New Freakonomics Radio Podcast: “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting”

Our newest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” This is the second of five hour-long podcasts we’ll be releasing over the coming weeks. Some of you may have heard them on public-radio stations around the country, but now all the hours are being fed into our podcast stream. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

I know what you’re thinking when you read the title of this podcast. You’re thinking what the **** — economists? What can economists possibly have to say about something as emotional, as nuanced, as humane, as parenting? Well, let me say this: because economists aren’t necessarily emotional (or, for that matter, all that nuanced or humane), maybe they’re exactly the people we need to sort this through. Maybe.

You may remember that we wrote a bit about parenting in Freakonomics; now we’ve put together an entire roundtable of economists to talk about a great many elements of child-rearing, with one essential question in mind: how much do parents really matter, and in what dimensions? So you’ll hear about parents’ effect on everything from education and culture cramming to smoking and drinking.

The economists include: our very own Steve Levitt; Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (both of whom show up on this blog regularly); Bruce Sacerdote; Joshua Gans (the author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting; Melissa Kearney (whom you heard in our “No-Lose Lottery” podcasts); Valerie Ramey; and last but very, very much not least, Bryan Caplan (the blogger and author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Parenting is More Fun and Less Work Than You Think.

If you are like me, you will: learn a lot; gnash your teeth a lot; and laugh a lot.

Steve Levitt with his wife and four kids.

A few highlights:

LEVITT: 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 just kind of 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.

Bruce Sacerdote and family

Bruce Sacerdote, whose research on adoption is featured prominently in the show, talks about some of the areas where nurture beats out nature:

SACERDOTE: You see that children are picking up their parents’ smoking and drinking habits with a very high degree of correlation, and it’s the same with the adoptees and the non-adoptees, they really pick up their parents’ habits, those type of habits explicitly. Another thing that’s undoubtedly contagious is that behavior of how you interact, how you treat other people, how you treat employees at a restaurant, or a retail store or something. I think those things are probably highly contagious as well.

Bryan Caplan with wife Corina, twins Aidan and Tristan, and baby Simon - named after the economist Julian Simon, who inspired his existence. (Courtesy Emily Korff of Veralana Photography)

And Bryan Caplan on the startlingly slim effect that parents seem to have on their children’s lifetime income:

CAPLAN: The Korean War orphans were adopted in the ‘50s and ‘60s at a time when it was much easier for low-income families to adopt. So, families were eligible as long as they were twenty-five percent above the poverty line, which would be quite unusual today. So, these kids were raised by a much broader range of the socio-economic spectrum than would happen to adoptees today. And yet, the finding of the study by Bruce Sacerdote was that the kids raised by the very poorest families grew up to have the same income as the kids raised by the very richest families. It’s striking that it’s the kind of thing that you would think of as being more about upbringing broadly defined than a lot of other traits. So it could be that it’s actual upbringing where your parents instill the value of a dollar and hard work in you. Or it could be something more like nepotism where because you get raised by the right kind of parents you get good connections, they actually make a phone call for you. And yet, actually the very best studies of the nature and nurture of income find that parents do have a moderate effect on your early income when you’re in your twenties, but basically zero for the rest of your life.

Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson with the beguiling Matilda Sloan Wolfers (the only child to appear in our radio show) (Courtesy of Sarah Miller Photography)

You’ll probably hear more from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in this hour than anyone else (as well as their beguiling 19-month-old daughter Matilda); they are very entertaining talkers when it comes to parenting. And candid too:

STEVENSON: I think that the hardest thing as a parent is to admit that you’re going to take risks with your child’s life, to actually admit out loud, I take risks with my child’s life. If you said that at a cocktail party, people would look at you like you were a monster. But of course we take risks with our lives everyday. I take Matilda out on to the sidewalk and we cross streets. Every time we cross a street we’re taking a risk. It’s not risk free to cross the street, or to ride the subway, or to go in the car. Almost everything we do has risks, and as economists I think Justin and I are really comfortable with thinking about risks and making decisions with them. And that means we have to face the really painful thing, which is we take risks with our child’s life.”

