Bundles Of Joy

[Content warning: Discussion of child-rearing, may invoke mild feelings of social pressure to have children]

On December’s survey, I asked readers who had children whether they were happy with that decision. Here are the results, from 1 (very unhappy) to 5 (very happy):

The mean was 4.43, and the median 5. People are really happy to have kids!

This was equally true regardless of gender. The male average (4.43, n = 1768) and female average (4.49, n = 177) were indistinguishable.

To double-check this, I compared the self-reported life satisfaction of people with and without kids. People with kids were much more satisfied – but also did much better on lots of other variables like financial situation, romantic satisfaction, etc. So probably at least some of the effect was because people with kids tend to be older people in stable relationships who have their life more figured out, and maybe also more religious.

In order to compare apples to apples, I limited the comparison to married atheist men 25 or older. There was no longer a consistent trend for people with at least one child to be more satisfied. But there was a trend for increasing satisfaction with increasing number of children:

0: 7.06
1: 7.09
2: 7.24
3: 7.31
4+: 7.43

This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child. Probably some residual confounders remain in the analysis – and commenter “meh” points out that people who are happiest with their existing children will be most likely to have more. But at the very least, people with children don’t seem to be less happy.

These results broadly match existing research, which usually finds that parents report being very happy to have children, but that this is not reflected in life satisfaction numbers. The main difference is that existing research usually claims parents have lower life satisfaction than non-parents. But this is different in different countries, either for cultural or for policy reasons. The survey respondents form a culturally unusual group and are of a higher socioeconomic status; they may be more similar to countries like Norway (where parents are happier) than to countries like the United States (where they are less happy).

(also, we should at least consider the Caplanian perspective that people more informed about genetics will be happier parents, since they’ll be less neurotic about the effect of their parenting styles.)

The View From Hell blog argues that the discrepancy between the direct question (“Are you happy to have kids?”) and the indirect one (“How happy are you?”, compared across parents vs. childless people) is pure self-deception; children suck, but parents refuse to admit it. I haven’t looked in depth at the study they cite, which purports to show that the more you prime parents with descriptions of the burdens of parenthood, the more great they insist everything is. But I wonder about the philosophical foundations we should be using here. There’s happiness, and there’s happiness: I am happy to be giving money to charity and making the world a better place, but I don’t think my self-reported life satisfaction would be noticeably higher after a big donation. It might even be lower if it cut into my luxury consumption. The wanting/liking/approving trichotomy may also be relevant.

People were happier with their decision to have children if they were (all results are binomial correlations and highly significant even after correction): more gender-conforming (0.14), had fewer thoughts about maybe being transgender (0.20), were more right-wing (0.10), considered themselves more moral people (0.15), were less autistic (0.12), were less extraverted (0.10), were more emotionally stable (0.15), and were more agreeable (0.13). All of these effects were very small compared to the generally high level of happiness at having children, no matter who you were and what your personality was like.

I included this survey question because I’m considering whether or not to have kids. Even though the survey only reinforced the (confusing) results of past research, I still find it helpful. After all, a lot of the survey-takers here are pretty skeptical of other aspects of traditional lifestyles: monogamy, gender norms, religion, etc. It’s impressive how strongly approval of parenting survives even in this weird a population; I consider this a new and exciting fact beyond the ones established by previous studies.

As always, if you want to double-check these results or analyze them further, you can download the data as an .xlsx file. I have removed the data of a few people who did not want their answers to be public, so you may not get exactly the same numbers I did, but they should be pretty close.

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447 Responses to Bundles Of Joy

  1. Matthew S. says:

    Being knowledgeable about genetics has stressed me out more about being a parent, because I had my children with my mentally unstable and abusive first wife, and while I got custody of them and my current wife is a lovely person, the Caplan-ian perspective suggests they’re half-doomed anyway.

    (It has made me feel less compelled to keep up with the Jones’ in terms of over-programming my children’s lives, so I’m probably less physically stressed.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m sorry you’re stuck in that position, but I deal with a lot of abuse victims, and I’ve seen hundreds of people with terribly abusive parents manage to rise above their pasts and genes and become incredibly good people.

      • carvenvisage says:

        Seeking out and sitting down with a psychologist for a long session is a pretty genteel thing to do, so there could be some sample bias. I know lots of functional and respectable people who are far too feral or prideful or whatever to do such a thing.

        Also, the idea that parenting has little effect is really one of those things where being wrong one way is a lot worse than being wrong the other. So erring/leaning hard to the ‘doing your best’ side seems like a good idea regardless.

        edit: Also: Money matters, education matters, the duration of your commute matters… but the life and oppurtunities and learning you provide your kids doesn’t? Whatt?

        (This is the ‘replication crisis’ science we’re talking about here, right? Not the magical omniscient atlantis science it would have to be to even consider taking such an assertion at face value?)

        • Judith Harris’s conclusion, which I think is the original basis for the “parenting has little effect” claim, was that the adult personality was determined mostly by the peer group, not the parent. That says nothing about other features of a person, such as how well educated he is. And one of the things parents may affect is what sort of peer groups their children end up in.

          There is also the rare case she mentions where the family is the peer group.

    • Fossegrimen says:

      I was pretty much in the same situation and my kids seems to have turned out alright. Frankly, I’ve met a disproportionate number of parents like us through various support groups etc and from my personal experience it seems (to make a gross simplification) that sanity is a dominant trait.

    • masharpe says:

      Some theoretical points working in your favor:

      – Regression to the mean applies more strongly the more the parent differs from average.
      – The genome is diluted by the other parent.
      – Some broadly-experienced environmental insults may no longer apply, e.g. lead poisoning. (Confusingly, because banning leaded gasoline affects an entire population at once, it’s not included in the “environment” component in heritability analysis.)

      • janrandom says:

        > – The genome is diluted by the other parent.
        Diluted is too weak a term. With the resolution of big studies, it looks like simple averaging, but it isn’t. Any kind of strange combinations of the parent’s traits can happen. For good or worse, yes. But on average toward a more normal one. The variance is quite high. I can tell you my four boys of the same mother are all very very different in character. They do look very alike though. 🙂

        • masharpe says:

          Yes, that too. Different children from the same parents vary a lot. Although that can equally push in a good or bad direction.

  2. Fossegrimen says:

    Are Minnesotan parents happier than Arizonans? I keep falling back to the thesis that happiness is genetic and if Norwegian parents are happier, one would expect the same of ancestral Norwegians living in the US.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree this would be an interesting thing to check, but I find the linked article’s hypothesis (that Norway has really good maternity leave and child support policies) pretty plausible.

      • Tracy W says:

        Being able to start maternity leave at 34 weeks (UK, not Norway) was pretty awesome.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        If that were the reason, you would expect to see a much bigger happiness advantage for Norwegian parents among parents of the youngest children, for whom those policies have the most direct impact, compared to parents of older kids. Is that in fact the case?

    • spinystellate says:

      N=1; I live in AZ, have 3 kids, and was a 5 on the survey. But AZ also has a pretty low % of SSC readers.

  3. c0rw1n says:

    There’s that thing of the experiencing self vs the remembering self, where the ongoing subjective experience of being a parent is miserable (and worse in the countries with no social support for parents, whether organized by the state (like in Actually Civilized countries such as Finland, with ample parental leave and free childcare) or provided by The Community) but when parents are thinking back on the experience of raising children, they tend to exaggerate the good parts and doublethink around the bad ones.

    related, relevant:


    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks for these links; I’ve added one into the post.

      • wintermute92 says:

        I think AVFH overestimates the scope of what we need to explain here, and doesn’t need to resort to delusion.

        The first most obvious way to reconcile these results is that life satisfaction is shockingly stable to life circumstances. Like, the difference between Norway and the worst parts of Subsaharan Africa is 5 points, and we know individual satisfaction is impressively resilient to everything but acute change. So my baseline is “people like having kids, but as with most thing short of extreme poverty and chronic disease, their baseline satisfaction wins out.”

        The second reconciliation is myopia, rather than delusion. When you ask about kids, people assume you mean “do your kids make you happy or unhappy” and say ‘happy’. When you ask about satisfaction, they balance “my kids make me happy” with “I have lots less free time and more expenses and stressors” and come out closer to neutral. It’s not a contradiction, you’re just getting answers to different questions.

        My anticipation is a mix of the two. Satisfaction scores are “a bit negative” or “a bit positive” because kids don’t overrule baseline happiness. And the direction of that bit is mostly determined by how impactful all the circumstantial stuff is – kids are clearly happy (for the sorts of people who want kids), so those circumstances are what’s left.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          5 points on a 10 point scale, or a 100 point scale?

          Also, this would explain lack of a strong positive (as was found in my survey), but not presence of a strong negative (as was found in some of the linked articles).

          Also, some other things like marriage seem to clearly and positively affect life satisfaction.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            So when are you getting married? 🙂

          • Aapje says:

            @Scott Alexander

            Also, some other things like marriage seem to clearly and positively affect life satisfaction.

            Is this causation or reverse causation (happier people choosing to get married and/or being more desirable as a husband/wife)? All the studies I’ve seen merely compare the married to the unmarried, which doesn’t prove that the effect is not in large part the latter, which I expect has a large effect.

          • Jaskologist says:


            Why not both? As a famous sociologist once said, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

    • tentor says:

      Or maybe it’s just that parenting is a lot of work but generates many nice memories that will make you happier in the long run (until some scientist comes along and goes “remember how much changing diapers sucked?”).

      • lupis42 says:

        Sounds about right. I’d also add that many of the joys of parenting are deferred, and some of the costs front-loaded. The experience of caring for an infant is mostly work, rewarded by cuteness. The internet is a way cheaper source of cuteness. On the other hand, as they become toddlers and then children, they become better conversation partners, fun to play with, and eventual fun to hang out with. My parents can now enjoy things like being invited to beer tastings, pictures of grandchildren, and their ongoing effort level in parenting is way down.
        Having children is like putting all your money into savings and debt reduction – not fun for a while, then it starts to pay dividends, and one day you’re looking at early retirement while other people who opted differently are still making car payments.

        • Luke Somers says:

          Internet cuteness is ultra weaksauce compared to holding your baby. Agreed on the rest, though.

          • taradinoc says:

            Having seen many babies, I still feel like the kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes whenever I hear this.

            I can’t be the only person who’s noticed that babies all look pretty much the same, and they aren’t especially cute… can I?

            As far as I can tell, cats are cuter to begin with, and they stay cute for longer. They’re also a lot less expensive in terms of time and money.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ taradinoc

            I don’t find babies particularly cute, not even my own. I am not deeply into visual aesthetics which might be part of it, but I like holding babies, and I really like kids once they get to the age where they make faces at you.

          • Adrian says:

            There’s at least an order of magnitude between the cuteness of a stranger’s baby and your own baby; same for kittens and your own baby. The difference is even bigger between cute pictures on the Internet and your toddler chuckling and laughing while you’re playing with him.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Babies aren’t particularly cute in their first few months of existence. Normally when they start hitting 10-12 months, they get super-adorable.

      • Fahundo says:

        Sounds to me like you and c0rw1n are saying the same thing.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Diapers aren’t as bad as people say, though. I can change a diaper in under 30 seconds.

    • bobzymandias says:

      The Source of Golfing Joy is Self-Deception

      A study found that the more golfers were primed to think about the realistic reasons that golf is a ridiculous sport, the more those golfers felt conflicted about golfing. But when given an opportunity to idealize golfing, they gladly took it – and the negative feelings disappeared. Golfers primed with a more balanced view of golfing were less likely to feel conflicted or negative about golfing and less likely to idealize.

      Ok, I don’t know of such a study but if someone did such a study is this likely to be the result? “Yes, I love every minute of playing golf and never get frustrated at all when I go into a hazard. In fact, I’m intending to go and play golf this very weekend.”

      If you pick an arbitrary activity and get the same result then the study probably provides little evidence for a hypothesis specific to parenting.

      P.S. apologies to any golfers I may have inadvertently triggered – I’m sure you’re very happy with your decision.

      P.P.S. Yes, I am aware that I’m probably in the fight back stage as I write this but I’m happy with my decision to write this post and the benefits of doing so vastly outweigh the negatives, in fact I intend to write another one soon.

      • Tim Cooijmans says:

        If you pick an arbitrary activity and get the same result then the study probably provides little evidence for a hypothesis specific to parenting.

        Yup, but it doesn’t need to. The point is that self-reported satisfaction with one’s own decisions is biased upwards.

        • bobzymandias says:

          Agreed, but that point wasn’t made – only the specific claim about parenting which, while true, leaves out a fairly big part of the picture. This then leads onto making claims about why parents might behave this way where an explanation of “this is how everyone acts about everything all the time” would be sufficient and William of Occam instructs us to stop there.

          I’d be interested to see a study which compares various topics (such as golfing) and compare which has the largest effect. My guess is parenting would be pretty high because it is high commitment, highly emotional and once you’ve made the decision you can’t change your mind!

    • themadmammaker says:

      the ongoing subjective experience of being a parent is miserable

      More specifically, the subjective experience during the Child’s first three years – once the kid is 3 or 4 years old, things probably get better (though after a quick look at the data I’m not sure how true this is, it may just be my experience and that of a handful of people in this thread)

      • Awkward Turtle says:

        From my own experience, during the first three years they have trouble sleeping and are liable to kill themselves by swallowing random things, which requires CONSTANT VIGILANCE. So parenting is either fun or completely exhausting depending on how many people you have around to watch the kids so you can catch up on sleep /take a shower /go a date once a week.

        Parenting is one of the things that will make you regret moving away from your friends and or church for a better paying job.

        So 80% of my parenting problems were due to locked in things I didn’t think about when I was younger. Those things get easier when the kids get older.

        • moridinamael says:

          I would add that by my third kid, CONSTANT VIGILANCE became a passive, automatic process that no longer requires cognitive resources. The mind is plastic, it adapts to stresses.

          edit: Yes, this does feel like a superpower (Thinker 2), relative to the way I used to be.

        • baconbits9 says:

          From my own experience, during the first three years they have trouble sleeping and are liable to kill themselves by swallowing random things, which requires CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

          Sample size of two, but I haven’t found that kids need constant vigilance past around 24 months.

          • tane says:

            Depending on the kid… they still need constant vigilance, but it’s now to protect the environment from them rather than the other way around!

            (Due to a brainfart I accidentally hit ‘report’ on this post – is there a way to undo that from the user side?)

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            I agree with baconbits (n=1), though you have a point about protecting the environment. Post 20-24 months it gradually tapers down to just REGULAR VIGILANCE…

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            but it’s now to protect the environment from them rather than the other way around!

            I was going to say exactly that. When I realize I haven’t heard my two year old making any noise for 30 minutes, I don’t immediately snap to “she might be hurt!” but to “what has she destroyed?!”

        • JohnNV says:

          I will second this from the opposite perspective. My satisfaction with becoming a parent was maybe 3 or 4 on this list when we lived a continent away from either set of grandparents, but is now a 5 and we decided to have a second child as a result of being 11 minutes away from my wife’s parents who love to take the kids for an evening. That makes ALL the difference.

      • sourcreamus says:

        My experience is that it started great and got better. Much of the overwhelming nature of modern parenting is just due to parents trying to be superstars instead of enjoying the experience. Almost all kids will quickly learn to sleep if you establish a schedule, you get quickly inured to diaper changing, and if you need a break there are plenty of movies for them to watch or plenty of easy ways to get a babysitter.

    • rahien.din says:

      Not exactly the same but related : my wife was utterly miserable during her first pregnancy, to the point that she wondered if she could endure it for another child. Some years later we decided to have our second kid, with much beatific expectation. Once again, she was utterly miserable her entire pregnancy. Every so often she would say “How did I forget how much this fucking sucks?!” And then, “If I had remembered how bad this was, I might not have done it.”

      We had a goal for our family and met it, and meeting our goal has greatly increased all of our happiness. And we owe that to a giant cognitive blindspot.

      • tane says:

        Our explicit goal was to have all our kids close together before we’d recovered enough from the sleep deprivation to realise what a bad idea it was. It worked pretty well, as they get older we’re both rapidly coming round to the position that we don’t want more. 😛

    • Lasagna says:

      Or maybe, just maybe, there aren’t that many “bad things”.

      I mentioned this in my post below, but I keep seeing the same mistake posted reguarly, so:

      “Strained finances” =/= “unhappiness”. Neither does “professional sacrifice”, “intellectual drain”, “lack of regular sex” or whatever else you want to call having your every immediate and transient desire fulfilled. These things might bring unhappiness if you aren’t raising children, but once you’ve reoriented yourself to where your purpose IS to raise children, full stop, these issues become far less important.

      “The View From Hell” might be a great blog, but the posts analyzing why parents don’t seem to be unhappy even though – gasp! – having children is financially harder than not having children is really, really missing the obvious.

      • publiusvarinius says:

        These things might bring unhappiness if you aren’t making paperclips, but once you’ve reoriented yourself to where your purpose IS to make paperclips, full stop, these issues become far less important.

        (I think your argument above is convincing, just not reassuring.)

      • nemorathwald says:

        Lasagna, this is wrong. A lack of money dramatically reduces happiness. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton said in the US this effect does not level off with diminishing returns until about $75,000 per year.


        The struggle to survive creates exhaustion, and strains social connections to the breaking point. It is possible for relationships to persevere through this drain of energy, but staggeringly difficult.

        • Of course less money reduces happiness. When you buy an expensive sports car you have less money too, but you weigh that against the happiness of having the car. I had less money after I had kids, but spending that money on kids was easily worth the expense.

          And the aggravation. Although I do think the aggravation is greatly exaggerated. Mostly having kids took up a lot of time and gave us less freedom to do other things. But it wasn’t really very hard.

          My kids are now in their twenties. Yes it is easier now that they aren’t underfoot, but I always enjoyed having them around when they were young too. And now that I’ve had kids, I can’t imagine the space I was in before I decided to do this. It seems to me that having kids is one of the most important things in life. What could more important than raising the next generation of humans. Say creating books or art that lasts for years is somewhat equivalent, but much more likely to fail.

          • Tom Crispin says:

            Completely agree.

            There are no passengers on starship earth, we are all crew.

            Nothing is more important that raising the next generation of crew, much too important to leave to government. But that’s a different discussion.

    • Wency says:

      I have to think View From Hell’s economic argument is relevant but easy to overplay.

      Caplan argues the return on children was generally negative:

      Surely the idea that children are net contributors of resources to their parents is an aberration in the animal kingdom (and for that matter, every other kingdom) — and, by extension, within the human experience as a whole. Apple trees don’t make apples for their own health.

      That said, it’s still plausible that it might have happened sometimes, or at least been close to break-even. I’d look particularly at times and places where a lot of people were breeding at close to the biological maximum (e.g. the American colonies). Or how about John Wesley (founder of Methodism), the 15th of 19 children (10 surviving), whose wife was a 25th child and herself gave birth to 19 children (10 surviving). Surely the cost of each of these children must have been pretty low.

      At times and places where each child was costly, people managed family size much more tightly.

      My suspicion is that a change in the economic value of children probably has a lot to do with women having 3 children today who in the past would have had 10+, but not a lot to do with women having 0-1 today who in the past would have had 3. For the latter group, I suspect cultural factors are more relevant.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Copying and pasting a comment I recently made on HN:

      Fatherhood has made me keenly aware that there isn’t just one sort of undifferentiated pile of warm emotion that we can call “happiness.”
      I can feel exhausted and wrung out when my daughter responds to my attempts to make her life better and more comfortable by screaming at me and throwing things. I can feel angry when she does things that she knows are naughty and ignores our rules. And at the same time I can feel proud of her and connected to her and love her and be in awe of her learning and feel incredible when she tells me she loves me.

      And I don’t think it makes sense to sort of try to treat those like they are just positive and negative numbers and say what does it sum up to, positive or negative? They coexist, they don’t cancel each other out. No matter how much I feel great when she tells me she loves me, that doesn’t make it less exhausting to worry about the absurd hoops that I have to jump through for an education for her. And no matter how upsetting it is to have someone kick you when you try to help her feel safe after a nightmare, that doesn’t make me feel any less deep satisfaction that someone that I help create and teach will (hopefully) survive me and always be part of my life.

    • pontifex says:

      Hmm… the link to the The View from Hell doesn’t seem to work for me.

    • mwengler says:

      Remembering being happy may provide more utility than actually having been happy. It lasts longer.

      Also, isn’t there a fair amount of evidence that things that take effort and come at some cost are more satisfying? That writing a PhD thesis is more satisfying than going to Disneyland for four years? Why not the same effect with children?

  4. Scott – are you also factoring into your decision the potential societal benefits of bringing a bunch of mini-Scotts into the world (which I imagine would be considerable), or primarily concerned with your own life satisfaction/happiness? (no judgement whatsoever either way, I’m just curious!)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m considering the environmental cost of additional people, plus the cost of my girlfriend and I being able to do less work because we’re spending so much effort raising children, compared to the benefit that my girlfriend and I are both effective altruists so there’s a decent chance our kids would turn out that way too, adjusted for the fact that the world may end before they become adults, and eventually deciding I’m just going to do what I want.

      • So if I persuade you that the net externality from population increase consisting of your kids is positive, you will decide to have them? I’ll work on it.

        For the first draft, composed well in advance, see …

        Laissez-faire in Population: The Least Bad Solution

      • Are you maximizing total utility or average utility? If total it should be a pretty easy call, since the happiness of your kids can be expected to be large and the net effect on you and your partner is at worse ambiguous, on the evidence of your poll positive. Average isn’t quite as clear.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I’m an average utilitarian (modulo some artificial restrictions to prevent it from being horrible) and my partner is a total utilitarian (modulo same). Not sure what to do about this one.

          • Average utilitarianism is, I think, even harder to fit with our moral intuition than total utilitarianism. Meade offered the following example.

            The world consists of two cities, A and B. Both are pleasant places filled with happy people, but the people in A are a little happier than the people in B. The two cities have essentially no interaction.

            Some catastrophe instantly and painlessly wipes out the population of B. On your principles this is a good thing.

            To put the point more generally, why should whether a particular life’s existence counts as good or bad depend on the condition of the lives of other people with whom that person has no interaction?

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Do you really not know the considerations in favor of average utilitarianism, or are we just going to play the Recite Well-Known Philosophical Thought Experiments game at each other until we both get bored?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Why do you think it is that utilitarianism is the ethical system with the most thought experiments showing it broken?

          • Philosophisticat says:

            I think it’s even worse than that. Average utilitarianism implies that it can be better to (without affecting anyone else) add people into the world with absolutely horrible lives containing nothing but suffering, over doing nothing and even over adding very good lives. I think that the implications of average utilitarianism for population axiology are the most sadistic of any of the going views, and there’s a good reason it’s the least popular.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            Although I don’t think David Friedman’s case is actually one of the counterexamples. It relies on misunderstanding the best (still monstrous) version of the view, which does not remove people from the denominator if they die.

          • John Nerst says:

            I’m an average utilitarian /…/ and my partner is a total utilitarian

            Sitcom premise right there.

          • johan_larson says:

            I’m an average utilitarian /…/ and my partner is a total utilitarian

            Sitcom premise right there.

            They fight crime.

          • Jack V says:

            “Do you really not know the considerations in favor of average utilitarianism,”

            I really don’t.

            I mean, I know some standard thought experiments that argue which sort of utilitarianism would be preferable and I agree there’s no point rehashing them. But I haven’t seen anything persuasive that one form is more helpful than the others.

            I default to “on questions that involve increasing or decreasing the number of people, use common sense; on questions about a fixed number of people use utilitarianism (modulo some restrictions)”. I would like a more formal treatment of the former. But whenever someone says “I prefer X utilitarianism” I do always want to find out why.

          • Houshalter says:

            Friedman, do you think people give their own deaths highly negative utility?

          • rlms says:

            @Jack V
            I assumed the considerations were just the thought experiments that show problems with total utilitarianism. Of course, this whole discussion is pointless as I definitively solved ethics a couple of years ago: “greedy preference utilitarianism” — preference utilitarianism but only considering currently existing beings.

          • Murphy says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            “Why do you think it is that utilitarianism is the ethical system with the most thought experiments showing it broken?”

            is it? Are there any well defined ethical systems without a ream of thought experiments showing weird or intuitively undesirable results for edge cases?

            it’s fairly clearly defined so you can actually propose meaningful thought experiments about it so it’s going to have more than the “bob says bob does what bob feels like doing” ethical system held only by bob.

          • wintermute92 says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            Why do you think it is that utilitarianism is the ethical system with the most thought experiments showing it broken?

            I think that might be rhetorical, but my sincere answer is “because it gives clear, challengeable prescriptions”. Possibly with a side of “consequentialists are more likely to generate challenges to their own views than other people”.

            Most other ethical systems appear either tautological (God said what is good, it must be good because God said it), or unfalsifiable (What would it mean for atheistic Kantianism to be ‘broken’? I object that it’s baseless, not inconsistent). Deontology in particular doesn’t justify ethical acts by their consequences, so there’s no way to construct a ‘gotcha’.

            Honestly, this feels a bit like telling me that evolution has more holes in it than intelligent design. It doesn’t indicate that the first position is wrong, just that the second comes with a way to bypass all criticisms.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            Why do you think it is that utilitarianism is the ethical system with the most thought experiments showing it broken?

            A) It is a simple view, in a way which makes its implications clear and uncontroversial.
            B) It is a false view, so there are many counterexamples.
            C) It is a popular view, so people are motivated to come up with them.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I feel like Scott is taunting me with the whole “the child-bearing population is probably just more satisfied with life because they’re more religious” bit*. But I’m still going to take the bait and point out that if you think that and are working with either form of utilitarianism optimizing for life satisfaction, it will be immoral not to raise your children to be religious.

            * How much would I have to Patreon to get that post which analyzes religiousity like you do all those psych drugs?

          • Do you really not know the considerations in favor of average utilitarianism

            I know the considerations against total utilitarianism, as suggested by the way I put the comment. I do not know of any defense of average utilitarianism.

            The argument I offered was from Meade. I came up with several variants of my own before coming across that one, and concluded that the usual tendency to take for granted the objective of maximizing average utility was the result of failing to think about the problem. I eventually wrote a piece, included in one of Julian Simon’s books, trying to come up with something more plausible than either.

