Shoot first and ask questions later (And have kids even if you don’t want to) (Updated, sorta)

Below is a response to Patri Friedman’s recent post on his pro-parenthood bias:

I’m late to the party.

My first kid is about eight weeks from greeting the world (and piercing my ears for the first few months or years!), so I’ve been giving the whole parenthood thing a lot of thought over the past few months. Incidentally, though we intended to have kids eventually, it happened sooner than we were planning.

Such is the unpredictability of life.

Which brings me to a point that you didn’t make, one that Bryan Caplan has alluded to via some scrounged up surveys of parents. The data Caplan found indicates that almost no one regrets having kids. Most parents wish they had *more* kids than they end up having. And adults who don’t have kids also tend to wish later that they had reproduced (For sake of saving a few words or directing others, see this post on the data).

Even though this backward-looking data supports the argument to have children, I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude that you should reproduce.

We are apparently quite bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. For a nice read on this subject, I recommend picking up Dan Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” (and if you are too busy to do that, just read my selected quotes from Stumbling on Happiness here). A theme of Gilbert, which is also a theme of books like Taleb’s “The Black Swan,” is that everything is much more complex than we make it out to be, and this complexity makes our grossly simplified forecasts fundamentally flawed — useless at best — harmful at worst. As applied to those people who choose not to have kids, as much as they think they know what will make them happy in the future, they are almost certainly going to be wrong about their predictions.

Accepting our inability to know what will make us happy but understanding that it is a biological imperative to reproduce and realizing that it will be much more expensive to reproduce past our reproductive prime, all signs point to shooting first and asking questions later.

Of course, to have kids or not is no simple binary choice. Procreating makes for an incredibly “bushy” (complex) life experience. Kids add randomness and depth to our lives in ways that we can’t possibly foresee but ways we will likely enjoy*. Sure, by having kids you’ll forgo some experiences as you engage life by yourself or with your significant other, but the experiences you’ll forgo by not having children are wholly new and unpredictable — the life of an entirely new human being: you, your significant other, and your kid(s).

In short, I liken parenthood to doing first and understanding later. This is a good rule of thumb to apply across almost all facets of life — lots of iterations make for lots of experiments through which we can learn about and enjoy life. Not having kids is a choice to have a drastically less-interesting, much more simplistic and sterile (literally and figuratively) life. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone I care about.

So I shake my head when friends make that choice.

Finally, I don’t really understand how anyone can understand humanity through the lens of evolution and not have children. Having kids means getting in touch with our core humanity — our biological nature — and living out the imperative coded in our DNA: to create life. Reject your hardwired nature at your own risk.

For my particular contribution to furthering human evolution, our kid is getting a mix of the DNA from a caucasion (me) and an Indian. Gene-swapping for the win!

* Another SoH idea is that we are better off charging into the unknown than doing nothing because our mental immune systems are better at justifying our decisions after the fact than they are at managing grief of what could have been.

** Not a brightline conclusion, I know — you can always adopt or potentially figure out other methods to have children after you pass your reproductive time.

Update: So despite my comment being one of the last out of the 170+ comments to Patri’s post, I got a couple shout-outs in follow-up posts by Patri (here and here). And I had to throw in one more comment, which I’ll copy below, which is more or less an application of Pascal’s wager to the decision to have children. So here’s my second comment:

Another point regarding the buyer’s remorse stats — if the majority of people who don’t have kids ultimately regret it, it seems highly likely that at least one person in a committed sterile-by-choice relationship will regret their decision. Yeah, people often select mates based on whether or not they want to have kids, but these same individuals also often change their minds about their choice (thus the tendency towards regret).

And this often leads to wrecked, otherwise fantastic relationships. I’m sure that I am biased in making this observation — I know someone who clearly regrets not having children. His spouse of twenty years, on the other hand, seems perfectly content. And it has put an enormous amount of unspoken strain on their relationship, not to mention, it is a point of intense sadness for this individual.

I see a slight parallel to religion here. Having kids because you expect it to be somehow fulfilling is a bit like hoping for a reward in heaven when you die — a life lived adhering to some arbitrary religious codes requires a lot of obvious work with less than obvious rewards, not unlike the decision to have kids.

Except that is where the similarity breaks down. With the choice to procreate, not only do we see the direct benefits of our own parents’ choice (as in, I am alive and I believe my life is not only good for me but also for my parents), we see the benefits accruing to our friends and relatives.

I mention all of this because the anti-procreation argument assumes that you know without a reasonable doubt that you will be happier/more fulfilled/better off without children. Not only is there a lot of observational/anecdotal/statistical evidence suggesting you might be wrong, there’s also the reality thatwe are very bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. The cards, it seems, are very much stacked against those who believe they’re better off without children.

So even if you don’t want to now, have kids anyway. To me, this argument is a version of Pascal’s wager that actually makes sense.

5 Replies to “Shoot first and ask questions later (And have kids even if you don’t want to) (Updated, sorta)”

  1. All of this makes sense but the thing that I can’t get over is the loss of capabilities and resources I will incur after having a child. I can only accomplish so much based on my current assets and reproducing will ultimately portion shares of these resources to my offspring. Of course, when in a monogamous relationship this can be mitigated, but your partner will have to give up a portion of their capabilities and resources to rear a child. As the world will benefit from me having a child, my inputs will more than likely produce a greater output in a smarter generation, it doesn’t make sense for me individually have a kid as far as production is concerned.

    I’ll have kids, but I’m going to wait until assets are such that the loss in my resources and capabilities do not hinder my production.

  2. Hi,

    Agree with most of what you have said. But I don’t think that everybody is cut out to have kids. IMO too many people are too quick to have children without establishing a long term and loving relationship and setting up a financially secure environment to bring them up in. I don’t think that you should have children just for your own benefit. You also need to think about the future that you can offer them.

    Thanks,

    Andy

  3. If I did a Google news crawl right now, I’d be willing to bet my next paycheck that I could find at least one story from within the past week about a parent severly neglecting, or abusing, or killing their own child. According to childhelp.org, 5.8 million children in 2007 were reported to have been abused in the USA alone. Some people absolutely SHOULD NOT be parents, and I pity you for having a worldview so myopic that you presume everyone thinks and acts like you in the realm of parenthood. To encourage people to “shoot first and ask questions later” in regards to parenthood is incredibly unfair to the potential child in question, and for someone to bring a child into the world that they don’t want with their whole heart will most likely result with the child suffering more than anyone else. Being responsible for the life of another human is not something that should be taken lightly, and I don’t understand how you can spread the message of “Have kids even if you don’t want them” in good conscience.

  4. Chris,

    I’m afraid you’ve surfed to this post and taken it somewhat out of context.

    First off, I’m not really making a blanket statement that *everyone should have kids no matter what.* What I am saying is that most of the people who have applied some sort of logic or reasoning and determined that they don’t want to have kids is likely going to regret that decision down the road. OF COURSE there will be bad parents out there, but I’d wager it is much more likely that the abusive/neglectful/bad parents out there aren’t likely to be individuals who ever question whether or not they want to have kids — they just have kids thoughtlessly (perhaps that is part of the problem).

    In other words, there is a selection bias going on here — thoughtful individuals often determine they shouldn’t have children. These folks are my audience.

    Thoughtless individuals never think about it at all. And I’m not preaching to these people at all.

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