The Frontal Cortex

How Many Kids Should You Have?

From Psychology Today:

Conventional wisdom dictates that people become parents because children bring joy. But do they really? For scientists studying the subject, simply correlating parenthood and happiness can’t answer this question, since happy people might be more likely to have kids to begin with. But a recent study that compared happiness levels in adult identical twins–some of whom are parents and some who aren’t–may be getting to the bottom of the issue.

The study, headed by sociology professor Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania, found that people with children are, in fact, happier than those without children. But such happiness gains differ for mothers and fathers.

In comparing identical twins, Kohler found that mothers with one child are about 20 percent happier than their childless counterparts; and while fathers’ happiness gains are smaller, men enjoy an almost 75 percent larger happiness boost from a firstborn son than from a firstborn daughter. The first child’s sex doesn’t matter to mothers, perhaps because women are better than men at enjoying the company of both girls and boys, Kohler speculates.

Interestingly, second and third children don’t add to parents’ happiness at all. In fact, these additional children seem to make mothers less happy than mothers with only one child–though still happier than women with no children.

“If you want to maximize your subjective well-being, you should stop at one child,” concludes Kohler, adding that people probably have additional children either for the benefit of the firstborn or because they reason that if the first child made them happy, the second one will, too.

This isn’t the first bit of psychological evidence suggesting that happiness and children are inversely correlated, at least when your happiness is evaluated on a moment-by-moment basis. As Daniel Gilbert notes, “The only known symptom of the empty-nest syndrome is increased smiling. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” According to the self-reports of parents, looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.


  1. #1 Ted
    April 18, 2007

    “If you want to maximize your subjective well-being, you should stop at one child,” concludes Kohler, adding that people probably have additional children either for the benefit of the firstborn or because they reason that if the first child made them happy, the second one will, too.

    Redundancy. In case one malfunctions you get more than one carrier for genetic material.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    April 18, 2007

    Well, certainly we don’t need the 20 kids we used to have in Victorian times, nor the type that the Mormons and Catholics promote.

    However, the tragedy in VA Tech and other high school shootings, plus the far more numerous teenagers killed in drunk driving accidents, creates a new situation.

    Yes we can be reasonably sure that our children, once they reach 12, are unlikely to die from a disease. But having fewer kids makes the impact off accidental / situational death all the more poignant.

    I suspect more couples looking to have 2 or 3 kids just because they know if they lose one, that’s it, end of (genetic) line. by the time they reach the age of reacting to the tragic death, it’s too late for the couple to start over.

    I myself am feeling this fear. I’m 37 with no kids (economics and circumstances kept getting in the way of starting, like not getting married ’til 32 in the first place) and i know that if i have children after 40, i won’t be nearly as “energetic” a father as i feel i should be so i probably won’t after the first one.

    so what happens to my family when that first one dies in a va-tech situation or a drunk driving accident when i’m in my upper 50s?

    it’s a real fear and it’s going to change the dynamic of the planned-parenting families that have been reducing the birth rate in the country for the last few decades.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    April 18, 2007

    so what happens to my family when that first one dies in a va-tech situation or a drunk driving accident when i’m in my upper 50s?

    it’s a real fear and it’s going to change the dynamic of the planned-parenting families that have been reducing the birth rate in the country for the last few decades.

    Interesting. I have no idea how prevalent this sort of thinking is, but it strikes me as one more example of the all-too-common irrational “risk evaluation” that goes on. This doesn’t make the fear any less troubling, of course, and I’m not intending to come across as unsympathetic. (I have my own irrational behaviours to deal with.)

    Why not spend your “worry time” on the (I suspect) much higher risk of dropping dead in your late 50’s? The comparision seems to me to be similar to choosing to drive 500 miles in order to avoid the risk of a plane crash if you flew.

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    April 18, 2007

    Oh I have that risk too. Both my grandfather and my father suffered strokes at age 57.

    The thing is, it’s not an obsessive worry (except in a few neurotic cases, of course). It’s just a little pang that happens every so often and certainly for many I think it comes out at times like this week.

    It’s just another question to ask when the subject of the second child comes up in a discussion. Where normal planned parenting includes questions like “can we afford one” and “do we have the time” and “how will the first child accept it?” as well as the “reliving the joys” emotional responses you bring up, there’s also now the “what happens if we lose the first child later?” it’s a question that will be asked, like any other.

  5. #5 bigTom
    April 18, 2007

    For whatever the datapoint is worth, first thing that came to my mind upon hearing one child, was the oh-my what if he/she died prematurely. Now in my case my kids (3) are already in H.S. so I haven’t thought about the how-many issue in a long time. And of course having two, your chances of a tragic event involving one of your kids is increased.

    Of course the cost of raising kids these-days approaching $.5M is very substantial. As one of those mid-fifties people, if I didn’t have kids -or only had one, I’d be (financially) home free. In the old days, kids were considered to be an economic asset, kinda like having cheap graduate student labor. And girls would be married off for a substantial dowry.