            “What Does Optimum Population Mean?” Research in Population Economics, Vol. III (1981), Eds. Simon and Lindert.

            There is a webbed abstract but not, so far as I know, a webbed full text.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Murphy: it’s not fair to compare utilitarianism to “Bob says”: you need to compare it just to virtue and deontology.
            Kantian deontology is weird because the categorical imperative has been mainstreamed as “if everyone did that action, the consequences would be good/terrible”, whereas intellectually rigorous deontology calls for a completely non-consequential rationality. Kant literally said “better that the whole people perish than an injustice be done”, but didn’t bother to ground why “an injustice” is more evil than voluntary genocide.
            Virtue ethics seems to fare better here. It accounts for the consequences of virtues and vices without falling into traps like “give junkies the drugs they want and free clean rooms to shoot up in because it gives them pleasure and they’ll create huge negative utility if you don’t “, while people who keep a stiff upper lip when inconvenienced may get nothing.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Jaskologist: hi, I see you’ve found the inescapable utilitarian case for religion, as first formulated by Joseph de Maistre not long after the French Revolution. Let’s be friends. 😀

          • do you think people give their own deaths highly negative utility?

            Not exactly. I think people see their own death as a large reduction in what their utility would have been had they lived.

            To put it differently, the best definition I can see of zero utility is that if your expected utility is below zero you would rather die.

            Would you find Meade’s example less persuasive if we changed it to prevent city B from coming into existence in the first place? If we wiped it out by birth control rather than by killing, after somehow providing the inhabitants with the illusion of children and the associated pleasures?

          • Deontology in particular doesn’t justify ethical acts by their consequences, so there’s no way to construct a ‘gotcha’.

            The constructed gotcha’s for utilitarianism, such as the one I offered, depend on a conflict between its implications and our moral intuitions. You can do the same thing for a deontological system.

            Indeed, I have. One of my standard arguments against the strong libertarian natural rights position is to imagine that an asteroid is about to strike Earth and wipe out the entire population but can somehow be stopped by stealing an item worth a nickle from a man who is its just owner and who does not care if the asteroid strikes.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Indeed, I have. One of my standard arguments against the strong libertarian natural rights position is to imagine that an asteroid is about to strike Earth and wipe out the entire population but can somehow be stopped by stealing an item worth a nickle from a man who is its just owner and who does not care if the asteroid strikes.

            Well an item that could stop an asteroid from hitting wouldn’t be worth a nickle, unless there were many of them, in which case buy one of the other ones.

          • Philosophisticat says:

            Here’s something I take to be as obviously correct as just about anything in ethics.

            If option A makes all existing people better off, and creates only happy people, and option B makes all existing people worse off, and creates only forever-tortured people, then you should pick option A over option B.

            Average utilitarianism, impressively, manages not to capture this.

          • Aapje says:

            @baconbits9 & DavidFriedman

            I would modify the example to argue that the person has an irrational sentimental attachment to the item, which happens to a powerful alien device that fell out of space onto his family home, killing his wife and children. He gained ownership because the device fell on his land and is still too overcome with grief and too attached to having this memento, that he is unwilling to believe that the device can actually save mankind.

            That is the back story I came up with, anyway.

          • Creutzer says:

            @Philosophisticat: Can you quote or point to the scenario? Because I’m totally failing to see how making everyone existing worse off and creating people with terrible lives could increase the average.

          • @Creutzer:

            It’s the other half of his point.

            We start with a world of a thousand people each with a utility of 10,000.

            We make a change that raises the utility of each of them to 10,001 but also introduces another thousand people with a utility of 9,998.

            All existing people are better off, all new people are happy, although not quite as happy as the existing people, and average utility goes down.

          • szopeno says:

            Morality does not exist outside people and human moral intuitions. Utilitarianism is weird, because it tries to introduce rational rules into something, which is by its very nature irrational.

          • Murphy says:


            All formally states ethical systems are weird in some way.
            Nobody seems to have worked out a way to define that intuition.

            But if we ever want to build things that can take morality into account in a meaningful way that doesn’t suck we probably need to solve that problem, even if it’s some kind of mashup of different systems.

          • Wrong Species says:


            I don’t think it’s possible to solve the problem. Our moral intuitions are contradictory. That means that any system of morality we come up with is either going to contradict itself or be horrifying if consistently applied. I don’t know how to work around that but I don’t think trying to find “the one true ethical theory” is a goal worth striving for.

      • AnteriorMotive says:

        Environmental cost? Even if you don’t fully buy into the thesis that human ingenuity creates resources faster than human consumption depletes them, (discussed on sinesalvetorem’s tumblr), it seems like a no-brainer when applied to children whose projected ingenuity is in the 99th percentile.

        • sclmlw says:

          This has never made sense to me. It’s amazing to me that even trained biologists are often ignorant of the obvious error in the argument that individual decisions about reproduction will impact general population size.

          My thesis advisor (in Immunology) believed in this idea, and it was a primary justification why she proudly affirmed her decision to have one child (not personal preference, but a ‘moral’ justification based on reduced environmental impact). But a trained biologist should understand what’s really happening here. She isn’t reducing the future overall world population, but rather her own genetic representation in that future population.

          What’s interesting, is that this philosophical blindness disappears when humans aren’t involved. For example, let’s say I wanted to reduce the cockroach population in NYC (no pejorative intended between associating humans with insects), and you suggested, “what if we replaced 500,000 normal cockroaches with a strain that is incapable of reproduction?” Would this be expected to have ANY significant reduction in the roach population of NYC in, say, 3 years?

          Obviously, not. The other roaches will simply out-compete the population that’s reducing in size. There might be a momentary blip, with a return to trend following soon after the initial introduction of the non-reproducing roaches. The same should apply to human populations. We expect cultures with low reproductive rates to gradually be replaced by higher-reproductive populations. For example, continental Europe, with very low birthrates, has recently been experiencing significant migration from the Middle East – which has very high birth rates.

          The only way to reduce population size is at population levels (China’s one-child policy, for example) and the only way permanent reductions will be achieved is by global restrictions on birth rate (for example, the two-child policy in the novel Ender’s Game). Individual decisions are simply a matter of preference, or a matter of whether your genetic profile will be represented in future generations.

          I fail to see the moral justification as regards global environmental concerns.

          • Calm Canary says:

            Non-human populations are assumed to be operating under Malthusian conditions. As you say, the effect of the sterile cockroaches is negligible because their failure to reproduce frees up resources for the children of other cockroaches. If a cockroach population has infinite resources and a growth rate of r, sterilizing 500,000 should reduce the population in t years by about 500000e^(rt).

            Industrialized human societies are non-Malthusian, so the additional resources freed by someone deciding not to reproduce will not prevent other children from starving to death, because few children are starving to death to begin with. In so far as people are not having children they want because of the expense, it may increase population growth by lowering prices, but this effect is likely to be much weaker than with the roaches, and take a long time to outweigh the first-order effect.

          • WarOnReasons says:

            My thesis advisor (in Immunology) believed in this idea, and it was a primary justification why she proudly affirmed her decision to have one child (not personal preference, but a ‘moral’ justification based on reduced environmental impact).

            Are you entirely sure that this was not in fact a personal preference (albeit an unconscious one) and the “environmental impact” just made her feel better about this decision?

          • sclmlw says:

            @ WarOnReasons: She openly expressed that her decision not to increase her reproductive rate was based on this moral reasoning, and that in her opinion anyone who did not limit their reproduction accordingly was immoral. She might also have had a personal preference, but I suspect that preference was informed by the moral reasoning more than the reverse.

            @ Calm Canary: Actually, I think you have it backward here. Cockroaches didn’t just show up in Manhattan yesterday. They’ve been there long enough that we can assume they are no longer in logarithmic growth phase, but in more of an equilibrium. Meanwhile, human populations have shown a surprising tendency to produce additional resources as population demands increase. Admittedly, that production is not mirrored by equal distribution, which is why we see starving populations – especially under areas of authoritarian rule. Interestingly, where food is not able to penetrate many low-income high-birthrate areas, often we see human migration making up for distributional inequities. As in my examples above.

            None of this changes the fundamental problems with the hypothesis that a small group of humans, deciding unilaterally to limit their reproduction, can meaningfully impact overall human population growth. Sorry, but a couple million rich people having 0-1 children is not going to meaningfully slow world population increases. The only impact will be to ensure that the genetic profile of those successful people are less amply represented in future generations taxed with solving the problems generated by that increased population.

            Human population growth presents real problems, and this is just not a good solution. I know there are a lot of people personally invested in it in more than a philosophical way, but it still has exactly zero probability of producing meaningful results. The biology has been against it from the beginning.

          • pdbarnlsey says:

            Meanwhile, human populations have shown a surprising tendency to produce additional resources as population demands increase.

            And also when population demands don’t increase (very much), as in China over the last few decades. This is where the notion of a demographic dividend for nations with falling population growth comes from.

            I think you need to do more to establish the existence of an equilibrium population and/or that additional persons automatically lead to an offsetting increase in resources. I’m not even sure which of these you’re arguing.

      • Doug says:

        I highly suggest freezing sperm, eggs and/or embryos. The cost is relatively small, and it allows you to make a decision in the future, without the risk of having it made for you by sitting on the fence too long. Plus, there’s a relatively big advantage to having your future child be conceived with 30 year old gametes rather than 40 year old gametes. Certainly at least as large as attending Harvard vs UCLA, for which many parents will pay much more than the cost of freezing gametes.

        • On the other hand, as you get older you may become less able to bear the costs, in time and energy, of rearing small children.

          At a considerable tangent, one story idea I have played with (but don’t plan to write) is about a society with stasis technology. When the parents of a month old baby get completely exhausted, they pop him into the stasis field so that they can have a good night’s sleep. A little later to let them go out for a movie. A little later for a weekend. …

          At the end of the story they are sixty or seventy and their child is three.

          I have a page of ideas for stories I’m not going to write, some of which, including this one, other people have used.

      • Wrong Species says:

        You should also consider the happiness of your hypothetical children. Depression is up. Suicide rates are up. And those are probably going to get worse for would be rationalists than the normal person.

      • janrandom says:

        The environmental-cost-of-a-kid calculation is complex and has a lot of local variables we don’t know much about. Humility advises us to follow the majority advice, or?

        Please make your decision independent on how your children turn out. Please don’t make your feelings for them compete with your feelings toward the world at large. Even probabilistically. Likely you are a better human than I am and maybe you can do some mind trick that I can’t but I wouldn’t bet on it.

        Please also consider the non-linearity of the overall setup: Try to avoid trading time for children against time for work against time for partner(s). The point in the middle is the worst place to be on average. Try to engineer the overall situation to have slack and stable well-known states for each.


        • Please make your decision independent on how your children turn out.

          The decision is made before he can see how the children turn out. Do you mean “independent of how you expect them to turn out” or “such that you won’t decide your decision was wrong if they turn out badly”?

          For the former, why would you advise that? If, to take an extreme example, I am carrying a genetic disease that my children are likely to have, isn’t that a pretty strong argument against having them? If I and my wife had characteristics that we believe are heritable and that result in the kind of people we think there should be more of, wouldn’t that be an argument in favor of producing those people?

          For the latter version, people routinely have to make decisions ex ante while knowing they might turn out to be mistakes ex post.

          • janrandom says:

            > Do you mean “independent of how you expect them to turn out” or “such that you won’t decide your decision was wrong if they turn out badly”?

            Neither. I realize that I was not precise enough.
            Yes, people routinely need to make decisions that may turn out to be mistakes ex post. I don’t want to discourage Scott from taking the potential health or mental abilities into account. Including the ability to parent and educate the child based on these traits. Go forward and take that into account.

            I think that is fine because if the outcome of the first is not as you hoped for it will easy to see that as bad luck and nobodies fault.

            I was talking about something else: If someone plans to raise EAs because EA is the right thing ™ to do and the children turn out to have different ideas then it will be much harder to untangle the feelings for them from feelings for EA and the greater good. There are many ways this latter case can go wrong. My point is to engineer an emotional landscape where positive feelings toward children are not coupled/dependent on what they do or what character they develop.

            But most likely all of this is quite obvious and an overly complex way of saying “love your children how they are”.

      • bigjohn33 says:

        The world will be worse off if you don’t have kids. Your writing will be washed away in time and even the people who you impacted the most will eventually be gone too. Your progeny lives on. And you are smart; if there is any hope for the environment it will come from people like you. If you overthink it we are doomed. We’re probably doomed anyway but you could at least do your part to slow it down. Happiness is overrated. Do your duty. If you’re really concerned about the environment you could kill some crappy people and that would probably help too.

        • publiusvarinius says:

          Your writing will be washed away in time and even the people who you impacted the most will eventually be gone too. Your progeny lives on.

          That is such a bad argument. Genes are washed away way way way faster than words. Your genotype is washed away even faster than your mere genes – this is why you can’t clone yourself by committing atrocious incest over multiple generations.

          Scott’s progeny will not have much to do with Scott in 500 years, not in genes, not in phenotypes. The impact of Scott’s writing will almost certainly be bigger in 500 years than the impact of his genome. Even if Scott had an impressive number of kids, his genetic impact would be ~0 in 500 years unless human population growth collapses dramatically.

          Genghis Khan had thousands of children. Plato had none. Despite his reproductive success, Genghis’ ideas had very little influence on our civilization; the most notable achievement of his genetically closest descendants is binge-drinking on a weekly basis.

          • Even if Scott had an impressive number of kids, his genetic impact would be ~0 in 500 years unless human population growth collapses dramatically.

            That’s true if you define his genetic impact in terms of what percentage of the genes in the population came from him. It’s less clear if you include non-genetic impact of his genetic descendants. Single individuals can have a large effect on the world and there may heritable characteristics that will recur repeatedly in a line of descendants.

            I am perhaps influenced by my wife’s comment, after socializing with me, my parents, and the son of my first marriage, that she was observing the same personality at three different ages.

    • CthulhuChild says:

      ITT: dozens of posters trying to convince Scott that he should breed.

      I find it interesting that the two heuristics that seem to be showing up as primary inputs to decision making are “will my hypothetical children make the world a better place” and “will my life-satisfaction be increased by kids”. May I suggest a third, namely the anticipated subjective experience of the children themselves?

      Inside view: my kids are probably going to be similar to my spouse and I, we are mostly happy with life. Outside view: kids raised by people in my situation (parents in stable relationship, stable career, secure finances), tend to be happier than those who are raised outside those conditions.
      Moloch check: Universal adherence to this criteria seems unlikely to make the world terrible.

      I don’t like the other heuristics. The “will my kid make the world a better place” seems impossible to evaluate. I legitimately don’t know if *I* am making the world enough of a better place to justify the resources I consume as part of the western lifestyle. Would I consume less if I had a kid to occupy my time? Will having a kid impair my ability to do good? Will the kid make up for the resource cost? Does any of this even matter in the face of rapid technological development? With so many complex unknowns, I feel trying to evaluate on these lines rapidly devolves to pure intuition and internal bias.

      The “will I increase my satisfaction by having a kid” heuristic fails the Moloch check. It is far to easy to imagine a system where this is a universal heuristic, where every individual decides on that criteria and reduces total satisfaction of the system for tiny gains to themselves. Besides, I think the inside view on this one is hard to evaluate and the outside view is confusing, but maybe that’s just me.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        “ITT: dozens of posters trying to convince Scott that he should breed.”

        And they’re at least nearly all men*, such that, in a disproportionately pro-polyamory community, and with Scott being SCOTT ALEXANDER, he isn’t having a storm of uteruses thrown at him. (Not only do I wonder which fraction of rationalist women is too rational to breed, I wonder, in fact, how many of the men want Scott to breed, but not themselves.)

        *: if any women joined the movement for breeding Scotts, I imagine they’re Conservative/too old/both.

        (Alternative explanation: Scott’s getting thousands of private proposals.)

        As for the criteria: I agree “the children’s experience” matters, but what can people expect a priori? “Similar to self”, in which case those satisfied with their lives are good to go (provided decent choice of spouse), “similar to spouse” or “half of each” (requires having a clear candidate to judge), or “better than my own experience, because I’ll prepare more” (for SSC readers, not to say the author, quite plausible).

        As for “make the world a better place”, please drop the white guilt. (Not all) Other cultures are consuming smaller chunks of resources only due to limited opportunity (i.e. will consume as much as at all possible, unlike you), and contribute [perhaps almost] nothing (positive). Anybody who has a sense of “contributing” and “not expending everything possible”, and some actual capacity to do both is better for breeding than anyone else.

        Rapid technological development? The one that may not happen enough to solve our problems, especially if those most able to contribute to it replenish themselves the least?

        Agree on the third being wrong.

        • CthulhuChild says:

          “please drop the white guilt”

          To be clear: little guilt, and certainly no white guilt. I don’t believe that the west owes the world a great debt due to the resources we collectively consume. That’s just the whole burden-of-the-white-man thing with a coat of psuedo-PC paint. And as you point out, it’s not like other cultures wouldn’t consume what we do given the capacity. I believe that I am personally obligated to contribute in approximate proportion to my consumption… and thanks to capitalism, my contribution to society and consumption of global resources are largely balanced (I get paid money, and I spend my money). I’m concerned that the system isn’t as well aligned as I think it needs to be, calling that “guilt” is probably overstating the case.

          But perhaps more to the point, I agree with basically everything you are saying, but you’re highlighting the classic inside view/outside view conflict (high functioning people should trust the inside view more often, low functioning people should trust the outside view, in practice high functioning people have enough conscientiousness to doubt themselves constantly, low functioning people don’t). Rather than trying to solve that snarl, I’m just bypassing it by and choosing priors with better signal/noise ratio.

          • aNeopuritan says:

            You may not associate it with your whiteness, but the people that created wanted it to. And it works, which goes against preserving anything.

        • pontifex says:

          ITT: dozens of posters trying to convince Scott that he should breed.” And they’re at least nearly all men*, such that, in a disproportionately pro-polyamory community, and with Scott being SCOTT ALEXANDER, he isn’t having a storm of uteruses thrown at him.

          That… seems like a pretty large assumption on your part?

          Also, I am now hoping that “A Storm of Uteruses” is going to be George R. R. Martin’s next book.

  5. meh says:

    This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child.

    Would this not just be people being miserable with having 1 will stop at 1, while people who notice a happiness boost will want more?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Oh, good point.

      • shacklesburst says:

        Purely anecdata, but I’ve met multiple parents who were noticeably unhappy with their decision to have a child, but then almost immediately conceived again, because maybe the second or third time’s the charm? This may also play a part in the old tales about the youngest child being the most pampered one who can do no wrong etc.

        Anyway, I could at least imagine a lot of reasons for parents whose first child made them generally unhappier to try their luck again until happiness levels rose again.

        • edanm says:

          Also, given that you have one child, even if unhappy, having a second child can be a net positive.

          A lot of the things that made you unhappy are fixed costs, but there is some utility in having a second child. Even if they are a net negative themselves, having two children that can interact with each other might save you some care-taking time, etc.

          • methylethyl says:

            I second edanm. Our first kid was relentless, thankless (the colic! I still want to cry thinking about it!) work and constant vigilance. Brutal. Second kid piled it on. I had serious doubts about my competence as a mother, all my life decisions, and any possibility of a brighter future at that point. Being responsible for keeping *two* little kids alive, constantly, never getting enough sleep, having them both depend almost entirely on me personally for attention and entertainment etc… those were dark times. And then one day the younger one got old enough to play with the older one, and *POOF*!! Life got easier. Better, in fact, than it had been with just one little kid.

            The moral of this story is: it’s better to have more than one, and you need really, really good social support. The early years can be pretty bleak. The payoff comes later, when they become delightfully weird little people. They don’t bring your life happiness (except in short little bursts of incandescent loveliness): they bring your life meaning (however ill-defined that may be– it’s not trivial).

        • Wency says:

          I suppose others may differ, but my whole life I’ve been unhappy to be an only child, especially comparing myself to friends who had another sibling relatively close in age.

          So I decided a long time ago that if I’m having any children, I’m having at least 2, and they will be relatively close in age. Even if I think the second will make me incrementally less happy.

          Surely I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I think most people who have an ideal family size in mind are largely thinking in terms of sibling relationships.

          One other factor in family size is that parents may want at least one son and/or daughter, though that’s not going to have much impact on happiness for the first few years.

          • methylethyl says:

            @Wency: I made a similar decision, based on being one of four siblings. My siblings were (and are) so radically important to me, I can’t even imagine what life as a singleton would be like. It seems very lonely. Our parents weren’t winning any parent-of-the-year awards, but having siblings significantly blunted the effects of deficient parenting. We fought constantly, so it may have been bad for our parents’ quality of life. But for each other… undeniably a positive.

      • Adam says:

        I would expect the stdev to be significantly higher for one-child families if this is the case.

      • albatross11 says:

        On the other hand, if people keep having kids till they have one that’s such a pain in the ass that it sours them on the whole enterprise, you’d expect big families to be the ones with low satisfaction.

    • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

      Not, they want another kid to turn them against each other. And it works every time, and the better the more there are. :-))

      “The skill to get hot without getting mad — to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life.”
      “It turns out that highly creative adults often grow up in families full of tension.”

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    I have to wonder about selection bias here. Like, if the people who have kids are the people who want to have kids, and the people who don’t have kids are the people who don’t want to have kids… that should have some sort of effect, right?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, but these results should be valuable for someone on the line, right?

    • Evan Þ says:

      Like, if the people who have kids are the people who want to have kids, and the people who don’t have kids are the people who don’t want to have kids…

      Maybe among high-conscientiousness SSC readers, but in the world in general?

    • the anonymouse says:

      Not quite so simple. For many reasons, some people who did not want to have kids have ended up with kids.

      Gotta get in there and consider the folks who thought they didn’t want kids, got a kid, and realized they were wrong and love being a parent.

      source: this guy

      • Matt M says:

        I don’t want to make this personal, so please consider it to be generalized and not as a personal attack against you specifically.

        But in those cases, isn’t it somewhat likely this is a self-defense mechanism? Some unplanned/unwanted life event happens – it’s too late to prevent it, mitigate it, or change it in any way. Psychologically speaking, the best thing you could probably do is convince yourself it was “all for the best” and that you’re happy with the result – particularly if it’s a thing that in general, most people seem to accept as a positive thing that a lot of people should be happy with (i.e. if an industrial accident paralyzes you, you’re less likely to say “it was all for the best” because virtually nobody promotes paralysis as a desired state).

        • Lasagna says:

          Sure! Or maybe, just maybe, having children is wonderful, as pretty much everyone throughout human history has said. Just throwing it out there.

        • lupis42 says:

          Psychologically speaking, the best thing you could probably do is convince yourself it was “all for the best” and that you’re happy with the result

          I’m not sure what the distinction is in outcome between being surprised to be happy with an outcome and deliberately self-altering to be happy with an outcome. Either way, your ex ante expectations are for bad outcomes, and your ex post happiness is high.

          The distinction only produces a difference if the defense mechanism doesn’t work properly, so that either the happiness with the result is faked, or there’s sustained effort required to “convince yourself” which is significant enough to present a problem.

          • Matt M says:

            so that either the happiness with the result is faked

            I guess this is my claim. That there’a difference between actually being happy and reporting on a survey that you are happy.

            Consider that when I make most decisions in life, I’m looking to optimize my actual happiness. I debate, “Will taking this path make me happier, yes or no?” But if a decision is enough of a toss-up that I spend a lot of time agonizing over it, I consider it almost certain that no matter what I decide, years later, I will self-report as having made the “right” choice.

            If I’m 50/50 on key decisions before I make them, but then after I make them, I report being happier 100% of the time, this suggests I’m either insanely lucky, or that I’m simply justifying the decisions I make in my head. It’s likely that I’ve made some bad choices, I just can’t tell which are which.

          • quanta413 says:

            @Matt M

            But even if you’re happy with your decisions because of a cognitive bias, does that really make any difference? Or perhaps you really would be happy either way because each branch would make you happy in different ways. The fact that you had a tough time deciding between them implies it’s unlikely that one possible choice was “have hair replaced by biting snakes” or something like that.

          • lupis42 says:

            quanta413 makes a good point above, which I won’t repeat, so I’ll focus on the decisions where the likelihood is that the decision had an impact.

            I’m simply justifying the decisions I make in my head. It’s likely that I’ve made some bad choices, I just can’t tell which are which.

            If there is a difference in the actual happiness experienced, you should be able to tell, right? You should be able to tell which decisions feel good in some inadequate way, and which feel properly good.
            If you can’t tell, that suggests you’re faking it so well that you don’t even realize it. In which case we’re back to the question of whether that’s different from just having been wrong about whether it would make you happy?
            Or, I suppose, the question of whether you’re just overestimating what it would be like to really be happy, and it’s not that different from faked happiness in the first place?

          • Matt M says:

            If is a difference in the actual happiness experienced, you should be able to tell, right there

            No, the issue is the difficulty of comparing the real happiness of something I actually experienced with the counterfactual hypothetical happiness I might have experienced had I gone a different route.

            I go to a new restaurant for lunch. I can have beef or chicken. I choose the beef. I enjoy it. But might the chicken have been better? How can I know?

            Was choosing beef the “right decision”? Well, it was an enjoyable meal, sure. So it’s easy to say that yes, it was. But the question isn’t “was the meal enjoyable” so much as it is “Was beef the better option than chicken?” Which I don’t know, because I haven’t had the chicken.

            Now, I can theorize what the chicken may have been like. I’ve had chicken before in my life, but not from this particular place, so I can’t know for sure. Perhaps a coworker had the chicken and said it was mediocre, that’s valuable info – but maybe the coworker is a foodie who has higher standards than me.

            This might sound trivial (and most assuredly is) for things like beef or chicken, but when you get into huge, life-altering decisions that affect you for the rest of your existence, I imagine it’s more of a big deal. Can someone who started having kids at the age of 20 and now has 5 of them truly “imagine their life without kids?” Seems like a tall order.

          • moridinamael says:

            Can someone who started having kids at the age of 20 and now has 5 of them truly “imagine their life without kids?” Seems like a tall order.

            Maybe not, but I think somebody who starts having kids in their late twenties probably can. My life without kids would involve a lot more sitting on my ass consuming media or websurfing in a distracted fugue. I make this assertion at 90% confidence.

