The Nurture of Gretchen Carlson: A Guest Post by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger for EconLog, has written a new book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”  And he’s been guest-blogging for us about parenting. I had a chance to interview Caplan yesterday for an upcoming Freakonomics Radio show called “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” He had a great deal to say on the topic, all of it interesting and much of it provocative. I think you will enjoy it as much as I did.


The Nurture of Gretchen Carlson
By Bryan Caplan

The night before my interview with Fox & Friends co-anchor Gretchen Carlson about Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I read her Wikipedia article – and started worrying.  Adoption and twin research find little effect of upbringing on adult outcomes. But Gretchen’s life story is a vivid counter-example. In 1989, she won the Miss America pageant. Her talent? Violin.  Since few kids master the violin on their own initiative, Gretchen could plausibly say, “Without my parents’ pressure, I wouldn’t have learned the violin. Without the violin, I wouldn’t have won Miss America. And if I hadn’t won Miss America, I probably wouldn’t have broken into television. I owe everything I have today to parenting.  Thank God my mom and dad didn’t believe in ‘Serenity Parenting.’”

Luckily for me, Gretchen didn’t use her life story against me. But if she had, my plan was simply to tell her, “Most people aren’t you, Gretchen. In fact, almost no one is.” Millions of parents force their kids to study the violin. Only a handful reap any tangible benefit from it. Few even manage to break into the low-paid, low-security, lonely world of professional music. Far fewer use their violins as shortcuts to television fame.

If upbringing were as powerful as most people believe, stories as good as Gretchen’s would be more common. Successful people could plausibly pinpoint the key parenting decisions that opened the critical doors at the critical moments. The rest of us could use our 20/20 hindsight to blame our disappointments on our parents’ mistakes – without sounding ridiculous. In the real world though, the secrets of success are ability, determination, and dumb luck. If you’d been raised by a very different family, you’d have different relationships and memories. But adoption and twin research tell us that your adult success would have been about the same.

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  1. Jessica says:

    If the bottom line is to not freak out that your child isn’t a super A-type personality, cool, but to completely dismiss nurturing for nature misses a major point.

    You absolutely must practice violin to be good at it, no matter how much talent you may naturally have.

    Are poor children under-represented in the arts because they just lack a genetic code for artistic talent or do they lack the environment that allows them to develop talents and skills?

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  2. Enter Your Name says:

    I think there’s a fair bit of evidence supporting nurture as having an influence. Certainly, ending up a somewhat famous TV personality, is going to be the exception.

    But it seems like you see study after study demonstrating that children in different nurture environments have vastly different outcomes.

    I don’t think nurture is important in turning a promising young computer geek into Bill Gates or Zuckerburg, but without the nurture, those guys would not have been in the place to be a computer geek.

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  3. Dave Auerbach says:

    I would say that Ms. Carlson’s comments are silly. Her parents doubtless forced her to do lots of things. One seems to have contributed to her becoming Miss America. What about all the other things her parents forced her to do that did not contribute?

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  4. Jon says:

    Enter Your Name has it exactly right.

    Good parenting can’t guarantee positive outcomes, but poor parenting tends to depress possibilities.

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  5. AaronS says:

    I got my last spanking when I was 21-years-old.

    Today, I am nearly 50. If today my dad said, “Bend over,” I would. Not because I’m afraid of him–I never was. But because I respect him as a GOOD MAN (and always have). In fact, of all the many spankings I, the “Son of a Preacherman,” received, there was ONLY ONE that I got out of. It was that time when I said, “You can spank me, dad, but I don’t think I did anything wrong.” Every other time, I deserved it!

    That (perhaps less enlightened) form of parental engagement sent a message that my parents CARED about how I turned out, that they wanted me to be a good person. Further, that care and concern translated into a watchfulness and sensitivity–but not a dictatorship!–that didn’t give me a lot of room to slip off and get caught up in the underbelly of life.

    I never had a curfew. If I came in at 3:00 a.m. after spending a long night out drinking coffee at the local diner with my friends, that was cool (so long as my parents got a call so they wouldn’t worry).

    Now, I’m no one special. I’m not famous or rich. But I can say that I think I’ve turned out to be the sort of man that my parents WANTED me to be–a man who, for all his faults, is honest, loving, and caring. If they see that as success, well, who am I to say that it is anything else?

    So that is how I seek to raise my son–to love him, be there for him, watch over him, and live a good life in front of him. I hope he winds up with plenty of money, enough fame to give him influence for the good, and the such, but most of all, I want him to be a good man. Like my father.

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  6. David Leppik says:

    So far I haven’t seen anything to support “serenity parenting” other than vague assertions by non-researchers, such as the link given. I’ve heard about twins studies for years, and some seem to support nature, while others support nurture. Most of them involve personality traits (e.g. desire for adventure) rather than health. There are plenty of illuminating non-twins studies, such as those that find correlations between childhood obesity and health later in life.

    Plus, of course, whether or not your personality will revert to your genetic predispositions once you’re an adult is irrelevant to the question of whether or not you will survive to adulthood in good health with the resources to go to college and without drug addiction.

    As a parent, I find these sorts of sweeping generalizations useless. I don’t care whether I’ll have a major lifelong effect on my kids, so much as I care about which things I can effect, and the best way to do it.

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