Melissa Kearney and offspring

And Melissa Kearney on how an economist mom talks to her kids:

KEARNEY: The way I explain things to my kids, I hear an economist talking to them. I mean, I explain everything to my kids in terms of opportunity cost. My daughter, when she was two in the grocery store, and I’m like, “Listen, you’re making choices and if you pick that you don’t get that.” Right, there’s a cost to your choices? And I’ll hear my son tell my daughter — they’re toddlers speaking — they’ll be like, “Look, you made a bad choice.”

Valerie Ramey with husband Gary, also an economist at UCSD; and their children Michelle and Sean.

Joshua Gans

Thanks to all the above economists and many others whose research we drew upon, and to everyone involved in producing the show. Additionally, here are a few of the research papers the show mentions or alludes to:

Product Recalls, Imperfect Information, and Spillover Effects: Lessons from the Consumer Response to the 2007 Toy Recalls.”

The Rug Rat Race.”

Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress.”

What Happens When We Randomly Assign Children to Families?”

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”

Parental Education and Parental Time with Children

Audio Transcript

The Economist’s Guide to Parenting

Stephen J. DUBNER: So you’re having a baby! Congratulations! That’s great. Welcome to the wonderful world of parenthood! It’s exhilarating, challenging -- and probably more than anything, perplexing. Why? One word: experts. So many experts and so much advice.

[SOUND EFFECT: All new Dr. Oz reports]

[SOUND EFFECT: Do you ever wonder how to raise children who are confident?]

[SOUND EFFECT: Researchers say…]

[SOUND EFFECT: Nature versus nurture…]

[SOUND EFFECT: Strong. Parental. Leadership.]

Ann HULBERT: The first pediatrician whose book turned into a very popular manual absolutely forbid the eating of bananas. He said they were poisonous.

DUBNER: That’s Ann Hulbert. She wrote a book called “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children”. It’s fair to say that the advice has, uhhh, shifted a bit over time.

HULBERT: I think the example that is perhaps the most notorious is the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, whose book “The Psychological Care of Infant and Child” was a big sensation in the late twenties. He said, you know, you should never kiss your child, you should never hug your child, you should never put your child on your knee. You’re honeycombing the child with weakness and he will not be able to face the harsh, cold, cruel world. That--I think the example that is perhaps the most notorious is the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, whose book The Psychological Care of Infant and Child was a big sensation in the late ‘20s.  He said you should never kiss your child, you should never hug your child, you should never put your child on your knee.  You’re honeycombing the child with weakness and he will not be able to face the harsh, cold, cruel world. That I think probably takes the cake.

DUBNER: Now what do we know about the scientific underpinnings of that argument? Did he--was it a scientific argument at all?

HULBERT: Well, that particular bit of wisdom there was no scientific argument behind it at all. He surrounded it in his book with all kinds of supposed science about the absolute influence of parents and sort of behavioral conditioning on children. And he had a very famous experiment of teaching a child, a baby, to fear a rabbit. And it was not a good experiment, but it was cited in his book and it was sort of his example of, if  you present a furry creature and a very loud noise that scares a child and you do it often enough you can inculcate deep fear that will never go away. And that was kind of the sensational version of the science that underpinned his view that parents are themselves the absolute molders and total shapers of their children.

DUBNER: Now, if you thought it was bad in the 20th century, you might want to stay out of the 21st. In a lot of places, parenting has become a competitive sport. Experts are everywhere, each of them sounding more confident than the last, even if their advice contradicts one another -- or contradicts themselves? So how are we supposed to know what’s really good for kids? How do we know what’s worth worrying about -- and what’s not? That’s easy: Enter the economists!

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio.  Today, The Economist’s Guide to Parenting Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what the **** -- economists? What can economists possibly have to say about something as emotional, as nuanced, as humane, as parenting? Well, let me say this: because economists aren’t necessarily emotional -- or, for that matter, nuanced or humane -- maybe they’re exactly the people we need to sort this through. Maybe.

Steven LEVITT: I’m Steve Levitt. I have four children. Amanda’s eleven, Olivia’s ten, Nicholas is eight, and Sophie is seven. Two are adopted from China, two are biological. We almost have two sets of twins. Although in each case, one of the twins is biological, and the other is adopted from China.

DUBNER: Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. Over the past several years, he and I have written quite a bit about parenting. I’ve got two kids – Solomon, who’s 10, and Anya is 9.  But Levitt, he’s got his own approach.