            If I didn’t have kids, I definitely wouldn’t have been running down the aisles in Target last night, making rocket sounds with my mouth, driving one of those multi-kid shopping carts containing three kids all laughing hysterically, causing people in adjacent aisles to go out of their way to peek in on what we were doing, and then, witnessing us in the ebullient uninhibited joy of this moment, break into smiles of reciprocal delight. 100% confidence in this one.

            Also I kind of want to twist your chicken/beef metaphor. Imagine you arrive at a restaurant and the options are chicken or trophorolurp. You’ve never had trophorolurp but heard really good things. In fact, people say that trophorolurp is a qualitatively different experience from chicken, fundamentally incomparable. You’ve had chicken, in fact you’ve been eating chicken every day of your life.

            I’m not saying you must try the trophorolurp, but if I found myself in a restaurant that served it, I definitely would.

          • lupis42 says:

            No, the issue is the difficulty of comparing the real happiness of something I actually experienced with the counterfactual hypothetical happiness I might have experienced had I gone a different route.

            So I get this, and I agree with you – but in that sense, I don’t think there’s much that can be teased out here. The hypothetical comparison depends entirely on the information you have about the alternative not taken, and the assumptions you make about you and it. It means that survey data, even when given honestly, is pretty low use as a guide to decisions.

            The question that I’m trying to tease out, which is what I took from , is whether it matters if people who’ve made a decision and report being happier have self-modified to a state where that’s true instead of having started in that state or arrived at it without deliberate effort.
            I’m mostly interested in it because it’s fascinating, but also because it has some interesting implications.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            If I’m 50/50 on key decisions before I make them, but then after I make them, I report being happier 100% of the time, this suggests I’m either insanely lucky, or that I’m simply justifying the decisions I make in my head. It’s likely that I’ve made some bad choices, I just can’t tell which are which.

            Alternatively, the decision didn’t really matter too much. Both paths could take you to a good result.

          • Matt M says:

            But I suspect when it comes to things like having children, the answer is not “the decision doesn’t matter”

          • quanta413 says:

            But when I suspect it comes to things like having children, the answer is not “the decision doesn’t matter”

            True, but aside from some rare philosophical anti-natalists, most people want the human population to at least be eventually steady (if not proliferating) so children create large positive externalities (on average). This isn’t terribly convincing on an individual level though.

          • If I didn’t have kids, I definitely wouldn’t have been running down the aisles in Target last night, making rocket sounds with my mouth, driving one of those multi-kid shopping carts containing three kids …

            Do you have a local Costco? With free samples?

            I’m not sure you can fit three kids into one of their carts, but it was a lot of fun with two. I’ve been thinking of going back again with my grandchildren.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            But I suspect when it comes to things like having children, the answer is not “the decision doesn’t matter”

            Ok, maybe “doesn’t matter” is the wrong phrase. But one could certainly wind up happy with either choice. There are people who feel strongly one way or the other and would be negatively impacted by not following their preferred path, but they aren’t putting 50/50 odds on picking the right one.

            This of course doesn’t apply to all decision points. But if you notice a lot of 50/50 picks working out well, maybe you just don’t have that strong of preferences (“going with the flow”, “hedonic treadmill”, or something). And I don’t think that qualifies as self-delusion – happiness is not a rigid ordering.

          • baconbits9 says:

            If I didn’t have kids, I definitely wouldn’t have been running down the aisles in Target last night, making rocket sounds with my mouth,

            One of the weaknesses of my approach to raising kids! I used to ride the shopping cart to my car (maybe making rocket noises), but I insist my kids walk through stores unless there is a compelling reason not to so no more shopping cart riding for me (until they are old enough that we can race at least).

          • taradinoc says:


            Imagine you arrive at a restaurant and the options are chicken or trophorolurp. You’ve never had trophorolurp but heard really good things. In fact, people say that trophorolurp is a qualitatively different experience from chicken, fundamentally incomparable. You’ve had chicken, in fact you’ve been eating chicken every day of your life.

            I’m not saying you must try the trophorolurp, but if I found myself in a restaurant that served it, I definitely would.

            This actually sounds incredibly unsettling. I’d expect the next act of this story to involve learning that “trophorolurp” is the native word for “hypnotoad”, and then being chased out of the building by an army of people marching in lockstep, plates of trophorolurp in their outstretched arms.

    • Aapje says:


      That effect could presumably be measured by comparing the involuntary childless with the voluntary childless & the involuntary child-having with the voluntary child-having.

  7. mobile says:

    Kids are fine as far as they go. But to see some serious life satisfaction, you need to find somebody that has grandkids.

    • With a little advance notice I can exhibit the grandkids for Scott’s inspection. They were at the most recent meetup, may or may not be at the one next week.

      So then the question is how big his discount rate is.

    • Lasagna says:

      OH yeah. With every new grandkid, my parents float another inch off the ground.

      • baconbits9 says:

        My parents currently have 11 grandkids and they were excited for the brief window this past year when 3 more were on the way. Unfortunately none of those 3 worked out, but there doesn’t seem to be a point of significant diminishing returns anywhere on the horizon for them.

  8. In the least creepy way possible, I really hope you have kids. You got some A+ genes.

    I’m sorta making the same choice now as well with my wife… I think we will probably have kids because it’s the natural course of things. But it’s a tough choice. I almost feel an obligation, to my family and my biology, more than an excitement.

    • Well... says:

      That’s good! Do it! There was a documentary, Idiocracy, that shows what happens if you don’t.

    • Cliff says:

      Honestly I think that’s better. Go into it with realistic expectations and you will not be disappointed. I went into it assuming it would be a sacrifice and I was willing to make it. Compared to what others face in life, the burden is very light.

  9. dansimonicouldbewrong says:

    Happiness isn’t the most important thing in the world. Even if having kids doesn’t make you happier, it gives you enormous insight into the human condition that you really can’t get any other way.

  10. Ketil says:

    This is only correlation, and I hope you (or anyone else) don’t base your decision on whether or not to have children on this. I’m sure you’re familiar with curves showing a substantial drop in happiness the moment children arrive. It seems probable that already happy couples are more likely to have children in the first place, for instance. (Doh)

    There must be a thousand other confounding factors, numbers from Germany showed young, educated people to have the largest drop in happiness. Unsurprisingly, since those are likely to experience the largest life change. (Isn’t it typical of life’s crises that they turn your life upside down? Losing your job, having a divorce, death of a close family member?) I would expect the drop in happiness to be way smaller for child number two and on. As for Norwegian parents, they tend to be old (first time mothers average over thirty) and well off (thanks to benefits like paid maternity leave and subsidized day care, which lets mothers combine child raising with a career with relatively little economic impact).

    Also the age of the child is important – small children take a lot of work, and although there are challenges with older children, at least you get to keep some of your own life.

    Source: http://www.side2.no/foreldre/du-blir-ikke-lykkeligere-av-a-fa-barn/8550037.html (In Norwegian, but graphs and links to a presentation by Margolis)

    • Well... says:

      I’m sure you’re familiar with curves showing a substantial drop in happiness the moment children arrive.

      Curves are good for showing trends across a population. They are almost useless for predicting outcomes for any given individual.

  11. inky says:

    I wonder how much the observed results are due to a very specific target demographic. As if, I would imagine, an average person reading this blog and deciding to have children does so first weighting all the possible downsides, has all the other bases covered (financially stable, satisfying job and romantic relationship) and probably overestimates the sorrows of parenthood by quite a bit. Once it turns out to be a survivable (especially past first 1-4 years) and even pretty enjoyable experience, happiness levels go through the roof, because, hey, having children is enjoyable on many levels (otherwise we would’ve gone extinct long ago). Another reason why having more children improves happiness might be that the interpersonal skills involved in parenting keep developing, and the horrors of parenting don’t look that bleak anymore, they are the devil you know. The value of having children, however, does not erode with quantity, you will love your third child as much as the first one. There might be even more complex dynamics, as your children grow up and interact together as part of your extended family. Most importantly, it cements your social circle – you know, that barring some exceptional circumstances, you won’t be lonely in old age which is a pretty miserable experience.
    I’m happy to hear you do something that may cement your future happiness and also bring more good people to this world.
    I’m sad because I know that you are not likely to have much time for blogging and/or chitchat if you take that decision. You may be a very good planner, but this is a pattern that I’ve seen across my friends: after they have children, the amount of time we spend together radically decreases and does not rebound. Keep in mind that parenting doesn’t just take up your time, also your energy.
    In any case I wish you best.

  12. rbwabd says:

    Hmm how about fact that to have more kids you need to be pretty rich? Doesn’t seem something you controlled for but should have correlation with happiness?

    • johan_larson says:

      Rich? Plenty of people well down the socioeconomic scale manage to have kids just fine. Of course, what the 20th percentile couple can provide for their children is going to be rather different than the 80th percentile couple.

      • JulieK says:

        Among the sort of people who read this blog (well-educated and so forth), economic status is likely to influence the decision whether to have kids.

        • keranih says:

          Which is *odd*, considering how very well off the majority of readers are (in other words, far above the level where the cost of children would have a true material impact.)

          • Aapje says:

            I think that the decision often depends on the expectation of how well off one will be in the future compared to now.

            If you are currently fairly well off, but expect to be far richer in 5-10 years time, then getting a kid now can be seen as depriving the kid of a quality of life that you could afford in the future.

            People who are poor and don’t have the skills to climb out of poverty, won’t give their kids a better life by waiting.

          • Chalid says:

            Sure, everyone’s going to be able to feed and shelter their kids, but money still makes parenting easier in that you can use it to reduce your household labor in a way that becomes more important when you have kids taking up most of your free time. Nannies, takeout food, and cleaning services make life with kids lots easier if you can afford them. Money reduces stress about housing costs, too.

          • Well... says:

            If you are currently fairly well off, but expect to be far richer in 5-10 years time, then getting a kid now can be seen as depriving the kid of a quality of life that you could afford in the future.

            Do people actually think this way? In a bizarre way I find the very notion offensive.

            My wife and I conceived our first kid at a time when we were out of work and completely broke. By some grace, we both landed stable jobs a month or two later. Those jobs didn’t pay a whole lot but it was enough to not worry about rent or bills if we were smart about our finances.

            We had our second kid once we’d advanced nicely from that position, but we still have never been what I would consider “fairly well off” much less “far richer.”

            If I play my cards right, and with some more good luck, I can expect to start enjoying an upper-middle-class lifestyle in 5-10 years, but I wish I’d had kids sooner, not later!

          • Aapje says:


            This story makes the same argument, so at least some people think this way. It actually expands a bit on it, arguing that it’s not just about direct income, but also about indirect compensation that better jobs give, which makes having kids easier.

            In general, a lot of people seem to value ‘stability’ in their lives before having children, which effectively results in the same, as people tend to gain stability when their career plateaus. Or perhaps even more likely for very well-educated women, their career keeps going up, but they change their priorities due to reduced fertility worries.

          • The Nybbler says:

            On the contrary. The more well-off you are the higher the cost of children.

          • If you are currently fairly well off, but expect to be far richer in 5-10 years time, then getting a kid now can be seen as depriving the kid of a quality of life that you could afford in the future.

            I don’t think so, because I do not think the things you can provide your child with when you are rich are a big improvement over the things you can provide your kid with when you are merely well off. Probably not enough to balance the reduction in your ability to put time and energy and thought into rearing a child as you get older.

            What sort of variables are you thinking of in terms of quality of life for a kid?

          • Randy M says:

            I agree with David here. Your youth is more relevant to raising children, outside of being in actual poverty. Recently had a bout of the flu going around home, and I remarked that it was like having babies again, and I didn’t envy those starting out at a later age (like we are entering).

            I suppose at a high enough wealth level, one could hire out all the physically demanding tasks and simply sit nearby smiling benevolently while the nanny tossed the babe into the air, but I suspect that would be a lesser experience for all involved.

          • Aapje says:


            I’m not actually arguing that the reasoning is correct. I’m arguing that people reasoning this way may in part explain why well-educated people are more prone to wait to have children.

            It’s like looking at why some Islamic people commit terrorist acts. You don’t actually have to believe that they will actually get 72 wives in heaven (or that heaven exists), to recognize that a belief that they will get 72 wives is one motivation for their acts.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t know where you come from, but I don’t think anyone in my country has died from starvation in my lifetime, unless they wanted to or suffered an accident of some sort (like falling down well). You’d have to be homeless-level poor to be unable to mostly successfully raise a child (and that’s only because it gets cold in the winter).

    • Pdubbs says:

      Although I doubt it holds up in this subpopulation, your premise is wrong globally.
      Here’s a pretty excellent report that details the negative correlation between socioeconomic status and the # of children people have (both between and within countries).
      The education graph about a third of the way down is my favorite, and is interactive if you click on it.

    • secondcityscientist says:

      The vast majority of costs that yuppie parents incur raising kids (and this includes me) are in the “pay other people watch my kid” category. If you live near your parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, even very close friends – which poorer people with kids are more likely to do – you can have them do some or most of it for free, or at least cheap, depending upon the individual circumstance. For most physical kid stuff, you can spend as much or as little as you want. The only thing you really need new is a car seat.

      • Evan Þ says:

        As well as “pay for my kid to join a sports team / go off to camp / etc,” where you can also spend as much or as little as you want to.

      • For example, our grandchildren spent MLK day with us while their father and about to be stepmother (already actual stepmother in fact) consulted with a rabbi on their wedding details. I got to make them popovers, which I haven’t made for a long time. My grandson, as usual, spent most of the time attempting, with varying success, to defeat his uncle at computer games.

        We will have them again for this weekend, for other wedding related reasons. I get to revive the family pancake custom, in long abeyance since our kids grew up. Pancakes with butter or syrup require knife and fork. Pancakes without can be eaten with the hands.

        And have slices of banana or strawberry cooked into them.

  13. shapeshifter says:

    This made me sign up. Been lurking here for a few years now but never commented. First time for everything I guess.

    For me, kids have been… interesting. Got our first when I was 24, which, I think, is pretty uncommon for higher educated atheists. This happened because my wife, to which I was married 4 years at the time, insisted we’d have kids and I kind of went with it. Boy was I in for a surprise. The first two to three years were hell. He would cry most of the night and what was worse, he wouldn’t eat. The kind doctors at the hospital thought or assumed we must be doing something wrong and kept us busy for a year video taping stuff, after which they concluded that we seemed to be doing everything we were supposed to. That’s when the forced feeding started with tubes going into the nose and later directly into his stomach. We would have to start his feeding cycle before he went to sleep, he would wake up crying half-way into the night and before we could reach him he would have thrown-up all over his bed, so we’d have to do laundry in the middle of the night. We would worry a lot about his development and since we were first-time parents also a little bit about ourselves. This was our normal. People would ask me how things were going and I would tell the story and discourage them from having children, or at least warn them that something black swan-ish like this could also happen. Meanwhile, I just started a full-time job, we just bought our first house and I was still finishing my studies. I’m still amazed that I’ve not burned out with the force of a thousand suns. Had you asked me then, I would probably have tried to rate my “happiness with having kids” as a -4 or something.

    I’m still hazy about what happened, but somehow we ended up with a second kid two years after the first. Things were better, but still not great. One week after she was born we were in the hospital for a week because she contracted meningitis somehow and the doctors were scaring us with possible brain damage (which they later said probably didn’t occur). That properly scared me. She also had some issues with eating properly but luckily for us not as bad as the first. By this point I was so stressed out that even the wet nurses (in the Netherlands, specially educated people help with your kids and the household the first two weeks or so after delivering a baby) were almost threatening to call child services, which I got _very_ angry about (that was probably the last time I got very angry about anything). Things settled down a little bit when they left, but there was just so much strain on me personally and on the relationship with my partner. There was no time to talk, no time to do anything together. Just working, caring and sleeping (pick two). I really felt my life was not my own, that I was only “working for others”. I was and still am suffering from chronical time-shortage to chase my own dreams.

    This year, the third was born and somehow he turned out all right. We now have the luxury of experiencing a “normal” baby, which is a breeze if you’re used to… well… whatever the hell the first two were. Still, kids suck up a lot of time and, in my opinion, don’t give a whole lot back the first few years. I’d say the utility is pretty low, actually wasn’t it Faraday or Franklin who asked: “what’s the use of a newborn baby”? Now that they’re just a little bit older I’m starting to enjoy it more. They go to the toilet themselves, they keep themselves busy more, they ask questions and are generally becoming people I can connect with. On the survey, I graded my happiness with having children as a 3, meaning whether I have them or not is about the same for me at the moment. The optimist in me figures that my happiness on that subject is increasing rapidly, so I should be really happy about it in a few years 😛 Also, the relationship with my partner is getting better and better all of a sudden. We have like an hour a week to ourselves in which we can talk and share, which is pretty nice.

    Anyway, my point is. How do people approach kids? I would at least want to get as much out of them as I put in and for me I think I’m almost at that point. Other people might just enjoy the experience. I’m not discouraging people from having kids anymore, but I do caution them to be prepared for unexpected hardships which can seriously strain your personal life and relationships. I feel this is not done enough. I was totally unprepared, nobody even hinted to me that anything could go wrong. Then again, I’m 29 now, maybe I should have just waited for a bit 😛

    By the way, this feels as good a place as any to thank you, Scott, for your writing. It really lifts me up when I need it. Also, I think the stuff you wrote about the influence (or lack thereof) of parenting on your children’s future really eased my mind and makes me much more relaxed as a parent. My partner has still a lot to learn though 😀

    Wow, it actually feels pretty good to write this stuff down.

    • Viliam says:

      Oh, that sounds like a scary experience! My kids only had trivial health problems, and even that scared us a lot.

      My older child is 3 at the moment, and so far the older the child is the easier parenting gets. Better skills, and especially better communication skills. The difference between “crying and crying until you guess what the child needs” and being told “Mommy/Daddy, give me an apple / a glass of milk” is big.

  14. Doug says:

    > The main difference is that existing research usually claims parents have lower life satisfaction than non-parents.

    Speaking as a father of a one year-old, sleep deprivation is a very very big issue. The evidence is incontrivertable that sleep quality is a huge factor affecting depression and life satisfaction. Trying to study the parenting and happiness without accounting for sleep is missing a very big part of the puzzle. I strongly suspect that sleep quality explains a large proportion, if not the majority, of the variance in self-reported happiness between parents and non-parents.

    • ThinkingWithWords says:

      That is very true.

      However as with any relationship, the happiness quotient of the parent-child relationship ebbs and flows. The sleeplessness phase is a distinct ebb point, coming as it does hard on the heels of the destruction of one identity (“me”) and the creation of another (“Me + a parent now + I don’t know the rules of this new identity!”) and anyone can be forgiven for reporting themselves as unhappy during that period of multiple adjustments. Toddlers and teens can also bring ebb moments. Grade school, on the other hand, is the happiness equivalent of one long golden summer evening…

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      Speaking as the father of a two-year-old who didn’t sleep through the night until she was almost two: there’s lots of good stuff ahead. Your kid will probably sleep through the night before mine did, and even if he or she doesn’t, you see these big advances in your child’s personality and ability to understand the world that are really gratifying and intellectually fascinating.

      Also, there will come a point in probably the next 12-18 months where your child will tell you, unprompted, “I love you!” which is an amazing feeling pretty much every time it happens and a super amazing feeling the first time it happens.

  15. ThinkingWithWords says:

    Scott, I’m another long-time lurker who signed up just to say my piece. If you are thinking about having children, if your girlfriend is thinking about having children, and your circumstances even vaguely permit… have the child(ren). You can thank me later.

    The problem of the hedonic benefits of children is that people think about it wrongly. Kids are not a comedy reel (well actually at times they are, but that’s another story) and so they don’t provide quantifiable happiness, as if it were a given decibel level of laughter.

    Instead they give you a much more difficult-to-quantify sense of fulfilling your biological destiny, at a fairly primitive level. It doesn’t parse very well, in the same way that a subjectively experienced, comfortably full stomach after a delicious meal isn’t well described through stomach volume or a description of the biological matter making up it’s contents.

    Children bring moments of intense happiness (and probably equally as many of intense frustration) and those moments are wonderful. But kids also bring an intense (and rarely mentioned) sense of rightness with them, too. Throughout the years you look at them and “Yes”, you think to yourself, “how could I ever have imagined life without you?”

    Besides… the world needs more people like you in it. I want my kids to inhabit a world that has your kids in it. That world will be a better world.

    • Yes I do agree. There are people who shouldn’t have kids, but these are mostly those who know they shouldn’t have kids. Plus perhaps the truly irresponsible that like the idea of kids but lack the self discipline to act like parents. Most people find a lot of satisfaction in being parents. If you are on the borderline, you should go for it I think. As I said above, what else is life about than creating another generation of people?

    • random_eddie says:

      I agree with all of the above. I’m commenting here just to say “I agree” in order to upvote/signal-boost ThinkingWithWords’ remarks, because I think they need boosting. My prediction before reading the comment section was that it would have a great deal of the kind of analysis ThinkingWithWords (implicitly) cautions against, and very few instances of this particular advice. My prediction has been correct through what I’ve read so far.

      I wasn’t certain I wanted to have kids. I thought it through and considered the issue at length. Ultimately I concluded that it might be a mistake but it probably would be a good thing, and at worst would be tolerable… and I then literally took a leap of faith and decided that I would have children, trusting beyond reason that it was the right choice – not just a tentatively positive decision with average benefit on the margin, but whole-heartedly the right thing to do.

      Retrospectively, I can envision my alternate life without children and can easily imagine that I might report higher life satisfaction than I would now. I can see myself with less stress, more money, more free time, and more progress and success in pursuing my interests. Dare I say even happier? Less marginally depressed? But I would not trade places with that happier self.

      I have a decent idea of the life experiences hypothetical-childless-me has that I don’t. But I am absolutely certain that he has no idea of what he is missing. Knowing what I know now, I would fall into a wailing despair were I to find myself transported Metamorphosis-like into his life. I would regret every decision he had made, resent everything he had done – despite being the beneficiary of his successes.

      If you think you want kids, you want kids; you just don’t know it yet. You want more than you think you want, and you want them sooner than you think want them; you just don’t know it yet. And you have no way of knowing this, other than listening to everyone already outside the Matrix yelling at you to take the freaking red pill and get on with it already.

      Take the leap.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t looked in depth at the study they cite, which purports to show that the more you prime parents with descriptions of the burdens of parenthood, the more great they insist everything is.

    “Risks of Flowering: considerable. But rewards of godhood: who can measure?”

    In any case, the anonymous collective supports your consideration of spawning, and wishes you to join this list.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Hm. “Tau Ceti Flowering: Horrors visited upon neighboring systems must never be repeated. Therefore: if it means the end of our evolution as a species, so be it.” really is a sentiment common in some quarters. Sad!

  17. meltedcheesefondue says:

    >all results are binomial correlations significant at the p ≤ 0.001 level

    Are you correcting for multiple comparisons here? (You could use the Bonferoni method of just multiplying the p values by the number of comparisons, but the Holm–Bonferroni method is strictly superior, even if it’s a bit more complicated: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holm%E2%80%93Bonferroni_method ).

  18. joshuapalmer87 says:

    Another first time poster here:

    I’m a father and had my first child at 24 and second at 27. I’ve self-diagnosed depression (runs in my family) and it certainly hit me incredibly hard after my first child. The initial three month period was one of the most unhappy of my adult life as my now-wife had no time at all for me and I struggled to connect at all with the baby. I found myself incredibly angry at the baby and struggled to provide proper care to her or my wife, although I continued to provide for them as bread-winner. Even my language now indicates how disconnected I felt at that time. As my daughter got older, I found the struggle easing off and connected more with her. I enjoyed her inquisitive nature and her laughter. When the second baby was born, I found myself with a new role which was to play which was to be a father to my daughter and help her through this time. My son is now 3 and my daughter 5 and they are both enormously fun to be around and it is always amazing to be teaching them things and enjoying their first time experiences at things (my daughter face to face with an octopus at the aquarium was one of my favourite memories).

    One further point that I would advise, is that I experienced a traumatic divorce and subsequent sexual assault from a family member (not one of my parents) when I was younger than my daughter was now. When she was around 3 I went through another incredibly dark period of life, although I couldn’t pinpoint quite why. This resulted in behaviour that placed my marriage on the rocks to this day and ended with me in therapy to try and uncover the cause of this. I cut out contact with both my parents last year as a result of how they dealt with my childhood trauma and I’ve been trying to rebuild my emotional strength ever since, finally talking to them again over the new year season. The reason this occurred now was because the feelings buried in me were unleashed by my children approaching the age these events occurred to me, resulting in me subconsciously destroying my life and replicating the pain again. This is a well-known effect apparently (not to me at the time though). So, I’d advise anyone thinking of parenthood to bear this in mind as a potential issue that could arise.

    For the results, I think the correlation you found is incredibly interesting and it would seem to tie up with a large amount of my beliefs on what would make parenthood fulfilling. The first would seem to be economic, in that having a firm financial basis to have a child will remove a lot of the anxiety around provision for that child. This is probably different for me than for an American, as as a Brit I don’t have to worry about any medical expenses for my children whatsoever, which is certainly not the case in there.

    The second would be more of a cultural issue. This can be at a national level, for example, the level of governmental support for parents varies from Norway (High) to US (Low), or at a social level as to how parents and children are supported by their community, be it local, family or other. The US would also score lowly on this account generally speaking (with exceptions tending to be religious) as the culture emphasises individuality, which would both highlight the drawbacks of parenthood and downplay the positives. I’d also be surprised if libertarians weren’t more susceptible to this than other belief spaces.

    All of this is pure conjecture really, but seem to make intuitive sense given the results you highlight.

    I think that’s more than enough for now!

    • Cliff says:

      “This is probably different for me than for an American, as as a Brit I don’t have to worry about any medical expenses for my children whatsoever, which is certainly not the case in there.”

      Only a very very small percentage of Americans would have any concern whatsoever over medical expenses for their children.

  19. Peter Gerdes says:

    Of course you see the biggest leap between 1 and 2 children not 0 and 1.

    When you choose to have your first child you’re making a guess about whether or not you’ll be happy having kids based on pretty weak information. Lots of people with no kids would probably be happier with children and probably a smaller but substantial number of people with 1 child would have been happier without.

