Parents Are Unhappy. But Why? And Should We Care?

Much of the discussion so far has focused on Caplan’s argument that more people are good for society. I want to focus on the second claim: parents are unhappy because they put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect parents.

Parents are Unhappier

Caplan is definitely right about the first part: Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents.[1]

Three years ago I was trying to chart my own life course, and—ever the empiricist—thought the data might be helpful. While I knew the reports about unhappy parents, I thought that perhaps my demographic may be different. And we are—a bit. The average happiness of parents who have higher incomes and are older is lower than comparable nonparents. But the happiness gap between these nonparents and parents is much smaller than the parental happiness gap among those that are younger and have lower incomes. Bear these facts in mind, as we turn to asking which parents are putting too much pressure on themselves.

Is Over-Investing in our Children the Cause of Parental Unhappiness?

Caplan suggests that over-investing in kids explains why parents are unhappy. Here’s a simple test of his hypothesis: Are the parents who are most unhappy (relative to their peers) the same folks who are over-investing? The answer appears to be no.

Time-use data suggests that it’s college-educated parents who are most likely to be over-investing: they spend more time on childcare and have vastly increased the amount of time they spend on childcare over the past two decades.[2] But recall that these aren’t the parents who have much lower happiness compared to similar nonparents. Moreover, recent cohorts of college-educated moms—the ones who have increased the time they spend on children the most—take much less of a happiness hit from having kids. The happiness gap between college-educated nonmoms and moms has been shrinking over time.

Why the increase in happiness when childcare time is increasing? College-educated parents are more likely to spend time with their kids with their spouse present.[3] Perhaps college-educated moms aren’t overinvesting in the chore called childcare, but are instead having more of the leisure called family time.

Or Are We Under-Investing in Relationships?

So we’ve figured out that parents who are younger and have less income and education are the most likely to be less happy than their nonparent peers. You don’t need a fancy theory of over-investment to explain their unhappiness. For these groups parental unhappiness may just reflect the challenges of providing food, shelter, care, and education for their kids. Meeting these very real needs can cause very real stress, particularly when the tradeoff that parents often face is caring for themselves, their spouse, or their child.

And it may be that it’s the spouse who loses out. When couples have children their relationship often suffers. In fact, parents are about 15 percent less likely to report that their marriage is “very happy” than similarly situated nonparents.[4]

There’s More to Life than Happiness

Even if Caplan’s theory fit all the happiness and time use facts, so what? Happiness is just one aspect of a good life. Perhaps our kids decrease our happiness, but increase our fulfillment. If so, parents are less happy, but they are not worse off for having kids. This distinction between happiness and fulfillment animates a debate among happiness researchers: Does happiness capture our total well-being—in economics-speak, our “utility”—or is there something more? The first generation of happiness researchers equated happiness with utility. But the second generation disagrees, arguing that happiness is just one component of a good life.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker, writing with Luis Rayo, has argued this contrary position. In their view, while “happiness and life satisfaction may be related to utility, they are no more measures of utility than are other dimensions of well-being, such as health or consumption of material goods.”[5] Or having kids. Children may make you less happy, but still raise your utility. Devout neoclassical reasoning leads Becker and Rayo to infer from the fact that we are having kids that they raise your utility (or at least they raise the utility of those who make this choice).

OK, so this line of reasoning comes awfully close to making economic reasoning perfectly circular. So let’s return to asking: If there’s a mistake, what is it?

Are the Returns to Investing in Our Children Really So Low?

Caplan’s key evidence for the proposition that we are over-investing in our children comes from twin studies that he interprets as showing that parents have little effect on the outcomes of their children. Yet the evidence isn’t quite as clean as he suggests. Many studies have shown that adults are extremely important in early childhood and that the returns can be quite high. One recent prominent study found that students with a more experienced kindergarten teacher earned an extra $1,000 at age 27 relative to students who had been randomly assigned a less experienced teacher.[6] If that’s the effect of one teacher for one year, surely the effects of two parents for many more years will be much larger.

We know that the benefits of extra resources can be substantial and greater than the costs for poorer children. Jim Heckman has spent years documenting the facts, and he says quite states starkly that “Parenting matters,” continuing that “the true measure of child advantage and disadvantage is the quality of parenting received.”[7]

As much as we can debate the facts, none can speak directly to Caplan’s claim that we are over-investing in our children. Even if the returns are low, who is an econometrician to say that they aren’t high enough for me? And who is to say that they aren’t high enough for other parents? Where’s consumer sovereignty in all this?

The Quality-Quantity Tradeoff: It’s More Complicated

Let’s take stock. Caplan suggests that parental over-investment in their children is causing parents to be unhappy. He infers from this that we should invest less in each child, and have more children. In the classic quantity-quality trade-off, Caplan is arguing that too many resources are going to child quality and not enough are going to child quantity.