  6. #6 Ted
    April 18, 2007

    I suspect more couples looking to have 2 or 3 kids just because they know if they lose one, that’s it, end of (genetic) line. by the time they reach the age of reacting to the tragic death, it’s too late for the couple to start over.

    I have my own religion. I figure I’m about four billion years old by virtue of (living) genetic material continually passed over time in a chain, and as such I’m an extension of the protoform living organism.

    Despite minimal education, I live an existential life. It will end. Yet, my job and responsibility to the protoform is that the line does not end with me. These offsprings don’t have to be great examples of humanity, since their close kin are the shrimps and birds. Some would like to think that they are more special, but that has to do with various states of self-awareness.

    To be successful, these offspring just need to be able to assume their proper duties at 4B+n. They don’t have to be heroes, or geniuses.

    So although I could take pride in eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television, I can also take enjoyment in successfully passing the chain.

  7. #7 Julie Stahlhut
    April 18, 2007

    Haven’t read the study, but did they:

    (a.) Correct for any bias against having children by people who are less satisfied with other aspects of their lives?

    (b.) Make any distinction between people who were childfree by choice and people who wanted children but were unable to have them?

  8. #8 tristero
    April 18, 2007

    As the (very happy) father of a 10 year-old daughter who is an only child, I have absolutely no idea how the study concluded ” men enjoy an almost 75 percent larger happiness boost from a firstborn son than from a firstborn daughter.” I strongly suspect this is either poorly reported or a poorly designed study.

    And I lean towards the latter, as apparently Dr. Kohler never considered what your commenter Ted guessed immediately is one of the main reason people have more than one child.

  9. #9 Agnostic
    April 18, 2007

    I like that idea, as it will purge narcissism from the genepool: those who don’t need to constantly please themselves will have more kids generation after generation.

    Damned Baby Boomers.

  10. #10 John
    April 20, 2007

    In reply to agnostic:

    I would have thought exactly the opposite, that those who have more children are in fact more narcissistic, as they believe there is something special enough about their genes to warrant reproducing them so many times.

    Which might explain why we live in such a selfish world!

  11. #11 lauram
    April 20, 2007

    As the parent of one child, it sounds awful to me to contemplate having another as an “insurance” policy against losing the first; as though children are interchangeable and having another child would lessen the grief in losing the first. What a horrible way of looking at children and putting yourself and your own needs (to have a remaining child) first.

  12. #12 Azkyroth
    April 20, 2007

    The 75% thing made me do a double-take as well. I’m actually very glad my first (and hopefully only) child is a girl, since I generally get along much better with women.

    And another weakness I see in this study is that it likely overgeneralizes (do all psychological/sociological studies, or at least the reporting thereof, on attitudes and behaviors of a given group have this flaw?!).

  13. #13 JYB
    April 21, 2007

    I have one child and would like another if I can afford it. The main reason for me is that one child always seems so lonely to me (for the child).

  14. #14 rjb
    April 21, 2007

    Do people really make decisions about having children based on genetic fitness? Speaking as an evolutionary biologist, I often say that while evolutionary biology makes for excellent science, it makes for bad social policy, including decisions about child rearing. I mean, if you really feel that genetic fitness plays into your decision, and you happen to be male, why not sleep around as much as possible and “hope” that your lineage passes on?

    My wife and I are childfree by choice. We are both academic professionals and made that decision long ago. Passing on our genetic heritage wasn’t one of the factors that went into our decision.

  15. #15 Ryan Nichols
    April 24, 2007

    I find this and related studies about subjective well being marginally deceptive in that the unit of measurement is a time-slice. Do you know of studies studying happiness of individuals late in life, some of whom do and others of whom do not have children? Countless studies, such as the one cited, in effect iterate a point already too well-known: changing diapers sucks. But what I want to know is whether, over the course of a lifetime, which includes getting to know and sharing in the successes of the lives of your child[ren], parents are happier than non-parents. Please cite some studies of life-time subjective well being, if you know of them. I’d love to read them. Thanks.

  16. #16 Kati
    August 23, 2007

    I have one child, a boy, and do also hope for another. My husband, being more rational about finances and things, is not sure yet; however, he has confirmed that he is overjoyed that our one child IS a boy. Therefore, as to that party of the study, I concur.

    Still, I have to agree with Mr. Joe Shelby on this one. A big reason for wanting a second is b/c I know that if anything happened to my son, I would not be able to go on living myself. However, if I had another child, I believe it would force me to live and to find contentment again for the sake of that child. I do not call this selfish. For generations, we have heard the royals refer to their “heir and their spare.”

    And I should also point out that a loss of one child does seem more poignant. If it was not, then we would not constantly hear, “They lost their only child.” In fact, we have been taught over and over that God gave his “ONLY son.” Why do you suppose the Bible included the word ONLY so much when referring to Jesus? I suggest it is b/c Joe is right, the loss of one is more devestating than the loss of one of a few or many.