    After your first kid you have a pretty good sense of whether raising children makes you happier so the people with 2+ kids is basically the set of people who tried having kids and found they really liked it. Ok, it’s not quite that (presumably some religious/spousal pressure and other things) but in large put that’s who has 2+ kids.

    The 5 kids gap is more interesting. My sense is that the transition from 4 to 5 kids crosses a kind of social norm in affluent, liberal, secular communities. Four kids is seen as a lot of kids but just in the ‘I guess you need a minivan’ sense. Five kids seems to hint at religious/philosophical oddity. As such this suggests a few possible explanations for the gap.

    1) SSC readers are almost all in the above social group so only those who are really really really love raising kids have 5 kids.
    2) SSC readers with 5+ kids really are generally part of some strong faith based community and such communities promote extremes of happiness (it’s either stifling and you constantly feel out of place or it’s a wonderful social support) and only the positive side has that many kids.
    3) Only people who are particularly susceptible to social/religious/etc.. pressure have 5+ kids and they report they are very happy because that is what they feel they should say.

    • negativez says:

      For those of you who pay attention to reviews of fiction books this is as obvious as the sun rising. It’s extremely common to read a book with middling-to-bad user reviews (i.e. below 3.8 on goodreads), agree with that review score, then see that all six sequels are user-rated very good-to-excellent (i.e. above 4.2). What are the odds that an author of a mediocre book cranked out six dramatically better books without even switching subject matter?

      Self-selection bias trumps everything.

      • baconbits9 says:

        What are the odds that an author of a mediocre book cranked out six dramatically better books without even switching subject matter?

        What are the odds that someone who has written 1,000 published pages is a better writer than they were after their first 200? What are the odds that a person writing for a more narrowly defined audience could do better than one searching for an audience?

        • I think it goes both ways. What are the odds that someone who was inspired by a plot/character idea, wrestled it into shape for years, finally produced a manuscript good enough to get commercially published, will have another idea as good, or equally good ways of continuing that one, through multiple later books?

          • baconbacon says:

            What % of authors would you expect to have their first published work be their best? Ignoring people who never write a 2nd book.

    • janrandom says:

      I don’t think it is that simple. I think the effects you describe exist, but there are many more of them and wildly depend on local circumstances, community, norms, country. If you look at the survey I think it averages out.

  20. tmk says:

    It could be that people with only one child disproportionately have a 0-3 year old, because they are going to have an other one later. 0-3 year-olds tend to be more work than older kids.

    • JASSCC says:

      I missed your point, but I replied a few hours later saying the same thing: I, too, suspect this may be a factor, and it should be easy to check if the ages of the children are surveyed.

  21. Traubert says:

    I would expect to see the same effect in other daunting but satisfying efforts. Most people I’ve known who have done a PhD, for example, have hated their lives at some point of doing it.

    Does having children make my life miserable a lot of the time? Yes.

    Do I regret having children? No.

    Would I do it all over again? Yes.

    5/5, happy with my decision. Sometimes valuable, important things are hard.

  22. US says:

    “Happiness and its anticipation are […] proximate mechanisms that lead us to perform and repeat acts that in the environments of history, at least, would have led to greater reproductive success.” (Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems).

  23. Kaj Sotala says:

    (my previous comment disappeared, maybe because of a link triggering a spam filter? trying again without the link)

    the discrepancy between the direct question (“Are you happy to have kids?”) and the indirect one (“How happy are you?”, compared across parents vs. childless people)

    Note that having a discrepancy between overall life satisfaction and subdomains isn’t specific to having kids. E.g. Biswas-Diener & Diener (2001) surveyed respondents both on a measure of general life satisfaction as well as on their satisfaction for twelve sub-domains (material resources, friendship, morality, intelligence, food, romantic relationship, family, physical appearance, self, income, housing, and social life). Participants tended to rate their overall life satisfaction as negative, while rating all sub-domains as positive:

    The mean score for the three groups on global life satisfaction was 1.93 (on the negative side just under the neutral point of 2) […] The mean ratings for all twelve ratings of domain satisfaction fell on the positive (satisfied) side, with morality being the highest (2.58) and the lowest being satisfaction with income (2.12). […]

    Despite the low overall life satisfaction scores, the respondents fell into the positive (satisfied) range with all nine of the specific life domains. The participants reported being fairly satisfied with domains concerned with “self” (e.g. morality, physical appearance) and “social relationships” (e.g. friends, family). Of these, satisfaction with morality, self, physical appearance, family, romantic relationships, and friends were all significant predictors of global life satisfaction. In addition, satisfaction with two domains related to basic needs, food and material resources, were also predictors of life satisfaction. Despite the positive degree of satisfaction reported for specific areas of their lives, the respondents scored fairly low on global life satisfaction. Because the Indian respondents do not rate global areas higher than specific, it appears they do not exhibit a “positivity bias.” It may be the Indians evaluate areas in a more evenhanded way without focusing primarily on their best areas as Americans seem to do. This discrepancy could also be due to differences in the sensitivity of the various measures. The [Satisfaction With Life Scale], for example, is probably affected more by major positive and negative events than are the domain satisfaction measures. The domain ratings, on the other hand, likely reflect day-to-day experience. In fact, the daily memory measures showed correlations with satisfaction in the nine specific domains, whereas yearly memories were correlated with global LS.

    One interpretation would be that “overall life satisfaction” is just too broad of a question: it’s really hard to evaluate that as a whole, so trying to do so will produce different results than evaluating each sub-component separately.

    It’s also possible that, for the having children thing in particular, having children will cause people to feel more happy with something like a “family subdomain”, with other subdomains taking a hit from new parents being more busy etc.. When evaluating just the question “are you happy to have kids”, people will focus on the positives from having a children and thus consider it worth it, but when asked for general life satisfaction they are answering a different question that may be something like “are there things to improve on in any domains”, which may be more tinted towards negatives.

    Or something. I don’t think there’s a reason we should expect people to give consistent answers on these kinds of things (nor for any given type of response to be in some sense more objectively correct than others).

    Reference: Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation: Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators Research, 55(3), 329-352.

  24. nameless1 says:

    Er… the problem is, Scott, one does not simply feel happy about something or not. Consider eating a cake and enjoying the taste while feeling guilty because overweight. Or the opposite, you are a soldier defending your country and live in a wet trench drenched in mud and freezing and generally feel miserable, yet you are damn proud that you are doing it. There are different kinds of happiness, there are simply basic jolts of pleasure, perhaps dopamine, and there is something sort of a deeper sense of satisfaction or the lack of it that depends more on what you think about things.

    Our first 3 or so years were absolutely miserable from the pleasure sense. All our free time down the sink, never going out, child constantly screaming. Yet we never regretted teh decision even once even though there was no immediate, direct joy. We still felt satisfied with ourselves, we felt this is the only way forward, becoming a normal family, one who has a kid, later on we will be able to travel together and do stuff and have a sense of normalcy of life. We knew as two depressed people who hate their job and have no hobbies or interests we have no other choice, nothing else to live for, we would spend a few more year together then maybe get bored of each other, divorce, be lonely, no friends and drink ourselves to death. So having a child and being a family was the way to be normal, and to not feel like failures. Both knowing that we managed jobs, marriage and a kid we are not failures because we could fulfill the basic minimum the average person can do. And that is something.

    So it was unhappy in the pain no pleasure sense and yet we were happy in the satisifed with the choice and being proud and feeling good about ourselves sense.

    Why do you think people can rate these conflicting emotions and views as happy or unhappy, Scott?

    (Then suddenly the 3 year old screammachine who would never play just bang her toys together to destroy them suddenly metamorphosed into a sweet, kind, agreeable child who is creative, artistic and has a sense of humor in only 6 months. We have no idea what happened. It was an extremely fast change. So now we can actually have fun together.)

    • nzk says:

      A parent of one and one on the way 🙂
      I think it really depends on the child and the parents. I have friends with kids and some of them do lose a lot of independence. My wife and I didn’t feel like it, and we kept going to friends, having friends over, going to vacations (including flights), etc.

      A lot depends on the parents – do you accustom the child to noises? do you make sure it sleeps an entire night? (If you go to it when it cries, it will keep crying)
      Kids are very flexible after ~3 months, and learn a lot.

      I am not saying there are things we don’t do or are limited – I hate going to restaurants with my child, I heavily prefer takeout now. But the “Nightmare” or the “All free time down the sink” ? totally not.

      Also, I think having kids is a big part of the “Human experience”, just like sex. Sure sex might be bad, but aren’t you curious?

      • johan_larson says:

        I’m voluntarily childless, ultimately because I don’t particularly like children. For me to enjoy parenthood, I would have to like my own children dramatically more than I like children in general. That’s certainly possible, but I’d be betting huge that it’s true. Parenthood is at least a twenty-year stint. It’s just too much of a risk.

        • nameless1 says:

          I always disliked other people’s children and did not like mine either when she was very small and generally terrible. Now at 3.5 I love her very much because she is not only sweet, creative, humorous etc. but is doing that in that particular way that we ourselves reflected in her. There is the neverending nature and nurture debate and of course it is hard to separate it, but the end result is that a child of our own genes and raising her from day 1 behaves really in a way that we recognize each other and ourselves in her. That is the cool part. I am still lukewarm at best to other people’s children too.

          By your kind of thinking the No. 1 thing I would absolutely advise people against is – adoption. I think it must be hard to like a child who is not that similar to you. Seriously I have no idea how adoption even works. Maybe after people have 3 kids on their own they learn to like kids so much they can also deal with a different one.

          I never had pets, I am really not a nurturer type. But after the first terrible years a child who is really ours is pretty cool now.

          But the simplest thing one can do to predict it is look at ones own parents and the relationship with them. Because not only we have their genes and upbringing, we often end up choosing a partner who is much like them.

          My relationship with my mother is quite stormy, we rarely meet without some yelling. Stupid little status fights both of our sides like “don’t interrupt me, I was talking!!” “no, you don’t interrupt me, I was talking!!”. And yet we are attached and 20 min after the yelling its hugs and agreement. Good enough for me. It is similar with our child.

          So basically just think about how attached you are to your parents. If you feel cold about them, maybe better not to have kids.

          • I have adopted kids, and I don’t think it’s a whole lot different than biological kids. Perhaps I have missed my kids being noticeably like me, but they are actually like me somewhat personality wise. I do have a strong personality, so maybe they picked it up more than with most parents. They have different skills than I do, but as a parent one just flows with how it goes.

            I often do dislike other people’s kids, because they seem spoiled, or I don’t know how to get them to stop doing annoying things. It isn’t that hard to stop my kids from doing annoying things, because when you watch them grow, you know how they tick. It isn’t genetics that allow people to live with each other, it is just learning each others’ styles.

          • cuke says:

            I have one stepchild and one biological child, both raised to adulthood. I found no difference at all between the two in terms of how connected I felt to them. The flavor of the relationships with each is different because they are different kinds of people. But I have found that I bring the same “me” to both relationships and have found my relationship to them to be equally challenging and rewarding, though different in the details, as one would expect.

            Like most things about having children, there is so much that cannot be known ahead of time, including how you will respond to your specific set of circumstances as they unfold. I know plenty of parents with only biological children of their own who find it very easy relating to one of them and very difficult feeling connected to the other. I think relationships with kids are like most any other kind of significant relationship and is less determined by biological relationship and more determined by expectations, disposition, and capacity to relate in general.

        • Fahundo says:

          By your kind of thinking the No. 1 thing I would absolutely advise people against is – adoption.

          My intuition is the opposite. Adopting lets you skip the years where you have to wipe their asses for them.

          • Aapje says:

            Yet that is supposedly quite important for bonding and adopted kids generally have worse relationships with their parents (see the first section, for example).

          • aNeopuritan says:

            But it’s less sure you’ll ever like them – what do you know about what they’ll become?

            (Even without invoking the “parenting irrelevant” hypothesis: if you did skip the ass-wiping part, you don’t know which traumas the biological parents already had time to cause.)

        • Cliff says:

          I actually don’t think you really need to like kids. Once they reach a certain age you can pretty much leave them to their own devices, maybe 3 yrs old they will be happy watching TV and movies and then 6 or 7 they will start reading and they can do that indefinitely. Once they are 4 you can kick them outside and tell them to play with other kids. Parenting doesn’t have any measurable impact on life outcome anyway.

      • nameless1 says:

        Well, you have to consider what depressed people with crap for self-esteem typically do. My wife was 101% on being the perfect mom, to be able to feel better about herself, so we bought a double adult sized bed for the child room even before the birth, she slept like 2 years there and even at 3.5 years old she wakes up to crying around 1AM and moves over. For the same reason we could not go out – perfect mom cannot ever leave a child to a babysitter and our parents live far away. No wonder we are not planning a second child.

        I am not blaming her – I too use crutches for my self-esteem, like lifting weights and boxing sandbags and pretending to be super masculine. It is just that for me the crutch is not perfect fatherhood but these kind of stuff, trying to feel like Rocky IV or something.

        Our child does not get over-protected though, because due to our weird work shift habits I end up spending more time with her. So while the mother insists on dressing a 3+ years old child, I figured already at 2.5 that throwing clothes in her general direction and letting her sink or swim is good enough. I give most baths, which means I just give hints and reminders and she bathes herself. I often joke that a lazy dad is good for the child to learn independence. But it is true! And she likes doing things for herself.

        As for the nightmare, well, genetics! I am stubborn and and impatient and my wife is impulsive in the sense of regularly smashing alarm clocks against the wall. Imagine these traits combined. Every time our then-toddler did not get her way it was a shitstorm. And that meant like every 10 minutes.

        The big problem was and still is she is simply not willing to play alone or spend a second alone. Only when we sedate her with TV cartoons which we hate to do. Still it is entirely impossible for my wife to cook meal before I come home if not the TV. Our child keeps talking, asking to play or simply hugging her leg.

        I am seriously thinking about a pet for her. She loves cats. But a cat in a third floor flat? She would commit accidental suicide pretty quickly. Or even if cats are so good at falling that not how does it come back up?

        • James Miller says:

          Try using bribes. “If you spend five minutes in your room alone you get to watch your favorite cartoon or play your favorite game with daddy.”

        • nzk says:

          That is funny, my kid could concentrate for a long time and play by her self since she was little.
          But we kind of forced her into it – Both me and her mom.
          Sometimes we play with her, but sometimes we don’t, no matter how much she cries. We just send her to her room. I guess it can sound mean, but we think it is good education.

          Anyway, I think having kids *does* give you a new perspective in life. I mean, it is one of the basic functions of life, I can’t imagine choosing not to do it.

        • joshuapalmer87 says:

          Let her cook with you! My kids love cooking and actually eat far more vegetables that way, stealing bits off the chopping board while I’m not looking. I tell my 3 year old son to get stuff for me, put tins in the recycling, stir the pot (that doesn’t always go well to be fair). It might even bore her enough that she goes and does something else.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Seconded. My 4 year old can actually be helpful cooking, and my not quite 3 year old can use a knife well enough to chop soft foods (cucumbers, grapes, strawberries) with only the occasional need for a band aid. Outside of watching them, and making sure they are far enough apart not to accidentally blind each other with a wild gesticulation there isn’t a whole lot I need to do and cooking dinner has become more and more family together time (though slowly and with patience).

            Lots of kids play is imitating adults, giving them chores to do with you will often be like play for them.

          • SamChevre says:

            Thirded: my wife has a whole series on her blog about cooking with small children–here’s one of them and here’s another.

          • My daughter still tells stories about cooking with our friends’ three year old at Pennsic, the year my wife and I couldn’t go and she went without us.

          • nameless1 says:

            Other kids don’t like vegetables? Ours makes me wonder about reincarnation. She wants nothing but raw vegetables and pasta. No meat. Nor bread. Even lukewarm about chocolate. 3.5 years old.

          • aNeopuritan says:

            SamChevre: 1 link FUBAR, others interesting.

          • SamChevre says:

            Reposting the link to the series on cooking with preschoolers.

        • Evan Þ says:

          The big problem was and still is she is simply not willing to play alone or spend a second alone. Only when we sedate her with TV cartoons which we hate to do… I am seriously thinking about a pet for her.

          Have you considered playdates with friends? Are there other kids her age in the area?

          • nameless1 says:

            We don’t really have friends. We are not exactly that type. At 3.5 she does not have friends in the kindergarten (which is where we live from 2 to 5 years, so sort of includes everything from daycare to preschool). She is generally scared of other kids and does not approach them. I see this at the playground. Even if a 2 year old half here size is using something she just stands there anxious and does not approach. Genetics, I think. I was like that too.

      • Helaku says:

        I think having kids is a big part of the “Human experience”

        Taking drugs is also “human experience”. I just want to point out that your analogy may contain caveats.

        • nzk says:

          Well, I think more people in history had kids then they took drugs, and it is a much more integral part of it.
          I mean, Shakespeare wrote several plays about parents-kids relationships,
          and none about drugs.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I mean, Shakespeare wrote several plays about parents-kids relationships,

            Didn’t work out so well for King Lear, I guess.

  25. themadmammaker says:

    Parent of two here!

    I’m going to second the other people saying that the first three years are pretty bad (though I wouldn’t have said my life was miserable at the time – I am lucky to live close enough to both my parents and my wife’s and get a lot of help from them, which improves things *a lot*), but once the kid knows how to eat and use the toilet without making a mess, and can play on his own, and knows games more interesting than “throw a toy on the floor, and daddy picks it up” (now he’s at “bang animals together making angry sounds”, which at least he can play on his own), kids are pretty good.

    (it can be hard to disguingish “oh wow it’s so great to have kids” from “oh wow it’s so great to be able to go somewhere without having to carry around a stroller, diapers, wipes, and spare clothes”)

    5/5 would recommend.

  26. fortaleza84 says:

    I think averages conceal the fact that the quality of the child can make a huge difference to happiness. A child with a personality disorder or other serious problem will make your life into a hell which won’t necessarily end when the child turns 18. You might very well end up with a lifetime of misery. On the other hand, a child who is a decent person, who likes to do fun stuff with you, etc. is a real joy. Not to mention the fact that they will take care of stuff for you when you start getting too old to take care of everything yourself.

    My advice is to have children but make sure you and the mother exercise, eat carefully, etc., and do just about anything you can to improve your chances of having healthy children.

    • I do wonder about this. Both of my kids are healthy physically and mentally. Part of this is discipline on the parents’ part in making the kids healthy, but there are plenty of disabilities that are in no way caused by the parents. Would I be 5 in having kids, if one or both of them were a real struggle? I have heard that parents with difficult kids often still do love having their kids, so my guess is I would still be happy about them. But maybe a 4 not a 5.

  27. johan_larson says:

    I read Caplan’s “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”. One of his claims is that low-stress parenting is best, because parenting doesn’t really influence children very much. He bases this on studies of identical twins who have been raised in separate families. This seems a bit suspicious, because these twins will generally have been adopted, which in first-world countries means their adoptive parents were very carefully selected. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole bottom half of the spectrum got excluded. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there doesn’t seem to be much difference between OK and great parenting, but we don’t really know how much damage bad parenting really does.

  28. James Miller says:

    Having a child mitigates the existential anxiety from thinking that there is no point to life. Childless SSC readers might be particularly prone to suffering from such anxiety.

    • nameless1 says:


      I very often think that my depression is at least halfway an actually accurate perception of the lack of ultimate meaning in things. That we have to somehow subjectively desire things because nothing is that objectively good and important. I am not good at generating subjective desire for things. I am more detached and coldly analytical. It is always an effort to try to learn to like something even a videogame.

      Religion would help with that lack of ultimate meaning. But I seriously cannot believe in an anthropomorphic god. We humans are not that special. I would much rather believe in an impersonal Jedi-Force. Actually used to be Buddhist but now I find that too nice. I am not a nice type. I would be more comfortable with some pagan religion where taking revenge is actually cool. But a non-anthropomorphic pagan religion does not exist and if it did likely it would not help with that lack of ultimate meaning problem.

      Perhaps some would reply even an anthropomorphic god would not help with that. Well, for me it would, I am pretty authoritarian, “because it said so” is an acceptable answer for me. But I simply cannot believe in it because why would the creator of this gigantic universe be in any sense similar to us smart apes on one planet?

      “Because mom/dad said so” works with kids – worked on me, works on mine – because our parents are pretty similar to us, genetics and all. It is easy to see them as a more experienced, wiser “me”. You would take advice from a 20 year older you. So trust in a god relies on the idea that it is really similar to us – meaning planet 3 in an unremarkable solar system a bit out in the suburbia of the galaxy is somehow special. And that is what is ludicruous about it… sad because I would really like to be religious.

      • themadmammaker says:

        Did you grow up in a religious household by any chance? I can’t relate to what you’re describing – I don’t think things have “an ultimate meaning” but don’t particularly freak out about that either – and I wonder if part of the difference between us could be that I haven’t been taught religion as a kid…

        • nameless1 says:

          No, that is why I am so confused about religion. People grow up in one have often more negative sentiments about it, like my wife, whose experience of Eastern European rural Catholicism is largely a obese priest in an Audi A6 always demanding money. That dude was def not a good one to tell you about ultimate meanings.

          So this is why my “innocent” view of religion is confused and actually positive. I lack these bad experiences, but I read, say, CS Lewis and get the impression, whatever memetic drug this dude was smoking wasn’t a too bad one?…

      • JustToSay says:

        meaning planet 3 in an unremarkable solar system a bit out in the suburbia of the galaxy is somehow special. And that is what is ludicruous about it

        I don’t think that’s ludicrous. There’s no reason for God to only create the bare minimum necessary for humanity to survive, even if he set humanity apart from other life in some way. He may just have wanted to create an enormous, complex universe—even if a smaller one would have sufficed. He wasn’t going to run low on energy, resources, or time or anything.

        But I seriously cannot believe in an anthropomorphic god. We humans are not that special.

        We’re only special because he decided to make us so. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to make something like that—like us—if he wants.

        As for God being “like us” or anthropomorphic, maybe I don’t know exactly what you’re going for, and I’ll probably veer into heresy if I’m not careful, but the Christian God is both like us and not. God became fully man (and still fully God) in Jesus. There’s talk in the Bible of how that’s meaningful in some of the ways you describe (the book of Hebrews, I think, off the top of my head). Of course he’s also decidedly not like us. He’s not like Zeus or Superman or something. It’s probably best to say that we’re a bit like him…made in his image, if you will 😉

      • aNeopuritan says:

        “Actually used to be Buddhist but now I find that too nice. I am not a nice type.”

        Just to be sure: did you read this?

        There’s also Vajrayana, and I think this Druid would say his religion isn’t anthropomorphic and doesn’t involve amputating natural sentiments like desire for revenge. Note the non-ethic-icity of the advice here.

    • Helaku says:

      I don’t exactly understand how it could potentially mitigate that feeling. I won’t have enough time to think about the fact while rearing children? Or maybe some physiological changes happen when you have children that help ease this feeling? Or maybe I’d have had children when I was 25, for example? Or maybe it depends on what kind of person you are at the first place than any other factors?

      • James Miller says:

        It mitigates that feeling because when you are taking care of your child it often feels like you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. I imagine evolution is at work here.

        • Helaku says:

          Ah, yep, I understand this. It brings “meaning” which I heard so many times from the parents I know. But it sounds so boring. I mean all that stuff that you’re basically pre-programmed to care, to have offsprings. And all your complex neural wiring is nothing more than the means to effectively reproduce.

          • Randy M says:

            And all your complex neural wiring is nothing more than the means to effectively reproduce.

            You say that like it’s a bad thing. The thing you are reproducing is more complex neural wiring, the only way we know of creating novel intelligences that can have their own perspective on all aspects of creation. The only way the universe knows how to contemplate itself starts with you wiping cheeks; letting you experience some enduring satisfaction seems like just recompense.

          • ThinkingWithWords says:

            Pre-programming can be kind of cool, though.
            I’m also pre-programmed to have a sex drive, to be social, and to enjoy eating food – and each of these has led to some pretty good experiences.
            Similarly the wired-in rewards for having kids are really good. They have to be, because looking after kids is hard work and otherwise the motivation to walk away would be considerable.
            Those wired-in rewards get you through the first few years, and after that you step back a little bit and start to appreciate your kids as the interesting individuals they are.

      • nameless1 says:

        It sort of feels like instead of having to answer the question what is even the point of life, I can just say “I passed that problem on, my kid(s) will have to figure it out or pass it on”.

        I mean. If you write a book your life is not entirely worthless. If you are a boring accountant but have at least one kid your life is not entirely worthless. You did something, you left a trace, a legacy. But if you are a boring accountant, and do nothing interesting ever and no kids, it is hard not to wonder if it is not a wasted life…

        • cuke says:

          I find this lack-of-meaning problem really interesting. In my therapy practice, my clients who are depressed struggle with this a lot, and the ones not depressed, don’t, even though the ones without depression (they may have anxiety or other issue) don’t have particularly different life circumstances to point to to say “meaning.” They just don’t seem to be troubled by this feeling.

          I think lack-of-meaning is a flavor of hopelessness/despair, and that’s a pretty consistent symptom of depression. When I ask my clients with depression more about this lack-of-meaning feeling, they will often say things like “I’m a loser” or “I don’t have …. [a list of things that some other people have]” and often their ideas about what it means not to be a “loser” seem unrealistic, or once achieved, unlikely to solve the meaning problem (ie, some specific status in a career, a partner, etc).

          When my clients who are depressed become less depressed (taking medication, working hard in therapy, changing life circumstances, etc), they no longer seem plagued by this meaning question.

          One thought I have is that we often feel a sense of meaning when our values/priorities line up with how we spend our days. If we are unclear about our values/priorities or feel that circumstances are preventing us from lining up our days in accordance with our values/priorities, then the sense of meaning may feel elusive. Or if we’re depressed and motivating to change our circumstances feels really hard, then it’s going to seem hopeless that we’ll ever be able to line our daily lives up with our values/priorities. When we’re depressed, the main priority is to stop suffering, and it’s hard to have a sustained sense of meaningfulness come from that. Though once the mental suffering is lifted a bit, often I find people sort out the meaning quandary pretty well.

