reasonable expectation of affection and companionship, there’s even less reason to have kids than I said — really, almost none. Childraising becomes an archaic and irrational survival.


maurinsky 05.31.06 at 11:24 pm

Re: drunk

The first time I was drunk was at age 35, at my old high school best friend’s wedding. Open bar, not much food. I avoided drinking as a young person because I have an alcoholic parent. However, I do have a drink every now and then, because I am far too cheap to get drunk with any regularity – booze is expensive!

Re: parenting

I didn’t plan on becoming a parent, but I got pregnant when I was 18, and was a wife and mother at 19. Before I had my daughter, I didn’t want any kids. I had several younger siblings, and my parents were poor role models, at best. I didn’t know that I could love someone as much as I loved that little girl. I didn’t know that I could rise to the challenge of providing what a child needed.

Turns out I could, with help. We couldn’t afford daycare, so my husband and I traded off staying home – I was home with her while she breastfed for a year, and then he was home with her for the next 3 years while he finished school.

And I couldn’t have done it without my family. I had to set aside old grudges, and my parents had to make some adjustments in their lives, but they helped me out. My sister helped me. If I hadn’t had my daughter, I probably would have happily lost contact with my family, but I wanted my girl to know there were a lot of people out there who cared about her.

She’s 17 now, and she’s amazing and incredible and will probably change the world in some way.

I had a different experience with my second. My second child was much harder, even though by all outward appearances, everything seemed better – we had a house, we both had good jobs, we were more settled. But I find it harder to juggle parenthood with work now, and since we get our medical insurance through my job, I kind of have to work. I would like to go back to school myself, but I can only take one class per semester, so it will be decades before I finish. Our American society, for all it’s talk of family values, does not have policies that actually help families.


'As you know' Bob 05.31.06 at 11:35 pm

‘way upthread (#18) Martin asked
To what extent is child-bearing a result of getting drunk?
(And I bet actual data are available if one looked.)

Well, the birth rate ebbs slightly in the spring, and peaks in the fall season (Sept.-Nov.); but even within the peak season, there’s a there’s a noticeable peak in the last half of September.

(Say, nine months after the Christmas party, New Year’s Eve, etc.)

Given how evenly distributed around the calendar births are today, I’d wager that this variation is more a function of drunken partying than it is a race-memory of food supplies varying with the harvest.

A quick google shows



LogicGuru 06.01.06 at 12:01 am

Cheaper By The Dozen was first published in 1948 and there was a movie made of it in 1950. I’m curious why it would be a reproach to the baby boom: maybe I’d get a different message if I read it now.

The spin of the book was definitely post-war baby boom. You didn’t get the idea that Lillian had a career–at most there’s a hint that she took an interest in her husband’s work and may have helped him out occasionally. So of course you don’t get a hint of how she handled it–with a full staff of servants. You also don’t get the idea that they were very rich.


Betamax Guillotine 06.01.06 at 12:44 am

Howdy miranda,

It was still totally worth it—the baby is a bargain at twice the price, but almost every message women (and I am sure men) are given about pregnancy, children, and child-rearing from society is negative.

I’m 32 and practically all my friends from the last 15 years of my life either have kids or are getting ready to have kids. Maybe this is a regional effect, but I find that down here in Texas the exact opposite is true: You are not deemed to be a useful member of society unless you are married and have kids.

Some folks I know have “confided” in me that they are worried about my “selfishness” in being a serial monogamist and not having kids. The last time I checked, what they’re calling “selfishness” is what I call my independence and not being ready to be a parent.

I think there are some regional differences in how we approach the issue of parenthood. At least down here, those of us who aren’t parents and who make less than $100K a year are the ones on the receiving end of the bad messages about having children.


Chasseur 06.01.06 at 1:10 am

Being a father is my favorite role in life, and it is truly a miraculous experience. I knew that I’d enjoy it. I was a full-time caregiver for the first 8 months of our son’s life.

What I was not at all prepared for was how it changed my perception of OTHER people’s children. My tolerance of aggravating behavior skyrocketed. A new appreciation for the energy and wonder of kids developed. Even my perceptions of adults changed, because I was more likely to consider the fact that the a-hole that just cut me off was once somebody’s kid, and probably deserves slightly more consideration than I’d otherwise be inclined to offer. I remember reading about Marco Pantani’s funeral, where his mother exclaimed tearfully over his coffin “Goodbye my son, goodbye my beautiful boy!” and just being utterly gutted–crying even– in a way that could NEVER have occured prior to becoming a parent. (I fear that I instead would have laughed at his mom calling him a beautiful boy.)

