The Economics of Parenting

One of the blogs that I follow is called “Freakonomics,” which is the title of the authors’ book, Freakonomics (they’ve also just released another book called SuperFreakonomics).  Yesterday, I listened to an episode of their radio show called “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”  This was one of the most interesting things I’ve listened to all week (that, and the Anthony Weiner resignation announcement).  If you have a little bit of time, you should listen to it.

Economics of Parenting

You can listen to the whole episode by clicking on one of the links below:
Podcast: Play in new window | Download

The economists on the radio episode have an interesting take on parenting, one that is rooted in data and analysis.  All of the eight economists on the show have studied parenting from some aspect, and all have kids of their own.

The economics of parenting
Most economists that study parenting have come to a few common conclusions:

  • The way that you nurture your children has very little effect on the way that they turn out.  In fact, this is the central thesis of Bryan Caplan’s new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Parenting is More Fun and Less Work Than You Think.
  • Kids remember more how you treat them than what you teach them.
  • There is very little that you can do to affect your child’s future behavior.  One of the highlighted exceptions to this observation, as referenced in the episode, is attitudes toward smoking and drinking.  At one point, one of the economists says that if you have some extra money or time, and you’re a smoker, you’re much better off using that money and time quitting smoking than reading to your child.
  • Parents are very poor judges of risk.  Parents obsess over some things that are very little risk to their children (ex: guns and kidnapping), while glossing over others that have huge risk (ex: swimming pools).

Some economists don’t even take their own advice
Several of the economists said that they didn’t take their own advice in practice (like a doctor stating that smoking is bad for you, but being a chain smoker himself).  There was one economist couple that obsessed over every part of their daughter’s life, and even rated themselves as a 9.75/10 on the “Obsessive Parenting Index.”  They hired a specialist to be a nanny to their daughter (at a cost of $50,000/year), taught her sign language before she could talk, and sent her to music and art classes each week!

Economist Joshua Gans, author of a book called “Parentonomics,” says this about why he doesn’t follow his own advice:

This is the difference between the positive and the normative. You’re right, as a normative act that doing the good, showing society the way to go, of course I should do all those things. But as a normal, selfish, economic rationalist person, it’s too costly for me. I really don’t want to have to deal with that, not even to do what objectively might actually help the happiness and perhaps the even well being of my child. Apparently I’m willing to stick with the social mores on that. So, even economists, you know, we can say these things publicly, but doing them is very, very hard. The social pressures are there.

Don’t work so hard at parenting
Other economist-parents, like Stephen Levitt (co-author of Freakonomics), take a more relaxed approach to parenting.  He says:

So, I’m probably not a very good parent in the sense that I don’t obsess very much about my children’s success. I figure that everything’s going to turn out all right for them. And I probably wait far too long going down the path of things now turning out before we get involved. So, for instance, two of my kids were terrible readers for a long time. And they read fine now, but probably if I’d been paying more attention I would have been more troubled by it, I would have, you know, put them into tutoring programs and other things much more quickly.

He also says that you shouldn’t over-push your child, or yourself:

The easiest step is just getting rid of stuff that nobody likes. What you’re doing is based upon some illusory long-run benefit, like you’ll go to karate, and that will teach you discipline, and you’ll do better in school, then you’ll get into a good school, and then you’ll become an investment banker. Something like that, and you owe it all to karate.  I also go further and say, even if your kid does like the activity, if you don’t like it, it’s OK to say, look we’re not going to do as much of it. I’ll take you to soccer, but we’re just doing the easy league where people don’t take it that seriously. If this prevents you from becoming the next Pele, that’s too bad. But it’s really unlikely so I’m just not that worried about it.

I love this about my life
I got married in 2007, and getting married has brought me unimaginable happiness, joy, and growth.  My marriage brought with it a child, Darcy, and since getting married, we’ve had two more children (soon to be three more), and I can’t imagine being more happy with this part of my life.  My marriage has given me a best friend; my kids add spice to my life; and my marriage has taught me a TON of things about life and love.

Notwithstanding depressing studies that say that parents are more depressed than people that don’t have children, I can’t imagine a happier time in my life than when I come home to a just-minutes-before-screaming brood of children, and as soon as a put my key in the lock on the front door, hearing cries of “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

This just makes every day of my life so much happier.

Question: What’s your parenting philosophy?  Do you integrate any of these economists’ ideas?  You can leave your comments by clicking here.

  • Kacie

    Great post, Bob. My parenting philosophy is evolving as I adjust to the role of mother. I’d say one thing is to trust my instincts. There are debates on all sides of many issues, the experts are people that I listen to but take with a grain of salt, and the way I grew up doing things isn’t always best. So… I tend to be pretty relaxed, but at the same time analytic. When I start to worry about something I fall back on instinct – I’m a mother who loves her kid, chances are if I do what I think I need to do, it’ll be okay….. until they’re teenagers! :)

  • Gingerenae

    Dear Bob,
    I should comment on your blogs much more often, as I read them quite frequently.  I’m a bad friend, I know.  But I thought that I would stop by, say “hi” and “thanks!”  :)
    Happy Friday,

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Ginger, thanks for stopping by! It’s always great to see comments from friends :)