Reasons to Have Zero Kids

The first one hits marital satisfaction hard

An eight-year study of 218 couples found 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born.

“Couples who do not have children also show diminished marital quality over time,” says Scott Stanley, research professor of psychology at University of Denver. “However, having a baby accelerates the deterioration, especially seen during periods of adjustment right after the birth of a child.”

Parents are more likely to be depressed than non-parents.

A new study shows that raising [children] is a lifelong challenge to your mental health.

Not only do parents have significantly higher levels of depression than adults who do not have children, the problem gets worse when the kids move out.

“Parents have more to worry about than other people do—that’s the bottom line,” said Florida State University professor Robin Simon. “And that worry does not diminish over time. Parents worry about their kids’ emotional, social, physical and economic well-being. We worry about how they’re getting along in the world.”


“People should really think about whether they want to do this or not,” Simon said of parenting.

Neither study summary mentions the effect of having two children compared to one, or three compared to two, etc. It may be that once you’ve taken that big first step toward depression and marital dissatisfaction, the extra kid doesn’t make things any worse. But if I were Bryan I’d be sure to track down this data and check it out. 

[NB: I still want kids!]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

37 thoughts

  1. I am pretty sure my grandparents are happy to have children to help them navigate downsizing their homes, getting assisted living, going to a nursing home, and the doctor visits along the way. Thank god for kids.

  2. The interesting thing is that both you and the people you're arguing with are almost always focused on parents' welfare. Missing from the debate seems to be the fact that, by having kids, you're creating a new, additional person, whose life you can often expect to be good (with a substantial variance on that expectation, of course).You can reduce that good to welfare or utility, if you want to cast this point in homo economicus terms; or you can just appreciate it as the package of net goods, satisfactions, and fulfillments that are part of the experience of living a human life. Either way, it seems extremely likely that having a kid is going to be a net good, IF you think you'd be a decent parent, you don't have larger-than-usual opportunity costs (whether internal or external — if you can cure cancer without the distraction of a child, do it), and you care to some degree about other people's goods and fulfillment as well as your own.

  3. These studies need to be viewed as skeptically as most correlation-based social science research.Perhaps what makes people unhappy is not kids vs. no-kids but rather not getting what they want. Parents who didn't want to be parents might be a larger portion of all parents than childless folks who want children are of all the childless – for all sorts of obvious social, physical, and evolutionary reasons. In other words, childless people are more likely to be that way by choice.From personal observation, those that arent' are really unhappy too. In fact, the unhappiness and depression from not being able to have kids when you want them can be as bad as from having them when you don't.If that's true, then the research, rather than giving you a reason to have zero kids, may actually be an argument to have the number you think you want to have.

  4. I dunno. This study–particularly as it's reported–looks pretty inconclusive. The only real statement by a researcher contains a pretty big qualifier–married couples are miserable, but having kids “accelerates” the process. Not sure this is an argument against having kids. This makes MSNBC headline–“Secret to marital bliss? Don't have kids”–not only misleading but simply false as borne out by the study it cites.Further, this is somewhat deceptive reporting. There are *two* reports being cited here, completely unrelated to one another. The other report has nowhere near the qualitative rigor the first one has, and, if you click through a few links, it turns out it's based on numbers drawn largely from “the late 1980's.” The researcher's conclusion from these numbers on depression? That we parent in isolation, versus some idyllic place where villages raised kids. Evidence provided for this conclusion: 0. So, the sum of this article is: a new study suggests that having kids speeds up latent misery levels, and a study compiled a few years ago on twenty-year old numbers says parents are more “depressed” (what do they mean by depression? who the hell knows–self-reported, apparently).Bryan will no doubt lose little sleep over this.

  5. Crap. This post is about 11 months too late for me. Not that it would change anything I'd read it first.When I look down at that little face and he smiles back at me, something inside me just tunes out anything else that might be going on in my life and I think …”Of course you're happy you smug little brat. You don't have to work, you don't have to pay taxes then bills with whatever is left, you don't have to lose your voice cussing at Balko's site every day. Now would you just f*cking go to sleep for more than two hours at a time before you drive me insane?!”

