DUBNER: All we do is: We buy the ice cream, and we play games, and we make fart jokes.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How do you decide whether or not to have children?
DUBNER: How many kids — one, two, three, 15, 25. How about zero?
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DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I’m going to read you an email from a listener whose first name is Iain. Are you ready for it?
DUBNER: I am. And hello, Iain.
DUCKWORTH: Iain writes: “Before we married, my wife and I easily decided we want to have kids — whether by birth or adoption. The much more difficult decision was how many kids to have. She was an only child. I had siblings. Both of us work, and we’re not gung-ho about being full-time stay-at-home parents, which the pandemic forced upon us anyways, at least for a short time. Gone are the days of needing to create workers for the family farm. And at least in many countries, there’s a relatively high likelihood that each child would make it to adulthood. I imagine there’s a very complex algorithm that shapes what the answer is to: how many? Do you have any insights on this? Gracias, Ian.” Oh, wait, Stephen, I just have to read you the P.S.: “We have one daughter, almost 3, and are working on a second — and ideally last — child.”
DUBNER: Gotcha. Okay. “They’re underway.” As for Iain saying, “I imagine there’s a very complex algorithm that shapes the answer,” I guess I would say, yeah, there is. I think what’s most important about that algorithm are the components of it — as opposed to just the answer that you’re trying to derive from it — because the answer may be right for others, but not right for you. In terms of those components, I think Iain identified a few. You know, he talked about, “Gone are the days of needing all those kids to work the family farm.” Most of us know the biblical command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Why was multiplication and fruitfulness necessary? You needed a lot of bodies to do the work. You wanted to extend your lineage. You wanted someone to take care of you when you’re old. Plus, in the old days, a lot of kids did die from disease and accidents, so it was nice to have more. And so much has changed, obviously. And these changes — I mean, if you look at global fertility rates — especially in richer countries, but even more and more in less-rich countries — you see those changes reflected unbelievably starkly. So, it’s worth remembering that we didn’t really populate the world very much for the first many, many, many, many centuries.
DUCKWORTH: You mean, like, the percentage of landmass that was inhabited by human beings was small? Is that what you mean?
DUBNER: The world population just didn’t grow. I’m reading here, “There was negligible net growth during the first hundred-or-so million years of human habitation — a very low but persistent rate of growth to double the world’s population during the period from about 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. So, it doubled over those 1,300 years. But then, a much faster population doubling during the next six centuries. So, that’s amazing. We got to over 1 billion by 1850, but then it doubled again during the next hundred years. And then, even more. I mean, look, we’re at 7.7 billion now. So, the rate of growth has been astonishing. That said, the fertility rate has been falling. “Fertility rate” meaning, essentially, how many babies a given mother is expected to have over the course of her lifetime. The story of the fertility rate in the U.S. alone is really wild. If you go back to the year 1800 in the U.S., what would you guess the fertility rate of an American woman was?
DUCKWORTH: 1800. So, like, right after the Revolutionary War. Um, I am going to guess eight.
DUBNER: That is such a good guess. Seven.
DUCKWORTH: That’s a lot of kids.
DUBNER: The average woman of childbearing age would have had seven children over the course of her lifetime, but by 1940 — okay, so this is 140 years later — the fertility rate had fallen to two.
DUCKWORTH: That is insane.
DUBNER: Now, keep in mind, that’s coming out of the Great Depression. So, that certainly had something to do with it. We’re also entering World War II. So, two good reasons for the fertility rate to have fallen.
DUCKWORTH: What does war have to do with it? Just that they’re not home to make babies. Is that what you’re saying?
DUBNER: I think they’re not home to make babies, and recessions are not good for baby-making. And then, after World War II, the rate shot up. We’ve heard of the Baby Boom. But that was the modern peak. As of about 1960 or so, then we began to drop. And it dropped steeply until around 1980. It hit its lowest point yet. It was 1.77. It’s risen a bit over the past few decades, but we’re now back to around that all-time low: 1.7 or 1.8. And Covid has certainly played a role.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, this is getting to the complex calculus that Iain was saying. And that doesn’t really answer the more philosophical question of: what are children for? Like, is this just a cost-benefit thing, or is there some deeper reason? We haven’t brought up Darwin yet, by the way, and instinct to reproduce.