As such I don’t think that, if you take away your love for your own child, what you have left is the difference between fun, and no fun. However, that point occasionally SEEMS utterly, direly true. There are times that all I really want is two consecutive days without a child, and neither cognizance nor recollection of my parental status. To just, er, go to Moab and ride my bike, or regrade my backyard, or whatever. Things that are very hard to do while juggling childcare. And I only have two kids. I have NO idea how parents of four or more do it, they must be totally mental.

It is beyond easy for me to see why some people don’t want children, and good for them. I feel sorry for those parents who realize they’d have been happier without children, and even worse for those kids.


Harald Korneliussen 06.01.06 at 2:21 am

Never been drunk? I never drank alcohol. It’s still possible to be a T-totaller here, despite the pressure.
Harry is simply right about the reason why people don’t have kids. They enjoy being “young” too much, don’t want to grow old. And many who would like a family feel it’s completely irresponsible to have a child before 30, since almost no one does that.

For the record I have a wife, a son, a house, a small potato field, no TV, no car, and I am very happy that way. Actually, I feel confident that I am much happier than my drinking bachelor friends.


a 06.01.06 at 2:30 am

“Well, the birth rate ebbs slightly in the spring, and peaks in the fall season (Sept.-Nov.)…”

This is in the U.S. In France the birth rate is highest in the late spring. This is presumably mothers planning for their two-month maternity leave to coincide with the nicest part of the year.


albertchampion 06.01.06 at 2:43 am

fascinating thread.

i am 58. never been married. no dna-linked children. i sometimes say that i am neutral in the war between men and women[as depicted by thurber].

i encountered a woman of a similar age recently, divorced with a daughter who had to have been born when whe was 35-36[relatively late]. she reacted as if i was prevaricating when i responded that i was single, with no children. and challenged me on that. she wanted to know why.i was taken aback. i responded that i would tell her why if she would tell me why she waited until her mid-thirties to procreate, and why she elected for a “failed” marriage.

end of that conversation.

this life’s leaf on the stream has followed the plummet. que sera,sera. in all tenses.

but seriously, i suppose that philosophically i never wanted to put a life into the future. i saw the imminence of george bush as i encountered jfk, lbj in the vietnam era. i saw it a crime to put any life into the maw of the beast of the united states of amerika. and i still feel that way.

we are not creating a better world. we are just creating a more all-encompassing sewer. as tom lehrer once said, “life is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends upon what you put into it”.

and i would like to think that you know what we have been putting into it. the fecal stew that will be contaminating this planet for generations.

succinctly, the new dark ages, the new mind-forged manacles.

manacles that i think mankind will not be able to remove. the 21st century leap back into the nasty past…high tech, but the end of the age of enlightenment.

the age of king george, duke jeb, duke dick’em and all their greedy courtiers. a world soon to enfold of mass gulags, no privacy, violently throttled dissent, mass impoverishment. the restoration of an aristocratic order.

if you missed this trend 30 years ago, you were not paying attention then. if you are missing it now, and you say you aren’t drunk, what brand water of lethe are you consuming?

finally, if you aren’t consuming a good bottle of wine a day[at least a glass with lunch, dinner] you have been avoiding one of the few gifts given to humankind by the deity.

as is always the case, this is a form of shorthand. the longer tale of how a life gets lived, how decisions get made, are much more convoluted. so it goes….


notjonathon 06.01.06 at 3:35 am

You know, so many people are so straight here that a little message from William Blake might be in order:

The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.

On a more sober note, I have always believed in moderation (two children, for example), and I was always leery of anything that has to be injected (although not always “leary” of what might be swallowed).

As for having or not having been drunk, well, let’s say I’ve only been seriously drunk three for four times over the past 5 decades, which seems to qualify me as being a moderate person.

Had to pretty much give up psychedelic substances with advancing age and responsibility, but now that the children are grown and retirement looms, I think I should be permitted to cultivate my morning glory garden hereafter without guilt.

It’s true that having children creates a whole new set of opportunities and obligations that you never expected. The person who observed that you enter a new universe was not far wrong: if it is not a new universe that you confront, you are faced with a new set of epistemological values.