          One thing for sure is that meaning is an entirely subjective from-the-inside sort of feeling. So while the accountant may look boring to someone else, if he’s not himself bored all the time and he finds his life meaningful, that’s the only relevant yardstick. Other people may have their judgments, but they don’t bear on whether the accountant finds meaning in his life.

          I would seem an extraordinarily boring person to many people looking from the outside. I find life hugely interesting and my place in it very meaningful. I spent a lot of years being dissatisfied and restless and struggling for a greater sense of purpose. I can tell you in my case anyway, that what needed to shift was entirely on the inside.

          As a side note, I know a number of people who have written books and the struggle for meaning in their lives and their ongoing sense of self-worth was not changed at all by having written a book, even a bestseller. A sense of worthiness doesn’t come that way.

          • aNeopuritan says:

            What fraction of single childless accountants isn’t bored all the time? As for the published writers still unsatisfied, I think they’d feel still crappier if unpublished – that their successes stave off the gaping holes in their senses of identity without closing them (see also: comedians and musicians who eventually kill themselves – I imagine it’d come earlier if they weren’t successful).

    • themadmammaker says:

      For what it’s worth I have two kids and don’t recall ever having that kind of anxiety.

  29. SamChevre says:

    I expect parents of multiple children are generally happier than those with only one. Part of the reason, as noted above, is that people who really don’t enjoy the first child are less likely to have more. But there are two other major factors I see (I have 5 kids).

    Nothing makes the impact of genetics more forcefully clear than having multiple children, and having it shoved in your face that they were different when they were born. Some babies like this, and some like that; some want to be wrapped up and some can’t stand it; some cannot be distracted from nursing and some can be distracted by anything.

    Also, children can amuse one another, and watching them do it is fun; it also reduces the amount of time you must spend amusing them.

    • moridinamael says:

      I have three, and I’m increasingly convinced that they implicitly rely on the “discoveries” made by the prior kids. Each subsequent kid is less likely to explore areas they’re not supposed to explore, open drawers they’re not supposed to open, etc. They just pay attention to the cool things in the environment that the older siblings have already identified, spending more time on exploitation and less on exploration.

    • Aapje says:


      I’ve heard this before. Has anyone done a decent survey examining the correlation between having multiple kids and beliefs in nurture vs nature*? Sounds like an interesting thing to survey.

      * Age is probably a confounder, though.

    • 2181425 says:

      Agree completely. We also have 5. My wife’s a microbiologist (implying some familiarity with genetics) and she’s still constantly amazed by the nature differences. Kids with the same parents and essentially same upbringing can have vastly, vastly different personalities.

      The group dynamics are fun to watch and having built-in playmates is a huge boon for them and us.

      • hollyluja says:

        I have one year old identical twins, and a life science background. It is like a fully immersive longitudinal study in my house, 24/7 baby!

    • nameless1 says:

      I have one and we stopped there because she is quite difficult and we are bit old, 40/36, but my aunt told me something: if you have one kid you have to entertain her all the time, if you have multiple, they entertain each other. I think she was right. Multiple kids can be easier. Not 5 but maybe 2. We just don’t have the energy left to go through the first years again but maybe if we had done it earlier when we had more energy it would have been good. Our 3.5 year old loves to educate other children, play the teacher, tell them you must put this here and you must do it that way. If she had a 2 year old younger sibling she would basically raise her, occupying both of them. Lacking that, she is “being a scotch tape”, as my wife puts it, always glued to us.

  30. P. George Stewart says:

    “Life happiness” is a nebulous abstraction with tons of variables to weigh against each other, “kid happiness” is a concrete thing where you’re weighing the existence and benefits of your rugrats against the cost of raising them: a much simpler and easier calculation.

    And here there are two other concrete factors to add: part of the benefit of kids is that they need and love their parents (it’s nice to be needed and loved unconditionally), and the trials and tribulations of raising a kid is a shared project between parents, in the course of which their relationship will likely deepen (all things being equal).

    Having children gives people a focus (your one job is to get food in the kid’s mouth), and having a focus makes for happiness. At the same time (again, all things being equal), you’re rewarded by seeing them flourish and them returning your efforts with love.

    But really it’s just that we’re evolved that way, built that way (imagine if your instinct was to run in the opposite direction when you saw your kid’s beaming, strawberry-jam-smeared face, instead of internally going “awww” and irritably cleaning it up).

  31. robirahman says:

    The View From Hell blog argues that the discrepancy between the direct question (“Are you happy to have kids?”) and the indirect one (“How happy are you?”, compared across parents vs. childless people) is pure self-deception; children suck, but parents refuse to admit it.

    My working hypothesis for this, based on talking to some recent parents, is the opposite: children themselves are great but they make everything else suck.

    For example, I have a friend who has a one-year-old daughter. Every time I’ve seen him over the past few months, he’s been talking about how cute she is and how much fun she is to play with and all these adorable developmental milestones she’s passed. But he also constantly bemoans the lack of sleep, frequent crying and feeding interruptions, and his increased living expenses.

    So I think children might objectively decrease your quality of life enough relative to the childfree lifestyle to make people’s overall reported happiness lower, but when they think explicitly about their children’s contribution to their happiness, they come up with positive examples.

  32. moridinamael says:

    Imagine we live in a world where there’s a mystical island in the middle of the Atlantic that is home to Elven kind.

    You can travel to the Elf realm, but hiring a guide and chartering a ship that can pierce the Veil costs tens of thousands of dollars, the journey is long and arduous, and once you arrive, magic will compel you to stay there for several years.

    You haven’t traveled to the Elf realm, and you’re trying to decide if you should. You know that people who have traveled there have an empirically higher tendency to decide to go back for a second and even third trip. You try to understand why they would do this, and they tell you stories that, frankly, fail to connect with you on an emotional level. It’s a lot of really corny stuff, like descriptions of the gaiety of laughter and song and dance around the nightfires, effusive descriptions of the beauty of the Elven Queen, and (less commonly, with a degree of self-consciousness) expressions of awed reverence for the light of Cirinthaniel, the Star of Hope.

    Basically, it’s a lot of nonsense, as far as you can tell. It’s clear that whatever is going on with this Elvish experience, it’s something that speaks to aspects of the human spirit that are probably either dormant or completely nonexistent in you.

    On some level you have to decide if all this talk about the light of Cirinthaniel is a lie, an exaggeration, a self-justification, or an earnest expression of contact with something that is truly desirable but so far beyond your ken that its value can’t be communicated except through metaphor.

    (Here are my more developed thoughts on parenting in podcast form, including more discussion of potential negatives.)

  33. Lasagna says:

    This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child.

    Ah, the theorizing of people without children….

    Going from zero children to one child is, in both my personal experience and in the experience of my friends and family, far less of a jolt than going from one child to two.

    Before you have your first child, you’ve prepared for it in every way. You’ve painted the nursery and built the crib, and borrowed your sister’s old bassinet. You bought the baby monitor. You’ve subscribed to three different Apps, all of which give you daily updates on what’s happening with the growing fetus. You’ve attended a 24-hour long class on birthing and taking care of infants in their first weeks and months. You’ve both read What to Expect When Your Expecting cover to cover. You’ve beatifically closely listened to the advice of all the in-laws. You’re terrified, but in a good way.

    Then it ends up not being nearly as difficult as you thought. Babies are awesome. Food in one end, poop out the other, smiles and gurgles and grabbing your nose.

    And then toddlers are impossibly more awesome! They run around and love all the games you play with them and are excited every single morning and are just great. There’s nothing as wonderful as parenthood. I don’t see why you feel the need to dig deeper than the numbers than your first chart. If your life was an awful mess of poverty and physical abuse and addiction before your child, OK, a baby might not make you happier. They aren’t magic elixirs. Otherwise, all good.

    Going from one to two (full disclosure: my wife is pregnant, so it hasn’t actually happened for us yet, but we can already see the drill) is much, much more difficult. Now your attention is split in half, now what was easy the first time around is hard because you have to do the same work in half the time.

    So why do people like two, or three, or four kids more than less? Because children are so much fun, yes, but more, because if you’re doing it right you’ve reoriented your life to be about raising them. I see the same mistake repeated in these comments (and, i think, in Scott’s post): the equating of “difficult” with “unhappy”. One doesn’t automatically lead to the other. Sure, my wife’s and my lives were far “easier” before kid(s). We had way more spare time, and did shit like “go to Italy”. Now we’re tired a lot, and spend all our time talking about diapers and playing weird games where we chase our son through a tunnel, and he slaps a magnet on a board, laughs like crazy and runs back through the tunnel again. Both are way better than Italy.

    Some unsolicited advice for Scott: have kids. Now. Our biggest mistake – and it was a huge one – was doing exactly what you’re doing, and saying “what about work? What about travel?” and putting it off. You get old, fast, and all of a sudden having kids doesn’t happen the first or the twentieth time you try, and even more time passes, and THAT is bad. Pull the trigger tonight.

    I’ve got so much more to say but this post is already long enough.

    OK, one more thing: one of you should quit working for at least a year, maybe permanently. My wife took off for a year with our first, and was blissed out the entire time. Now work is torture for her. We’re living cheaper than necessary because we want her to take off two years with #2, and another two with #3.

    And the final thing, really: paid parental leave is a life changing event that should be mandated by God. Anyone who claims to be a social conservative or a Christian Who Votes and ISN’T in favor of this is really missing something vital. I work for a very progressive company, and am getting an impossible three months of paternity leave. It’s going to be the greatest three months of my life.

    TL; DR: people are happier with kids because kids are amazing and every single other thing isn’t. Lack of paid parental leave is a tragedy.

    • moridinamael says:

      I’d just like to highlight one aspect of your post that is rarely talked about.

      What if, every morning after you wake up and have your coffee, you were greeted by one or more small people who you love saying to you, “Good morning, I love you, you’re great, thank you for the berries, I love berries, will you play with me?” instead of, y’know, refreshing Hacker News on your phone alone in the dark.

      Yeah, you had to be the one to prepare the berries, I guess, but you’ll have a hard time perceiving that as some kind of terrible chore.

      • lupis42 says:

        It turns out that the existence of someone who is unconditionally glad to see you and wants to interact with you is pretty awesome, and frequently underrated.

      • Helaku says:

        The same thing might be said about a cat, no? Except for the Good morning part.

        • moridinamael says:

          The “same thing”? No, the cat doesn’t smile at you, thank you verbally, talk to you, and actively express interest in spending time with you. Neither does a dog, and dogs are generally more personable. Yeah, you get fuzzies from animals, but they’re not the same fuzzies, and how you earn your fuzzies matters.

          This is setting aside the fact that cats don’t grow into adult humans with which you have a profoundly deep relationship.

          • Helaku says:

            This is setting aside the fact that cats don’t grow into adult humans with which you have a profoundly deep relationship

            It depends. For me a cat is quite OK in terms of emotional bonding. For other relationships I have friends. Yes, I understand that I may be losing something profoundly deep but I may be not. You cannot know it unless you do it which in my overall melancholic position in this world is not the option to try.

        • roystgnr says:

          I’ve had four cats, and three kids, and none of the cats has ever run at the door screaming “Daddy!” when I get home in a race to be the first to hug me.

          I admit, though, dog owners might have a better case for equivalency here.

        • ThinkingWithWords says:

          No, the same thing cannot be said of a cat. For the same reason that most things that are said of human beings cannot be said of cats.
          Children are not animals in the sense that a cat is. They are small humans in the process of becoming adult humans. They are of our species and of our blood and are quite recognizably socially functional humans from a few weeks old, probably at the first intentional smile (around 6 weeks).
          People like spending time with other human beings, even (maybe especially) little tiny ones.

      • Lasagna says:

        This x1000. Yes, children are work while hitting “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight or Facebook isn’t. Yes, kids cost money where those things don’t. But having a kid who loves eating his berries… my GOD.

    • nzk says:

      Great post!

    • Sergey Shelukhin says:

      Frankly, looking at happy parents who I’ve known before having children or who actually would tell you about their before-life, I feel they are somewhat deluded. People who had ambition and e.g. climbed mountains, or started startups, or whatever are “I don’t have time for mountains anymore, but yesterday we walked in the park with kids and it was so much better”. I don’t doubt they feel this way, but I don’t think it justifies the decision… to take an extreme example, if future-me gets addicted to some drugs, he will probably be very happy every time he takes a dose, but it doesn’t mean I want to steer my life in that direction. In fact having an outside point of view in a sense makes one a better judge of that, as would be the case in the extreme example above.

      • lupis42 says:

        climbed mountains, or started startups, or whatever

        I think you may be confused about the ambition here. Climbing mountains is a small, short term project where the beneficiary is mostly yourself. Having and raising a kid is a large, long term project with at least one other primary beneficiary. Far more ambitious.
        Climbing mountains has about the same long-term investment value as drugs. Children are much more like startups, and most people who launch successful startups pay a similarly high opportunity cost and don’t go doing other things for a few years afterwards.

        • Sergey Shelukhin says:

          My example was more in terms of being influenced by outside opinions and basis for them. And yes, I mean personal ambition – aside from health benefits, climbing mountains is a quest for improving yourself physically and mentally outside of your comfort zone.
          I wouldn’t compare raising children to a startup – it’s more like volunteering in the park for years – benefits others but is not pushing yourself (in the direction I’d consider to be ambitious).

          My main point was, you cannot really use self-reported happiness as the main metric here, no more than you can use self-reported happiness from orgasmium as the main metric.
          I see how people who have children changed – I don’t think I want to ever change this way. I’ve also seen people (that I know fairly close) that pretty much literally said “my life was so pointless and boring, and then I saw my friends have kids and they have so many things to do with meaning!”. To each his own, you just have to judge from the outside, not inside IMO.

          • lupis42 says:

            I wouldn’t compare raising children to a startup – it’s more like volunteering in the park for years – benefits others but is not pushing yourself (in the direction I’d consider to be ambitious).

            On the contrary – it’s psychologically demanding on the level of SEAL training, far more personally challenging than just getting up a mountain. It’s just that it’s much more common, so people underrate the amount of personal growth that it will prompt.

            My main point was, you cannot really use self-reported happiness as the main metric here, no more than you can use self-reported happiness from orgasmium as the main metric.

            Self-reported happiness is a dubious metric at the best of times, because people don’t answer it consistently, and even when they try, moment-to-moment happiness is so different from reflective happiness that there’s probably no way to control for all the relevant cofounders.

            I see how people who have children changed – I don’t think I want to ever change this way.

            That’s a fair prior estimate – on the other hand, I see how people who have aged have changed, and I don’t want to change that way, but I don’t think avoiding it will make me happier either.
            There are a lot of ways people change, and what we want often has only a tenuous connection to what makes (future) us happy. I want to have an entire cheesecake for lunch, drink some really nice whisky afterwards, and take a nap. Tomorrow morning, I will be happier if I have eaten something consistent with my diet, not run up a credit card bill on scotch or gotten drunk at work, done my work for today and gotten some exercise. Which makes me happier? Should it matter when you ask me? Twenty years older me will appreciate the exercise, be ambivalent about the finances, and absolutely thrilled about the kids, but can’t answer the survey yet.
            If it makes me happy on some level to defer enjoyment, does that mean that I am cheating because I’ve found a way to derive benefit from putting off other benefits, which most people treat as a cost, or does it mean that it’s almost impossible to compare my overall happiness to that of someone who is made happy by living in the moment, but has accumulated a bunch of health problems, a lot of debt, and a ton of fantastic memories?

          • cuke says:

            How else do you judge happiness or life satisfaction if not from the inside?

            If you look at your friends’ lives now that they’ve had kids and go, “I don’t want that” then fair enough, no need to have that. But it seems flawed reasoning to think they are deluded that they’re happy they have that because you don’t want that.

            Having kids is definitely not like getting high on drugs or climbing mountains, speaking as someone who has done a fair amount of both. It does involve giving up some things, as do all big life commitments. It swaps one kind of ambition for another, for a time, but it’s still one of the most ambitious undertakings one can choose. Getting a PhD, writing a book, taking care of a dying parent for a few years, traveling around the world, backpacking all over Alaska, starting a new business — none of those comes close in terms of level of challenge.

            I can see how people who don’t like big change, big commitments, or lots of intensity may not like being parents. I didn’t love those aspects of parenting myself, but I got better at tolerating them and that has served me will generally. People who have a lot of inflexible preferences about how they want things to be probably won’t like being parents. People who are highly perfectionist are likely to find parenting a huge challenge, though it may cure them of some of their perfectionism in the process, and that leads to happier days.

            I’m inclined to trust people when they say having kids doesn’t look like it’s for them, for whatever reason. And I’m inclined to trust people when they say having kids worked out well for them. There are lots of roads to a satisfying life and they don’t all run through parenthood.

          • taradinoc says:

            @Sergey Shelukhin

            I see how people who have children changed – I don’t think I want to ever change this way.

            A thousand times this.

            If someone offered me a pill that would make me derive more happiness from walking in the park with kids than doing any of the things I enjoy doing today, I’d slap it out of their hand and run away. The person who I’d be after taking that pill might be very happy, but it’s not who I want to be.

            @lupis42, @cuke

            On the contrary – it’s psychologically demanding on the level of SEAL training, far more personally challenging than just getting up a mountain. It’s just that it’s much more common, so people underrate the amount of personal growth that it will prompt.

            […] it’s still one of the most ambitious undertakings one can choose. Getting a PhD, writing a book, taking care of a dying parent for a few years, traveling around the world, backpacking all over Alaska, starting a new business — none of those comes close in terms of level of challenge.

            Considering the wide range of people who manage to raise kids, I think these analyses must be missing something. People who are unintelligent, unambitious, ill-prepared, incompetent, unskilled, addicted… heck, forget people, look at animals! They all manage to do it, and afterward, they don’t seem any more competent overall.

            We know SEAL training and mountain climbing are challenging because people fail at them. Something that’s done successfully by the vast majority of humans, dogs, and gerbils who attempt it can’t really be challenging in the same way, and aiming for a goal that you’re almost certain to reach isn’t especially ambitious.


            There are a lot of ways people change, and what we want often has only a tenuous connection to what makes (future) us happy. I want to have an entire cheesecake for lunch, drink some really nice whisky afterwards, and take a nap. Tomorrow morning, I will be happier if I have eaten something consistent with my diet, not run up a credit card bill on scotch or gotten drunk at work, done my work for today and gotten some exercise. Which makes me happier? Should it matter when you ask me? Twenty years older me will appreciate the exercise, be ambivalent about the finances, and absolutely thrilled about the kids, but can’t answer the survey yet.

            In this quote, you seem to be talking about changes that are imposed on you by external forces, but I think Sergey is talking about changes that you cause through your own choices: if having kids causes you to become the kind of person who enjoys being a parent, then you aren’t just trying to predict what 20-years-older-you would want, you’re deciding who you want to be in 20 years.

          • publiusvarinius says:

            I see how people who have children changed – I don’t think I want to ever change this way.

            The time I decided not to have kids was when my friends started having them, for essentially this reason.

            Then again, I also used to think there should be more people who resemble my friends, so them breeding was good news. But now I feel that there should be more people like my “friends-pre-children”, and fewer people like my “friends-post-children”.

          • lupis42 says:


            We know SEAL training and mountain climbing are challenging because people fail at them. Something that’s done successfully by the vast majority of humans, dogs, and gerbils who attempt it can’t really be challenging in the same way, and aiming for a goal that you’re almost certain to reach isn’t especially ambitious.

            The determining question here is what it means to fail as a parent, which isn’t something that we have a clear cultural answer for. I think it’s fairly plausible to say that many people aren’t able to do as well by their children as they initially hope, and sometimes they create difficulties when the goals the children set don’t align with the goals the parents had in mind, but there isn’t nearly as clear of a ‘failure’ line that people want to draw.
            When I compare the difficulty, I mean the personal cost in time, effort, and level of level of required sustained commitment that people actually spend. What the standard for pass fail is, or should be, I don’t know.

            In this quote, you seem to be talking about changes that are imposed on you by external forces, but I think Sergey is talking about changes that you cause through your own choices: if having kids causes you to become the kind of person who enjoys being a parent, then you aren’t just trying to predict what 20-years-older-you would want, you’re deciding who you want to be in 20 years.

            Most changes are neither purely voluntary nor simply imposed on the chooser, they’re (semi)-predictable consequences of the set of choices each person makes, modulated by circumstances and the interactions of those choices made by others.
            A couple years ago, I went on a diet, and lost ~25 kilos/60lbs. I’ve been off the diet for over a year now, and I have not gained the weight back despite the fact that I eat “whatever I want” – in part because the experience of the diet changed what I wanted.
            Whenever one sets out to do anything long term, it is necessary to accept that preferences will be shifted overtime, partly by the psychological effects of the choices made, and partly by external forces and other factors. What I’m saying is that it’s not possible to ‘hold preferences constant’. Sergey’s preferences will shift over time, regardless of what decisions he makes and regardless of whether he wants them to or not, although his meta-preferences will have some effect. The same is true of his friends who make other choices. You can’t choose not to change – you can only try to modulate it somewhat, and the external pressure is far greater than you can match.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Some unsolicited advice for Scott: have kids. Now. Our biggest mistake – and it was a huge one – was doing exactly what you’re doing, and saying “what about work? What about travel?” and putting it off. You get old, fast, and all of a sudden having kids doesn’t happen the first or the twentieth time you try, and even more time passes, and THAT is bad. Pull the trigger tonight.

      No unsolicited advice for me, but a cautionary tale. It is highly unlikely that you will conceive in your first “at bat,” and you will typically go for many months without any sort of success. There is then the non-trivial probability of a miscarriage.

      It is also possible that you or your partner have a fertility issue that you do not know about.

      A few problems and then you’re looking at the wrong side of 35 and still trying to have kid #1.

      Mrs. ADBG and I pulled the goalie about 3 years ago and have had no conceptions. For a long time, my wife didn’t want to face reality that we might have a problem, so we only started seeing some doctors about a year ago. There are several courses of treatment that needed to be followed BEFORE you can try any assisted-reproduction techniques, and you cannot do an IUI or IVF out of the blue. We’ve tried going for an IUI a few times now and have been rejected every time because something has been off.

      I am still relatively young, so I have a lot of time to play with, but you do not want to squander your time and only start considering this stuff when you turn 38 or something. The odds will be substantially less favorable.

      • baconbits9 says:

        More unsolicited anecdotes, I was 32 when my wife and I started trying and we have 2 children out of six pregnancies over a span of 7 years. Miscarriages can range anywhere from “moderately stressful and uncomfortable” to “get to the ER now (and worse)”. My wife has drawn a line and that her next miscarriage will be her last.

        • Randy M says:

          Sympathies to both of you. During the birth of my third child, the supposition goes, my wife’s cancer ridden appendix burst, leading to a state where nine months later it looked like she was pregnant again and then a month later had many of her organs removed, including pregnancy relevant ones. So, that will certainly be our last child, and we’re grateful it wasn’t our first as well.
          That’s a very rare situation, but perhaps representative of how life might go in ways unplanned, and putting off things you want often doesn’t work out.

      • Lasagna says:

        Yup. We were there, brother. It’s a long, frightening slog.

      • Cliff says:

        “It is highly unlikely that you will conceive in your first “at bat,” and you will typically go for many months without any sort of success. ”

        This is highly variable. On both age and the individuals. But point taken that it’s not something to leave to the last minute.

  34. Sergey Shelukhin says:

    Hmm… I didn’t realize the question was only meant for the people who have children. I am an atheist man over 25, and I read it as “do you have children?” “no” “are you happy with that decision?” [decision to not have them] “5”. Are the responses above only for the people who do have children?

  35. Well... says:

    A couple points.

    I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child.

    With one kid, it felt almost surprisingly easy. Not that it was an “easy” experience in an absolute sense (e.g. the way getting my driver’s license was easy), but it was way easier than how other parents I knew had made it sound. When I told them this, without losing a beat, they’d invariably say “That’s because you don’t have KIDS.” Now that I have kids, plural, I see what they mean.

    Another thing:

    I am usually very even keel emotionally. When my kids are crying, screaming, not sharing nicely, being annoying, I am mostly able to respond with authentic calmness and dispassion, tune it out, remind myself it won’t be this way forever, or whatever else people do to de-stress in those situations. I do it almost automatically without even having to remind myself. And since I was a teenager I knew I wanted to eventually have kids, so beneath it all there’s a sense of fulfillment and rightness: “This is totally the life I wanted, with all its craziness and unsavory moments.” Identifying as a father comes naturally to me.

    But that might not be true of everyone. Some people, even if they want kids, have trouble identifying as parents. It conflicts with who they see themselves as. I’d bet our culture has a lot to do with that. If you tell people that what you go to work and do everyday is what defines you, or if you model the essence of life as enjoying friendships and fun stuff all the time, then you’re going to override some percentage of people’s instincts to eventually see themselves as parents first and foremost. I don’t know but I’d guess this is especially hard on women who become mothers but have grown up seeing themselves in terms of a career.

    And the hard parts of being a parent — the sleep deprivation for the first year or so, the frustration and having to deal with annoying and irrational behavior, etc. — can definitely aggravate people’s latent depression, anxiety, etc. if they’ve already got those problems anyway.

  36. Cerastes says:

    IMHO, the level of interpersonal variability is so high that the only really useful approach is experimental: go borrow some kids. You probably know some people with kids, so offer up your services for babysitting and kid-watching, etc., and see how you like it. Once you have some established child-supervision relationships, see if they’ll entrust you with the kids for a long weekend while they take a vacation. Do this with lots of kids, so you can see how kid-variation affects you. Obviously it’s time consuming, but so is parenting, and at least this way you can give them back afterwards.

    The problem is, fundamentally, that you have a decision which can tremendously alter the course of your life, has huge levels of variability in outcomes, and which is largely irreversible (or completely, for those who don’t own large enough snakes). You can know all the probabilities of every hand in this game of poker, and all the strategies for dealing with them, but the ante is your entire future happiness and you have no control over which cards you get dealt. Ultimately, it’s a gamble, and you have to decide to ante up or not.

    • Noumenon72 says:

      Having tried paragraph 1, I absolutely love kids, visited nephews every week and much prefer them to having adult friends, but it had no bearing on my life choices because of paragraph 2 — the costs and risks are way higher than I would accept for any reward. I would only do it to escape some fear or punishment.

