Knocked Up

by on June 2, 2007 at 10:14 am in Film | Permalink

This humorous and philosophical film — strongly recommended — also offers an implicit market failure argument: raising children is the main thing that goes on in a marriage, yet few of us choose life partners on that basis.  The film suggests that a random allocation might be better than selecting a partner on the grounds of smarts, common interests, attractiveness, how good he or she makes us feel, and so on.

I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. Common interests in life are correlated with common philosophies of child-rearing, so all is well in the marriage market.

2. High-status men and attractive women are also best at raising children, so seek those sorts of partners in any case.

3. Forget what your utility function seems to be telling you, seek a partner who is willing to do all the dirty work when it comes to kids.  Seek submission.  This is worth way more than you at first think.

4. Common interests hinder effective child-rearing, since it means the partners have more to lose when children take over their lives.  Opt for a low expectations marriage.

5. We should require prospective marriage partners to play sophisticated computer games, mimicking the familial struggles they will later face.  In the limiting case, dating should be replaced by joint kid-raising sessions, using small and unruly robots if necessary (the film in fact portrays this).

6. Judith Harris was right, genes matter but not how you raise your kids.  Marry whomever you want, following nature’s dictates, and neglect the little buggers that result, it doesn’t matter.

None of these hypotheses, in my view, replace the default option of simple market failure.  And yes this is one of the biggest institutional failures in the entire world.

Johan June 2, 2007 at 10:37 am

This post is probaly intended partly as a reductio ad absurdum of the view that the goverment should fix every market failure. I have to admit, it does make that point well.

thehova June 2, 2007 at 12:09 pm

great movie. and I agree with the film’s insights, which you noted in your post.

the attitude that we only have one (or maybe a few out of millions) perfect partners creates angst in our society.

In college, I noticed that the most successful relationship started in a drunken one night stand.

geoff June 2, 2007 at 2:05 pm

I don’t think it’s as problematic as you suggest. Happy parents make for happy families. There’s a trade-off at the margin, of course, but there’s little evidence to suggest that searching for a mate based on what you think will make you happy results in a non-optimal level of familial happiness or child-rearing success. There is some kernel of truth, as you suggest, in each of your hypotheses, but still no evidence that the strategy of “marry the person you like best who is willing to marry you” isn’t optimal. Also, your point about Judith Harris is (I presume intentionally) overstated. That’s not really the implication of her work. Nevertheless, her work (and others’) does pretty clearly indicate that genes are an enormously significant factor in your offsprings’ welfare, and thus, again, choosing the most satisfying partner may be key part of effective child rearing.

gaddeswarup June 2, 2007 at 2:55 pm

Could it be that extended family (including local community) was involved in raising children in the earlier times and it is becoming rarer now?

jason voorhees June 2, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Peter – read Newsweek from a few weeks ago which had an interview with Seth Rogen. Neither Seth nor Judd Apator are anti-abortion. The absence of abortion as an option is apparently unexplained, but is justified as a plot contrivance. If there is the abortion option, then there is no movie and no crazy pregnancy hijinks.

anon June 2, 2007 at 4:45 pm

You are going to have to live with this person, and hope not to be betrayed by them.

That’s something to bear in mind.

Klein's tiny left nut June 2, 2007 at 6:24 pm

Of course any market analysis would have to start off with the fact that having children is absurd. They drain you of huge sums of money, large chunks of your leisure time, drastically curtail your social life, fill you with angst of really unimagined proportions and strain your relationship with your spouse. There is no “rational” reason to have children.

With that out of the way, and as a parent of a 14 year old and having been a husband for 19 years, it is an utter and amazing crap shoot marrying somone with whom you will share child rearing duties. You can have the same basic political outlook, be equally religious/non religous, have similar degrees of education, like the same sort of life style, have many interests in common and even roughly agree about the manner in which children will be reared and you can still end up fighting like banshees over this little intruder in your lives. Raising our son has been the source of extraordinary conflict in my marriage on a virtually daily basis for as long as I can remember. You can fight about eating, TV viewing, homework, bed times, going out, schools, discipline, academic expectations, praise versus punishment and a number of other things that I’ve probably repressed.

