One More Reason to Thank Your Mom
By Bryan Caplan
Two questions occur to me this Mother’s Day:
1. How many readers are here today because your dad pressured your mom to have you?
2. How many readers are here today because your mom pressured your dad to have you?
It’s hard to verify, but I bet that the answer to question #2 is a lot bigger than the answer to question #1. And my bet is hardly idiocyncratic. At least in modern Western societies, “I want a baby, he doesn’t” seems far more common than “I want a baby, she doesn’t.” The hard truth is that a lot of us are here today because our moms lobbied on our behalf before our conceptions.
Nevertheless, one common criticism of my kids book is “Sure, that’s easy for a dad to say.” The critics rarely elaborate, but their model seems to be that women want fewer kids than men because women pay the lion’s share of the costs. That’s obviously true ceteris paribus. But popular stereotypes strongly suggest that ceteris is not paribus.
At times like this, it’s wise to turn to the data – and the data provide three key facts. The first key fact suggests that both gender conflict stories are wrong:
Key Fact #1: Men’s average desired family size is virtually identical to women’s average desired family size. The General Social Survey confirms this for the U.S.; the World Values Survey confirms it for virtually every nation on earth.
By itself, these stats indicate that men and women are equally likely to want more kids than their partners. And since women do bear the lion’s share of the cost, economists have to conclude that they also get more of the benefits.
However, the other two key facts suggest that the “I want a baby, he doesn’t” stereotype is righter than it looks.
Key Fact #2: Women think having children is more important than men do. The GSS contains the question IMPFAM, which reads:
On these cards are various aspects of life. We would like to know how important each of these aspects of life is for you… [T]ell me for each card its letter and the number you’ve decided on. a. One’s own family and children.
Supermajorities of both men and women give the maximally favorable answer. But women are even more unanimous than men. On a 1-7 scale, men’s mean answer is 6.71; women’s is 6.83.
Key Fact #3: Women are much more likely than men to experience “baby fever” – a deep craving to have a baby. Less than half of men in their twenties feel baby fever – versus more than two-thirds of women.
The upshot is that while men and women are about equally likely to want more children than their partner, women’s preferences tend to be more intense. So when I offer intellectual ammunition for bigger families, how am I neglecting women’s interests? Half the people who want more kids than their partner are women – and when women have fewer kids than they want, it’s a bigger disappointment. No wonder women lobby harder for their desired family size.
Of course, if you have an ounce of social intelligence, you won’t bring this up during your Mother’s Day dinner. Still, there really is a decent chance that you wouldn’t be here today if your mom wanted you a little less – another big reason to enthuse, “Thank you, Mom!” and mean it.