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Tuesday, February 5, 2002

On Fools, Parents, and Children

I like the Motley Fool investment website. It has lots of great info and articles, and helpful discussion boards. This isn't about investment, though, it's about children. There's a discussion group on this website titled "Choosing not to have kids," which is populated by a lot of angry people who alternate between justifying their selfishness and denigrating their acquaintances who are parents.

For a group of people presumably educated about economics, they aren't very bright. Don't worry, I'm not going to advocate that those of you who are childless have children. I think a person too scared, selfish, or busy to have kids is making the right choice -- he would be a bad parent. In fact, I can think of lots of parents who shouldn't be. My issue is with people like this bozo from the Fool site, whose list of "Breeder translations" includes:

Phrase: "How can you have a family without a child?"
Translation: "I'm relying upon my kid for our marriage."

Phrase: "Our lives changed once we had children." Translation: "I have proof I'm relying upon my kid for our marriage."

Phrase: "There's nothing like the love of a child." Translation: "The marriage failed, so I'm relying upon the kid for emotional support."

Let's be clear. Bozo is making the right choice. But let's also be honest; Bozo doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. The reason, related to economics, is something called "information asymmetry." Here's what I mean. It is a fact that 100% of non-parents do not have children, right? It is also the case that 100% of parents have lived on both sides of the veil -- they've been non-parents, and they've been parents.

So imagine you're trying to decide whether to move to another city. Who are you going to trust for advice? People who've lived in your city and the city to which you're thinking of relocating, or people in your city who have never lived in the other city, and who insist that doing so is horrible? The two groups do not have symmetrical information. The first group has the experience of the second group as well as its own new experience, while the second group has only had the experience of one city.

This doesn't mean that you should let other parents make a childbearing decision for you. My point is that we should all be honest about who knows what. Parents will tell you that having children is hard work, that you have to give up lots of fun things, that there are worries and expenses and sacrifices that continue for years. But they'll also tell you (I'm excluding "parents" from this generalization -- see below) that you have no idea the kind of joy that children will bring. Many of the childless people on this discussion site seem to actually believe that parents are part of this big sub-conscious conspiracy to lie about the horrors of parenting, in order to bring more converts into the fold. This isn't limited to a single discussion group -- prowl around some of the other sites devoted to this topic and you'll see what I mean. (Don't get me wrong -- I think this kind of conspiracy can occur in small communities. It's the only way to explain why people continued to eat at the Ratskellar in Chapel Hill, for example, which everyone insisted was the "in" place to eat, but which had bad service, poor lighting, and diarrhea-inducing main dishes.)

I don't think this is a good way to explain why millions of people voluntarily take on the great hardship of parenting in the face of cultural artifacts that shriek at them not to. Sound logic suggests that when millions of people make a choice that appears irrational, perhaps one's estimates of the attendant costs and benefits are incorrect.

In other words, maybe the parents know something the childless don't. At the very least, we know that they have greater information about both ways of living.

And this brings me back to my original example. It seems strange to start a discussion list in order to discuss something about which one has no first-hand knowledge, with other people who have no such knowledge. In fact, it's eerily like the graduate political science list-serv I used to be on at the University of Michigan. This brings to mind something P.J. O'Rourke wrote: "I'm not a liberal, so I can't talk extensively about things I know nothing about."
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