  37. rahien.din says:

    I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child

    Certainly the biggest life change is going from non-parent to parent – but this helps explain why the biggest increase in happiness is not the biggest life change. Compare to medical training : the biggest life change is the transition from med school to intern year, and the biggest increase in happiness is the transition from training to independent practice.

    As for families, it’s simple : an only child has no sibling.

    Watching your kids interact is incredibly satisfying on so many levels. They challenge each other. They comfort each other. They make each other laugh hysterically. They stake out fiercely-defended claims and boundaries. They gross each other out. They feed each other chicken nuggets in the car. They worry for each other. They drag each other around in little red wagons and crawl into pillow forts and throw tennis balls at each other.

    It also lets them be kids, instead of kids-interacting-with-adults-interacting-with-kids. Try as we may, we will never provide the same kind of play that another child can. When you play with your kid, the parent-child directionality never goes away, and they will still be seeking your approval (or, you will revert to that role implicitly). When they play together, they are more like equals. Left to their own mutual devices, their inventive, enthusiastic, and sometimes subversive little games are really delightful.

    You also get access to a whole new side of your kids. Watching them interact with someone else that they love, with whom they have an entirely different relationship, gives you a whole new window into the person that they are. It teaches you that you don’t own your kid’s personality, and it teaches your kids that, too. This is immensely important, and also, brings an intense and poignant satisfaction.

    And you get to observe all this, rather than needing to actively (and worriedly) sustain it. For me, watching my daughter and son play together was when it crystallized that two unique human personalities were emerging, and really taking off.

    You also get to access a whole new layer of parenting skills. Emotionally, physically, and informationally managing two children of very different developmental ages, simultaneously and in real-time, requires a higher belt level in parental judo. As they say, you’re not a real parent until you have two.

    All this increase in joy comes at reduced effort costs per unit-of-parenting : if caring for one kid is 1 unit-of-parenting, having two kids is less than 2 units-of-parenting. The older kid can and should help with some of the physical and non-physical childcare duties, insofar as their developmental age permits. Because they can play with each other, they are less dependent on you as a constant source of varied entertainment. And, the younger child will develop more quickly (speech, potty-training, motor) in order to keep up with the older sibling they idolize. Hand-me-downs and increased parental experience/confidence further decrease the cost and effort per child.

    Your family is genuinely better and genuinely more efficient (in terms of costs-per-unit) with two than with one.


    Jim Gaffigan has a great bit on having a giant brood of kids.

  38. Jeremiah says:

    What I’ve always been curious about is how important it is for people to have passed on their genes. To not be an evolutionary dead-end. Does that calculation come into play at all in the decisions to have kids? Do any of you without kids regret having not kids for specifically this reason? I have kids, and there were many reasons for me to do so, so I have a hard time disentangling this reason from the others. But it feels like if I hadn’t had kids this particular regret would have been high on the list.

    Does anyone else share my concerns about being genetically successful?

    • The Nybbler says:

      Many do. My father certainly does. Me, I don’t care; I was miserable as a child and made my parents miserable, and never cared to repeat the experience from the other direction. Fortunately for those in my family who worry about such things, I have many other fecund relatives.

    • Helaku says:

      I do. I do not have children and not plan to have ones. I just do not like them much: I find them too annoying and unpredictable to deal with. But at the same time I don’t care whether my genes will be passed.
      I suppose a lot of people also care (even rationalists) but on some unconscious level.

    • CthulhuChild says:

      Definitely concerns me. I hedge my bets by cryobank donation. The supply can’t keep up with the demand, so it seems like a good option to fulfill biological destiny at low personal cost, while helping others out. Bonus: less pressure if my spouse and I can’t have kids (or she decides she doesn’t want to have them).

      • Jeremiah says:

        That is an interesting tactic.

        • I thought about sperm donation long ago and decided I didn’t want to do it. The basic reason is that I feel a connection to and responsibility for my biological children. I wouldn’t want them brought up by people I wouldn’t want as parents in ways I wouldn’t want to have been brought up–and with donated sperm I would have no control over that.

          I might feel differently if the donation was for a couple I knew.

          • CthulhuChild says:

            Totally understand and respect the position, although it is probably dependent both on the level of responsibility and risk acceptance. There are non-anonymous consent-based system (IE, donor is selected by couple, donor decides whether or not couple meets standards), and there is also a huge selection bias to traditional (largely anonymous) cryobanks, which cost thousands of dollars per attempt and favor wealthy people hellbent on children. Someone with no feeling of responsibility to their hypothetical offspring would not care either way, but someone with a sense of responsibility and some risk tolerance might decide one (or both) effect is sufficient mitigation.

            Like most things in this space, I think it’s so complex and personal a decision there will never be a simple answer. I *do* think there’s good value to honestly considering the possibility, regardless of the decision. Particularly having met people on the other side of the equation, people who need donors and can’t find any that meet their needs.

          • @ CthulhuChild:

            Part of it is that I had the good fortune to be brought up by wonderful parents and so have a perhaps unreasonably high standard of what I want for my children.

          • CthulhuChild says:

            Part of it is that I had the good fortune to be brought up by wonderful parents and so have a perhaps unreasonably high standard of what I want for my children.

            See, I love this forum because it inevitably makes me think about things that would not otherwise occur to me. Excuse a brief ramble.

            I’m not sure my parents were particularly good at being parents: which isn’t to say they were bad at it, but rather that they were competent in the same way they were competent at most things they did. Don’t read this as a criticism of them, I love my parents and I know they did their best, but I’m not sure they had any particular talent in the field. This is simply based on the fact that by most measures I’m doing about as well as they did.

            And this makes sense when you think about it in the context of general intelligence/talent. My parents did not have talents that they ruthlessly exploited to cover up deficiencies: they were just smart and competent. If their parenting was above average, it was no more above average than they were. Mistakes were made, but I turned out well (I’m not in jail and no one will ever find the bodies). And all of this is ignoring the genetic component, which seems to matter more to outcomes anyway.

            So I wonder what it means to be a good parent, or what good parenting looks like, and what is reasonable to expect of oneself or others. And what does it mean that I have distinct mental categories for “my children” (who I raise and am personally responsible for) and “my offspring” (who carry my genes and I hope the best for).

            Anyway, in the same manner that this thread has dozens of people encouraging the creation of Scottlings, I’d rather a world with more children-of-slatestar-readers than children-of-maxim-readers. But this community seems to select for self doubt.

      • My kids are adopted so I did not get the genetic component. I would have liked to have passed on my genes, even though being a parent was tremendously satisfying even so. But I wish I had contributed to a cryobank to have my genes passed on. Now it’s too late.

      • Wency says:

        My understanding this is an option for a very small percentage of men. If you’re not tall, handsome, healthy (with a healthy family history), and impressively accomplished and educated, you’re not worth considering.

        • CthulhuChild says:

          I’m not sure how true this is, but then again, I’m basically as you describe (my only two flaws are a total lack of humility and an inability to feel bad about it).

          But then again, you’re talking about strategies for reproductive success. There is going to be a bit of selection involved. I mean, if you’re short, unhealthy, ugly, unaccomplished and ill-educated, I’m not sure if there’s a valid strategy for having children without changing a couple of those variables first.

          At a very minimum, donation selects for people whose ethical system allows them to donate, with enough ego to think they’d be selected. Other methods of biological reproduction (marriage, knocking up a one night stand, crimes against humanity) select for other traits. Apparently lifetime-childlessness in men sits at around 20% (surprisingly low!), but that’s still a rather lot of people in absolute terms (and I suspect grey tribers are over-represented).

    • It is one of the things I care about. I have three children, all of whom turned out as people I like and approve of. I think I feel better about that than about three other equally satisfactory people with whom I had no particular connection. And I would have been a little disappointed to have not had any grandchildren ever.

    • Fahundo says:

      My grandparents on my mom’s side had three children and seven grandchildren. As of now, I don’t think any of those seven grandchildren (including myself) plan on having children ever. I don’t really care about passing on my genes, but sometimes I wonder why all seven of us are like this.

    • nemorathwald says:

      I do not care about passing on my genes. Your genetic code is not your friend. Evolution is not morally significant; it is like a blind idiot god. You are not on some kind of team.

      Genes evolve within populations, not individuals. In so much as genes “care” about things (as a metaphor for how they work), they “care” only about propagating their traits into the overall population. They do not favor the best interests of an individual who passes them on. Your genetic code uses you as an experimental sample. An invisibly-small statistical blip. The experiment design is so mind-bogglingly wasteful, that to say you are the control group who gets a placebo would be giving yourself too much importance to your genetic code.

      If they can propagate themselves by crushing you, they will. And procreating is one of the ways they do so. When I had my vasectomy, they made one final push in my discomfort. And I defeated them.

      “Your genetic success” is a misnomer. It is the success of your genes. They are not you, and their success is not your success. We are no more obligated to care about evolutionary dead-ends than we are obligated to avoid hot air balloons to “obey” the law of gravity.

      • Halikaarn says:

        “Evolution is not morally significant; it is like a blind idiot god. You are not on some kind of team.”

        This is basically my take on the situation as well. I have at least a normal amount of desire to be make my mark on the world, to influence the way that other people think and perceive ideas. I don’t particularly care if those people are my genetic descendants.

  39. Marklouis says:

    I live in NYC and tend to rely on observation rather than surveys. I hear the opinion often from couples with children that’s its the best way to be truly happy. Yet observation suggests otherwise: we have a very large (usually) child-free population in the gay community, and as best i can tell, there is no happiness deficit at all. Quite the contrary: observing and interacting with both communities (gay vs married with children), it’s hard not to conclude that the gay community is significantly happier (and frankly, parents of younger children seem to be some degree of miserable). Now, I understand that there are a thousand other variables influencing this…however, I do think the gay community stands out as a clear counter-example to the notion that having children makes you uniquely happy. It is clearly possible to be happy without children – maybe the secret is having plenty of friends who choose the same.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      One difference worth keeping in mind is that outside of the gay community, being married with children increases your social status. I do think that having higher social status contributes to life satisfaction.

      • Halikaarn says:

        As someone who almost certainly doesn’t want kids, and who is extremely skeptical of a lot of the cultural forces which come to bear on new parents (at least in educated, American cultures), and the effects of those forces on community bonds and adult relationships, I am both totally willing to take the supposed status hit (in exchange for more free time and lifestyle flexibility, as well as less YDIW nagging from acquaintances and total strangers), and curious about whether these mores are slowly changing.

        I’m in my early 30s, and it has become blindingly clear in the last couple years which of my old social cohort wanted kids and a more or less sedentary lifestyle, and which of us are ‘weird for life’ which doesn’t preclude children but aligns pretty closely with being childless, at least for well into our 30s or 40s. The latter group are a dichotomous mix of extremely ambitious ladder-climbers in business and academia, and freethinking artist types who value flexibility above all. Ironically, these two groups get along a lot better socially now that the ‘breeders’ are largely out of the picture, although I’m not entirely sure why this is.

    • Niall says:

      Counter argument – you aren’t seeing the same thing in each community. In the gay community, people are socialising for themselves with their closest friends and that might be what they find most fun. If they are depressed, introverted or not in the mood they probably stayed home.

      In the parent community, they might have been stressed getting the kid ready, half distracted that the kid is not getting into bother and socialising with people who just have similar age kids or are the kid’s friend’s parents. If they are depressed, introverted or not in the mood they probably didn’t have a choice. The best parts of being a parent are described (in detail) elsewhere, so doesn’t seem like a good comparison.

  40. ringmaster says:

    TL;DR: You can create new humans, awesome humans. To not exercise this power is like Superman being Clark Kent full time.
    Atheist father of five, working on six. I started at age 25 and have continued until 38; my children are from two marriages, but all live with me and my current wife full time. My observation is that kids are interesting at all stages of life, and they do impose costs. However, the benefits have outweighed the costs for me at all stages.
    Multiple kids > Single kids
    More kids are easier than fewer kids, at least once the youngest is into toddler age. They can play, and later provide a great deal of care. A six year old can change diapers, help potty train, and feed younger siblings. A four year old can play happily with a two year old while you make lunch. An eleven year old can babysit, so that you can go dancing with Mom.
    Life changes
    Kids change your life as much as you let them. You can give them more or less time, more or less attention. Keep them fed and sheltered, and you can apportion your time in a way that makes you sane, or even happy. Money helps here, as you can buy some extra you-centered time with less guilt by hiring good help, having grandma move in, or what have you. A physically robust partner helps a lot here, as well as being robust yourself. This lets you quickly return to pre-pregnancy levels of activity, hobbies, sex, etc.
    Most important
    By having kids you get to make new humans. This is truly amazing, seeing people grow up and knowing that you are literally responsible for their existence. Everything that they accomplish you have facilitated. That is a multiplication of your influence on the world that is hard to match.

  41. tomfoolery says:

    Hi – long-time reader with 5 kids.

    I’ll leave the consequentialist questions to others smarter than I am, but would like to call your attention to one key piece of data that is probably the biggest determinant on outcomes, and probably the most important – you. Specifically, are you willing to unconditionally love? (And you’re quite smart enough to know all of the various issues in the future that can get wrapped up in “unconditional”). It seems like it should be a given, and we all think that of course **we** will, but you just need to look around to see that its not given. If not, don’t — your girlfriend and hypothetical kids deserve that from you. It doesn’t take too much looking to see all of the pain out there that comes from people who aren’t willing.

    It doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect at it – there’s nothing like family life to make everyone’s failings glaringly apparent to each person in the family. It just means you won’t stop trying.

    Step 1 of unconditional love is unconditionally loving your girlfriend. You two will have to make a lot of mutual sacrifice and raising kids is a long road, and if you aren’t really committed to unconditionally loving each other, it’s going to be really painful. Further, most kids I’ve seen that have gone through a divorce (or separation in this case) really show the scars (citation needed). That mutual commitment used to be called marriage, but whatever you call it, you need to commit to it.

    This also needs to apply to the kids. Kids provide a special kind of experience, as the other comments have indicated. Quite often they’ll be lovely reflections of you or your girlfriend, and that’ll make you want to love them all the more. But they deserve your unconditional love regardless — maybe they’re sick, or disabled, or not as smart as you two, or who knows? Plus, they’re free people, and so they won’t always do what you’d want for them — but you have to love them anyways.

    So that’s the most important piece of data – are you willing to unconditionally love and never stop trying again after you (or they) fail?

    • Murphy says:

      After reading enough forums it’s also important to remember that if you get particularly unlucky you could end up with a “We Need to Talk About Kevin” type kid.

      Does “unconditional” stretch to finding out that one of your progeny has raped or mutilated one of your other progeny or someone else?

      Because some things don’t even seem to be terribly linked to upbringing. Get a kid with a few neurological wires crossed and you can find the kid you raised to be a monster.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        Should people also worry, before making a kid, that an airplane might crash right into them 3 years hence?

    • cuke says:

      Nicely said Tomfoolery. I really liked this comment.

    • albatross11 says:

      An important part of this idea is that love isn’t just an emotion, it’s also a commitment. (Rather like faith, in fact.)

      There are times it’s hard to feel love toward your wife or kid because they’ve royally pissed you off and the anger/annoyance/frustration is swamping everything else. But you’re still committed to loving them–you’re not going to stop loving them because they’ve pissed you off or disappointed you, and it’s incredibly important that they know that, and that *you* know that. You’ll be proud when your kid makes the honor roll/starts on the football team/sings the solo in the church choir, but you’ll still love him when you’re picking him up at the police station with alcohol on his breath and a wrecked car to deal with, or when he’s calling you to tell you he’s flunking out of college. Not that you’ll be feeling love at that exact instant, necessarily, but that you’re committed to continuing to love him and he’s always going to be your kid.

  42. akarlin says:

    This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child.

    Audacious Epigone has a plausible take on this:

    This rank amateur enthusiast’s take:

    Women need to nurture. Men want to spread the seed.

    If women don’t have children, they can’t nurture (or they do some in fucked up ways, a la Angela Merkel). If they have even one, though, they get to nurture.

    If men don’t have children, they don’t get to spread their seed. Men are more expendable, though, so it’s not as crushing as it is for women not to nurture. They can enjoy themselves living poolside.

    Once men start spreading, more is better. Just one means no poolside but also not much legacy. My guess is it’s even more cutting if the only offspring is a daughter.

    • baconbits9 says:

      The graph presented doesn’t support this conclusion. The lowest rates of male mental issues come with 2 kids, with 3+ kids being closer to zero or 1 kid than it is to 2. Obviously this might be sampling or confounders but that completely counters the male side, and then females with 3+ kids have the best mental health with the gap between 2 and 3+ almost as large as the gap between 0 and 1.

  43. ShawnSpilman says:

    Considering whether to have kids, Scott? In your particular case, yes, no question: Do it. Not for the satisfaction or the happiness or whatever. Do it for the impact.

  44. Nietzsche says:

    I took the SSC survey. I have a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old stepson. I can say unequivocally that having children has made my life worse. Worse to the point that for the first time in my life I am seeing a psychiatrist next week. In Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert reports several studies that conclude having children makes parents less happy, and argues that parents who report otherwise are mostly self-deceiving. He gives an evolutionary psych reason why. Take his arguments seriously. My experience mirrors the results of the studies he reports. I think most parents conflate “I love my kids” with “my kids make me happy”. Those are not the same thing at all. I love my kids, but the times they actually make me happy are far outweighed by frustration, anxiety, irritation, annoyance, worry, and terror.

    • fortaleza84 says:

      I think that being the father of a stepchild is a special case. Dennis Mangan wrote a nice blog post on this a few years back. In fact, the divorce rate in situations like that is sky-high.

    • grreat says:

      I read a report that having kids that are teenagers ages you prematurely more than any other activity. I think it was that parents looked were evaluated to be 10 years older in wear and tear then non-parents and the correlation was much higher than exercise, drugs, or anything else.

      You have to let go. I use Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development as a guide, and after kindegarten the kids growth just does not depend on parents. It is all about their peers. Their peers have much much more influence than you do and for good reasons.

      • having kids that are teenagers ages you prematurely

        My wife likes to say that she has been younger than that and she has been older than that but she hasn’t been that age. In important ways I don’t think our children have been either. Or that I was.

        Or in other words, while in terms of the calendar all kids get to spend some time as teens, it’s not given that all kids will spend years in the cultural teen stereotype.

        Judith Harris argued that the adult personality was mostly determined by the peer group, but noticed one special case–where the peer group was the family. I suspect that may be the case that avoids much of the teen pattern.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      “He gives an evolutionary psych reason why.” – mind sharing that?

      • Nietzsche says:

        Gilbert’s argument: evolution builds in self-deception about how wonderful having kids is because if we acknowledged the truth, no one would intentionally have children. Self-deceiving genes (tendencies towards self-deception, whatever) are likelier to get propagated than honest ones.

  45. nemorathwald says:

    Parents have a built-in excuse for selfishness which wins automatic social approval. I’m trying to find the study that found embezzlers reported that they stole from their employers for their kids. But I can’t find it. When a parent enriches their own family at the expense of the community, they can frame it as helping the innocent hostages they brought into the world.

    By having a child, you are excused from supporting anyone in their crisis, because you artificially manufactured your own crisis which did not previously exist. And you’re stuck in your home and your workplace, and your social life is dead, so you are less likely to meet people, including downwardly-mobile adults.

    I’m in my forties and don’t have children. Sometimes I wonder if the world of non-parents attracts adults who need me to parent them, if I’m not careful.

    • Deiseach says:

      Embezzlers will use any excuse that seems likely to get them less jail time. “I did it for my kids” is one, but if they had no kids, it would be “I have a gambling addiction/I was depressed/my budgie died and I needed to distract myself”.

      Excuses from wrongdoers caught wrongdoing need not be the truth.

    • szopeno says:

      If you have no children, you are egoist. Society cannot function without children. Savings have no value without children. Without someone else deciding to have children, there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of you when you will older.
      That is, of course, unless you plan to shoot yourself when you will stop being productive member of a society.

      Yeah, that was harsh, but your opinion was really, really offensive too.

      • Noumenon72 says:

        (not the OP) I absolutely plan to shoot myself when I can no longer live comfortably, and retaining the freedom to do that is one of the reasons I don’t have kids. I have always thought the ideal world would be one where no one had kids, we all lived at double the living standard for a generation, and turned off the lights at the end.

    • cuke says:

      Speaking as a parent, I think having one’s own kids is a basically selfish act, which is ironic given how much setting aside one’s own needs is required in raising them.

      There are tons of kids who need care — the ones without parents, the ones with shitty parents, and the ones whose parents could just use some help. I know people who have chosen not to have kids but who are an undeniably good influence on the kids they come in contact with.

      Parents do often make a lot of demands on the non-parenting people around them, and they sometimes do this with an air of entitlement or resentment when it’s not enough. Not always, but sometimes.

      On the other side, I know quite a few parents, including of young children, who help others in crisis all the time, including those without children. So I think people’s capacity to support others varies widely from one person to the next, regardless of their status as parents.

      The issue for me is about expectations. Do we resent others for not fulfilling roles that they never signed up for or do we own that we made a choice to pass on our particular genes and that this choice doesn’t confer responsibility on other people who weren’t part of that choice? (I do think society is better overall if as a whole we support kids’ needs — ie, healthcare, childcare, parental leave, education, etc — since the consequences of not doing that can be bad).

      I absolutely do not think that people without children are egotistical by virtue of that choice. We are all better off if the people who don’t want to have kids are supported for that decision. We are all better off if the people who have kids really want to have kids and don’t just feel like they “should”.

  46. Nietzsche says:

    Everyone who thinks that Scott ought to have kids “for the impact”, (1) genetics matter more than parenting, and (2) regression to the mean is a bitch.

    • Murphy says:

      Ya, someone my SO and I know was telling us we should have kids for reasons similar to that… my response was something like “I’m really not inclined to make the ultimate life choice on the basis of trying to convince myself I’m somehow doing the world a favor by creating more half-me”

    • janrandom says:

      Many comments here explain how deep a change becoming a parent is. Given that Scott likely scores high on the Openness to Experience scale the most convincing arguments probably go along the line of learning a new state of mind that might allow him to better understand parents 🙂

    • publiusvarinius says:

      For these reasons, I guesstimate that Scott having kids would decrease his positive impact on the world, especially when I account for child-rearing taking time away from this blog.

      (Scott, deriding your hypothetical children about their impact might be true or necessary, but it’s certainly not kind. However, if you ask the Germans, your children will probably be kinder.)

    • aNeopuritan says:

      Dood! What do you think Scott’s genes say? (Regression happens, but AFAIK, he’s already from a very smart family, and I think it’s likely so is anyone he considers a prospective mother.)

  47. milesgrimes says:

    Erratum: In the fourth-from-final paragraph, second-to-last sentence– would be noticeably higher**[I assume] after a big donation

  48. sclmlw says:

    Wouldn’t a positive correlation of perceived happiness with having more than one child be expected given the human population’s overall positive growth? I know most developed nations have below-replacement birth rates, but that appears to reflect fewer people choosing to have children, not a growing dissatisfaction with having children.

    Indeed, I would expect the basic species survival should show a slight increase in happiness/satisfaction with having children, given the last 100 years or so of population growth. A decrease in happiness/satisfaction with would be expected to correlate with a gradually shrinking population size. I suspect there are multiple differences between people who choose to have 0-1 children versus those who choose to have 2+ children. I also suspect that the 2+ traits will become more prevalent in the human population over time, barring a significant selection event.

  49. grreat says:

    Kids suck. I have three under five years old. They are a challenge. They are demanding, question you, challenge you, bring out your worst aspects, throw everything you were comfortable about socially to the wind and cut to the truth. But… they are also amazing, loving, and lovely and give moments of pure joy, innocence, and love. They demand you to work harder and give motivation so they may increase the economic standing just by trying / working harder. I don’t know – it’s a strange juxtaposition of amazing and horrible.

    Oh. The reason multiple kids make a difference is that with one you can control and rationalize their behavior and suppress it, with >= 2 kids you have problems doing that.

  50. Deiseach says:

    The View From Hell blog argues that the discrepancy between the direct question (“Are you happy to have kids?”) and the indirect one (“How happy are you?”, compared across parents vs. childless people) is pure self-deception; children suck, but parents refuse to admit it.

    Or it could be “My life is kinda crappy but the one good part is my kids”, as well?

  51. introsort says:

    This is a mostly unhelpful point, but I think it is worth bearing in mind. I suspect that comparisons between the lives of parents and non-parents are tenuous for most points of comparison, including ‘happiness’. This is because having children so radically changes one’s existence that it’s difficult to trace any line of continuity between the states. Essentially, even the ideal one holds of what happiness is changes radically after having children. I think it’s a plausible argument that parents and non-parents exist in different planes of existence, and am partial to theories like nemorathwald proposed in these comments (although not sure if I agree with this particular hypothesis, I agree that having kids can have dramatic motivational changes).

    A final anecdote to finish this unhelpful rambling, but that kind of crystallizes my point, is something Ta-Nahesi Coates said to Ezra Klein on a podcast they did a few years ago. He recommended having kids because it enables you to focus your life down to its necessities. He said having kids made him a better writer, because that was what he had to do to take care of his kids. So I think a better argument than ‘happiness’ for having kids is how it fundamentally alters your worldview/consciousness/meaning of life.

  52. JASSCC says:

    People with only one child are probably disproportionately (compared to those with 2, 3, 4, 4+) those who still have very young children in the part of child-rearing that’s all about changing diapers, getting not much sleep, etc.

    Does the number of children effect look more like what you’d expect if you look at those whose youngest child is over, say, age 5?

    I have two children, age 5 and 7, and it’s a huge source of pleasure. One of the nicest things my own father said to me, and one of the best pieces of advice I got on parenting, was something he told me days before my first child was born: everyone will give you lots of advice and information, but no one tells you how much fun having kids is.

    That’s the best part, and that’s the trick — maximizing those moments. It’s like anything positive in life, but even more so — there’s immense potential for joy, but of course it’s possible for bad luck or bad practice to work against that.

    • hollyluja says:

      That has been my experience as well. I had grown up around kids of various ages and seen my friend’s kids, but was completely un-prepared for just how much I’d laugh as a mother. Kids are just so weird.

    • roystgnr says:

      I’d very much like to see these results somehow broken down by children’s ages.

