Monday, April 11, 2011

The Ditty of the Lemur Father

It has been about a year since I read a pre-release draft of Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. As the only other economist to launch into the parenting arena, his take was more than a little interesting to me. Unlike Parentonomics, Caplan's treatment was research-based. And unlike Parentonomics, it had a strong advocacy for parenting styles and parenting choices; specifically how many kids to have. So it was closer to the Freakonomics approach to popular economics than what I had attempted. 

Anyhow, now that Caplan has graced the Wall Street Journal, I see that he will soon wip up a storm of controversy similar to that of the Tiger Mother. From the few Amazon reviews, it is safe to say either people really love the book or they really hate it. Either way, ka-ching.

So what is the Caplan thesis? It is, basically, that if parents think that by parenting they are putting in costly effort now to improve the lot of their children in the future, studies don't back that up. In stable environments, nurture has little impact relative to nature. The implication Caplan wants to draw is that parents should chill -- what he calls "Serenity Parenting." However, interestingly, like the Tiger Mother, the philosophy has only partially sold itself at home. Instead, Caplan hasn't been able to quite practice what he preaches. That is why I'd suggest that the better term for Caplan is the "Lemur Father" based on my perception of lemurs as depicted by King Julien in Madagascar. (Ergo: "I don't know why the sacrifice didn't work. The science was so solid.")

Of course, in typical economists style once Caplan has convinced you that you can lower the costs of parenting by being more lemur like, he notes that you can therefore, have more kids. Why because the marginal cost of an additional kid is lower than you think. Again, the apparent trauma of having twins meant that it took 7 years to convince his wife to have another but it is clear there is even more negotiation going on.

But regardless of the level of the cost curve for parenting, it is surely the case that the marginal costs of parenting for each additional child are increasing. What is also the case is that, for many parents, they have actually assessed that marginal cost and decided that enough was enough. Families, last time I looked, were pretty much bounded. The best we can hope for is that we forecast the net negative marginal return before having the marginal child rather than after it. There are some days when I think the jury is still out on that for Child No.3. But then again, I'm not about to return her any time soon.

Caplan is, of course, all about the evidence and so there is a testable hypothesis here. Lemur Parents will have more children than other types of parents. The ultimate Lemur parents were, of course, the Gilbreths (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame). They had parenting down to a fine art and surely for Caplan minimised parenting costs. But those are isolated examples. What would a large scale study show?

Because there is a countervailing effect. You can be Lemur by choice but similarly, as it is by definition easy to be a Lemur parent, you can be Lemur by default. That is, how do I distinguish Lemur parenting from lazy parenting? The parenting behaviour will be indistinguishable but because the actual process of having a baby is hard, the lazy ones will have less nor more children. I haven't in the brief few minutes i have taken to write this post come up with a clever way of identifying the causal relationship here.

Interestingly, Caplan admits that some parenting is hard. Moreover, he wrote: "We used the Ferber method—let the kid cry for 10 minutes, briefly comfort him, repeat—to get our twins to sleep through the night." That is, of course, something we practiced to. But we didn't do it because it was easy but instead because it was hard. That said, we explicitly did it so we would have an easier time later on. So I guess there is some Lemur in us after all.

Anyhow, if you like Parentonomics you'll like this book. Read it and take some time away from parenting to see how it goes.