  17. #17 MEMETiC MEDiA
    June 24, 2008

    I believe the gender bias is genetic.

    There is limited chance to replicate faternal genes…

    Whereas maternal contributions are assured at multiple levels.

  18. #18 Anoop
    July 20, 2008

    Kohler, I feel that some of your statement/experiences/arguments are very very personal. If you don’t know it 100%, don’t preach people.

  19. #19 Kristin
    September 10, 2008

    I personally think that the amount of children you have and the happiness it brings depends on the couple and their financial status. I have to agree with one of the posts that was written… that you shouldn’t put an insurance policy on children…”If you lose one at least you have the other.”- That is just cold thinking and a terrible way of viewing having children.

  20. #20 vanessa
    July 22, 2009

    I have two children and hope for another… I find that when I am selfish I don’t want more than I already have. I have never thought of the gene pool thing or the insurance policy idea. I love both of my children and although my first born who is only 15 months older than my second requires a lot more attention I don’t feel any less of my second.

  21. #21 Michelle
    October 29, 2009

    This is an incredibly interesting string of comments. I found out 2 1/2 weeks ago that I’m pregnant. I’m not married, and we didn’t use a condom because we thought I couldn’t GET pregnant. We are planning on getting married (a plan that was in place before the pregnancy), however, it seems they completely disregarded in this study that OVER HALF of the children in the United States are UNPLANNED! They seem to have taken a VERY small issue and made it the “social norm” for everybody. Plus, I have male friends who are twins – one is married and has a first-born daughter (he is incredibly happy for the girl!) and his brother is gay! He wants children, but struggles with the question of how can a child cultivate and grow without a mother? It seems this study is fundamentally flawed.
    Interestingly enough, I am also a nanny and found that statistic that taking care of children for a mother is only slightly better than mopping the floor! WHAT A CROCK OF CRAP! I HATE mopping…haha! I LOVE taking care of kids – other people’s kids, too! I can’t IMAGINE what it will be like to have my own! I am extremely excited! And…by the way, passing on my genetics to a child was never and HAS never been an issue. I believe that I was CREATED to be a mother…it’s been written down in time for forever. I just love children…all ages…and cannot wait to be a mother. And the father is going to be an incredible dad, too! We’re just happy to be blessed with a child! And who knows if we’ll have more – we might just be happy with one!

  22. #22 Patrick Gavin
    December 21, 2010

    Happiness and children. Do they correlate? Hmmm. I guess it depends on the person doesn’t it? I mean there are people out there who are just plain miserable, even when they’re on holiday and have lots of dough with or without kids. And there are people in less industrialized societies with many kids and full of smiles and laughs.

    But I can see a thread of reasoning behind this question, even though the purpose of it is rather ridiculous. The question is fear based, full of a desire to be in control of one’s destiny. Full of greed “If I have to support someone else, what will that give me?” Surely one doesn’t really want to know the answers to one’s life before living it. To predict future outcomes from past occurrences is quite logical. But my point is it is only a weak mind and spirit which condemns oneself and others to behaving in a predictable manner when really, why kid yourself, the world is not a closed loop system. Anything can and may happen for better or worse.

    My views are probably quite close to those of christian teachings that

    1 children are a blessing
    2 it is a blessing to have children when you are young
    3 do not fear God is near, the unexpected often occurs
    4 even the aged may conceive
    5 joy is from service to others
    6 homosexuals really have no business in adopting children to satisfy their choice of sexuality
    7 children are the driving force of society and we should not deny their existence and necessity
    8 from this society ought to help lift the physical burdens of raising the children and not in any way stigmatize the parents with unnecessary “rules laws or morals” regarding the number and ways they raise them.

    I find that our emphasis on economics and self enjoyment of life to be great stumbling blocks on raising helpful, healthy children. If you are selfish, you really need to take a hard look at the purpose of your life. Maybe you will come up with a more startling revelation than this Happiness vs Children correlation.

  23. #23 Lindsey
    April 10, 2011

    I am disgusted with the parents out there that think that having a first-born boy is better than a girl. This kind of thinking, granted more extreme, is what leads to the murder of thousands of girl infants world-wide. What I can’t get past is that this parent has no idea how they would feel had their first-born been a girl. They might feel exactly the same way – grateful they had their daughter. Your happiness of being a parent should be the same regardless of their sex. You should not be having children if your happiness is dependent upon their sex.

    I am the mother of 2 girls and my husband is very HAPPY he has daughters. I would like to have another child, he is happy with the two. I am always so agitated when people ask him if he would like to go for a 3rd to get a boy. A third child would be a delight regardless of it’s sex!

  24. #24 Fianou
    November 26, 2011

    Do we really have children just to make us happy?

The site is currently under maintenance. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.