LEVITT: Well, I’m just lazy. I could be investing in the kids or I could be indulging my own, you know, hobbies and sleeping and things. And so I’m sort of lazy. I mean, the other problem I have is I have four kids. If you have too many kids, you can’t invest that heavily in any one of them because you go crazy. And so, you know, you leave some of the parenting to the older siblings, or you just hope that the schools will take care of it. But it’s not like, if you have an only child, well sure, you’ve got two parents, you’ve got one kid, you can lavish attention on them. But when you’ve got four kids, and one wants to play soccer, and one wants to play baseball, the other wants to play the clarinet--

DUBNER: Let’s just watch TV instead.

LEVITT: Exactly.

DUBNER: Levitt may not strike you as the ideal parent but don’t worry, he’s not the only economist we’re talking to. In fact, we’ve put together a whole roundtable of them. Hey guys, introduce yourselves.

Bryan CAPLAN: I am Bryan Caplan. I’m a professor of economics at George Mason University and I’m the author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”

Melissa KEARNEY: I am Melissa Kearney. I’m in the economics department at the University of Maryland, and I study government expenditure programs and issues relevant mostly to low income populations in the U.S.

DUBNER: You’re also a mom.

KEARNEY: I’m a mom of three. The way I explain things to my kids, I hear an economist talking to them. I mean, I explain everything to my kids in terms of opportunity cost, and I say--My daughter when she was two in the grocery store, and I’m like listen you’re making choices and if you pick that you don’t get that. Right, there’s a cost to your choices. And I’ll hear my son tell my daughter, right, they’re toddlers speaking, they’ll be like, look you made a bad choice. You know, so I realize that I talk to them like economists.

Joshua GANS: So, I’m Joshua Gans. I’m a professor of economics at Melbourne Business School, usually in Melbourne, Australia but visiting at the moment Microsoft Research. During my day job I am an applied economist, more of a theoretical bent than a data driven bent. And otherwise I engage in normal parts of life, and I like to leverage my career as much as possible, so when it came to parenting I ended up writing a book called “Parentonomics: An Economist Dad’s Parenting Experiences.”

Bruce SACERDOTE: I’m Bruce Sacerdote, I’m a professor of economics at Dartmouth College and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Oh, and I teach finance here at Dartmouth, but I’m primarily a labor economist and I study kids’ education and kids’ health, income, well being, that sort of thing.

DUBNER: Gotcha, and on your website, Bruce, on your professional website, you list yourself as a professional parent as well, correct?

SACERDOTE: That’s right, yep, and that probably is-- I may even spend more hours on that than I do on research.

Valerie RAMEY: My name is Valerie Ramey, and I’m a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego. I’m married to another professor of economics at the same department. His name is Gary Ramey, and we write a number of papers together. We have two children: a college-age son who is twenty-one, who is studying engineering, although he was pretty good in economics in high school he decided to do something a little bit more applied, which is engineering; and a daughter who is a junior in high school, who at this point isn’t quite sure what she wants to study in college, but she’s thinking about taking some economics just to see if it’s any different from what she hears at the dinner table at home.

DUBNER: So your son is the real rebel, going into engineering?

RAMEY: That’s right.

DUBNER: Rounding out the roundtable is another pair of mom-and-dad economists. Justin Wolfers is an Australian-born professor at Wharton. Betsey Stevenson, who’s also at Wharton, is currently serving as chief economist for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. That’s where I visited them and their absolutely beguiling 19-month-old daughter, Matilda.

Betsey STEVENSON: You know, first of all, Justin and I met as graduate students in economics and we started studying issues related to the family right away, as soon as we started dating. And we started doing research on divorce, which is a very puzzling way to start dating.

DUBNER: Very sexy.

STEVENSON: And the first paper we ever wrote together was about the relationship between the ability to get divorced and avoiding violence in relationships.

DUBNER: And, and your finding was?

STEVENSON: That the divorce reforms that allowed one person to unilaterally walk out of a relationship saves lives. It reduced women committing suicide; it reduced women getting killed by their partners; it reduced domestic violence more broadly.

DUBNER: Now, are the two of you married?

STEVENSON: No, we’re not married.

