Bryan Caplan writes that the negative impact of children on parents' happiness is overstated, but more intriguing to me is his suggestion that parents are working too hard on parenting, with little impact on outcomes for their children. It ties in to a book I read years ago by Judith Harris called The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Harris asserts that parents play a much smaller role than peers in children's emotional and intellectual development.
Caplan extends the idea that micro-managing parents are largely ineffectual. Like Harris, he cites behavioral genetics studies that show that variance in parenting techniques has shown little demonstrable effect on children's morals, happiness, grades, health, etc. But he sees this as a good thing.
Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it's great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids' future rests in your hands, you'll probably make many painful "investments"—and feel guilty that you didn't do more. Once you realize that your kids' future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.
If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you're not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents' consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids' development, so it's OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids "for their own good" rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.
And if parenting is not as stressful and costly, then he says you might as well consider having more children.
The only part of this thesis that doesn't mesh with my experiential assessment is that first generation Asian parents in the U.S. are notoriously strict with their kids, and growing up I came to accept that as a reason why 1.5 or 2nd generation Asian-Americans like me studied our butts off. Has anyone has done a study to assess whether there's any validity to that theory or whether it's just a myth? I certainly don't have any confidence in just the anecdotal evidence from the childhood experiences of me and other Asian-American peers, but I'm not willing to dismiss it out of hand, either.