The Economics and Genetics of Parenting: A Guest Post by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger for EconLog, is the author of a new book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”  In the guest post below, he explains one of the central theses of his book: modern parents are working too hard at parenting, for no good reason. You’ll  be hearing more from Caplan in these environs soon, as he’ll be one of the guests in an upcoming Freakonomics Radio show tentatively titled “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”

Economics, Genetics and Hippies
By Bryan Caplan

Non-economists often take offense if you tell them, “You’re wasting your time.”  But economists are more likely to respond, “Really?  Please explain.”  Effort is a scarce resource.  Relaxing when effort doesn’t pay isn’t “lazy”; it’s a wise decision to conserve valuable effort.  The catch is that the effect of effort is hard to measure.

Photo: iStockphoto

Every now and then, though, solid measurements fall into our laps.  A case in point: People have argued about the effect of parenting on kids for thousands of years.  But the “wisdom to know the difference” between genuine and counterfeit effects of parenting emerged only recently.  As I explain in my new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, adoption and twin researchers have spent the last forty years measuring the effect of parenting on every major outcome that parents care about.


Their findings surprise almost everyone.  Health, intelligence, happiness, success, character, values, appreciation – they all run in families.  But with a few exceptions, adoption and twin researchers find that nature overpowers nurture, especially in the long-run.  Kids aren’t like clay that parents mold for life; they’re more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is released.

The most meaningful exception to this flexible plastic rule is appreciation – how your kids feel about and remember you.  One Swedish study asked middle-aged and elderly twins – some raised together, some raised apart – to describe how their parents raised and treated them.  Twins raised together painted much more similar portraits of their parents than twins raised apart.  If you raise your children with kindness and respect, they will probably remember it for as long as they live.

The upshot: Parents spend too much effort trying to mold their kids for the future, and not enough just enjoying life together.  Vainly struggling to change your kids isn’t fun for you or them.  And the struggle can easily hurt the main outcome where parenting really matters: the quality of the bond between parent and child.

Neither economics nor genetics are known as touchy-feely disciplines.  But when you put the two fields together and ask for parenting advice, they sound like a couple of hippies.  Parents need to love, encourage, and accept their kids.  Stop trying to change them.  Their future will take care of itself.

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  1. Quin says:

    This article presents what appears to be a significant contrast to this post on Tiger parenting:

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  2. iamreddave says:

    Presumably the sorts of people who want to and are allowed to adopt children are quite similar. in general they are probably more caring, kind and selfless than the average person. Do twin studies imply that various quite good parents do not alter childrens lives much. Rather then that there is a big difference between really bad and good parents?

    What is the difference between children whose parents are just bad enough to have them taken into care and adopted out and those who are just good enough to keep them. If nearly bad enough to be adopted versus just bad enough to be adopted result in big changes to childrens outcome is that not a stronger measure of parenting effects?

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  3. Hank says:

    Clearly at some point nurture must take over right? Speaking simply from a doctrine of free will, those of us reading these reports (and commenting on them), we aren’t fully bound to our nature, yes? To flip the argument slightly, I can nurture myself away from natural inclinations. I can remold my thoughts, beliefs and actions at 30 or 50 or 80. And a full grown child’s relationship with his/her parents? Is that relationship forever doomed (or blessed) by our natural selves?

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  4. Kol says:

    This is a dangerous message and the research I’ve seen doesn’t support it. This is the danger in picking out one or two research studies and applying the message globally, or as another commenter points out, the danger of applying a study beyond the population that was studied.

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  5. LuchinG says:

    -Too general. I would like to read something more specific, like in whic way happiness is measured, and how it varies in the peopled that has been studied.

    -¿Isn´t it proved that kids raised in a home of non-smokers, tend to be non-smokers?

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  6. Sean says:

    What he is talking about is temperament. I have heard for years from psychologists that temperament is something you are born with. We are talking Type A, type B personalities etc. Most experts agree that it is genetic and biological. However, what a parent can do is guide the child in how to express that temperament.

    Here is a video from the Philoctetes Center:

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  7. David says:

    Did I miss a page or something, or is there effectively no evidence / real content in this post? Seems to be just a series of largely unjustified assertions… am I meant to purchase the book if I want to see something that is even slightly scholarly?

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  8. Enter your name says:

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by “stop trying to change them.” Sure, you’re not going to make dramatic changes to basic personality traits. A child who is anxious (or angry, or aloof, or whatever) from birth is likely to be an adult who is at least somewhat anxious.

    But “changing” kids, in the sense of educating, enlightening, and civilizing them, is a parent’s most important job. If your kid reacts to frustration with temper tantrums or hitting people, then you really should “change” him by equipping him with more effective tools for coping. Far better to teach them these skills than to wait for them to figure it out through the school of hard knocks.

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