DUBNER: So, what do you think children are for? You have a couple. Why’d you do that?
DUCKWORTH: I would have had more, but I had this weird molar pregnancy thing where I wasn’t really pregnant, but my body thought I was pregnant. At any rate, I wasn’t able to have a baby for another year while I cleared all that out of my system. And I was a little older. But honestly, Stephen, if you could have three, wouldn’t you have three instead of two? I would have three if I could, instead of two.
DUBNER: You know, I hate to say it. One of the reasons that we have two kids is the reason that a lot of New York City, and other city families, have two kids. You just don’t have space.
DUBNER: In terms of the various reasons why Iain, or anyone, may be considering no more than two, it is true that it’s gotten a lot more expensive to have kids. And two of the big drivers of that expense are education, especially post-secondary education.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, college.
DUBNER: And real estate. There is a paper from a few years back by Lisa Dettling, who’s with the Federal Reserve Board, and Melissa Kearney, who’s one of my favorite economists. She’s at the University of Maryland. She does a lot of work on fertility and family formation. This is a paper called “The Impact of the Real Estate Market on the Decision to Have a Baby.” They write, “Our results suggest that indeed, short-term increases in house prices lead to a decline in births among non-owners and a net increase among owners. The estimates imply that a $10,000 increase leads to a 5 percent increase in fertility rates among owners and a 2.4 percent decrease among non-owners.” So, plainly a factor. There’s also a paper from a couple of years back that we made a Freakonomics Radio episode about, which argues — you may laugh off this result, but I promise you it’s empirical — it argues that the laws in the U.S. that require parents to keep their children in car seats until a certain age has actually decreased the fertility rate, as well.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, what?
DUCKWORTH: How do they make that argument? Oh, they do it with the introduction of the legislation, and then they say that fertility rates declined after that?
DUBNER: The sweet spot that they’re looking at is families who already had two children and whether they would have been likely to have had a third. And it turns out that it’s really hard to fit three car seats in a car without getting at least a minivan.
DUCKWORTH: That is so true.
DUBNER: And then the minivan costs more, et cetera, et cetera. So, they argue that it did have a small but noticeable downward effect on fertility rates.
DUCKWORTH: Are you the one who told me that Elon Musk designed the Tesla to be able to fit three car seats in the back because he has triplets?
DUBNER: I didn’t. Is that true?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I feel like there’s at least a 60 percent chance that that’s true. You know, I have this postdoc who’s coming to work with me next year named Asaf Mazar. And he did his Ph.D. with Wendy Wood, who is the reigning queen of habit research. He is interested in friction and the idea that even little, tiny amounts of friction can actually have a surprisingly large effect on decision-making, and maybe the kind of like, “Well, then we’d have to get a new car. Gosh, I don’t even want to think about that.” You know, shifting a fertility decision is kind of ridiculous, but also, in this post hoc way, believable.
DUBNER: Now, what do you say to someone who says, “Come on, there’s no way that something as small and trivial as a third car seat or having to get a bigger car could have an impact on a decision as large and long-term as that.” Do you think they’re being irrational to not believe it?
DUCKWORTH: I think we discount these friction factors. When Vietnam vets came back from Vietnam, I think something like one out of three of them was pretty addicted to opioids. And, by the way, there was a lot of other drug use that was going on in Vietnam. But when you came back to this country at that time, it was very difficult to get opioids. But it was pretty easy to get marijuana. What’s interesting is that the rate of addiction went precipitously down in heroin and opioid use, but not for other drugs. Just think about how addictive opioids are. So, the fact that the friction of, like, “Well, where would I get it? I don’t know anyone who’s actually dealing.” You know, I think friction can make an enormous difference, an outsized impact on our decision-making.