How you respond to this new world says a lot about who you are. Far too many of my friends (and we’re talking about the last generation of the fifties) turned into little Bushes and Stepford wives under the mistaken impression that they were insuring a safer world for their children. They weren’t.


Tim Worstall 06.01.06 at 3:54 am

Fewer children?

JohnQ has declared here that the definition (or his perhaps) of an economist is someone who understands opportunity cost. Perhaps y’all simply need more economists round here?

1) There’s other things to do in the modern world than simply pump out babies. This raises the cost of having them relative to earlier times.
2) Much lower child and infant mortality rates. If we take a Darwinian view, that the basic impetus is to have grandchildren who then go on to breed again, then we now need to have fewer children than in the past in order to make this possible. Thus lowering the costs of having fewer children.

Not a complete answer, of course, but a partial one perhaps?

(No, no children and that drunk question…did you mean never been so more than once a day?)


nik 06.01.06 at 4:46 am

I’m late to the party. But I just want to make the point I always make. Here are the total fertility rates for the UK for the last 45 years.


They fell with the introduction of the Pill and have remained more-or-less the same ever since. We don’t have to hypothesise any change in the national attitude toward children to explain this. When it became possible for people to control their fertility they did so, and there has been no real change since then.

At least as far as the UK experience goes, you’re trying to explain something that doesn’t exist and that therefore doen’t need explaining. Women are having kids at the same rates as they did 30 odd years ago. Any change in the birth rate is just the compound effect of multiple generations having fertility rates below 2, not because of changes in the numbers of children per woman, and therefore not because of people’s attitudes towards kids changing.


Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 7:38 am

I feel like I’ve had a role that is parental, but without the bonding intensity that comes from being involved with a person from the time they arrive in the world, and have all the loveability and helplessness and neotonic triggers and general stuff that goes to make up a baby.

Trust me, that’s a very faded memory by the time they’re mouthy teenagers. ;)


st 06.01.06 at 8:19 am

mijnheer(38) – Being with other people’s children isn’t the same at all. Not even close. I think you’ve kind of missed the point here. Being with other people’s children isn’t the same, of course, but it provides invaluable information for people deciding whether or not to procreate, as my wife and I were a few years ago. Our best friends were the first of our circle to have kids, and we spent a lot of time not only watching them grow and develop, but also watching our friends reorganize their lives, and got a pretty clear picture of what was involved, upside and down.

Even without the immediate bonds and late-night obligations, this experience was pivotal in our eventual decision to try to get pregnant. We have a daughter now, with another on the way, and I can’t tell you how helpful it has been to have our friends’ experiences (and ours with them) to draw on. If you don’t know anyone with kids, than it looks like you are going to have to figure out the whole thing by yourself, which is daunting, and adds to the universal uncertainty of “can I actually take care of a child?”

Now I find myself in bar conversations (yes, I still go out and have a drink with my friends occasionally. I suppose that means per wickedpinto(10) that I am “situationally miserable.”) where I am answering questions from married friends who don’t have kids but are thinking about it. Simply stating haughtily that only parents understand is a bit of a self-administered pat on the back, really.

maynard (56) – Your children will care about you when you are old, if not actually care for you, because they love you, and they are members of a family that has become important to them over their lives. If you are an abusive, drunken asshole, you will probably die alone whether you have kids or not. This is a lot more complicated than simply stating “if they want to help you, great!” I don’t think that anyone was suggesting that the transaction was a commercial one about who owes what to whom, but rather an observation of, you know, the actual world, wherein many many people are involved in the care of their parents.

Your dramatic righteousness is really very out of place in an America where lots of people (like, for example, me) are planning for a parent’s old age because they know perfectly well that that parent cannot afford nursing home care at any level. Expecting your kids to get involved is not unfair to them in any way – it’s life. The fact that your kids didn’t choose to be born is an abstract dorm-room irrelevancy in the context of family life as it is actually experienced. What other consequences do you derive from that fact? Years from now, should I decline to interfere with my 16-year old daughter’s attempted suicide because she didn’t “choose to be born?”


Tim Worstall 06.01.06 at 8:50 am

#69. Interesting, but it doesn’t explain why desired fertility (as measured by surveys) has also fallen.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 9:10 am

To me the lesson is that if people can have sex without pregnancy, and if women can live without a husband, and if old people can rely on savings, investments, and pensions in their declining years (rather than on family), many of the reasons for having children are gone. You might add the weakening of the extended family and religion, both of which tend to pressure people into parenting.