      In my experience, newborns are hell, wherein the only glimpse of release is the possibility of a fatal car crash induced by sleep deprivation. (The second and third kid are more work but you’re also more experienced so that’s a wash)

      From 3-9 months they’re boring, pointless, but no longer a source of suffering so that’s nice. After that they start becoming exponentially more adorable, until somewhere around age 3 they’re just pure magic.

      Disclaimer 1: I was extremely intellectually precocious and my wife is extremely conscientious, and our kids seem to have all gotten both traits. If your 3 year olds don’t end up reading bedtime stories to you and singing with you and making gifts for you then I apologize for overselling them.

      Disclaimer 2: None of mine are teens yet. They’re very well behaved *now*, but if a computer virus holds the world hostage in 2030, I’m checking their hard drives for the master key.

    • Well... says:

      I arrived at your dad’s conclusion as well. I’d say at least four or five times a day I step back from what’s going on just to appreciate how much fun the crazy conversation I’m having is, or how fun the ridiculous activity I’m doing is. Nobody ever told me I’d have that stuff to look forward to.

  53. skef says:

    Given all the speculation here about utility, I would have thought the most relevant statistic is the probability of a committed Effective Altruist refocusing all but a token quantity of their efforts and resources on his or her own children on having them.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Effective altruist, did you know that for the cost of a cup of coffee in the Bay Area, you can provide a Christian child in Kenya with three meals a day? And for the cost of an extra bedroom in your apartment, you can feed ten children, build a well, and send them to a good school? 🙂

  54. Thyle Dysig says:

    Have you considered the basic point that, on account of evolution, we are no doubt genetically programed to want and enjoy children? My personal experiences confirm this. When I had my first child, I looked and her and balled like a baby. (I’m normally a pretty stoic person.) They were my first tears of joy. I was completely unprepared for the rush of emotions it produced.

    And I will tell you this, I understood my saintly mother deeply for the first time in my life.

    I can also tell you that having a wife and then having children do make you want to be a better person. You realize that the example that you set is more important than anything you will say.

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

    • szopeno says:

      Yup. However that was with my first child, with my daughter. I was so overcome with emotions that sometimes I think I could just die, that my heart would stop, because every breath was giving me so much happiness I couldn’t bear. Even today I have some memories so sweet, that just remembering them makes my eyes teary.
      I don’t know why, it wasn’t the same with my second child, my son. I love him too, but somehow, no such sweet memories.

  55. andrewflicker says:

    My wife and I decided as a precondition to getting married that neither of us wanted children- it’s a big decision, and definitely something we wanted to have total agreement on before making a lifelong commitment to each other.

    From my purely anecdotal experience and observations- I think many people who decide not to have kids, (or simply defaulted to having no kids), do not make enough effort to take advantage of that decision.

    A simple example is travel: I know a lot of parents of young children that take camping trips to the woods, or travel to Mexico, or visit distant museums, because they think that such experiences are important to the development and education of their children- and of course, they end up enjoying the trips greatly and building good personal memories. Many of my similarly-aged and similarly-wealthy friends that do not have children opt for “staycations”, or buying a fancy car, etc., which do not form the same kind of long-run happiness that they would have achieved if they had treated *their own* experiences with the same sort of care that the parents treated the experiences of their children.

    And this ignores the possibilities that arise when you’re not greatly wealthy and don’t have kids compared to similar SES-cohorts that do have kids- spontaneous travel, riskier behavior that has high payoff ratios, buying/renting great real estate in terrible school districts at a discount, spare time for additional classes or self-education, etc., etc.

    Now, I don’t actually think that (on average) not having kids makes people happier. I think the evidence is too conflicted to make a firm judgment. But I do think that many child-free adults under-utilize their “condition”!

    • Well... says:

      I definitely agree with that. For whatever reason most of the people I know who are about my age (early/mid 30s) don’t have kids, and when they tell me about what time they get up, or what they’re doing on Saturday night, or whatever else, it often sounds like they’re just repeating the stuff they did when they were 19.

  56. perspicuosity says:

    Another long-time lurker coming out of the shadows.

    I think we need to be very clear about what we are discussing. The average life satisfaction data in the original post (for men only), the stories in the comments (by fathers) — they all address the effect of becoming a father, not a parent, on happiness and life satisfaction. And so far, the effect sounds pretty positive. (Sorry to any moms who commented that I missed.)

    Drawing both from data and from conversations with people I know, I completely believe that being a father is fantastic. Since that’s the role you’d have, Scott, go for it.

    But we shouldn’t lump together the huge, dramatically different experiences that (biological) fathers and mothers have when having children. Among many other effects…

    – Men get a workplace status boost from becoming parents, while women take a workplace status hit (above and beyond the effect of any reduced hours or time taken off). This can be very scary for a woman who cares a lot about economic security and / or draws her identity from her career.

    – Biological childbirth is brutal on a woman’s body. This is something I didn’t fully realize (even as a woman) until my friends started having kids. Post-partum depression, recovering from a c-section, the massive damage to muscles and tissue, changes in physical self-image. All of this is serious stuff that fathers don’t deal with.

    – Societal pressure to be a “good parent” is much stronger for a mother. If something goes wrong with your kid, or your kid is bad? Society blames the mom. Even if this isn’t actually true, the fear that this causes in the sleep-deprived brain of a new mom is enough to make her paranoid.

    – In my experience, mothers experience a much larger loss of sense of self from becoming parents. Even in the most egalitarian marriages, the moms are the “default parents” who rearrange their lives in to fill in any gaps. Empty nest is especially brutal for moms.

    I’d be curious to hear the fathers posting here discuss the effect of parenthood on their partners.

    • Nietzsche says:

      I’m a father. My wife enjoys parenting far more than I do. I certainly never got a “workplace status boost”. On the contrary, because we are a blended family, I am now trapped in my current job, which, while a good job, is far from the peak of my field. A peak I cannot even attempt to achieve because it would require moving a significant distance. My wife’s job was not adversely affected. She is still fit and beautiful (even though she complains about her looks in middle age). Because my work is flexible, I am generally the “default parent” who even now is home with the kids because of a snow day. So, I don’t know. I think it is hard to generalize these things without real data.

      • perspicuosity says:

        There’s a good amount of research on the “motherhood penalty” versus the “fatherhood bonus.” For starters:



        Frequency of mother vs. father as the “default parent” is harder to measure, but the evidence that does exist points to moms. Mothers (especially college educated mothers) are more likely than fathers to work part-time or not work at all, e.g.:


        This is changing over time, and a specific couple can also negotiate around this based on their own preferences.

        For the psychological effects (pressure, etc) — this is from my own observation. Would be glad to know if anyone knows of data supporting / disproving this.

        • SamChevre says:

          The problem with most of the research on the “motherhood penalty” is that it assumes its conclusions.

          Note the two items you say above, which I would agree are both true.

          1) There’s a good amount of research on the “motherhood penalty” versus the “fatherhood bonus.”
          2) Mothers (especially college educated mothers) are more likely than fathers to work part-time or not work at all.

          If you assume “working for wages is more satisfying than taking care of children”, this looks like a motherhood penalty: if you assume taking care of children is more satisfying than working…

          • Lasagna says:

            Yeah, this. I wasn’t going to jump in this fray since it’s been discussed to death over the years, but it does seem to be an example where research conclusions don’t match up with the real world.

            I’m an attorney, and I spent my first decade of practice at big firms in NY. The brass ring. High salary, expensive lunches and dinners, tuxedo cocktail parties, fancy sweaters, you name it. (Note: this was before the recession. Even the lunches, dinners, cocktail parties and sweaters are largely gone now, never to return. And I’m making up the sweaters).

            The male/female partnership numbers were skewed towards men. But no matter how much they wanted to promote women from within, despite all the initiatives they tried, they just couldn’t entice them to stay. The majority of women left when they started their families, and took jobs that had more flexibility, didn’t require ungodly hours, and weren’t as utterly miserable and awful as being a practicing attorney at a large firm.

            I did the same thing, come to think of it. I never regretted changing my job (and, eventually, my career), despite STILL making less now than I did then, ten years ago. Let alone what I’d be making now if I’d stayed around. Assuming I didn’t get swallowed up in one of the purges, which I probably would have. Ugh.

            It’s not an unusual conundrum: lots of money, no life outside of work and never see your family. Life outside of work and actually be around to raise your kids, but less money. You pays your dime and you takes your choice.

    • tomfoolery says:

      Hi, father of 5. Posted above.

      For the most part – I absolutely agree with you. Biologically and emotionally hard on women, and the hormone effects are intense. I think some of the social effect you describe exists for my wife, but there are also positives for her. One is that she never used to like or get along with other women at all. The shared experience of motherhood has helped her more easily bond with other mothers and once past that, she has built some great, deeper relationships. The economic risk to women is absolutely real for all but the most powerful. For identity, she went to a top school but never had her identity in her career, and is absolutely focused on how to be the best mom she can. We haven’t hit the empty nest yet, so can’t really comment there, but it’s a good reminder for me to stay aware of.

      I think the risk you allude to of a distant father (and more importantly, distant husband) is certainly real, especially, as Scott has brought up, he can be more “thing-oriented” vs. “people-oriented” (me too). I think the best way I can say it is as a father, you have to consciously focus on reminding yourself that your real job starts when you walk in the door at home. Otherwise, you’ll think of your career as your primary activity, and home as a place for rest, which means you’ll end up burdening your wife and alienating your kids.

      For a father, I think the income effect is not as much about the environment, but much more about his changed role. I know that I, and most other fathers I know, feel a powerful desire to provide for and protect the family — and a powerful fear of the risks there.

      Hence my comment above (#comment-589759)- if you’re doing it for your satisfaction, you’re doing it for the wrong reason, and not doing your wife/partner or kid any favors. Get a dog instead.

    • Well... says:


      I’m a dad and what you said rather accurately describes my wife’s experience.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      All problems true, but the solution doesn’t go through “let’s make sure the kind of women (and husbands) more likely to be concerned about those ceases to exist”. If you’re a woman worried about gender equality – well, that’s the kind of people we need more of to solve those problems, it’s not … umm, the kinds of people currently having the most children (read: the largest shares of the future population) who will do it.

      And uterine social engineering aside, the purely biological problems need male care – my suggestion.

  57. Lasagna says:

    I didn’t get into this in my previous post because it was running long, but the more I read the comments here, the more I’d like to discuss it.

    Most of the arguments so far have been entirely from a consumerist perspective of happiness, and attempt to quantify raising children along the same scale. But it doesn’t work like that.

    If you make a list of things that you like to do to make yourself happy, and the list looks like this: I like a nice glass of wine, reading books, playing video games and training for marathons, your list is exclusively about what you can consume, about what you can do to stimulate your senses right this second (or MY list, since I’m intentionally picking shit I like to do). And if activities causing unhappiness are defined as “something that prevents or delays me from doing these things”, you won’t be able to see what raising children “gets” you. I mean, if you asked me whether, this second, I’d prefer to sit quietly with a book and a good glass of wine or change a diaper, the wine and book sound pretty sweet.

    But that’s not where the happiness comes from. It’s about the joy in fulfilling a duty. I know this is foreign thinking here and now, but realize that it wasn’t in the past, and still isn’t in many places. So I’m asking that we consider that there are other routes to happiness outside of hedonism.

    Moridnamael put it really well above:

    What if, every morning after you wake up and have your coffee, you were greeted by one or more small people who you love saying to you, “Good morning, I love you, you’re great, thank you for the berries, I love berries, will you play with me?” instead of, y’know, refreshing Hacker News on your phone alone in the dark.

    Yeah, you had to be the one to prepare the berries, I guess, but you’ll have a hard time perceiving that as some kind of terrible chore.

    This, exactly. The stuff you “do” is work, and when people say “I love cooking for my children,” they don’t mean they like to drag their tired asses to the supermarket, spend their money, cart it home, unpack it, and spend an hour over a stove. They mean that they love to be a part of this whole thing.

    “Duty” doesn’t equal “grim”. Duty can be joyful. Parenthood has been the most fulfilling, wonderful thing I’ve ever done, and I started LATE and did a lot of fun shit before it that I can compare it to. Children are better.

    TL; DR: there are other formulations of happiness that are not measured in glasses of wine drunk.

    • nemorathwald says:

      Setting a productive goal creates responsibility. The most satisfying things I have ever done were carrying out those responsibilities to their conclusions, to successfully provide new forms of value to myself and others.

      The more imaginative a person is, the more they can set new goals that are custom-designed to fit needs that are unmet by biology’s dictates or the current social and economic system.

      It is not necessarily the same as having that goal picked out for us by biology.

      The problem is many people have too little room in their lives for their own dreams of productive goals, because when they had children, biology gave them its own goal. And then the economy gave them a goal toward which to put their energy. In order to provide for their kids, they must find a rich person (their employer), and make them richer. At that point, they have conformed to whatever goals sustain the current biological and economic system.

      And for many, perhaps all they could have done is take the goals that are handed down to them. But it would be nice to think it through first.

      • Acedia says:

        Setting a productive goal creates responsibility. The most satisfying things I have ever done were carrying out those responsibilities to their conclusions, to successfully provide new forms of value to myself and others.

        The more imaginative a person is, the more they can set new goals that are custom-designed to fit needs that are unmet by biology’s dictates or the current social and economic system.

        And for many, perhaps all they could have done is take the goals that are handed down to them. But it would be nice to think it through first.

        Your goals weren’t decided by you ex nihilo just because they didn’t come from your reproductive biology. They were given to you by your environment.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        How many SSC readers bred too early? (Weirdly, I happen to know the number isn’t 0. But compared to “after more than sufficient thinking”, “later than convenient”, and “never”, it’s hardly worth considering.)

      • Cliff says:

        “they must find a rich person (their employer), and make them richer”

        lol. No matter how you make money, you’re making someone else richer, and not just your boss (if you have one)

    • albatross11 says:

      Cooking *for* my kids isn’t all that much fun, but cooking *with* my kids is extremely rewarding. Especially my middle son, who for some reason has really gotten into cooking, and is pushing me to learn new stuff so we can do them together. But really, younger kids (less so teenagers) tend to really enjoy stuff they can do with you, when it’s interesting and makes sense to them. Cooking really works well for this, because you and the rest of the family get to eat the product, and because being one of the cooks means you can control a lot of what’s in the meal.

  58. baconbits9 says:

    I am currently in the early stages of writing down my thoughts on having kids and how to raise them properly and am hoping to turn it into a book. My primary observation is that the current culture in advanced countries leads to really inexperienced people having children and suffering more than is necessary in the early years because of that. Just my example, I am the 3rd of 6 kids, and there is ~10 year gap between the oldest and youngest, which means the oldest (a boy) would have been around infants and learned basic lessons about handling them in a more traditional culture. With potential first cousins he could have been around infants from 2 years old until his late teens fairly easily. If he had his first child at 20 he would have been at a maximum 9 years away from having an infant around, and our parents the same. Instead he had his first at 40, and didn’t grow up near first cousins because they all lived on other continents, and lost out on the opportunity to enter into parent hood with a baseline of knowledge and experience.

    The first grand kid went to my other older brother who was almost 30 then, at that point he was 20+ years outside any personal experience, but importantly so were our parents! They had a lot of basic skills, they could hold/feed/change a baby no problem, but they had forgotten most of the knowledge based on individual personality traits (outside of “kid X had a hernia, kid Y asthma, and even some of that they got mixed up). In the end a lot of the wisdom of how to parent, that is how to act across a broad range of children, was lost in favor of a lot of generic scientific explanations of how to treat your kid (back is best, how long should you breastfeed, etc) that added as much stress as they relieved.

    • janrandom says:

      Agree. I’m the oldest of six and I remember taking care of my younger siblings and always feeling relaxed about the prospect. Probably one more reason that a good predictor of having many children is having many siblings.

  59. stanprollyright says:

    I fail to see a difference between “consistently deluding yourself into thinking you’re happy” and “actual happiness”.

    • Lasagna says:

      Rich people aren’t happy. From the day they’re born till the day they die, they think they’re happy, but trust me, they ain’t.

      – Moe Szyslak

    • sty_silver says:

      The difference is that in the second case, you’re happy, and in the first case, you aren’t.

      • lupis42 says:

        I raised this earlier but got sidetracked:

        I’m not sure what the distinction is in outcome between being surprised to be happy with an outcome and deliberately self-altering to be happy with an outcome. Either way, your ex ante expectations are for bad outcomes, and your ex post happiness is high.

        The distinction only produces a difference if the defense mechanism doesn’t work properly, so that either the happiness with the result is faked, or there’s sustained effort required to “convince yourself” which is significant enough to present a problem.

        If you aren’t actually deluding yourself effectively, then sure. But that’s not very interesting, so let’s leave it aside for a moment. Suppose that you are able to fool yourself into thinking you’re happy. How is that different from being happy in some other sense?
        If you have to expend effort continually deluding yourself, then the effort is one answer, but is there any other difference? Is there a moral difference, either ex ante (I don’t want to be happy like that) or ex post (I didn’t think this would make me happy, but it seems to), and if so does it depend on deliberate self-delusion, or does it also apply when you simply did not adequately understand the effects on your happiness?

      • stanprollyright says:

        How? If you look at your life with satisfaction and think “I am happy,” doesn’t that in itself make it true?

      • albatross11 says:

        “You’re not happy, you just *think* you’re happy. Stop smiling, goddamnit, don’t you see you’re deluding yourself. Stop grinning at your beautiful wife and two cute well-behaved kids, stop relaxing on your comfortable couch inside your nice, warm house, and admit you’re really miserable!”

        • The Nybbler says:

          Eh, that’s just the outward appearance in the Christmas card pictures. Actually the wife has abandoned the relationship with the husband in favor of dedicating her life to the kids… but resents doing so, and sleeps with the delivery guy to get revenge on her husband for it. The husband, in turn, is spending his life at work to avoid the responsibility of the kids and the anger of his wife, and would be sleeping around if the cloud of misery hanging over him didn’t scare off the prospects. Meanwhile Johnny’s failing English and spends half his school days in the principal’s office for behavior problems, and 13-year-old Diane spends her afternoons shoplifting with 33-year-old Jim, who has a motorcycle and a meth habit.

          (I think this was the setup for Desperate Housewives Season 9)

          • Jaskologist says:

            Stepford Lies. It was a neat little piece of jiu jitsu pushing that meme into the culture, whereby a family smiling and being happy is in itself evidence that something sinister is going on, so no need to reevaluate the life choices we’ve urged on you which have made you miserable.

            Nope. Happiness is possible, and we’ve known the most likely path to it for ages. Happy families are real and they’re spectacular.

          • lupis42 says:

            Does anyone in that situation think they’re happy? If not, how is it relevant?

          • albatross11 says:


            The thing is:

            a. Every family has problems, and mostly they’re not so visible from the outside. Even when the house is nice and the kids are cute and well-behaved, there’s mom’s struggles with depression and little Billy seems to be having a hard time making friends in school and the house is a mess most of the time and….

            b. There are families that look great and are a mess inside, just as there are individuals that seem like they’re successful and at the top of the world, but are really barely keeping one step ahead of bankruptcy and struggling to keep enough money to support their cocaine habit.

            Those two facts make The Stepford Wives/Ordinary People/etc. stories workable. That may make cat ladies feel better about never marrying and DINK couples feel better about having a hefty investment portfolio and a nice place in the city rather than kids, but I think the main consumers of those are people who know their own families have a lot of (a) in them, and so they can imagine (b).

          • Randy M says:

            Every family has problems

            My family has had problems, wherein medical crises or unemployment posed sudden challenges. We’ve not yet ever had a situation where any of us regretting facing our challenges together or wished to be in another family instead. We all pretty much like each other. Maybe things will change with the impending onset of teen years, but I don’t think that is certain.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Depends on how completely you delude yourself.

  60. Helaku says:

    I think it’s pretty interesting that this post has gathered so many first-commenters. It somehow triggers the nerve, as it were.

    • nemorathwald says:

      I would not be surprised if it’s an experiment. Here’s an essay from LesserWrong: https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/GHBLFPDhzeSQHx2eM/writing-that-provokes-comments

      To provoke comments: 1. Be Wrong. 2. Be Controversial. 3. Write About Things People Feel Qualified to Have Opinions On. 4. Invoke Social Reality.

      On the other hand, Scott’s not “wrong” in this post. And if he leaned heavily on social approval and blame, that would be a noticeably weird departure from his style. But people certainly feel qualified to have an opinion on this.

      • janrandom says:

        I agree that I have been baited. I haven’t commented for quite some time and basically replied to all top levels now 🙂 I also admit that I feel qualified 🙂

        But I think the reason for all the first commenters is that this post allows the lurking parents to share something that I haven’t seen the topics before: Joy of children.

  61. MugaSofer says:


    I am happy to be giving money to charity and making the world a better place, but I don’t think my self-reported life satisfaction would be noticeably after a big donation.

    Should probably be

    I am happy to be giving money to charity and making the world a better place, but I don’t think my self-reported life satisfaction would be noticeably higher after a big donation.

  62. ZKTKZ says:

    but I don’t think my self-reported life satisfaction would be noticeably after a big donation.

    I think you missed a “higher” after noticeably?

  63. craftman says:

    Complaining about parenting is so engrained in the culture. It’s totally OK to say negative things about having kids but say something nice or positive and everyone thinks you’re bragging. So I tend to stay quiet. Also, the negatives of parenting are all so incredibly short term. People are more likely to share them with friends/strangers because venting or commiserating with others makes them feel better immediately. And it’s easy to explain why getting poop on your carpet is annoying, or why it’s stressful to spend 10 minutes picking out the exact color combination of cup and lid that your toddler needs right this moment…but it’s harder to articulate the deep, deep, satisfaction you get when your son is crying out for you in the middle of the night, and you go into his bedroom to rub his back, and he calms down immediately and slowly falls into a deep sleep.

  64. benwave says:

    For another point of data, I have no children, but a couple of very close friends of mine had their first child a few years ago. I can tell you for sure that their career has suffered a lot because of it – the mother was the primary breadwinner in that couple and her career has basically been set back between three and four years. I can also tell you that the father, who is the primary caregiver for the child is very noticeably less … I want to say, personally fulfilled? Living a life expressed according to his telos? Than before, which has been hard for me to see. I have also noticed that there has been a marked improvement in both of their lives since a) their grandparents became more actively involved in the caregiving and b) I started having them come around to my place to sleep as a sort of escape from the situation from time to time.

    I want to impress upon you the importance of having people you can rely upon to help you look after any children – family, friends, even maybe just hiring childcare if your income allows it. It is a beyond full time job to look after small children, and you need to be prepared for this. I think the fact that we as a society today expect two people to work out how to do it on their own is a gross oversight.

    • janrandom says:

      I can totally second that. We have a great support net of family and friends (my sister is living across the street for example) and that helps a lot with 4 children. Also if there are more than two primary caregivers – e.g. in a patchwork family – this creates a huge boost in personal freedom. The reverse is also true: Single parents have a very hard time. I can only recommend joining forces. Whenever we have a party or some kind of get-together with multiple families it gets so much easier: The children mostly care for themselves – and if a single parent goes a long way which the other relax.

      • albatross11 says:


        Having family or close friends that can lend a hand makes parenting *enormously* easier. Also once they’ve grown enough, having older kids that can sometimes watch the younger ones is a big win–it means you can (say) run to the grocery store without needing to drag the toddler along every single time.

      • Lasagna says:

        This. We lived in NYC when our son was born. Our parents – both sides – live in NY suburbs relatively close to one another, and neither TOO far from the city, though those who live in NY will understand exactly the extensive limitations “sort of close” to NYC brings.

        When we finally moved out to the suburbs ourselves, the skyrocketing level of involvement from our parents (and siblings) was amazing and gratifying, and now I can’t imagine how we would do this without their help – I doubt a week goes by without one set of parents or the other babysitting, or taking care of our son when he’s sick. And every weekend involves family events, so there’s constant contact with his cousins. It’s as close to Heaven as I expect to get, and it’s REALLY close.

        I think the moral is: you can’t be too geographically near close friends and family when you’re trying to raise kids. When I was a kid, this was both more of a given and, weirdly, less important, since the community would take up any slack (something that happens exactly nowhere in the US today).

        But whenever you’re raising them, this kind of proximity matters. It’s great if your parents live one town and ten minute drive over; it’s better if they live across the street, and it’s ideal if they live next door. Same with siblings, aunts, cousins, unbelievably close friends, basically anyone who is going to put the needs of your child over the needs of themselves.

        • baconbits9 says:

          I have heard that some neighborhoods in Philly grew to emphasize this, where large and small houses would be on perpendicular streets and young couples would move out of their parents houses to a small house a block away on one of those perpendicular streets.

  65. baconbits9 says:

    Simple proposal to reconcile the “kids are great, life isn’t any better” conundrum.

    People report happiness/satisfaction based on how they feel vs their best guess of a maximum. Having children increases that maximum as you get a whole new batch of feelings you couldn’t previously comprehend and can envision a more complete happiness maximum. This negates the gains of having kids relative to overall potential, and leads to a similar satisfaction ‘score’, and also nicely explains why grandparents are the happiest.

    • janrandom says:

      If I look at my parents who are really very very happy to have 8 grandchildren, I guess you are right. It doesn’t seem to extend one generation further though. Judging from my grandmother I guess all further descendants count together and there is some diminishing of returns.

  66. daybreakbeak says:

    It’s been said above as well, but the difference between happiness levels with one child vs two children is likely to reflect the children’s ages.

    Based on personal experience, people with older children are happier than people with a baby. Babies are stressful and give you basically nothing. Older children are great, they can read to you, play games, have a conversation. And someone else looks after them for a chunk of the day too, and absence makes the heart fonder.

    I think back to my own experience, when I had a baby I was very unhappy. And then 2 years later I had a second, and by that time the first one was old enough to be kinda cool. And now 5 years later I have 2 daughters, 5 and 7, and they make me so happy.

    Using the categories given above would show that when I had 1 child I was unhappy, and when I had 2 I was happy. But that’s misleading, because it’s not the fact of having another child that made me happy, it’s the fact that I no longer have babies in my house.