DUBNER: So, Iain and his wife, he writes, have one daughter, almost 3, and they’re working on a second, “and ideally last,” child. I don’t know why they’re bothering us, because they’ve already made their decision, right?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going to say, Iain, you should have emailed us three years ago.
DUBNER: You know what we would have told him? We would have told him: Read Danny Kahneman’s research on this question of whether childless women are happier, or less happy, than women with children. Do you know that data?
DUCKWORTH: I believe he did one of his early day-reconstruction studies — this is where you reconstruct 24 hours in your life, usually the last 24 hours in your life, and you divide it into episodes. You rate those episodes on what you were feeling at the time. Famously, commuting is rated really low. But also, quite low on the list of well-being or happiness is taking care of your kids. It’s not just Danny Kahneman. There’s been a lot of research in the last eight years on happiness. And when you ask the question, “What are children for?” I’m not sure every parent would say, “Well, they’re there to make me happy. That’s why I’m having children, just to be happy.” But I do think it’s relevant. It’s got to be an input into the calculus here. And the happiness research on parenting is very mixed. There were papers that came out over the last decade that said, “Did you know that parents are less happy than non-parents, matched on all these variables?” Then, there were other papers that came out: “Did you know that parents are more happy than non-parents?” And I think the very latest research says that some of the conflicting findings is that, for women, there’s not a reliable, huge benefit for having children, but fathers do appear to be happier than men who don’t have children.
DUBNER: I have seen that research, and I have to say, it really surprised me.
DUCKWORTH: The fathers-versus-mothers thing?
DUBNER: Yeah. This is a paper called “Parenthood Is Associated with Greater Well-Being for Fathers than Mothers.” That one stopped me in my tracks. Did it not you?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, it was not intuitive to you that fathers would get more happiness out of having children?
DUBNER: Absolutely not.
DUCKWORTH: Why is that?
DUBNER: I guess, because in our family — but also in the family I grew up in, and in my wife’s family, and in many, many, many other families I know — while the fathers are loving, around, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, the bond between child and mother seems so much stronger. Now, on the other hand, a lot of the home care and a lot of the hard stuff does fall to the mothers. And all we do is: we buy the ice cream, and we play games, and we make fart jokes.
DUCKWORTH: That’s fatherhood.
DUBNER: But it still surprised me very much. It does not seem intuitive to me.
DUCKWORTH: So, you understand that women have to do more child care, and so that might be kind of a buzzkill, but I think you’re saying that because mothers seem so much closer to their children, that’s why you kind of expect them to get more happiness out of being a parent? Is that right?
DUBNER: I guess if I were to be really reductive, I would have to say that the investment in a child is probably deeper for a mother than a father, on average. And that, therefore, the investment probably pays off greater — which is to say that there’s more deep satisfaction in that relationship.
DUCKWORTH: I think what might be useful here is to think about two kinds of things that we do with our children. One is caregiving — you know, when a kid’s little, you’re, like, cutting food up into little pieces, and running the dishwasher, and buckling them into car seats, and changing diapers, and walking them to places. And then, there’s also just interacting with them — like, having a nice conversation with them. And there’s probably some things that kind of fall in between. Like, reading a book, you know, to your young child. If we think about those two ends of the continuum, or two kinds of experiences, the research suggests that happiness, basically, is when you’re interacting with your kid, and they’re talking to you, and it’s maybe not exactly the most fun thing to actually take care of them. So, this happiness-unhappiness thing is, I think, partly because women are doing a lot more of the caretaking. Parenting is work, and during those hours, and hours, and hours when we’re doing caregiving, we may not be especially happy.
DUBNER: That makes a lot of sense. And again, this goes back to the conversation we had last week about happiness generally, and how reliably can we measure it? And so on. So, I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that there’s a lot of nuance around this conversation as well — and a lot of conflict, like you said, the findings are really mixed. For instance, despite that happy-father research we talked about earlier, which stated explicitly that men with children are happier than men without children — and I’m assuming they’re controlling for selection there?