DUBNER: So you’re…

Justin WOLFERS: I feel like you knew the answer.

DUBNER : All right, so I did know that Stevenson and Wolfers aren’t actually married. They refer to each other as “partners” rather than husband and wife.

STEVENSON: I’m the person of the household who manage all of our money, so Justin and I do actually follow the old household specialization rules, but we do it much more narrowly. So, Justin does IT; I do money. Justin does diapers; I do breastfeeding. And when it comes to money I quickly realized that, particularly as young people, the costs of being married outweighed any of the benefits when it comes to financial costs. Particularly as two people who have similar careers and therefore similar earnings. The tax costs…

DUBNER: You didn’t want to pay the marriage penalty.

STEVENSON: Yeah, it would have been substantial.

DUBNER: So, what do you save a year by not being married?

STEVENSON: Over twenty thousand dollars a year.

DUBNER: Wow, you could have another kid and send her to private school.

WOLFERS: If you want to cause people to pause at a wedding ask them how much they think what they’re about to do is worth, and then tell them what the price tag is.

STEVENSON: Well, you know, for us, we’ve been together for fourteen years. And so…

WOLFERS: So marriage is an institution that people can get in and out of very easily. It doesn’t actually serve the purpose that most people want it to do. So what couples are usually trying to do when they marry is trying to make it difficult to leave. We have a far stronger bond than a legal contract, which is we have a daughter and you can’t cut a daughter in two. And that daughter right on cue, makes it incredibly difficult or expensive for us to part. That’s much stronger than a marriage certificate.
DUBNER: Once they decided to have a child, Stevenson started “training,” as she puts it: A lot of running, eating organic. Reading up on ovulation and all kinds of medical and behavioral literature …

STEVENSON: We approached getting pregnant like any other project we’ve done. I spent four months getting fit. I went to the doctor for a check-up four months…

DUBNER: This was before you were pregnant.

STEVENSON: Four months before I had my IUD out I went and got a check-up, all the medical tests I needed, I started training for pregnancy.

DUBNER: What did training include besides, there was running…

STEVENSON: Prenatal vitamins. Running, eating right, I was, you know, and then it involved charting, figuring out my cycle, ovulation.

DUBNER: And do all these data exist in an Excel spreadsheet somewhere in this very house right now?

STEVENSON: Yeah.

DUBNER: Conception was just the beginning. Once the baby arrived, Stevenson and Wolfers put everything they knew as economists into being a mom and dad. Lesson No. 1: division of labor.

STEVENSON: Well the natural one was I breastfed and Justin did diapers.

WOLFERS: Yeah, so to put that in economic language, Betsy does inputs, I do outputs.

DUBNER: And you did diapers, because it’s not the corollary somehow of breastfeeding?

WOLFERS: That was actually Betsy’s argument.

DUBNER: It was?

STEVENSON: Somebody should do an input, somebody has to do outputs. It’s basically the same: the same about going in is what’s coming out.

WOLFERS: I would actually say, I now advise my male friends that they should put up their hand for this job.

DUBNER: I thought you were going to say that you advise you male friends that they should learn to be the one that breastfeeds.

WOLFERS: That does look even more fun. But no, it’s a nice time to spend with your kid actually. When they’re really young, it’s one of the few times they’ll make eye contact with you. You have a task, they like you having that role. So as much as I thought Betsy was taking advantage of me with superior bargaining ability getting me to do that, I just told my brother-in-law that  he should do the same thing, and I think he did.

DUBNER: Now, Wolfers and Stevenson are both busy professionals. Which means that Matilda would be spending a fair amount of time with a babysitter. Could they have hired a perfectly nice, friendly, competent nanny for fifteen bucks an hour? Yeah, they could have.

DUBNER: So, you guys hired a nanny…

STEVENSON: Who was a public school teacher.

DUBNER: Who was extremely skilled as a nanny and beyond, right?

STEVENSON: And I think Matilda’s getting the same kind of upbringing and intellectual stimulation as if we were at home raising her. And I think there’s a certain level of comfort in that.

DUBNER: Can I ask what Ellen gets paid?

STEVENSON: Fifty thousand dollars a year.

DUBNER: Ellen does more than just watch after Matilda.

MATILDA: Dada!

ELLEN: Do you want to write “I love Mama”?

