Beyond the Biological Imperative

Do children make us happy? Is reproduction rational? Questions like these usually evoke knee-jerk reactions and the default answer from someone who has children is:  “Of course, children make us happy!”

However, various academic studies and research have shown – again and again – that married couples with kids are less happy in general than their childless peers. (See footnote for more details.) An individual’s happiness rises upon getting married. And it takes a heavy beating when the first child is born. The marital satisfaction also declines by the presence of children. If these scientific studies are right, and having children does make us less happy, then why do we keep producing them? Is the biological imperative just too strong that everyone finally ends up caving in? I haven’t met a single person who had expressed a buyer’s remorse after having kids. Are they blinded by the momentary peaks of happiness that they can’t realize the decline of their overall happiness?

Evolution has hard-wired numerous urges and traits in our psyche — but the desire to procreate, leaving our footprints behind in this world, is certainly one of the strongest innate emotions we ever experience. From the species’ point of view, why people have children is no mystery. If you imagine some species that didn’t like to reproduce, their genes would very quickly become extinct. Alternatively, if some species have survived over the years, a strong proclivity to reproduce has to be one of their strongest features.

However, from an individual’s point of view, having children can’t be as easily rationalized as in the case of species. And I am not talking about the emotional pull of having children, which is easily explained by the evolutionary point of view. (We love kids, because if we didn’t then we would have gone extinct long time ago.) I am particularly interested in the rational, economical and practical pros and cons of having children… Thinking beyond the biological imperative. Having children benefits the species, but does it improve the well-being of an individual? Do the gains outweigh the pains? Are sleepless nights, dirty diapers, and the nineteen-year grind worth the joy a child brings to someone’s life? The emotional gratification of having a child is probably unparalleled. But is that reward worth the loss of freedom, autonomy and leisure time? As someone emphatically put it:

They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.

To someone who is a parent, especially the new ones, this all probably sounds preposterous and even abominable. I don’t blame them. They are just too overwhelmed with sheer joy (and in some cases, obsessive parenting) that there’s no need (or time) to pause, reflect and reason. But I think these are perfectly sensible and important questions that one should ask before they decide to have children.

In a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think economist Bryan Caplan argues that even from a selfish point of view an average person should have more kids. The crux of his argument is that kids don’t cost as much as parents pay for it. Parents overcharge themselves. If prospective parents realized this, their hesitation with having a child would dwindle. Here’s the list of some of those reasons that Caplan explores in his book:

  1. Nature versus Nurture: Most behavioral and physical traits are due to our genetic heritage. The long term effects of nurture (parenting) on children are minimal as compared to the impact of nature. If parents understood this, they would feel much relaxed by lightening some of that obsessive burden of teaching their kids the right thing. Children are not loaves of clay waiting to be shaped by their parents — who often perceive their kids as ‘projects to be perfected’. Their character, behavior and physical traits are pretty much hard-wired in the genes that they inherit from their parents. This doesn’t mean parenting doesn’t matter. It obviously does. Just not as much as a lot of parents think.
  2. Parents worry too much: We live in a much safer, healthier and better world today as compared to previous generations. Yet, today’s parents are obsessed with their child’s safety as compared to the parents of yesteryear. In the US, women spend more parenting time now than they did 40 years ago. This, in spite of the fact that (a) they are more likely to work outside the home, (b) men have started to help them in domestic work, and (c) today’s moms have fewer kids. Caplan argues that parents are much worried than they ought to be. Despite the horror stories in the media, today’s children are much safer than most parents think. To realize this, they just have to turn off their TV’s and look outside the window.
  3. Long term benefits: Kids have high start-up costs. But lot of the benefits of having children come later in life. The “desired number of children” for an individual changes over time. When young, one child (or no child) may seem like the best option, but as one grows older they wish they had more children — the dividends come in the form of grandchildren in the later stage of life.

It’s hard to argue against these meticulously analyzed and well-reasoned points. It makes us think beyond our biological inclinations; beyond shallow rationalizations like “The time is ripe”, and “If not now then when?” I recommend this book to anyone who has ever thought about having children, as well as to new parents.


Some of the quotes and reference to academic studies come from the aforementioned book, as well as this wonderful article from NY Magazine: All Joy and No Fun.

If anyone is interested in reviewing some academic studies, here’s a link (PDF) to a popular study by Robin W Simon. Also check out this another oft-cited study by Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger.


6 responses to “Beyond the Biological Imperative

  1. VJ

    Yes Vishal – like we talked about this on last Saturday, I wouldn’t totally disagree (and if you ask Jatin – he will totally agree with you).

    Anyway, like you have mentioned in your #3, I was also thinking that this topic is worth bringing up in a discussion with individuals who are at an age of our parents. That would give us a perspective towards the end result of the whole process of having and bringing up the children. I would like to ask someone who has been in the similar situation like us (working full time jobs, having other passions or hobbies, had kids just because that’s how the society is defined – get married, have kids, etc and then not getting enough time to spend either with their spouse or kids because of imbalance that started to occur after kids resulting in frustration that you have mentioned in your article), on how they feel or what are their thoughts on having “children” now when their kids are grown up and self sufficient vs. how they felt after having kids when they were at our age.

    Very thought provoking article!

    • VJ,

      Good point. I think their opinion, after going through most/all the phases of parenting, can still be biased because they would be comparing their actual life with an imaginary one that could have been their life. What they *could* have done with their life is not equivalent to what they *would* have done with their life had they been child-free.

      Alternatively, we can ask these questions to people who had remain child-free by choice. There are not many such couples now, but given the fact that young couples have been delaying child-bearing more than ever (and the fertility rate of mankind is actually falling below the replacement rate in most developed countries), there will be many such child-free couples to survey.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and (partial) agreement! 🙂

  2. Truly, as VJ mentioned, it’s a thought provoking article. You’ve touched a sensitive topic with two very strong opinions – one, that is greatly influenced by ‘evolution’ and ‘culture’ and fairly accommodates the idea of fulfilling the social expectations (/obligation?). It’s often easier to opt this option because of its widest acceptance by possibly all societies world over.

    The other opinion, quite interestingly, represents a growing (if I’m not mistaken) group of couples who are often challenged for their unconventional thinking. They are the kind of pairs who prioritize their own happiness and love for each other over this ‘evolved’ and ‘proven’ concept of bringing in a new person in life to find that same happiness.

    I’m yet to have a child and if asked, I fall in this second category of being completely convinced a hundred times before planning a child. In my opinion, the decision of having the first/another child should simply come after the parents-to-be are convinced without any influence/force from anyone or any external element. I’m quite sure the financial and social elements (that we feel matter) barely come into picture in the longer run (or even at any point, provided there’s enough ‘mental’ space to take the right stand).

    I loved the way you balanced the aspects neutrally (almost!) without confusing your own view. Great read!

    • Spot on about the importance and rationalization for child-bearing.

      I read somewhere that the most serious decision in life should be to have a child. But a decision to NOT have a child, when one is able, warrants even more seriousness. (And delaying child-bearing comes somewhere in between.)

  3. A great discussion and scientific details on the subject.
    Whether one should marry…if yes..should a couple have offsprings….if yes..when after marriage and how many?
    Well, one has to be prudent and analytical.
    Nice thought provoking article….. Thanks and congratulations.

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