DUCKWORTH: They’re trying to control for what they can control with. You can’t control for everything. It’s not random assignment.
DUBNER: But, that said, there’s other research which finds that childless people are happier than people with children, and that includes men as well. So, I’m looking at something called “The Geography of Parenthood and Well-Being: Do Children Make Us Happy? Where and Why?” This is part of the “World Happiness Report.” And the author Luca Stanca writes, “Using a large sample of individuals from more than 100 countries, we find that life satisfaction is higher, all else equal, among those without children. The negative parenthood premium is stronger for females, and it turns positive for older age groups and for widowers.” I will say this: if you look at happiness levels of people with and without children — I’m looking here from something that Paul Bloom wrote. You know Paul Bloom, obviously.
DUCKWORTH: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I just saw him last week.
DUBNER: The psychologist at Yale, correct?
DUCKWORTH: He’s moved to University of Toronto.
DUBNER: So, his most recent book is called The Sweet Spot. He wrote about a 2016 paper looking at the happiness levels of people with and without children in 22 countries. And, gosh, this just makes a lot of sense when you see it written down. It found that the extent to which children make you happy is influenced by whether your country has childcare policies, such as paid parental leave. “Parents from Norway and Hungary, for instance, are happier than childless couples in those countries, but parents from Australia and Great Britain are less happy than their childless peers. The country with the greatest happiness drop after you have children? The United States.” So, what’s interesting about that to me is, it’s a bit surprising, then, that Republicans in the U.S., who generally are in favor of higher fertility rates than Democrats, aren’t more enthusiastic about those child-friendly policies. Mitt Romney, for one, is. He’s talked about extending child tax credits, and so on. It makes a lot of sense that it’s a lot easier to be a parent when you’ve got structure and support that goes beyond your immediate family. The doctor and researcher Dana Suskind at the University of Chicago has just published a book called Parent Nation, which makes a larger, similar argument that the U.S. just does not support parents very well — from the governmental level, at least. And so, I think that probably has a lot to do with how difficult it can be to be a parent and why probably more and more people are choosing to have either zero or one instead of two, three, or, you know, eight.
DUCKWORTH: Right. If you really want people to have children, then you do have to think about those two things that parents do. Like, they interact with their children, and research shows that, generally, people are happy when they’re interacting with their children. But they’re caring for their children. They’re doing the work of parenting. And when they are being asked to do that work, but also hold a job, and also do all the other things. That’s stressful and not something that people necessarily find happiness-producing. So, this public-policy question is very related to the psychology.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how birth order affects a child’s personality and future.
DUCKWORTH: You’re, like, born into this family, and the other two humans, they’re pretty sophisticated thinkers, but then it’s kind of diluted by this idiot — your sister or brother.
And stick around ’till the end of this episode for a preview of the newest show from the Freakonomics Radio Network.
Julianne UBIGAU: His little nostrils would be twitching from side to side. And when the wind blew and carried the odor of the scat on it, he would just snap into action.
But first, more on the decision to become a parent. Right after this.
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about modern fertility, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to let us know the factors that affected their decisions to have kids. Here’s what you said.
DARCIE: Hi. My name is Darcie from Australia. You can probably hear my baby in the background. I was filling in the baby book for my seven-month-old recently and it had a prompt that said, “Having you felt important to us because—” with room for a paragraph, and I couldn’t come up with any good answer. I asked my husband, and he couldn’t either. So, maybe it just wasn’t a well-thought-through decision. I think it was partly selfish, partly biology, partly social norms. What do you think, baby? Well, she’s glad to be here.
Sarah SCHROEDER: Hi, NSQ team. As of now, my husband and I are leaning towards remaining childfree, mainly because there’s other life experiences we’d like to prioritize. What I’ve found really interesting is the very different experiences that we’ve had in sharing this news when asked. I get asked very frequently, “When are you having kids?” It’s just assumed. And if I tell someone, whether it’s a close friend or a complete stranger — which is very frequent — that we don’t plan to have kids, I get really strong reactions, and they’ve really made me question the value that I’d bring to society as a woman if I’m not a mother. And that’s something that I’ve embraced as a challenge to define what my legacy can be outside of a small human. Meanwhile, my husband gets asked about once or twice a year, and his manhood and value is never brought into question.