I have no idea how you evaluate a prospective mate for these kinds of issues. The only thing that comes to mind is beware people who really sweat all of the small stuff in life, unless I guess, you are one of those people too. I feel utterly unqualified to offer advice beyond this. I guess you can think of it as an extremely interesting venture, “interesting” here being used in the same sense of the old Chinese curse.

adrian June 2, 2007 at 7:37 pm

“seek a partner who is willing to do all the dirty work when it comes to kids. Seek submission. This is worth way more than you at first think.”

Jesus Tyler, your wife could read this.

ricpic June 2, 2007 at 9:03 pm

The 90% of the population that aren’t high-achieving-attractives don’t make good parents?

Nancy Lebovitz June 2, 2007 at 10:01 pm

Maybe the solution is to marry someone who’s already raising their kid(s) in a way you approve of.

ElamBend June 2, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Maybe it’s the same as a successful marriage. Find someone who’s willing to work with you to make it work, who won’t quit.

thehova June 3, 2007 at 3:47 am

maybe i’m not the kind of person to answer this question. I’m in my early 20′s, single, never had a really serious relationship. but here’s my advice: marry someone who you think looks cute (not hot, that’s trouble). everything else works out in the end.

albatross June 3, 2007 at 10:02 am

Shared values and culture seem pretty important with raising children and dividing up the work. This is easy to overlook when you’re single or childless, but the more you both have the same set of default assumptions about who does what, how you’ll handle school and discipline and safety and such, the less time you’ll waste negotiating out an answer to those questions.

dj superflat June 3, 2007 at 11:49 am

great movie, the comic is undervalued in our society, i’ll take something like knocked up over paint by numbers indie film or drama any day (knocked up was actually one of the better dramas i’ve seen in a long time, while still being funny as hell). there was just some article on ALdaily about the problems with the literary novel, how we value the tragic over the comic for historical reasons (that’s what survived from the greeks). and abortion was an option in the film, just not taken after some soul searching (more suggested than displayed).

Amy June 3, 2007 at 2:10 pm

“Judith Harris was right, genes matter but not how you raise your kids. Marry whomever you want, following nature’s dictates, and neglect the little buggers that result, it doesn’t matter.”

If genes matter, then shouldn’t you be very careful about whom you marry? Shouldn’t you marry someone who will provide your kids with the best genes?

petra June 3, 2007 at 9:45 pm

“Raising our son has been the source of extraordinary conflict in my marriage on a virtually daily basis for as long as I can remember. You can fight about eating, TV viewing, homework, bed times, going out, schools, discipline, academic expectations, praise versus punishment and a number of other things that I’ve probably repressed.”

I’m with you, Klein’s. I’m amazed at how much conflict raising children creates– bringing up values you didn’t know you had, resurrecting sibling rivalries (if your spouse was a second child, for example, he/she might have subconscious trouble with the first child), and most of all, re-arranging priority. A friend of mine said, “Do you love your children more than you love your spouse?” and answered, “You better– you can’t divorce your kids.” But boy, is that a change in priorities, and one that’s going to rock couple-centered marriages– the most loving pre-child marriages. Not saying it’s wrong or right, but I do think that’s often at the center of kid-conflict. Can you go on making the spouse the center of your existence when you have a kid? Should you?

I suspect a lot of marriages founder on that– that one spouse still longs for that centrality. That was the contract, right?– putting no one before you? And yet to be good parents, we probably have to put the child, at least in the early years, before the other parent. But maybe that’s our generation talking. Did our mothers put us before our fathers? I don’t know. I just know that if there was a choice that benefitted my spouse but really hurt my child (say, moving her senior year in high school), I’d probably say, “Let’s find another way,” if I were being rational, or “Kid comes first,” if I weren’t up to rationality. Again, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I think many parents choose that way, and that has caused a lot of break-ups when the kids are young.