  6. I think Cracked magazine nailed this issue in their recent article:…Read: #3 Nebraska's “Give Us Your Troubled Child” Law Somehow Backfires”This fact was not lost on scores negligent parents, who suddenly began arriving from as far away as Florida to drop off their ill-mannered and mentally troubled youngsters. But the shit really hit the fan when a 34-year-old man dropped nine, yes, NINE kids off at a Nebraska hospital, ranging in age from one to 17. “

  7. Will,I know you might have written on this before, but I couldn't find anything specifically on this point and I was hoping you could you elaborate a bit on you thoughts here. Do you think that people systematically make errors in deciding to have kids because they overestimate the benefits and/or underestimate the costs? Or is your point that people do not systematically make errors but that they should care more about their marital satisfaction? I ask because the finding of the first study is not inconsistent with Max U.Thanks!JoshIs it that you care about MaThe finding of the first study does not still consistent with utility maximization, so I guess I'd like to see more data.

  8. I just want someone else to mow the yard. Sure, I could hire someone to do it for far less than the cost of raising one (and soon 2) children, but where's the fun in that? My parents got to use me as cheap labor. They once told me that America ended at the front door. Now it's my turn.

  9. I think it's pretty clear that we've evolved to wildly overestimate the net benefits of kids. Dan Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness is good on this.

  10. I find the issue somewhat perplexing and hard to get a grip on, but I didn't find your dismissal of the argument convincing. In that item you say, basically, that it's silly to attribute preferences or utility to people who don't exist. And so it is — that's a silly way to use language and it probably leads to some silly results if you take that language seriously.But I don't see how that even remotely answers the question, would it be good if an additional person existed? Clearly “that person” has no preference on the matter, because they don't exist (indeed, the phrase “that person” has no concrete referent at all, not even a hypothetical one).But who cares? I'm not asking for their nonexistent opinion. I'm the one making the decision, and I'm deciding between two future states of the world, one with n people and one with n+1 people. There are all sorts of reasons why I might prefer one of those worlds to the other. Many of them have to do with my own welfare (with which I'm naturally especially concerned). This is all the stuff you've been talking about — happiness or unhappiness, having someone to take care of you when you're old, and so on.What I'm saying is that those self-regarding reasons aren't the ONLY reasons that could (should) move me to prefer the (n people) state to the (n+1 people) state or vice-versa. I don't see any reason why I can't reasonably view it as a good thing, a better state of the world, for there to be this extra person — given, of course, that I can expect the person's life to be good, overall.Now, of course the basic intuition here is just that, say, a world with ten billion happy people is better than a world with three happy people. I do see that some problems lurk behind this intuition — but I'm far from convinced that it's necessary to abandon it.

  11. If the kid's happiness is not decisive (because it is compared against a counterfactual “non-existent kid” which does not have happiness to compare), and the apparent net costs to the parent are not decisive, then we seem to be in the realm of externalities.That is probably an important question here. If I have another kid, does the expected GDP of everyone else in the world (everyone who is not me, my spouse or my kid) increase? GDP is a crude measure but it would be a start.The tricky philosophical issues come in when you encounter “overpopulation” arguments, which attempt to say that there are “too many humans.” Is a world with 20 billion barely-surviving humans preferable to a world with 10 billion or even 1 billion or even 1 million very-well-off humans? Maybe the best measure is average welfare. But then if you take the hard utilitarian stance you are led into weird territory regarding the desirability of subsidizing the production of well-off (above-average-expected-welfare) babies and taxing the production of poorer (below-average-expected-welfare) babies. Actually there's all sorts of weird moral territory around these questions.Maybe utilitarianism is the problem, or maybe the questions are inherently weird.

  12. Should it be a public policy goal to formalize our intuitions about the morally optimal (number of humans/avg. welfare of humans/avg. GDP of humans/avg. overall welfare of humans), and then use carrots and sticks to incentivize steps toward this world — including reproductive steps? Is there an overall metric we should seek to optimize here?