Reuben LIU: Hi, Stephen and Angela. So, for context, I’m a single male residing here in Malaysia. And when it comes to the question about children, I ask myself whether I can give them a better life than the one that I have lived. And looking at the state of the world and the economy, maybe it’s because I’m reading too much news or listening too much about the current happenings in the world, but I’m not sure whether I can even provide a better life than the one that I had lived — in terms of the environment, in terms of my socio-economic status. And that really worries me.
That was, respectively: Darcie, Sarah Schroeder, and Reuben Liu. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about parenthood.
DUBNER: So, we’ve been talking, Angie, about how many kids — one, two, three, 15, 25. How about zero? Let’s talk about zero for a minute. Do you feel that having children, in many or most cultures, is a sort of societal habit that one is encouraged toward and made to feel lesser than if one doesn’t go that route? Do you feel that women, let’s just say, in this country, at this time, do feel social pressure to have children? Or do you think that’s fading?
DUCKWORTH: Well, just the fact that you stated these pretty astonishing fertility changes over the last couple centuries suggests that it can’t be purely biological, right? We wouldn’t be having, like, one-fourth the number of children as we had in our great-great-great-grandparents’ generation, if it were all biology. So, there has to be a cultural piece of the story — and maybe a much bigger cultural piece than would be intuitive. Now, is culture telling us that we should be having babies, but it was telling us even more that we should be having babies 100 or 200 years ago? You know, there was a pretty strong cultural norm of having children, having a lot of them — or, you know, not having one — woman at home, raising the children, the guy at work. I think things are different today. There might be some cultural pressure to have children, but dramatically less. You and I have friends who don’t have children. I don’t feel like there’s a cultural stigma, at least in our social ecosystem, but I could be wrong. What do you think?
DUBNER: You mentioned that you and I both have friends who don’t have children. I will say, I don’t think I have that many — other than gay-couple friends.
DUCKWORTH: Who don’t have children?
DUCKWORTH: I have so many friends who don’t have children.
DUBNER: I think, in our friendship circle, most of them do. But I think that’s not coincidental either — in that, once you have kids and you start doing those things like sending them to school, and having them play sports, well, then your friend circle changes to include people who also have kids. But I do think it’s interesting that it’s so natural to talk about, “How many kids is this couple going to have?” As opposed to, “Are they going to have children?” I will say, if you want to think about it from the economic perspective — not just saving the money that comes with not raising a kid, because I think the average cost now is about a quarter of a million dollars until you get your kid to adulthood. But in opportunity cost. I’m looking at data here which says that 42 percent of charitable foundations are created by people without children.
DUCKWORTH: Ohh, like Milton Hershey.
DUBNER: Like who?
DUCKWORTH: Do you know the Milton Hershey story? Like, you know, Hershey bars?
DUBNER: Oh! And it was a big charity for children or, like, a children’s school, or home, or something?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Milton Hershey and his wife — I’m sorry, I don’t know her name.
DUBNER: Probably Mrs. Hershey.
DUCKWORTH: Milton Hershey and Mrs. Hershey wanted to have children. They could not, for whatever reason. And they gave all of their money — like, their entire inheritance, to a philanthropic trust — it’s not hard to make the connection here — literally to create a school for orphan children. There are all these pictures of Milton Hershey and Mrs. Hershey with these orphan boys at the time. It’s since become co-ed, and you don’t have to be an orphan, but you come from, essentially, a place where you can’t safely live, so you come to live at the Hershey school, which is a boarding school. Because Hershey has done so well as a company, and because this trust was basically built on Hershey stock, this school, I think, has the highest per-capita endowment of any institution in the world, including Harvard, Stanford, M.I.T., and Princeton. So anyway, that would just be an example, I guess, of people who don’t have children — so, who are you going to pass your money down to?
