Julia recently posted an interview with Kat Woods on how Kat has thought through decisions around having kids. In her 20s she started strongly wanting to:

I didn't want kids when I was younger, and then when I was about 20 I was in the park, minding my own business and a little toddler toddled up to me and he gave me this bent daisy. And my brain exploded! I was like, "Oh my God, I need babies now."

I just became absolutely obsessed. EA was my number one priority, and the next one was kids. I actually had a blog about parenting. I was reading all these books about it, reading studies and figuring out exactly how to deal with pregnancy and everything. I'd sit out outside of playgrounds and do my homework next to the playground so I could watch the kids play, just be around them.

Then she spent some time trying to understand her motivations better, and decided to try babysitting as a way to get practical experience with more aspects of taking care of kids:

Oh man, I get to spend time with the kids and develop this relationship with them. But also I get paid for it. Amazing!

I babysat three separate sets of kids, and they were all perfectly ordinary kids. They were not kids with behavior problems or anything like that. But that was enough for me to realize: oh, I do not want to be a parent. I do not want children at all.

Her advice to others based on this experience is to try babysitting before having kids:

I think the lesson from this that I took away is that before you have kids, it's really good to get some babysitting experience. It's a really good way to cheaply test being as close to being a parent as you can be without actually being a parent, that's pretty available to most people. ... I just want people to be informed, and do some quick, easy tests before they commit their lives to new beings.

In many ways this makes a lot of sense: the decision to have kids is a serious one with lifelong effects, and you want to make it with lots of information about yourself and how it's likely to go. Your responsibilities in the moment as a babysitter pretty similar to as a parent: taking care of the kid, and dealing with whatever comes up. And yet, I like parenting a lot and didn't enjoy babysitting. If I had used this method to decide whether to become a parent, I think I would have decided against it, and that would've been the wrong choice for me. I'm not completely sure, because, not liking babysitting, I didn't do very much of it, but I wanted to think through a bit where this difference is coming from.

Imagine you're considering whether to start a band. You decide to try it out by taking some gigs subbing in with other groups. You were initially excited about the idea, but when you're actually playing with them it's not much fun: the group is not gelling, you wouldn't have picked these songs, and this isn't really your kind of music anyway.

Parenting is made up of many small interactions, and when things are going well many of those interactions are individually fun or rewarding, but it's also a long-term project. You're helping this person who starts off completely incompetent and utterly dependent grow into the kind of person they want to become. When I'm interacting with someone else's child, as a friend, sitter, or even relative, I don't have that level of involvement.

In my experience (n=2, replication forthcoming) if you're thoughtful about those individual interactions, paying attention to what's working and what isn't, being predictable and consistent, and listening to your kids, you have fewer of the kinds of disappointing interactions Kat talks about in the interview. Which isn't to say that I don't ever have rough betimes with the kids or realize partway through an explanation that they've lost interest, but these are easily outweighed by other interactions that go well in part because of systems and patterns that we've developed together. Because we're doing this long-term I have time to learn from the times things don't go well, and figure out how to make things go a bit better next time.

A separate reason that babysitting is not that predictive is that many people start feeling very differently about children, both their own and others, when they become a parent. Much like Kat, I liked playing with kids and not other aspects, but now that I'm a parent they're just much more interesting throughout. I've broken this off into a separate post because it's philosophically strange, and also risky to count on since it's not guaranteed to happen to any specific person.

So if I don't think babysitting makes a very good parenting trial, how can people figure out whether parenting would suit them? Unfortunately, I don't have much to offer here. The main thing I would recommend is talking to parents of various ages to understand what they like(ed) and didn't, how it compares to what they expected, and whether they're glad they did it. Keep in mind that there's typically a lot of social pressure to say that you like parenting and are glad you had your kids. I also like Julia's survey, though I'd love to see something similar with more responses.

Comment via: facebook

46

20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:19 AM
New Comment

I don't know, I see where you're coming from, but I still I think I stand by the data I got from babysitting when I was younger — which reinforced my existing preference against having children. True, I never babysat any particular kids at a deep enough level of involvement to really fall in love with them, but I did have some affection for them. What I noticed was:

  1. I lacked the energy to keep up with a kid between the ages of 0 and 12 and keep them entertained. I physically could not play tag or keep up doing something entertaining for a baby because I was so exhausted, and the kids would get disappointed. (I later figured out this was related to chronic illness.) This did not seem promising, since I know parenting is much more exhausting than babysitting.
  2. As a teenager, that was the first time I was exposed to the emotional weaknesses of adults. In particular, the mom who I babysat for most was incredibly insecure and often pretty depressed, and her two children were, respectively, violently misbehaved and anxious. As someone familiar with depression, general lack of energy, and insecurity/imposter syndrome, it seemed to me that raising kids to be well-adjusted was too difficult a task for me. Twelve years later I am married and I still stand by this — steering a child right is so hard and uncertain and that's just too scary for me.