I’ve been saying for a long time that one of the defects of economics as an overall picture of society is that it can’t explain where workers come from. The work of childbirth and childraising isn’t economically organized or economically rational — new workers are just assumed as a kind of “free good”. I believe that this is one of the major reasons why women, who are still the main ones responsible for childraising, are undervalued and underrewarded in our society.

Of course, a sophisticated form of economic rationalization can explain childraising by “intangible benefits”, but if you let ME invent “intangible benefits” freely I will be able to prove pretty much anything I want to about anything. (In any case, all the evidence is that the freer women are, the fewer children they have).

In normal economic terms, opportunity cost and direct expenses make childraising a big loser for both parents, especially the mother. we have a vague idea that raising children is less wasteful than scratch off lottery tickets or making little bonfires of cash, but it’s hard to prove it. Your not going to have to bail a cash bonfire out of jail 20 years down the road, for example.


harry b 06.01.06 at 9:16 am

tim — yes, I’m assuming that opportunity costs play a central role — I’m just saying that people might calculate wrongly because some crucial information (about the benefits and, for that matter although I didn’t say it, the opportunity costs which they might overestimate) is not available to them. I was also definitely not trying to offer a full explanation, just a little bit of one, and in a fairly jokey way…

Also, though, I want to be clear that I agree with the people who’ve said that some people know very well that they would not want to have or enjoy having children, and that its a good thing (for them and for others) when they don’t have them (and its not a good thing when they do as, I imagine, many do). There’s a lot of variation in kinds of people and the ways they can flourish, and its a good thing too. Same, I think, applies to alcohol, as I think the comments here nicely show!


Sutton 06.01.06 at 9:59 am

Harry: “incurious about such things as other people’s private lives, what experiences like drunkenes s feel like, etc—I’m intellectually curious, of course!”

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I really don’t see the distinction. You mean, you are curious about what is between the covers of books but not about things that aren’t? I realize that is a gross oversimplification of what you are saying, but how can one be intellectually curious without being curious about actual, unmediated experiences?


Sutton 06.01.06 at 10:04 am

Oh, and your strident countrywoman “Mimi” (who has the habit of over-generalizing based on her own limited experience of America), has an amusingly apropos opening this morning (sorry for her profanity):

“America – It’s OK to get drunk. It’s OK to have casual sex with some arsehole you wouldn’t even let lick your shoes in the morning. It’s OK to get so fucked up you fall asleep on the toilet. That’s living sweetie. It’s fine to fall in a bush and laugh about it the next day. Tell your colleagues. It doesn’t mean you can’t do your job, you’re less of a person, you’re not ‘marriageable’ material. It means you need to get a fucking promotion. Anyone who can drink with me and make it into work at 9am deserves a better job.”



marcel 06.01.06 at 11:24 am

jr (36):

I’ve long heard of an (apocryphal?) culture in east Africa that sends its boys away when they hit puberty. They are allowed back either after they have killed a lion, or after a certain number of years (3? 4?) have passed. If they’ve survived that long, presumably they’ve learned to shift for themselves and not piss off others they run into so much that they die. There were numerous times when that child-rearing practice had strong appeal for me. We made it safely past that stage, and my two kids occupy most of my heart.


nik 06.01.06 at 1:32 pm

Tim Worstall (#73) –

Fair enough. All I can say is that the data shows that people’s (falling) desired fertility isn’t reflected in their (stable) actions and actual fertility. You can speculate “Why don’t more people want children more?”, but I’m not sure that brings us any closer to answering the question “Why don’t more people have more children?”.

John Emerson (#74) –

I hate to be cynical but according to mainstream economic wisdom:

(1) If we assume that having kids is rational in economic terms due to “intangible benefits”, then women who have kids are (by definition) profiting wonderfully from these “intangible benefits”, and the current situation is fine.

(2) However, if we assume that having kids is irrational in economic terms, then women who have kids are (by definition) behaving irrationally and it’s not surprising that are undervalued and underrewarded in our society, and the current situation is fine.

I suppose I’m trying to suggest that economics isn’t wedded to explaining behaviour by assuming everyone always acts rationally. Your suggestion that people are getting shafted because they’re acting irrationally fits in pretty well with much of mainstream economic though.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 1:43 pm

I’m pretty cynical about economics too.