  13. First, I never wanted to get married. That's why my first marriage lasted 5 months.Then I fell in love and got married a second time. We are still together after 29 + years. We were never going to have children. We both had worked hard to get our careers together, we actually had money to spend. We wanted to travel. We ate at restaurants all the time and got together with friends every weekend.After our daughter was born everything changed dramatically. I was 32 and my wife was 30. My wife worried about everything. Getting our daughter to childcare, then daycare and picking her up while holding down a full-time job was a challenge for the two of us. Our friends started to have kids. We all drifted apart and our new friends were folks who lived in our town and had kids the same age as ours. We decided to have another kid. It was difficult and took over 2 years with some heartbreak. He is 9 years younger than my daughter and a college freshman.Has my life changed? You bet. Would I have changed anyway? Sure.Someone said that it is easier to have children than it is to get a driver's license. What would the qualifications be if you needed a license to have kids? I can only say involvement.Someone else said that some people should not have pets or children. Why? No involvement or commitment. While it is true that many children with no support system still manage to thrive, the lack of parenting for an increasing portion of our population has not worked very well.To camp on to what Richcromwell said, the cheap labor method was deployed vigorously by my father's generation with pretty good results. That is involvement with measurable results. My old man had my 2 brothers and I work in his store after school and weekends. We were not amused, but it was expected.If you want to have fun and worry less, don't have kids.You'll have much more money to spend, you can travel any time of the year (off-season is a bargain), get-togethers with friends (who also don't have kids) can occur at the drop of a hat – they are much more fun sometimes. You can drive a coupe instead of a sedan..yada,yada.There is no definitive reason to have kids and, unfortunately, a lot of people who do have children wish that they didn't. This has always been the case. They will warm your heart and make you so proud one minute and they will tear your heart out the next. If you do not want to have kids, do not marry or partner up with someone who does. And do not have any.

  14. I rather like the cartoon theology. But I'm rather surprised that you omit mention of two issues: (1) That ex ante arguments for creating a new being that proceed from that being's expected utility almost always trade on the vulgar, though seductive, premise that existence is a property like any other. As a practicing philosopher, I would think it your duty to correct the conclusion. (2) Such arguments also lead you down absurd Parfit-eqsue (Parfitian? Parfitious? I rather like the latter, fully intending the pun) paths and invite discussion of the Repugnant Conclusion. Speaking of which: What's the Wilkinsonian position on the Repugnant Conclusion, if any?

  15. Will,Between this and your partner's anti-natalist attack which you featured earlier, I'm feeling a bit besieged. Regardless, I'll keep coming back…for now. I would try and dispute this, but I hear a child crying. Gotta go.Father of six happily “encouraging a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way and slowing cultural transformation, in order to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, and to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation” since 1991.

  16. The Gilbert book looks great.The kinds of stats being tossed around in these links seem awfully aggregated. I'm not particular fixated on the idea that having kids must, can or even should make one happier (if I had a yen to be conventionally “happier,” I'd eat Cracker Jacks and watch a Farrelly Brothers movie), but it does seem that a mature couple who've been together for some n years and who deliberately set out to have a child are perhaps better positioned hedonically than a teen couple who accidentally get pregnant their first month together, then do the “right thing” and get married, give up on all of their prospective life projects and get twin dead-end jobs at Walmart so they can afford to raise a child. Are these kinds of variables controlled for in the studies you've read?

  17. I was being silly, but you bring up excellent points. I think the most important point is that there is no definitive reason to have children. I love my dogs, which require far less work than children, and I can't even think of a quantifiable reason for having said dogs. Children change many things, but, as you said, many decisions change many things. Empirical evidence is important; I don't think children are a decision to be made on such evidence. I think controlling for the variables in personality, etc. between the test group and the study group is most likely an exercise in futility. As others have said, it's probably too subjective to be really useful and even if it is, so what. Some of us have a drive to spread our DNA, and go through the requisite sacrifices that come with it. Some of us don't. Does it really matter if some people want to have kids and some don't? (Though I have to confess I don't think children are a “right.” If you can't afford them and are just going to pass the costs of raising to me, well. . .)

  18. Pingback: Anonymous
  19. On a re-read, I regret referring to it as spreading DNA. Shared biological material isn't a reason either. And parenting often extends beyond biological relationships.

  20. I anticipate a battle royale with Caplan. I think a bloggingheads vlog is mandatory when his book comes out.

  21. Measuring the net effect of the addition of one “average” productive life to society should not as difficult as you purport it to be, however as far as I know it's not typically accepted as fact-based data.A similar issue arises in most personal injury and/or wrongful death lawsuits involving young or unborn children. In many, if not all cases, the societal cost damages (e.g. lost wages) awarded the plaintiff pale in comparison to those awarded to working adults. Why? Because you can't quantify (without very broad assumptions) what an young or unborn child will produce, in economic terms, in adulthood, and that means you can't enter it into a court of law. Of course the injured or killed child may have grown up to be successful entrepreneur, or a doctor, or whatever…problem is on a case-by-case basis you just don't know.I don't think this is a reason not to account for the utility of an additional average productive human being added to the planet when it comes to child-bearing economic research. It's why many of us worry about the acceptance of widespread anti-natalism within our most educated and economically successful demographic – do we know how much utility we are depriving society when we decide not to have kids, particularly when we are more likely to have kids that are smart and productive? Maybe this allows for, at the margin, opportunities to a shifting demographic, but I am skeptical.