    • janrandom says:

      Totally agree. While the feelings of awe and love are very strong when they are so small is very strong, it is good to have it because these can be the most taxing times of your life. Especially if you had no experience with babies before and in our times that seems to be the normal case now. With the second one, practice may set in. But I wonder how parents of twins can survive at all. Anyway. This is a limited time period and happy those that have support at that time. And afterward you can see it as a period of growth like we see so many other stressful periods (exams, illness, …).

  67. Ola says:

    I found out I have hypothyroidism during a routine check after becoming pregnant. Have 2 wonderful children now, never been happier. I’m way happier than before I had kids, probably thanks to levothyroxine!

  68. spandrel says:

    Five kids, gave the survey question a 5.

    I agree with all the parents who posted here about the ineffable joys of parenthood. Those are real. But I have an additional thought.

    There’s a saying, ‘we’re all kids til we have kids’. And while this can be read many ways, including as an indictment of parenthood (who doesn’t want to stay a kid all their life?), I think the important thing parenthood brought to me was the recognition that I could and would put others before myself. Truly. In the sense that I would literally throw myself in front of a bus to protect any one of my kids from the same fate. Or if the plane is going down and they are sitting next to me, I will keep my cool and tell them it’s all right, just to spare them that panic during the last few minutes. Not all people who make babies have this, obviously, but I’d say that very few non-parents have this, maybe about spouses they have been with for a very long time. Once you know this thing about yourself, you don’t feel like a kid any more.

    • This reminds me of a conversation with the proprietor of a middle eastern restaurant in Chicago that we were eating at. He asked if we were on our honeymoon. We replied that we were not. He asked if we had children. Not yet.

      “You are on your honeymoon.”

  69. muero says:

    The View From Hell blog seems to be missing or broken. Like, not just a blog post, but the whole blog. Can you maybe link to a Wayback Machine archive or something?

  70. hollyluja says:

    Scott, IF you do decide to have kids, AND live in a city, please post an update on your opinion regarding involuntary institutionalization for the violent mentally ill.

    Once you’ve been threatened on public transit/ on a public playground/ in a public library with your one year old enough times, I predict you will change your mind.

    And on a completely different note, I recently heard a writer interviewed about taking care of his terminally ill husband. Terri Gross asked him if caregiving was a burden, and his reply was one of astounded gratitude, because it’s given him the opportunity to step up and become the kind of person who cares for a dying partner. It’s the best description of parenting I’ve heard.

    • janrandom says:

      My sympathies. If he experiences something like that I assume he will update a bit. On the other hand, such experiences don’t seem to be normal everywhere. In Germany or Europe in general, I have rarely experienced something like that – even if as a single parent with four small kids. And I have moved around a lot.

  71. janrandom says:

    > This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, since I would expect the biggest life change to be going from zero children to one child.

    My personal comment – and I have 4 boys, 2.5 years age differential each – is that I always say that the effort for more children follows the harmonic series: First kid: effort 1, second: extra effort 1/2, third: 1/3, fourth: 1/4. So for a bit more than 2 units of effort you get four units of kids 🙂 Just make sure that it’s all boys and no breaks in sequence 🙂

    > Probably some residual confounders remain in the analysis – and commenter “meh” points out that people who are happiest with their existing children will be most likely to have more.

    I agree that there are probably a lot of confounders. For example, parents that are in the very busy phase of parenting (agree 0-3) are not very likely to fill long surveys online and report their life satisfaction (whatever level at the very moment).

    > The wanting/liking/approving trichotomy may also be relevant.

    Very. Or maybe not the “approving” dimension but the “valuing” dimension. Consider exercise or sport. Or any other activity that is stressful, tiring, strenuous, taxing. We do many of these because we see some value it. We are humans. We value many things.

    Is it so surprising that we value having kids? Whatever “having” means here. Them just being there. Feeling a bond with them. Hugging them. Seeing them grow. Grow from our interaction with them. When they achieve something we also feel proud. There seem to be studies showing that serotonin is involved and genuinely makes you happy too. I think it’s quite plausible that this is as strong an effect as regular exercise.

  72. Nobody says:

    For me, the older my children get, the more I appreciate them. I can see aspects of myself in them, and they help me understand some facets of my personality which I previously understood less. Conversely, they have different interests and talents and have their areas where they’re more capable than me (I was never able to do a standing somersault for example; as an aside, I’m ridiculed at home when I say “somersault” because my sons inform me the term is “flip”). Whatever else children may be, they are interesting! I still view life as overrated, but they definitely add flavour to it.

    Does the appeal of children increase as the children get older? If so, that could explain the correlation between life happiness and number of children (multiple births aside, number of children should correlate with age of the oldest child)

  73. BethanyAnne says:

    I’m another lurker you’ve baited into finally making a profile and commenting.

    I have three kids. My only regret is that I got started having kids late enough that three is all the kids I’m ever going to have. If we’d gotten married in our 20s instead of our 30s, we’d probably have six kids by now.

    When I look at the studies trying to measure happiness of not having kids versus having kids, it seems that it’s not quite measuring the same thing, or measuring the wrong thing.

    The analogy I’d make is that it’s like students choosing one professor’s class over another professor’s class. One student picks the professor known for the easy A because it means a semester with more time for leisure. Another student picks the professor known for masterful teaching but harder grading because it means a semester with less leisure but deeper learning.

    If you’re the kind of student who’s looking to maximize your semester’s leisure time, then you’ll look suspiciously on professor ratings that emphasize depth of learning. If you’re the kind of student who’s looking to maximize depth of learning, then you’ll think that ratings that emphasize an easy A aren’t giving you the information you’re seeking.

    From my perspective as a parent, the things people who don’t want kids cite as the important things they’d miss out on if they had kids sound as irrelevant as choosing a class based on getting an easy A sounded to me when I was a student. But, you know, maximize what’s important to you.

  74. spinystellate says:

    3 kids here.

    Those with kids have experienced life without kids, but (usually) not vice versa. And within-subject comparisons are usually better the across-subject comparisons. So it seems like longitudinal data would be best. Keep asking this question in future years and ask about child ages.

    Having kids definitely makes you way better at time management and getting stuff done. When I look at childless people, even age-matched ones, complaining about how they don’t have enough time to get X done, I am sort of bewildered and skeptical. How can they be so unproductive with so much time on their hands? Then I remember that becoming a parent endows you with special powers that allow you to get about the same amount of stuff time in less actual time.

    I definitely know people who I think shouldn’t have kids and wouldn’t be happy with kids. I don’t see any way that Scott is one of those people. Scott, if you want to explore the human condition, and probe the depths of the developing human mind, and experience a complete (in the sense of covering all of the major psychological states that can be achieved without drugs) life, then have a few kids. The stuff you cut back on to make room for child-rearing will look trivial in retrospect (no offense to those who do that stuff now). I’d be worried about declining SSC output, but you managed to blog plenty as a resident, which IMHO is busier than being a parent, so I’m not too worried.

  75. batmanaod says:

    I have one child, and I believe I marked my satisfaction with having a child as 4 but my overall satisfaction with life as only a 3 or 4.

    I had a serious bout of depression from 2010 to 2011, and have never fully recovered. It was during this period that I first had a romantic/sexual relationship with my partner; we were on-and-off “secret lovers” until late 2014, when she became pregnant (this was unplanned). This coincided (perhaps not coincidentally) with another particularly low point for me.

    I am overall of the opinion that life is not very pleasant or worthwhile, and that most people who feel otherwise are deluding themselves; and that, moreover, such a delusion is important to maintain so that everyone doesn’t sink into my misery or something similar.

    The alternative, of course, is that my complaints about the world are primarily a product of my depression, considered purely as a sickness. I am therefore receiving treatment for my depression, which has so far been reasonably effective.

    But my daughter really is a source of enormous joy. Part of this is that she’s a particularly easy child: she has absolutely no health issues except perhaps mild allergies, she is consistently well ahead of the standard developmental milestones, and I’ve described her character as “the only Lawful Good toddler I know”. But I’m sure part of it is also because parents are naturally inclined to love their children.

    So, overall, I don’t like life, either in principle or in practice. And my satisfaction with life went down around the time I had a child. But the child herself is absolutely the best thing in my life.

  76. Nate the Albatross says:

    What I always tell people about to become fathers is “each day is better than the one before it.” At first there is simply a lot of diapers and lack of sleep, but before you know it they are listening to you intently and not too long after that you can play chess or cook together or you can introduce them the the greatest books of your childhood.

    This could be one reason the people with multiple kids are happier – they know that the screaming and diapers things are just phases and pretty soon there will be different challenges that are much more fun and interesting.

    I saw you debating resources and net gains in the comments. If you are aiming for multiple kids level happiness, one way to get part way there without increasing the population as much is through adoption. You can have kids and adopt others. With your knowledge of genetics this might seem like a big risk – but you could get two or more firstborns. And you get two or more kids without having to account for some of them in your cost-benefit analysis.

    My parenting advice is short and sweet: change the baby on the floor (can’t fall off the floor), baby sign, involve kids in your daily chores, bilingual education and keep the schedule reasonable (utilize community: family, friends, church, nanny, maid service, etc in a two income household).

    • aNeopuritan says:

      I’d be thinking about changing diapers on the bed or cradle – am I missing a risk? As for baby sign, do you think it makes the kid smarter, or did you get information from it you couldn’t otherwise?

    • ThinkingWithWords says:

      Not just “each day is better than the one before it” but also each stage is better than the one before it, too.
      Maybe my kids are outliers but so far every new developmental stage has made parenting more pleasant, engaging and interesting. And I liked them as babies to begin with…

  77. So far as Scott’s self interest is concerned, I think the argument for his having kids is pretty strong, although it might depend on characteristics of the partner he has them with, which I don’t know. One point that hasn’t been discussed is what effect having children will have on a polyamorous network. I gather that polyamory often already involves a well defined pair plus secondaries, so the strengthened pair bond shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And secondaries might provide a useful social network for doing some of the work–honorary uncles and/or aunts.

    It is less clear whether it is in my self interest for Scott to have children. I currently benefit from time he generously spends on the blog, so perhaps I shouldn’t be in favor of diverting large amounts of his efforts to a different project. It’s true that his children might eventually be of value to others–but that is pretty far in the future, by which time I may not be around.

    On the other hand … . Scott has already managed a thirty-six hour day–perhaps the pressures of parenthood will just push it up to forty-eight. And being a parent will expand his knowledge and understanding, which might benefit me via his writing.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      I was under the impression that you and him lived in the same city now. If yes: don’t you have some very young descendants?

      • Not in the same city, but I think only about an hour apart. Are you suggesting that I view his future children as potential mates for my current or future grandchildren?

        For the current ones it doesn’t work very well, since my granddaughter is seven and women usually marry men older than they are. Her brother is older still.

        On the other hand, Patri is getting married next month and my about to be daughter-in-law plans to provide me with some more grandchildren, so it isn’t impossible.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          Being a Socialist from a family not worth noting (well, likely the second more than the first), I don’t jump to dynastic marriage as readily as you do. 😛 I thought your descendants playing with his children (which could work with an age difference) would make you both go “Aww!”, which might pay back writing time lost.

          • An hour apart is a little far for that. My daughter did have a good time at the last meetup with the daughters of two or three other attendees. They declared the back yard, at least their part of it, girls only territory.

            But I expect my elder son’s second marriage to produce additional children for me, his siblings, and his current two children to enjoy. So while additional supplies might be of value, we can probably manage with household production.

  78. Mixer says:

    Looks like I’m late to this party. Ah well – my nickel:

    I don’t have kids. My wife and I decided long ago to be child free. But I did go through the thought process you are going through now. Let me share with you my thinking, both then and now.

    At the time, I was on the fence about breeding. I, as you, looked at it logically; while there were many factors I considered (oddly enough, my happiness wasn’t one of them), the biggest one was a sense of obligation to add back into the gene pool the possibility of our combined intelligence. And this was before Idiocracy was made. During our conversations, we kept coming back to child rearing. We both understood that at least one of us needed to be a stay-at-home parent to ensure the child grew up “as part of the family” instead of being a “latchkey kid”. In the end, that was the deciding factor – both of us had good careers we invested a lot of time and money in and neither of us were willing to just give those up.

    Fast forward 30 years. I’ve had a lot of time to think about that decision. At some points in my life, I’ve even reconsidered that decision. In the end, I think I made the right choice. What I see now that I couldn’t see then (too many trees to see the forest) was that I really didn’t want children, but I had everything around me telling me I should have them, including my own reasoning. I was asking myself a question that I already knew the answer to, but felt “pressured” into asking it anyway. My excuses were rationalizations to get my conscious mind to agree with my subconscious. My wife agrees; she now says the only reason she felt she wanted children is because so much of her gender identity was tied into reproduction. Now that she’s past her reproductive years, she’s very happy we are child free.

    I’m not trying to suggest you shouldn’t have children. Reproduction is a core part of the human experience. What I am suggesting is that this isn’t a question you can answer rationally. If the reason you are considering children (versus just wanting them outright, or considering then now versus later) is because you have a part of you that feels like you should and another part of you that feels like you shouldn’t, then the question becomes an emotional one, not a rational one. So consider your feelings on the matter. Explore them fully and honestly. Understand that regardless of any happiness index, there will be situational benefits and problems. And most importantly, realize that if you make the wrong decision, the child will bear the brunt of the outcome, either by not existing or by growing up in a household that really doesn’t want them.

    • cuke says:

      I’m glad for your perspective here.

      The warning I hear you making is to investigate how much a sense of “should” is factoring into the decision about whether to have kids. I think that’s wise advice. It sounds like you listened long enough to distinguish signal from noise in terms of what you really wanted for your life.

      The things I hear people voicing regret about the most are life choices they made guided by “shoulds”. Those shoulds are usually indicators of concern about appearances or being judged one way or another and not based on one’s own values or desires. Depending on one’s ego strength, it can take a long time to grow out of living by shoulds. Partly why I had kids so late in life; I had to listen for a long time before I knew what was me and what was “should.”

      • Mixer says:

        Thanks. I see many people breeding without understanding why, and while I’m glad that for most people having children makes them happy, I hardly ever see the potential child being taken into account. Children are human beings, and our most vulnerable ones at that. If you want children, have an understanding of that obligation, responsibility and resources needed – time, attention and money – and still wish to have children, then go ahead. The species needs you :). But I see too many breed as “the thing to do” (or worse, an accident), which is one of the reasons I believe people like Scott have jobs; picking up the collective pieces of human psyche strewn about from people that came from families that didn’t think it through.

    • Cliff says:

      “We both understood that at least one of us needed to be a stay-at-home parent to ensure the child grew up “as part of the family” instead of being a “latchkey kid”.”

      This is an odd conclusion

      • Mixer says:

        We both share the point of view that children need a parent constant in their formative years. We have different reasons (she grew up with that, and I didn’t), but we both reached the same conclusion. YMMV.

  79. albatross11 says:

    This makes me think of the first time my (oldest) son came back from Boy Scout camp.

    “How was it?”

    “Oh, man, there were bugs *everywhere*. There were like a gazillion spiders and mosquitos in my tent. And it was really hot all the time–thanks for that battery-powered fan, by the way. The toilets stunk all the time–you wouldn’t believe how disgusting they were. The food was awful–I don’t even want to know what kind of weird crap they were putting into their meat, but it tasted like dog food that had gone bad. And there was this huge storm on Thursday where they made us hide in the cafeteria and the sky turned this weird green color and I thought I was going to get blown away. ”

    “Oh, so you don’t want to go back next year?”

    “Are you kidding? It was *great*! I definitely want to go back!”

  80. chrisvander says:

    I have 3 kids.
    1) Happiness elides too many emotional states. “All Joy No Fun” is a great description by Jennifer Senior. My wife and I are not happier vis-a-vis the ability to engage in adult activities but for an atheist, kids have introduced joy and wonder into our lives. Breeding is part of the human condition and experiencing the highs and lows across the range is valuable.
    2) Happiness studies tend to show a U shaped curve where aging parents overtake and ultimately have greater reported happiness late in life.
    3) This jibes with my experiences as doctor where I’ve spent a lot of time with dying patients. Dying patients tell amazing stories and reflect on many things, and invariably most of those are family memories. They do not reflect on work, restaurants, concerts, or travel. They talk about people and relationships. My wife who is a doctor as well saw this same pattern. It was the dominant influence that flipped us from “no kids” to “kids”.
    4) While it likely is pure confirmation bias, we’re all in on the Caplan philosophy and utterly content with low energy parenting, low vigilance monitoring, and a generally agnostic that things will go well if avoid horrendously damaging errors of commission. The omission stuff doesn’t haunt us yet.
    5) Kids have a valuable way of acting like a values truth serum. They challenge priors and assumptions and push philosophical positions in tough and challenging ways. The experiencing of checking my beliefs against the reality of raising children and the emotions associated have clarified my own priorities and true expressed preferences. It has also revealed shallowly held beliefs of convenience that do not withstand the complex choice matrix of parenting. This has been a good thing.

    • Happiness elides too many emotional states.

      At a tangent. Years ago I concluded that if I spent all of my time playing, eating lotus–which included reading sf, posting here, playing WoW–I would feel stale. So I assigned myself two hours a day work on writing projects, seven days a week. I think it works.

    • Mercy Vetsel says:


  81. jasmith79 says:

    This whole thing seems needlessly mystified.

    The Occam’s Razor explanation for why parents (especially the kind of parents that are SSC readers and thus more likely to be self-aware and informed decision-makers) are happy with kids is that they wanted kids, and then they got what they wanted.

    That doesn’t mean that you will be happier with kids (although you might)!

    Reverse-engineering happiness from what makes other people happy is dicey at best.

  82. szopeno says:

    I’d say that making a survey amongst people in order to determine whether having children will increase the happiness is not the best idea in the world. I am hesitating how to say more, because no matter how I formulate my opinion it sounds offensive. So let’s just say that one does not have children because s/he thinks having children will make them happy. Either you want children or not.

  83. Mercy Vetsel says:

    Father of 3 here. This has to be the most bizarre conversation I’ve seen on this board and the first time I’ve felt a that maybe I’m not really a rationalist, that maybe rationalists are a weird creatures intent on using their hammer for everything from removing bolts to drilling holes.

    This post feels to me a bit like a young virgin thinking of jointing a monastery or nunnery and then trying to use regression studies to determine if that will maximize global happiness. There’s a similar “trust me, it’s good, but I can’t explain it in terms that will make any sense to you” aspect to parenthood. I like moridinamael’s analogy of the Elven world. Unfortunately, it’s even harder than explaining sexual relationships to a virgin because at least virgins generally have a sex drive. Our sex drive is the tool that evolution designed to trigger both our sexual relationship cascade AND our being a parent cascade. The problem is that we’ve figured out how to stop the second trigger from happening and we never evolved a desire-children-in-the-abstract drive. At least not yet. It’s like a hill that you have to push your glider over to get to the really desirable valley you can’t see.

    Having a child triggers a biological cascade that fundamentally changes you. Being a parent is a module in your brain that lies mostly dormant until it gets unlocked. I’d describe it as fundamentally a bigger change than one’s first sexual relationship. How would you respond to someone who asked if you’re happy having being in one or more sexual relationships and also what rational arguments can you give for or against it?

    So, a rationalist approach utterly fails here. You need to think of it existentially. My experience is that most parents are (eventually, say after the first year) so happy with having had children that they almost feel bad talking about it to non-parents, especially since there really isn’t any common language for explaining it. I think that’s a big part of why parents tend to socialize with other parents.

    There’s some discussion that maybe parents are fooling themselves and aren’t *really* as happy as they think. No. If anything we play it down to the childless. Nothing deadens a dinner party conversation like discovering that an older couple or older person doesn’t have children. “Oh…” I understand that people who chose to not have children resent being pitied but that’s the overwhelming emotion that I feel. It’s like meeting an elderly person who never traveled outside of their hometown, only on a much larger scale.

    I think the childless eventually realize that they missed out on a huge aspect of life and experience. There are books in publication with titles like “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding — a Travelogue” and Mother’s Day Letters from a “very happy non-mother”.

    I never hear the bitter tinge of sour grapes when people talk about what they missed by having children. Instead it’s the language of experience: joy and exhilaration mixed with pain and sadness. People talk about their kids the same way they talk about themselves and for a good reason — they view their children as a part of themselves. Can you imagine a mother’s memoir entitled “What I Was Doing While You Were Travelling the World and Fucking Strangers” or a woman describing herself as “a very happy mother”?

    My advice? Put aside the whole rationalist framework and just do it. Most of the downsides are things that you willingly endure because you have something new that you value so much. Kids cost very little apart the important fact that we’re so damn attached to the grubby little creatures.

    Here’s a fantastic article that’s been going around on Mother’s Day that captures how becoming a parent changes you. I remember a version where the mother describes an interaction with her own daughter rather than a friend, but the sentiment is still the same:

    P.S. Especially pre-parenthood, I would describe my feelings toward other people’s kids, especially babies as indifferent or neutral on average. Even with my kids I initially didn’t feel anything. They were just weird little blobs of screaming and pooping flesh, until they were about 3 months old and then it starts kicking in. Hard. By the time they are 2 years old they are the most delightful little souls you could possibly imagine.

    • ThinkingWithWords says:

      This is a well constructed description of the largely indescribable pre-child/post child perspectives. Plus, you advice is sound.

      There is a fierce joy that comes with children that people seem skittish about discussing.

      See also this recent installment by an otherwise fairly unremarkable advice columnist, where she describes the situation frankly and well:
      Should I have a baby?

    • aNeopuritan says:

      “This post feels to me a bit like a young virgin thinking of jointing a monastery or nunnery and then trying to use regression studies to determine if that will maximize global happiness.”

      Surprise? You may have missed the “pick your career based on how much money you’ll be able to donate to charity” advice from “effective altruists”.

      “Can you imagine a mother’s memoir entitled “What I Was Doing While You Were Travelling the World and Fucking Strangers”” – that book’s overdue. I might not think less of child”free” people *who were doing anything worth noting*. My favorite: traveling all over the world (allegedly) to find themselves (what I actually worry about is that it may be the actual objective).

      • Mercy Vetsel says:

        ThinkingWithWords — thanks, the “Ask Polly” really captures it well.

        aNeopuritan — lol, yes, I’ll be the first to order it! Agreed that there are a lot situations where rationalism isn’t especially helpful for major life decisions.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          Funny, because I don’t think that! (If your “rationality” is discounting the (actual) relevance of your emotions, it’s not that rational – and this fact is *not* unfamiliar to, e.g., Sequences readers.) Or not exactly that – I might recommend “meta-rationality”, though.

    • Rm says:

      Actually, I don’t think they would write memoirs with such titles, but they say it ALL THE TIME. The bitter tinge is in “I am a very happy person for having given birth to you, why is it not enough for you to think I am a good Mom?”

  84. blork says:

    Self selection by people who have their lives together and predict can improve their lives / maintain high quality of life after children into the has children bracket?

    Your audience is both smart enough and has access to reliable birth control

  85. ptom says:

    I wonder if carbon footprint/impact on climate change factors into your decision to have children? For eg: https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/12/want-to-fight-climate-change-have-fewer-children

    • szopeno says:

      If people caring about carbon footprint won’t have children, then future generations will descends only or predominantly from people who does not care about carbon footprint. Will all the possible consequences.

    • janrandom says:

      While this is true on average it may be hard to determine all the many local factors that influence this:

      – individual life-style can bring a factor of 4 to the footprint
      – local footprint variation within a country (rural vs city)
      – impact of keeping a progressive society functional by promoting offspring of their high performers. Do we know what happens to the footprint if a society regresses?

      Humility might suggest that we follow the majority advice on reproduction of our local city/state. (yes I have seen David Friedmans paper…)

  86. Cato the Eider says:

    Adopt. I’m not facile with Baysian notation, but I’d say there’s essentially no information about whether parenting will result in a positive or negative utility *for you* over non-parenting – call it a coin flip. A potential newly-conceived child has undefined current utility, so potential change in utility for this child is also undefined. However, if you meet the description “reasonably intelligent, reasonably successful, reasonably sane” then I think there’s a strong Baysian prior that parenting will result in positive utility *for the adoptee*.

  87. Squirrel of Doom says:

    I think of becoming a parent as a sort of second puberty.

    Before puberty I knew the theory of what would happen and it all seemed rather pointless but inevitable so whatever.

    And then one day I had a sex drive and everything changed. I was still the same person in many ways, but something new was the absolute number one most important thing, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    Having a child is like that for many people, and much like I could never have explained my new sexual goals in life to my prepubescent self, it’s not something you can convey in words to the childless either.

    Becoming a parent is entering a new phase of life and shifting into another persona, and part of our natural progression as humans.

    That’s how I think of it, at least.

    • Noumenon72 says:

      As someone whose reaction to puberty was “hey, I’m going to masturbate a lot from now on,” never “let me change my whole life to be about getting sex”, I bet I would not feel like making my life about kids either. It would just be another responsibility to be scrupulous about.

  88. Rm says:

    Were there any interesting things, correlations or not, about the happiness of childless people? That seems like the missing half of your post.

  89. heathborders says:

    (Atheist, monogamist, married, cishet, father of 2 boys: 9 and 6)

    I’m very happy with my kids, and I’m happier with them as they get older. Parenting is mostly a slog until your kid gets to be between 4 and 6 depending on how lucky you are. I don’t worry about genetics because there’s nothing I can do about it. I think I’m doing a good job raising my kids (admittedly on easy-mode: upper-middle-class, both parents and kids are gifted, none of us have health or mental issues).

    I hope that everyone with above-average intelligence, and especially people living alternate lifestyles have kids because I anecdotally see most children growing up to live their parents’ values. Even though I might disagree with your value judgements, I find that people with above-average intelligence have the best chance at reasoning about the effects of their decisions and at being convinced to change their minds with new evidence. The law of averages says that most children don’t grow up in these environments, so it’s important for those of us with means to raise children to do so and to do so well.

    P.S. First post. If I violated cultural norms, please correct me, and I’ll try to do better next time.

  90. petealexharris says:

    It’s not all that surprising. Children are people, and however much hard work they are, it’s fairly usual to love them, which is a thing to be happy about.

    Answering a survey question about whether you’re happy to have had children in the negative would kind of feel like saying that on balance they weren’t worth it and you’d prefer that they didn’t exist. That’d take a surprising amount of objectivity from most parents even if their post-parenthood existence was pretty harsh.