From a descriptive, scientific point of view, though, I’d think that economists would be concerned about the degree to which the economy is dependent for labor on irrational behavior. Now that fertility actually has declined, immigration seems to be the new answer — outsourcing childraising.

The tangible costs of childraising (opportunity cost and direct cost) can be pretty well quantified, and they are large. There’s also an intangible cost in lost leisure time (or leisure opportunity cost I suppose you’d say — parents have less fun.) To make parenting behavior rational you’d have to show that the positive intangibles of raising a kid (minus the negative intangibles of childraising) are weightier than the combined tangible and intangible costs of childraising.


ingrid 06.01.06 at 2:16 pm

Harry, you say (in #75) that people might calculate wrongly because they lack the relevant information on the benefits of having children, because they are not intimate with families with children.
I don’t think that being intimate with families with children will solve this information problem. I think that the issue is more that the (opportunity) costs of parenthood are rather clear – less leisure, less sleep, less time to work in case you like your job, less money to spend, less freedom, and so forth. One doesn’t need much imagination to know how these things will change your life, although it is true that becoming a parent might change your values and thus how you value these activities and things.

But the benefits of parenthood are much more unclear, even if you are in close contact with children and parents, because it is very difficult to predict how you will react if you become a parent yourself. I am in my thirthies – so many of my friends have turned into parents in the last 5 years, and people react very differently, and often also very differently than they expected (luckily for me, I like parenthood more than I expected – but I also know some who really find it though in an emotional-psychological sense, and do regret the decision).

Since most people are risk avers, it is not surprising that so many are hesitant to become parents: they know with a rather high probability what they’ll loose, but what they will gain is much more uncertain.


Bro. Bartleby 06.01.06 at 2:16 pm

Overarching reason for fewer children is when hedonism replaces religion in a society.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 2:23 pm

Yes, Bartleby, when women are coerced into childbearing by the fear of imaginary beings and the hope of imaginary rewards, they have more children.


marcel 06.01.06 at 2:25 pm

One advantage of many people going childless is a decline in the proportion of people who try to apply economic analysis to their personal lives. Obviously true, if this is somehow genetic. A bit more tenuous, if it is based on training. Just have to remember (mangling Shakespeare – Henry VI part 2 Act IV, Scene II) “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the economists” to ensure that no more are so trained.


Steve LaBonne 06.01.06 at 2:29 pm

Yes, Bartleby, when women are coerced into childbearing by the fear of imaginary beings and the hope of imaginary rewards, they have more children.

Especially when in addition, the means of refusing to do so are denied them, violently if need be.

P.S. Fewer children is a GOOD thing, bartleby. It increases the chances that human beings will still be able to lead decent lives generations from now. And decreases the chances that the human population will crash due to less pleasant causes such as the proverbial war and pestilence.


andy 06.01.06 at 2:41 pm

I am puzzled about what arguments there might be that tie being a religious practitioner and having “more” children. What is it about being a religious believer that makes one want “more” children? Or is this just an observation lacking explanation?


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 2:55 pm

Most religions teach the inferiority of women and subject them to their husbands, while at the same time glorifying motherhood. There are probably exceptions to this.


harry b 06.01.06 at 3:14 pm


are you taking what I say a little too seriously? What I’m saying is that I’m not a gossip, and not interested in gossip. Or not much. I may even be exaggerating.

ingrid; the point about the way risk aversion feeds into this is very helpful. I sort-of-agree with the point about close contact not helping very muhc, but it helps a bit, especially if you see a lot of different kinds of people parenting different kinds fo kid (of course, even if you get to know yourself well you don’t know what kind of kid you’ll end up with). Also, the fewer kids there are around the harder it is to raise them (and the harder it looks from the outside) as Laura suggests in her original post.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 3:36 pm

If someone finds that they like children upon close contact, that will help. That has happened in my family. But if they find that they don’t like children, it hurts.


Jim Miller 06.01.06 at 3:47 pm

For those who would like to see US data, here is a simple chart showing fertility in the US for the 20th century.

And some may be interested to learn that at least a few researchers believe that the decline in fertility was caused, at least in part, by social security.

And those who think that drunkeness leads to child bearing may want to contemplate the high birth rates in many Muslim countries where, at least formally, alcohol is forbidden.


nik 06.01.06 at 4:22 pm

Okay, so two schools of thought have been enunciated:

(1) The childfree are behaving irrationally when they don’t have kids, as they don’t have the opportunity to experience the wonders of love for your children (they’re acting on insufficient information when they make their decision).