  22. Father of six happily “encouraging a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way and slowing cultural transformation, in order to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, and to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation” since 1991.This is the greatest thing I've ever read.

  23. I agree with Will – I think that someone has to exist for their welfare to receive moral consideration – merely possible persons do not have rights that I could violate. It helps that I'm not one who determines what is morally correct by assigning value to states of the world. It is worth noting, however, that denying the view that we should take the welfare of potential persons into account seems to lead to some pretty radical consequences.Suppose I have a choice between creating a person in a state such that they will suffer tremendously for the entirety of their lives and creating one such that they will live a full, happy life. If welfare considerations don't come into the picture until they exist, there can be nothing wrong with doing the former. Suppose I can ensure that a child is born with horrible disfigurement and suffers in perpetual agony for the duration of their short, miserable life. There can be nothing wrong with my doing so, because after all, there's no one for me to harm until after the act is done. Of course, once they're here, I may be obligated to reduce its suffering, but strangely I was not obligated to effectually prevent it.I think we should accept this consequence, but I've found that's not a popular response.

  24. Maybe the first child putting stress on the marriage is a feature, not a bug.What was Taleb's first principle?: 1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.If you're afraid of the child ruining the marriage, maybe the marriage isn't strong enough to be worth investing more time and energy in.Either way, it seems like a good thing to find out early how strong the marriage is .

  25. This is crazy talk. When you reach the point where you're saying that there's no moral reason for you, given the choice, to choose a world where everyone born from now on is basically happy and lives fulfilling lives, versus a world where everyone born from now on is miserable, and in immense, constant pain — well, I consider that a reductio ad absurdum of whatever premises are leading you to that conclusion.Specifically, I think you're making a mistake by focusing on “rights.” There is more to morality than rights. Let's say I had the opportunity to press a magic button that would instantly cure everyone suffering from intensely painful, but nonlethal, medical conditions. With one push of the button, I'd eliminate a great deal of pain, at essentially no cost to myself. There's no reason to think that those sick people have a “right” to my pushing the button — I don't have any obligation TO THEM. But surely the right thing to do would be to push the button.

  26. I think that moral reasons arise from our need to cooperate with others for mutual benefit, and not from a compulsion to choose 'the best world' according to some consequential analysis. My reasons have to do with metaethical concerns beyond the scope of this discussion. But yes, it is very counterintuitive, and I can see how it could look like a reductio ad absurdum to those who take ordinary ethical intuitions very seriously in choosing moral theories. I don't think ethics should be done that way, but again, that's outside the current issue.And I agree that the right thing to do is push the button, and in virtue of this I would say that they have a right to my pushing the button (although this would be an odd way to put it). I don't mean to treat “rights” as narrowly as you seem to be reading, but rather broadly to refer to any moral claim people have on one another. The key is that moral demands arise from these claims that PERSONS have on each other and not on certain aggregative properties of states of the world as a whole.

  27. Will,I'm most curious about the dose effect, and how much the marginal child's impact varies with parity ((number of previous children). That first step really is a doozy.Think of the N.B. at the end of your post: you don't state that you want “a kid” or even “a kid or kids.” The implicit normative standard regards an only child as anomalous, even deviant. Whatever the merits of that standard in its own right (I'm one of four, but we were spaced strangely and I was a de facto only child), it's culturally pervasive enough to show up in the data in weird and interesting ways. So I'm curious about what the results would look like if you disaggregated the one-child families.

  28. There is always something amazing about bringing another life into this world, whatever the circumstances.Just really think about your birth and your parents. Aren't you thankful? I've met all sorts of people in my short span on this rock and I've maybe met one out of thousands that isn't thankful his parents gave life to him. That goes for scientists, panhandlers, office workers, murderers, etc.Sure, things may be tough for parents, but balance that with the utter potentiality of a new life. In some ways it is a no brainer, it's a genetic non-decision. Hope is life is breeding is future is genetics is more, more, more with a rebel yell!

  29. Regardless, I suggest Will and Kerry talk to people about 32-45 that are still married, not fat, and with kids. They might learn a thing or two. Stop always going to cocktail parties with other singles and young couples and go to a few family bbq's. There is something about having the wild young ones underfoot that can keep the juices flowing after the hormones start to wane.

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