DUBNER: So, we’ve talked a little bit about having zero children. We’ve talked about having two or more children. Let’s talk for a minute about having one child. There has been a pretty strong bias against the only-child idea, if you go back in history. I’m looking at something here from a Scientific American piece from recently, but this was describing something published in the 19th century by an E.W. Bohannon from Clark University in Massachusetts. This was called “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children.” And this was based on a survey that Bohannon did at the time, a questionnaire asking 200 test subjects— And the survey method was still considered pretty new and wild at that time.
DUCKWORTH: Cutting edge.
DUBNER: He asked respondents about the peculiarities of any only children that they knew. So again, 200 people, he asked. In 196 cases of those 200, participants described children without siblings as excessively spoiled. And the article further notes that, according to data compiled in the 21st century, these notions are, I’ll quote, “nonsense.” And that only children show no serious deficits. But tell me what you know about the only-child concept. Does it necessarily result in a sense of entitlement or spoiled-ness? Does that child miss out on things from not having siblings, or you could imagine there are more resources devoted to that child, and maybe they’d be better off?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I think there might be some research on this in China. Sometimes they say, like, “the little emperor,” because, like, if you have an only child, and if that’s a son, there could be this excessive doting. And, by the way, unhappy footnote to that, which is that, at least for periods of history, the male-female ratio in children in China was not 50-50. And you’re like, “What? How could it be?” Well, it’s because if you don’t get a boy, you can kind of get rid of your girl.
DUBNER: Selective abortion, yeah.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, exactly. Or, you know, adoption. Or abandonment.
DUBNER: And not just China, we should say. In India, that’s been a big issue. The economist Amartya Sen wrote years ago about these millions of missing women and girls in India and elsewhere.
DUCKWORTH: So, obviously, that survey done all the way back then was just basically about stereotypes. Because it’s like, “Hey, what do you think of only children?”
DUCKWORTH: I know the birth-order research includes the only-child research. Because the birth order research in psychology asks, like, “What about if you’re born first? What about if you’re middle child? What about if you’re the last-born?” And, interestingly, in a lot of that research, children who are separated by a gap of about five years, which is the case for me, are considered only children. You kind of start over again. And I think the logic is that you’re effectively growing up as an only child — which felt like how I was growing up, actually. My sister was five grade levels above me. My brother was eight. Before middle school, my brother had left. For a lot of my childhood, I was just hanging out with my parents. I think the research on birth order, generally, suggests that, like, we have these really strong intuitions about oldest children, about youngest children, about middle children. I mean, really strong intuitions.
DUBNER: And it’s all B.S., you’re going to tell me. Is that right?
DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the thing. I think that there’s very little that holds up to scrutiny when you actually survey, not people about what their intuitions or stereotypes are, but actually children. And if you ask people, for example, to fill out a survey of their extroversion, and you don’t tell them, “Secretly, I’m doing a birth order study,” the prediction is that the youngest children — like me and like you, the babies of the family — we’re going to be wildly more extroverted than the first-born children, or maybe than only children. And you do not find big birth-order effects. I mean, some studies would argue that there are no birth-order effects for personality, with minor exceptions.
DUBNER: But, as I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of research showing that the oldest child gets more resources from parents, including cognitive resources. And so oldest children in families tend to do better academically. Then, you just kind of have less either time or money. I would argue, however, that if you look at a pretty big family like mine, coming in last, bringing up the rear, I think there were all sorts of cognitive benefits that are pretty hard to account for, including sitting around the dinner table with a bunch of students in the school you’re going to go to, talking about their schoolwork. So, by the time I got to, like, seventh grade? Yeah. I know all that stuff. Thank you very much, Mr. Davis. So, I do think the way that knowledge transfer works in a family is potentially complicated and interesting. Every family’s obviously different. I don’t think that the benefits and the costs are as clear-cut as we might think. I am also grateful that my family had eight kids, because if not, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. You’d be having it with maybe my oldest brother Joe. He was an Air Force fighter pilot. He was very competent, but, you know, he can fly a fighter jet, but can’t make a podcast, dammit.