Anon, yes, marriages can last long after the kids are gone… but if the divorce happens those first twenty years, we’ll never know if it could have gone the distance. I suspect, however, that a “good parent” is a good predictor of whether this person will be a good spouse after 45, when you’re both getting older and facing mortality. That is, what you want in a mate at 50 isn’t necessarily what seems exciting at 25– maybe the chastening and wisdom that comes from parenting makes for a better late-life spouse.

What I’m amazed at is those people, mostly men but some women, who do it again– who have a second group of children at 45 or so, with a new spouse. I can’t imagine the appeal of that. I guess “doing it right this time” comes into play, but personally, the last thing I’d want at that age is a second twenty years of parenting. (Grand parenting, however, appeals. :)

Christina June 4, 2007 at 3:20 pm

I love the fact that just when my husband and I decide to give up our plush DINK lifestyle in favor of having kids, I read posts like Klein’s and wonder if I’m out of my mind.

I know that I spent my childhood and adolescence feeling guilty because the biggest bone of contention in my parents’ marriage was the proper way to discipline me. My dad, though he had 11 older kids, was quite laissez-faire, while my mom was decidedly not. The fact that they clashed on nearly everything relating to me was pretty stressful. I knew if their marriage ended it would indeed be my fault. But like any kid I exploited their divided front everyway I could anyway. I guess it’s a testament to either their fortitude, or my dad’s refusal to get a third divorce, but they remained together until my dad’s death.

My husband and I tell ourselves that we will be different, which I suppose is the lie that every breeding couple tells themselves.

Noah Yetter June 4, 2007 at 5:29 pm

I may have mentioned this before but, cats > kids.

Half my friends think my wife and I are crazy for not wanting children. We think they’re crazy.

Klein's Tiny Left Nut June 4, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Not to sound pathetic, but have I mentioned my cat is nuts too? She wakes me up several times a night and has taken to grooming the back of my neck while I’m sleeping. There truly is no rest for the weary.

Klein's tiny left nut June 4, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Thanks Anne. Did I mention that the offspring is suspended from school through the end of the year for a minor tussle (private school – zero tolerance) and my wife is home looking for a job after quitting her job after being passed over for a promotion? So we have spontaneous home schooling. Yay!!

The gods laugh at me. Particularly while the cat is grooming my neck.

Taeyoung June 6, 2007 at 6:11 pm

While there is certainly selection bias at work, I wonder how the offspring of modern American-Indians do vs. children of those who still allow the parents in the Old Country to find their mates for them?

I can’t speak to American-Indians, but my limited view of East Asian marriages is that the children of arranged marriages (not forced marriages, mind, but arranged marriages) do better than those from love matches. But then, the sample I’m exposed to is somewhat misleading, since I know that the overall rate of divorce is about the same for arranged marriages and love matches, but in my sample, arranged marriages are much less likely to end in divorce than love matches. I suspect that the arranged marriage / love match divide also mirrors another divide, which is the degree of “Americanisation,” so to speak — the less assimilation, in terms of cultural expectations, the better they do. At least, that’s the narrative I understand it through.

In any event — it may be “one of the biggest institutional failures” in certain parts of the world, e.g. the West, and parts of the more developed East, but I don’t think this is an institutional failure we can say applies to the entire world. Most of the world still has fairly strong institutions in place to remind people that yes, children (and the extended family in general) are a crucial element of a marriage, that it’s not just about the husband and wife, and that you had better marry someone with that in mind.

That said, my understanding is that one thing men should do when looking at a prospective wife is not just look at her, and the way she is now, but compare, if you can, against her mother, against aunts, and other women from her family from past generations. That’s not necessarily how she’s going to be later, any more than you’re going to become your father. But it’s the best guide you’ve got, really.

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