(2) Parents are behaving irrationally as the “intangible benefits” of children can’t be worth *that* much, and are just invented out of thin air to try and make the decision appear sane in retrospect (they’re irrational, but being irrational, just don’t realise it).

Nothing good is going to come of this.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 4:39 pm

Nik, how is the decision to have kids usually made? It’s an irreversible one and can’t be unmade. How often do potential parents think about the alternative of not having kids?

In point of fact, the more freely and informedly people (especially women) choose, the fewer kids they have.

I might mention that my target is not childraising, but economic rationality, and economic models which assume a labor supply without accounting for its “production”. Economically rational people need someone else to have the kids, and economically irrational parents make great sacrifices do unrewarded work for the sake of people (their own children, but also their children’s future employers) who pay them nothing.


nik 06.01.06 at 5:51 pm

John, I do realise people don’t normally decide to have kids in quite the way I presented it. That post wasn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. Presenting that nugget of argument isolated from the rest of your opinions does misrepresent your views – which is why I didn’t pin it directly on you. I just thought the contrast between the two ideas was cute.

Sorry you felt it was a deliberate distortion, I wouldn’t have posted if that’s what I’d anticipated.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 6:05 pm

No, nik, I was granting that the decision to have kids might often be genuinely irrational. No hard feelings.


Another Damned Medievalist 06.01.06 at 8:16 pm

Hmmm .. I, too, have been drunk.

And I agree that having kids adds a different aspect to one’s life. But it’s not necessarily better. I raised a child. I do wish I’d had more of her earlier years, but I’m very happy that I can focus on being an auntie. Maybe part of it is that people who know they are probably not cut out to be full-time parents for any number of reasons are now able to resist pressure from their friends and families to breed?


Martin James 06.01.06 at 10:40 pm

What a completely self-centered discussion, isn’t it wonderful!

1. I think there is some confusion about what economically rational means. Doesn’t it just mean that you can order your preferences and that you will try to arrange them in ways that to maximize your preferences at the least cost?

No where does that seem to rule out preferring pain over pleasure; that’s folk psychology not economics. If one person prefers children to all other choices and another person prefers not having children to all other choices, that is no statement about economic irrationality, its only a statement about the relative elasticity of the demand for children.

2. I’ve met a few people that I thought should have fewer children, but I’ve never met anyone that didn’t want to have kids, that I thought was making a poor choice. They always seem a little shorted on soul.

3. The degree to which hedonism is asscociated with rationality in most comments here is astounding – doesn’t anybody distrust their body anymore?

4. Its so quaint the social pressure some people here express about class status and job satisfaction. Keep up the hard work!

5. People who think there is no drive for children outside of sex, must explain the big bucks infertile couples shell out for fertility treatment.

6. If the preference for children remains the same among educated women, in the long run the world will be made up of women with an 8th grade education and a per capita GDP of about $5,000.00. Look at the statistics and do the math.

If that doesn’t please you blame mother nature and the math not those in other cultures that it pleases just fine.

7. The best thing about being drunk is that it reminds you that you are a thing.


Brandon Berg 06.01.06 at 10:42 pm

Minerva (28):
The dismantling of the welfare state and the loss of industries one could build a life on only contribute to this but there’s more to it I’m sure.

Huh? First, I’m very skeptical of the idea that there has been any dismantling of the welfare state. But beyond that, correlations just don’t work out. Birth rates are lower in Europe than in the US, and Europe has more lavish welfare benefits. And I suspect that in the US it’s the people in the upper income brackets who are having fewer children.


John Emerson 06.01.06 at 10:51 pm

Thank you, Martin, for reassuring me about economics’ capacity for rationalization. And the quality of your condescension is really high too.

So just what is it that makes childraising more rational than making cash bonfires?


Martin James 06.02.06 at 12:50 am

John Emerson,

Thanks for the comment.

I think that having kids is irrational. I also think that irrationality is very hard to explain and very hard to live without. I guess its the same way with kids.

I will quibble with you about children being only an intangible benefit. What is more tangible than a person?

I’ve only burned money in a fire once at scout camp. If certainly was an intangible joy to watch the thrifty people cringe. I haven’t made a habit of it, but it is liberating. Same goes for bras I hear.


John Emerson 06.02.06 at 8:13 am

How about “not fungible” instead of “intangible”?

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