DUCKWORTH: Let me just annotate a bit your observation or your understanding—
DUBNER: My screed? My rant?
DUCKWORTH: —on first-born children. It is now well-established that there is a slight I.Q. difference. I mean, it’s very small, but it is reliable — favoring first-born and only children. It’s not only — and maybe even not primarily — because the parents buy all the workbooks and, like, all their time with the firstborn, compared to, like, the second one who gets less. One of the theories of why it is that first-born children could have higher I.Q.s is because when you are a little baby, you’re kind of dumb, in a sense. You’re, like, born into this family, and the other two humans, they’ve got great vocabularies. They’re pretty sophisticated thinkers. Now, if you are a second-born, you get born into a family with those parents, but then it’s kind of diluted by this idiot — your sister or brother — who’s just, like, babbling and doesn’t really know how to talk. But I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence for first-born or only children being higher or lower in any kind of dramatic way on any personality trait — or unhappiness, either.
DUBNER: So, I don’t know if we gave Iain anything even remotely useful. I mean, you and I both have two kids.
DUCKWORTH: I told you I wanted to have three, though.
DUBNER: So, two-and-a-half would be the optimal number then?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let’s say this. Iain has a daughter who’s almost 3. I’m sure she is wonderful. Sounds like number two is on the way.
DUBNER: Didn’t say, “On the way.” He said, “working on it.” I think there’s a little bit of a gap between “working on it” and “on the way.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t know how graphic we want to be, and I’m not sure exactly what Iain means about, like, what stage they are on “working on it.”
DUBNER: Should we call him right now and see if they’re actually trying to procreate as we record?
DUCKWORTH: I kind of feel like Iain wouldn’t answer the phone if he were really actively—
DUBNER: Ah, that’s a great point. That’s why you’re a professor and I’m just a journalist.
DUCKWORTH: That’s why they pay me the big bucks. But I will say this: Childcare is really hard. And if you ask me in the moment, I might not say that I’m, like, 10 out of 10 on happiness. But I feel like when I wake up in the morning, and I do my three-good-things exercise — I think of three things that I’m grateful for — I almost always think of Lucy and Amanda.
DUBNER: Do they count as one or two?
DUCKWORTH: Usually, I try to do one at a time, and I try to think of something recently that I’m grateful for. Like, Lucy sent me a photo of her skiing with her boyfriend. That made me really happy. You know, Amanda’s buying this dress. I got to have three or four text messages with her about which dress that she liked. And I was like, “Yeah, those are two of the biggest blessings in my life.”
DUBNER: So, you’re saying, really, the reason you would have liked to have had a third child would be to make it much easier to do the three-things-you’re-grateful-for exercise.
DUCKWORTH: That’s exactly what I’m saying, Stephen. The complex algorithm that Ian asks about, it’s just that.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Angela says that she thinks that Elon Musk designed the Tesla to be able to fit three car seats because of his triplets. Tesla Models X and Y do indeed fit three car seats, depending on the size and style. However, I can’t find anything that confirms that Musk’s triplets inspired the car’s design. In fact, the three car seats wouldn’t have been very helpful for the billionaire CEO, because when his triplets were born in 2006, he already had two-year-old twins. He would have needed a large SUV in order to safely seat his three infants and two toddlers.
Later, Angela says that one out of three Vietnam vets were addicted to opioids. This estimate was a little too high. It’s true that almost half of the men serving in Vietnam tried either heroin or opium, but only 20 percent became addicted while there. In the first year back home, five percent relapsed.
Then, Angela can’t recall the name of chocolatier and philanthropist Milton Hershey’s spouse. Catherine Sweeney Hershey, or “Kitty,” created the Hershey Industrial School with her husband in 1909 — now the Milton Hershey School. The institution is a cost-free, private, residential school and home for lower-income children located in Hershey, Pennsylvania. With $17.4 billion in assets, it’s currently the wealthiest K through 12 school in the United States. It spends roughly $90,000 a year on each of its 2,100 students.