Also, my sister, who at that age already knew she wanted kids, loved babysitting. Even with the terrible children who she had to look after for 12 hours a day, who smeared poop on the walls and hit their baby siblings, she found it really rewarding to spend time with them and try to improve their behavior. She went on to work in a daycare and then run an after-school program, and she found she liked childcare for every age 0 to 18.

And now she's somewhere in between babysitting and coparenting our best friend's kid and it's only strengthened her desire to have one of her own as soon as possible. I was also around in the early months of that kid's life (but couldn't stay around since I live elsewhere), and I love her and she loves me, but it didn't make me any more inclined to have kids of my own. If anything it made me less inclined, since now I can have (what I see as) all the good parts of having a kid — being involved in a kid's life from birth onwards, having some real influence on them, and loving and being loved by them as part of a family — without the pressure of the way the kid turns out being on my shoulders, and without having to give up a major amount of time and autonomy for the rest of my life.

Early childhood is extremely short: I will spend more time with my child as a teenager than with a toddler.  Thus any lessons from babysitting toddlers are irrelevant to most of my future parenting experience. Moreover, result is more important than experiencing: raising a great person is more important than having pleasure during parenting.

Parent also has to pay bills, has fears and has to solve medical problems and all these is not related to babysitting experience. Also, parent can't go home after a working day, and most difficult parts of parenting are often at night, like a child doesn't want to sleep. 

People use the term "babysitting" for any kid who isn't old enough to be left in the house alone, not just toddlers. That age varies by state and by child and by situation, but can easily be up to 10. For example, Kat Woods mentions babysitting a five year old. So you can get a decent range of experiences out of it.

I would go one step further and say that even if you enjoy babysitting, that doesn't mean parenting is for you. I babysat a lot as a teenager, and I can say it did not properly prepare me for having children.

Babysitting is a lot more fun because you're just there for a few hours and then you leave. Parenthood is far more demanding.

Parenting is basically a mixture of being a nanny, teacher, psychologist/social worker, and housekeeper all rolled into one. These are all things I'm especially bad at and would never take an actual job in. 

In retrospect (though it is too late now!) having kids was the wrong choice for me. 

Thank you for writing this! I was wondering whether Kat's babysitting test would lead to false negatives, and was thinking of writing a post polling LW on the subject. To add more anecdata, I asked a friend who's been a dad for... 8 years, I believe, and he thought that he just cares about / likes / finds it easier to tolerate his own kids in a way that's not true with others' kids, and he expects this would generalize to other parents as well.

(I - a man in my mid 30s without much experience actually spending time with kids - have had a clear felt sense of wanting a kid for several years now, but value my time and energy fairly highly, so Kat's post really gave me pause. I still feel an emotional pull to having a kid that I don't think would be satisfied by the alternatives in her post, even though I think it will have lots of costs/difficulties.)

I endorse this conclusion. Speaking only for myself, I am not a person who "likes kids". I tend to be indifferent and easily bored by other peoples' kids. But I feel completely differently about my own kids, and the anecdata that I have available to me suggests that this is a common experience.

I wrote a comment on the blog, because to me Kat Wood's reasoning is so off the mark. 

To me the upside of having kids is the deep emotional connection to them. Everything else is comparatively irrelevant. Or maybe a better phrasing would be that almost all upsides of having kids are downstream of that emotional connection.

Babysitting is like parenting except without the same emotional connection. If you remove the emotional connection from an experience does the result allow you to evaluate the original experience? No, it becomes something very different.

It boggles my mind that so many women who have strong emotional reactions to little children manage to convince themselves that they don't want any. Like, if you react like that to a random toddler ... the emotion is going to be a hundred times stronger when it's your kid. 

The entire interview is not about decision making about having kids, it's entirely post-hoc rationalisations for not having kids. 

The entire interview is not about decision making about having kids, it's entirely post-hoc rationalisations for not having kids. 

Given all the effort that Kat describes having spent on figuring out the question, and even doing empirical tests that led her to reverse her original decision, this feels like a very weird characterization. 

Do you think that the advice she gives describes an open ended decision making process that is going to help people figure out what is the right choice for them? 

I think most people should have kids. I also think most people will be led away from having kids if they follow her advice. I certainly would have been.

I think it is pretty clear that all the advice she gives is strongly colored by her own eventual conclusion. So even if her conclusion wasn't post-hoc, her advice - the content, the framing, the situations she describes, the media she recommends - is. 

