Friday, January 23, 2009

The Real Parentonomics

The biggest reaction to Parentonomics I get from non-readers of this blog is that they were expecting something very different: you know, talking about the costs of having children and stuff like that. Of course, instead, it is a mainly non-academic set of stories about the travails of one economist parent. I refer to studies in the book but I feel far from expert in all of this. Nonetheless, the title Parentonomics seemed appropriate for how I viewed my own parenting style and so it became the natural title of the book.

But Bryan Caplan looks set to do something that is more closely related to what people were expecting when an economist took a look at parenting. His Selfish Reasons to Have Kids will be published by Basic Books in 2011. This is something he appears to have been working on for some time.

To get a flavour for that book, take a look at this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Caplan presents the evidence on two propositions. First, that parents add little value through their parenting efforts (something that Freakonomics also dealt with).
The punch line is that, at least within the normal range of parenting styles, how you raise your children has little effect on how your children turn out. You can be strict or permissive, involved or distant, encouraging or critical, religious or secular. In the long run, your kids will resemble you in many ways; but they would have resembled you about as much if they had never met you.
Second, that parenting efforts make neither parents nor potentially children happy.
You might respond, "Yes, but at least parental attention makes the children happier." It's striking, then, that even kids don't seem to want all this parental attention. One notable study by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute found that while most parents believe their children want more face time, only a tiny minority of children actually do.
The obvious take-away being: what's the point of it all?

Well, there is a little point. There is a qualifier to Proposition 1.
Recent scholarship does highlight some exceptions. For example, while earlier researchers found that divorce runs in families for purely genetic reasons, some new studies find that both nature and nurture play a role. Another study finds that controlling for genes, run-of-the-mill spanking does no lasting harm, but harsh physical punishment can leave lasting psychological scars.
And kids do prefer their parents to be something:
In contrast, about a third of children wish their parents were less stressed and tired. What kids seem to want from their parents isn't more time; it's a better attitude.
But the conclusion is that there seems to be a vast amount of inefficiency going on:
Ironically, then, a bird's-eye view of parenting research suggests that it would be good for the world if parents stopped trying so hard. Parents would be better off, because they would be doing less of something that — through excessive familiarity — has lost its charm. Children wouldn't be worse off, because parental "investment" has little payoff anyway. In fact, if we take children at their word, they'd be better off. Kids know better than anyone that if mom and dad aren't happy, nobody's happy.
I am very much looking forward to this book as I must admit, I think this is one of the central questions faced by parents that perhaps some good data and analysis might actually help on. But there is also another reason to anticipate its arrival in 2011: Caplan's terrific writing style. A final example:
For example, one prominent study found that when adoptees are 3 to 4 years old, their IQ has a .20 correlation with the IQ of their adopting parents; but by the time adoptees are 12 years old, that correlation falls to 0. The lesson: Children are not like lumps of clay that parents mold for life; they are more like pieces of flexible plastic that respond to pressure, but pop back to their original shape when that pressure is released.
Well put.