Finally, Stephen and Angela were responding to Iain’s question about the decision to have children and how many. I should note that the number of children a given couple has is affected by many factors outside their control — including physiological elements like age and fertility, and social ones like the availability of contraception and reproductive health care.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Don’t forget to stick around until after the credits to hear a preview of the newest podcast from the Freakonomics Radio Network. It’s a show about dogs called Off Leash. And the first episode features Stephen, Angela, and a scratch-and-sniff smell test.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Is being a copy cat really so bad?
DUCKWORTH: Why not plagiarize someone else’s personality, if there are features of that personality that you like more?
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to know: what aspects of other people’s lives have you copied? And how has it worked out for you? To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Copy Cat.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
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DUBNER: So, check this out, Angela. The average parent will display almost 1,000 images of their child online before they reach the age of 5.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. 200 pictures per year.
DUBNER: So, these days, more than farm hands or legacy builders, kids are just social media props. But that’s, you know, important.
- Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
- Lisa Dettling, principal economist at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
- Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey Company.
- Melissa Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.
- Asaf Mazar, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California.
- Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.
- Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
- Amartya Sen, professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University.
- Luca Stanca, professor of economics at University of Milan – Bicocca.
- Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
- Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise, by Dana Suskind (2022).
- “Lessons Learned — And Lost — From a Vietnam-Era Study of Addiction,” by Lauren Aguirre (STAT, 2021).
- “What Becoming a Parent Really Does to Your Happiness,” by Paul Bloom (The Atlantic, 2021).
- The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning, by Paul Bloom (2021).
- “Only Children Are Not Doomed,” by Emily Oster (The New York Times, 2020).
- “Car Seats as Contraception,” by Jordan Nickerson and David H. Solomon (SSRN, 2020).
- “Parenthood Is Associated With Greater Well-Being for Fathers Than Mothers,” by S. Katherine Nelson-Coffey, Matthew Killingsworth, Kristin Layous, Steve W. Cole, and Sonja Lyubomirsky (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2019).
- “Is Only-Child Syndrome Real?” by Corinna Hartmann (Scientific American, 2019).
- “Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015,” by Mark Lino, Kevin Kuczynski, Nestor Rodriguez, and TusaRebecca Schap (U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2017).
- “The Geography of Parenthood and Well-Being: Do Children Make Us Happy, Where and Why?” by Luca Stanca (World Happiness Report, 2016).
- “Parenthood and Happiness: Effects of Work-Family Reconciliation Policies in 22 OECD Countries,” by Jennifer Glass, Robin W. Simon, Matthew A. Andersson (American Journal of Sociology, 2016).
- “Why First-Born Children May Have Greater Success,” by By Marian Vidal-Fernandez, Ana Nuevo-Chiquero, and Jee K. Lehmann (Scientific American, 2016).
- “Examining the Effects of Birth Order on Personality,” by Julia M. Rohrer, Boris Egloff, and Stefan C. Schmukle (PNAS, 2015).
- “House Prices and Birth Rates: the Impact of the Real Estate Market on the Decision to Have a Baby,” by Lisa J. Dettling and Melissa S. Kearney (Journal of Public Economics, 2014).
- “China’s ‘Little Emperors’ Lucky, Yet Lonely In Life,” by Louisa Lim (NPR, 2010).
- “What Encourages Charitable Giving and Philanthropy?” by Frank Adloff (Ageing & Society, 2009).
- “A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method,” by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, David A. Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur A. Stone (Science, 2004).
- “Population and Economic Growth,” by Gary S. Becker, Edward L. Glaeser, and Kevin M. Murphy (American Economic Review, 1999).
- “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” by Amartya Sen (The New York Review of Books, 1990).
- “A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” by E. W. Bohannon (The Pedagogical Seminary, 1896).
- “How Much Do We Really Care About Children?” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- Total Fertility Rate in the United States From 1800 to 2020.