I consider the interview to be large passive negative impact - to use her own terminology. 

[+][comment deleted]3mo 30

I feel like mentioning that for men sperm donation is something they can consider (and for women, egg donation is something they can consider!). It is of course very different from having "your own" child, but there is also overlap. 

Sperm donation can sometimes happen via clinic, while at other sperm donors and donor recipients can match via platforms such as Just A Baby, co-parentmatch.com and prideangel.com (there are additional platforms beyond this, and there are also groups on Facebook). People seeking donors include lesbian couples, couples where the man is infertile, and single women (and sometimes trans-men).

There are pros and cons to different ways of doing things. People seeking donations can save a lot of money by not paying a clinic, and they can make a more informed choice about who they choose as donor by speaking to him directly. Some donor-recipients prefer there to be little or no contact with the donor after pregnancy, while others prefer for there to be a possibility of keeping in touch. Some think it can be good for the child to be able to know his/her donor, and have some level of contact (e.g. visiting once in a while).

For people who want to learn more, there is a podcast named Sperm Donation Word.

If you google news stories with the phrase "sperm donor shortage", many stories will come up (and not just from 2022 - stories like these just keep coming). To me this is an almost comically salient example of how humans are mesa optimizers from the perspective of natural selection..

Parenting is much better for inclusive genetic fitness than babysitting. It doesn't surprise me that for many parenting is more satisfying. Also the economics should be a strong clue.

the economics should be a strong clue

Paying someone to watch your child continuously except 9am-5pm on weekdays with an 18-year contract would be incredibly expensive, though?

Exactly. Yet parents sign that contract. So since we're not being financially rewarded for it, we are getting something else out of it, and it must be something that isn't fully available to paid childcare workers, including babysitters, teachers, nannies, tutors, etc.

I agree completely, and yet I am also very convinced that very few people enter parenthood having done rational economic calculations. 

As an example: 

(A) I've seen many folks TTC with an explicit intent to get the entire pregnancy + birth on one year's health insurance deductible, which I'd guess saves $7500 or so on a HDHP versus the worst case of meeting the full deductible in two consecutive years. This often results in a baby born in the fall. 

(B) A summer versus fall baby requires ~10 months less childcare before public school (or combined childcare + private school if you want the really long view), a savings of easily $20,000 five years later assuming $2k/mo in childcare expenses. And the first three months of pregnancy with an unassisted conception are realistically going to cost under $1k for the vast majority of people. 

When I've brought this up with friends and acquaintances considering (A), they often tell me that (B) had not crossed their minds, or that the benefit is simply too far away to think about, or variations on those. 

These are all educated, planning-oriented people, and that is still the level of long-range economic consideration they are giving to having a child. They budget for a crib and later on they open a 529 to save for college, but I do not think that they, let alone all the less-planning-oriented people choosing to enter parenthood, can be considered fully aware of the economic contract they are signing.

I agree most people aren't thinking this through.

Minimizing pre-school childcare costs this way, however, also minimizes your child's age when school starts. I think this is probably pretty bad for them long term, and recall reading various things that showed large outcomes differences between kids born just before and after age cutoffs.

Not wanting your kid to be at minimal age to start school is a totally valid counterargument. Perhaps there's a middle ground - prioritizing the spring for example. 

Had anyone I'd been discussing this with brought up this counterargument I would have had a very different takeaway from the conversation. The point I was trying to make was that even people who are thinking some about the economics of pregnancy and parenthood don't seem to be thinking about it very comprehensively in my experience. 

That said, IIRC from your blogs, 2 of your 3 kids have June-ish birthdays, so I take it your concern about being in the youngest quarter of the year wasn't something important enough to you to actively avoid.

February, March, June. Around here the cutoff is September 1st.

(Timing isn't necessarily going to work out, plus I don't think we were targeting a season)

I do wonder sometimes about types of motivation to have kids. I've never thought about if I would like parenting, and in practice I find it quite challenging. My parents have four children and were always clear that it is a lot of work and can be quite hard. If anything, they discouraged me from having kids cause of how much work it is and how challenging etc.

However, my desire to have kids is unrelated to how much direct joy I get from parenting. It's like an end in itself, regardless of how fun or not-fun it is.

Maybe that type of motivation is not interesting to reflect on cause you either have it or you don't? Which is fair. It's just a different experience from weighing pros and cons etc.

If we assume that almost everyone who likes babysitting also likes parenting(which seems plausible to me as a rough approximation), then liking babysitting should be a huge and not liking parenting should update you negatively. You would just have to figure out how likely people are to like babysitting.

New to LessWrong?