Why Do We Breed?

The last “award” a psychologist can win is to have an obituary in American Psychologist. I am happy that A.I. Rabin, who passed away in the fullness of his 98th year, has been so honored. He is best-remembered for his writings on personality development and for his studies of how children grow up in the the Kibbutz. His impact on me (conveyed through his research because we never met) concerned the question of why people have children.

When I first proposed this question for my undergraduate thesis, my developmental psychology professor dismissed it with “What kind of question is that? People have children because they screw a lot”. As is so often the case, the mentors we need are encountered in books, and I was fortunate to find some quarter century-old studies by Rabin and his graduate students on the topic of psychological motivations for becoming a parent. It was enough to encourage me to study the same question, and I think it’s even more important now than it was then.

Of course, my sceptical professor was correct from a biological viewpoint: We have children ultimately because we are sexual beings. But the ability to effectively separate sex from parenthood, either through birth control or abortion, is more widely dispersed than at any other time in history. Birth control, from sheep bladder condoms to crocodile feces spermicides, is thousands of years old. But nothing that has gone before is as effective or as available as are The Pill and its cousins. And the social pressure to have children has dropped to a level in the developed world that would have shocked our forebearers.

My undergraduate thesis, like most of such works, was of no lasting (or even, honestly, passing) interest. The only piquant finding was that among male college students better mental health correlated negatively with the number of children they wanted to have and for female college students the reverse was true. But that may have been an artifact of the measures I used or the sample, and in any case it was a long time ago and the culture has changed much since.

But the question hasn’t: Why do we choose to have children? Clearly, given the greater degree of choice that technology and cultural mores provides, human beings on average tend to have fewer rather than more. The birth rate is even well below replacement in Roman Catholic Italy.

A rational modernist might assume that we choose to have children if they will make us happy and choose not to have them if they will make us unhappy. But as with arranged marriages versus love matches, there is no evidence at all that greater choice makes us more satisfied. We aren’t that good at guessing how we will feel when we have a mate or (even moreso) when we have children. We cobble up a series of fantasies, expectations and wants which all turn to dust at the mysterium tremendum moment when the OB/GYN says “This is your child”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on “Why Do We Breed?”

  1. “one of the best reasons to have children is to have grandchildren.” This is not entirely tongue-in-cheek; you have a better perspective on what you’re doing and what you did wrong. Of course, when you give (gentle) advice to your kids about raising their kids, they ignore it just as you did with your parents.

    But to get back to the heart of the matter, having children is part ego-gratification, but mostly forging the next chain in the link. It’s your own piece of immortality (and my step-grandkids are as much a part of that as are my blood grandkids).

    Matthew Kahn, as a (presumably) more libertarian blogger, may have a different reason for having children, since emotional factors don’t seem to fit into the mathematical models he seems to be more comfortable with.

    1. In fact, in some cases, the step-grandkids may be more a part of it. My nephew married a single mother with a just-entering-school son. The kid was ignored by his father (and his father’s family). He worships my brother (my grampa is how he refers to him. He loves our dad in a way that I don’t see from any of the other great-grandkids. If any of them really love, honor and remember my dad, it will be this self-adopted boy.

  2. We learned in Environmental Psychology the presumed reasons we have offspring, and some of them are “rational”.

    Nonetheless, I always look forward to reading your posts, Keith.

  3. Well, probably like a lot of men these days, I had a kid because my wife really wanted one.

    And boy am I glad she did.

    1. Hard to tell. My wife had a kid because I really wanted one of those little monsters. And she’s glad I did. But your pattern is probably more common than mine.

      1. Bruce and Ebenezer: Thanks for commenting, both of your situations show that humans can misjudge how much they will enjoy being a parent before they actually are one. In my observation this is pretty common (Unfortunately, a few people actually go the other direction and find that they hate it when they thought they were going to love it).

        1. When my wife was pregnant, an old friend told me that having children would reveal to me that I had a greater capacity to love than I ever would have imagined. She was right.

          But generally, it being American in the 21st century, we prize freedom above all — or are indoctrinated too. Parenthood is a burden, if you want to look at it like that, but plainly worth it.

  4. Keith, while you after it, you might also ask: Why do we write?

    More importantly, O’Brien’s novels draw their dark energy from the sexual repression that lay behind the censorship. They are remarkable for the almost complete absence of either the nuclear family or healthy sexuality. Instead of being merely desolate, however, this absence of family and sexual fulfilment is linked to O’Brien’s great conceit in At Swim – that of literary creation as the male substitute for giving birth. Writing is sex for an all-male, sex-averse society. Its children are conceived without all the bother and awkwardness of having to deal with women. In the bedroom that is the world of his narrators, congress with oneself generates the only life that is available – the life of words and stories.


  5. There is a discussion of this (and a prediction of many fewer children) in, of all places, Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. In the short run (the baby boom) his prediction didn’t look so good, now it does.

  6. Keith–FWIW, forebearers is considered an “uncommon variant” of forebears. The -er is actually redundant. See here for a discussion:


    Regarding your post, whatever the psychological motivations are for having children, I lack ’em. I wonder if studying the psychological motivations not to have children might cast new light on the question. And is it possible one’s personal philosophy is involved, as well as psychology? (Or do psychologists consider personal philosophy a subset of psychology?)

    1. Swift Loris: I actually hestitated over that spelling for about half a minute when I was writing, and decided that in this context, I liked “bearers” so I left it that way.

  7. I think much of it, now that BC is so available, is determined by whether or not one falls in love with someone else. When one feels love, often one wants to share even more of it. (Or as noted, the one spouse wants one and the non-wanter gives in.) Of course, falling in love is biological too.

    I don’t think we’re going to die out any time soon, at least not from this.

  8. I view my choice not to breed in one sense as the ultimate act of rebellion: I will not put another on this earth to live through all the crap I’ve had to. 55 & no regrets…

    1. No, you’ll expect the kids the rest of us put on this Earth to take car of you in your old age.

      Both I and my wife wanted children, it’s part of how we found each other. I might prefer Woody Allen’s approach to immortality, but having children gets the job done.

  9. How old are you, Brett? Have you gotten a signed contract from your offspring guaranteeing that they’ll provide all the care you need in your declining years? Believe it or not, even most people with children of their own do rely on the rest of the world to provide some of their support (financial and medical) in their retirement.

    IMHO, your comment was pretty typical of your work-product here: long on assumptions and self-righteousness, short on insight and thoughtfulness.

  10. J, we either have enough children to keep society functioning, or society crashes. Whether old people are cared for by their own children, or somebody else’s children, somebody is going to have to have the children.

    Darms would like to portray his failure to help perpetuate the species as some kind of noble, high minded act. Unless he’s planning on suicide once he becomes unable to support himself, there’s nothing high minded about it, he’s just a free rider.

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