Trading Off Your Kids’ Well-Being

As an economist, I’m always thinking about trade-offs.  Do I consume good X, or good Y?  Do I invest in option A, or option B?  Do I devote time and energy to task Q, or task R?  Life is fully of trade-offs and decisions, and we’re constantly solving this complex optimization problem in light of these trade-offs.

In doing so, it frequently strikes me: how am I trading off my own well-being for my kids’ well-being?  If I drop the kids off at the boring daycare to spend an hour at the gym, aren’t I explicitly choosing myself over my kids?  Should I read with my kids, or play the piano?  Should I play basketball in the yard, or squeeze out just a bit more consulting work?  We’re constantly facing a trade-off of our own well-being for the well-being of our kids.

It’s true that our well-being isn’t always a pure trade-off.  Both my kids and I benefit from me being happy and healthy.  Certainly there are aspects of showing them what it means to live a meaningful and healthy life, by prioritizing those aspects of my own life.  And really, how many of us can spend all day working on phonics and reading Dr. Suess? (Not me)

At the same time, I can’t help but feel like I am constantly trading off my children’s well being for my own.  When I let them watch TV so that I can spend a few hours working on a report, aren’t I choosing myself over them?  Maybe so.  But maybe that’s okay, at least in moderation.

Here’s another trade-off I have a hard time with: kids take so much energy, isn’t the rest of the world missing out on the time and energy that I devote to my own kids?  In other words, every minute I spend with my kids is a minute that I don’t spend with my parents, my friends, or making some broader contribution.  Isn’t the rest of the world (aside from my own kids) slightly worse off that I’m devoting so much time inward rather than outward?  On the other hand, we’re creating and developing an entirely new human — what’s the value of that?

When I used to spend time at the dog park with our two Irish Setters, I would get frustrated that I was devoting time to animals that could otherwise be devoted to human relationships.  Why was I choosing dogs over humans?  I loved them, but objectively it seemed like a poor trade-off to me.

Evolutionary psychology has surely hard-wired us to prioritize first ourselves, then our family, then our neighbors, then other humans.  But in today’s connected world, the positive impact we can have on the world can be magnified and scaled like never before.  The time and energy I put towards myself and my family could have otherwise have probably made a bigger total impact if I had devoted it more broadly.  How much worse off would we be if Obama / Bush / Clinton / Reagan decided to have a bigger family and then couldn’t quite muster the energy to become President.  Wouldn’t we all be just a bit worse off?

In writing this very blog post, I’ve prioritized myself and my contribution to the world (no matter how small) over my kids.  I could have spent this hour reading to them, playing with them, reminding them that I love them.  Instead, I wrote an obscure post that probably no more than a handful of other humans across the world will read.

Later today, when I make dinner with my kids and read them a bedtime story, I’ve prioritized my own family over some contribution I could have made to the broader society.  I didn’t spend those hours working or helping others.

If my wife has a Diet Coke while pregnant, is she prioritizing her own well-being over the child she is growing?  Is that an okay trade-off to make?  Why / why not?  What about drinking alcohol, or smoking cigarettes?  We’d like to embrace activities that increase well-being for all of us, but that’s not always possible.  So we evaluate the trade-off, and make a decision.

Economics is, after all, the study of how to allocate scarce resources.  We maximize our utility by choosing how much to give to ourselves, our kids, and the broader society.  We don’t have limitless time and energy, and we do our best to allocate that across the various aspects of our lives.  I’m not sure that thinking about trade-offs in this way makes me feel better, but then again, it’s only through introspection and evaluation that we appreciate the choices that we make.

— Thriving Dad

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