Stating the problem this way makes it clear that Caplan’s argument actually requires parents to be making two mistakes. The first mistake is that the returns to the marginal hours with our children are lower than we think, and so we are over-investing in quality. If he’s right, we can all save ourselves a lot of time. But this doesn’t mean that we should necessarily have more kids. Here’s where the second assumption really matters: Caplan thinks that we should take the time we save and spend it on a greater quantity of children.

You can think of this another way. Caplan says that we parents are charging ourselves too much for children. And just as we buy more televisions when the price falls, we should have more children when the price falls.[8] Maybe. But maybe not. When we reduce the price, there are both income and substitution effects. Caplan is entirely focused on the substitution effect: having kids becomes cheaper relative to buying TVs. So he says buy more kids, and fewer TVs. But what about the income effect? As people become richer, they tend to “buy” fewer children, not more. So there’s an offsetting income effect. Is it possible that the income effect overwhelms the substitution effect? Typically this only occurs among goods which take a big share of our budgets. Like children.

Concluding thoughts

Let’s put aside debating the facts for a moment, and just focus on their implications. Even if Caplan is right that further investments in child quality yield little payoff, this doesn’t mean that we should have more kids. If kids are making us unhappy, perhaps we would simply choose to invest less in our kids and more in our own happiness.

But this leads me back to trying to understand why kids are correlated with unhappiness instead of happiness. In my own life my daughter has brought me enormous joy and happiness. And this is despite the fact that I may even over-invest in her. But I’ve avoided many real and difficult trade-offs by planning and preparing to become a parent at a time when it worked best for me and my partner. Is parental choice the key to parental happiness? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I would want to know more about what makes parents unhappy before I told anyone that I thought they were making a mistake by having too few children.


[1] This result compares people surveyed in the General Social Survey between 1972 and 2008 and controls for differences in age, education, income, race, religion, and marital status.

[2] Ramey, Garey and Valerie Ramey, “The Rug Rat Race,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2010.

[3] Dan and Betsey Stevenson “‘The Rug Rat Race’: Comments and Discussion” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2010.

[4] This is the result of a regression analysis using the General Social Survey, controlling for ages, race, income, education, and religious backgrounds.

[5] Becker, Gary and Luis Rayo, “’Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox’ : Comments and Discussion,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2008, pp. 88-95.

[6] Chetty, Raj, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Whitmore Schanzenback, and Danny Yagan, “How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star,” forthcoming Quarterly Journal of Economics.

[7] Heckman, James “The American Family in Black and White: A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 16841, March 2011.

[8] Caplan, Bryan, “Parents: Stop Overcharging for Your Kids” WSJ Blog April 13, 2011.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Bryan Caplan argues that declining world populations aren’t such a good thing after all. While we may have dodged the “population bomb” predicted in the 1970s, the world still benefits from more suppliers — and demanders — of new goods and services. Friends of scientific and cultural advancement should want more people around. All of which leads him to a question: Are there ways to incentivize population growth without sacrificing individual liberty? Caplan suggests several methods, including open immigration, tax incentives for children — and the direct, ultimately private argument that having more kids is more fun than most people realize.

Response Essays

  • Gregory Clark argues that, while Caplan may more or less accurately describe the history of economic development, mineral and other reserves in the West have been significantly depleted. What holds true today will not hold true indefinitely regarding food, energy, and basic mineral commodities. The balance between population growth and resources only recently tipped toward abundance, and it will likely tilt in the other direction soon.

    Clark agrees, however, with Caplan’s suggestion that on the margin, middle-class families stand little to lose and much to gain by having more children; cultural assumptions in the West likely overestimate the importance of nurture, and as a result, middle-class Americans probably do overinvest in their children.

  • Matthew Connelly reviews the history of pro- and anti-natalist policies around the world. He finds them both full of coercion, perverse incentives, misogyny, and — if states try hard enough — atrocity. Population trends, however, are very stubborn, and the payoff to such policies is low. In his words, “economists do not know where babies come from.” Not, anyway, such that they can motivate people without destroying their autonomy. If libertarians are recruited to the pro-natalist side, as Caplan urges, their enlisting could come at the price of individual liberty itself.

  • Betsey Stevenson agrees that parents are often generally less happy than otherwise similarly situated nonparents. But she casts doubt on the theory that excessive parental worry is the source of the unhappiness. The most worrying parents, those who spend the most time on childcare, are also the ones who report relatively higher levels of happiness. There is, moreover, more to life than self-reported happiness, and parents may very well have other desires and values than just this one. Neither self-reported happiness nor economic utility are all that there is to our various ideas of the good life. We still need to learn more about why parents describe themselves as less happy before we can prescribe more children and less worrying as the remedy.