MATILDA: Mm, Dada!

ELLEN: and Dada? You can write that.

MATILDA: Dada!

ELLEN: Good job, Ms. Mattie, yay! (Clapping)

MATILDA: Horse!

DUBNER: So Matilda’s already learning her ABC’s. But it doesn’t stop there.

WOLFERS: OK, so one randomized trial that we actually did read had a huge impact on us, which was teaching babies sign language. And it turns out that this is a great way of even increasing their vocab before their speaking skills kick in. And Matilda speaks terrific sign language and his been able to sort of communicate her needs whether she wants milk or Cheerios, you know, for about a year now. No not a year, I misspoke, six, seven months now. But you know, preverbal. We made that a priority.

DUBNER: What kind of classes does she take?

STEVENSON: She goes to music class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: Music class is one day a week. She goes to art class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: That’s one day a week. And she goes to a preschool prep class.

DUBNER: Preschool prep, uh huh, preschool prep.

WOLFERS: Matilda was leaving the house the other day at 13 months of age, I said, Matilda this is your first day of human capital accumulation. You can finish when you’re 27.

DUBNER: So how much human capital will Matilda accumulate by the time she’s 27? And -- here’s the hard part -- how much of that human capital will be because of what her parents did versus who her parents were? I mean, that’s the central issue here, right? In the never-ending nature-versus-nurture debate, genes versus environment, what we really want to know is how much influence do parents have on their kids once the kids are out of the womb?

DUBNER: Well how confident are you? I mean, you guys are making a lot of choices from organic food,  and sign language, and all kinds of behavioral things, how confident are you that your investments are, forget about optimal, even worthwhile?

WOLFERS: Not at all confident.

DUBNER: Uh, pardon me Professor Wolfers?

WOLFERS: Not at all confident.

DUBNER: Here’s the thing. As much as Wolfers and Stevenson sound like your typical obsessive, sweat-the-small-stuff, micro-managing parents, they actually agree with the rest of our economist roundtable on one crucial and quite surprising fact: Parents just don’t matter as much as we think we think they do. Here’s Joshua Gans again:

GANS: So my, you know, having experienced it for twelve-odd years, I don’t think they matter a huge amount.

DUBNER: And Bryan Caplan:

CAPLAN: In all honesty I do sometimes think, What if my kids don’t turn out well and then everyone blames me? And I would still just say that the data say it was going to happen anyway.

DUBNER: And Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: One of the things that I think is true is that obsessive parenting has few rewards.

DUBNER: What are they talking about? What do these economists mean when they say that parents “don’t matter” very much? Do they have evidence to back up this redonkulous claim? Yes, they do. Coming up: From education to income to drinking and smoking, we’ll hear what the data say about how much influence parents really have.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So if we’re talking about parenting, why on earth do we want to listen to economists? Well, there are different species of economists. Here’s Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: There are two kinds of economists. There are macroeconomists and there are microeconomists. And macroeconomists, they study the big questions--inflation, financial crisis. Now microeconomists--and those are people like me--we do something very different. We’re focused on individual choices, on behavior, on how incentives effect what people do, and how you can use data to test for hypotheses, and whether our simple theories can turn out to be right or not.

DUBNER: Like: does teaching a baby sign language really increase her chances of success? Or: are the kind of parents who are likely to teach their baby sign language going to have successful kids anyway because they’re high IQ parents? Now, with something like parenting, establishing cause and effect is really hard. There are so many inputs in a kid’s life -- genes, environment, school, friends -- it’s hard to know how each of them affects the outputs. So economists think: If only we could run experiments on kids the way we do with lab rats! But, since they can’t -- not yet, at least -- the best they can do is look for an “accidental experiment.” Bruce Sacerdote, the economist-dad from Dartmouth, went looking for such an experiment in adoption data.

SACERDOTE: I hunted, and hunted, and hunted, and I talked to a wide variety of adoption agencies, and the thing that I really latched on to was my conversations with the Holt Adoption Agency, where they are the biggest placer of adoptees into U.S. families, and they were among the first to place Korean adoptees with American families.

DUBNER: If you’re trying to tease apart nature and nurture, adoption is an experiment. But the Holt adoptions were particularly good for this purpose. Harry and Bertha Holt were Oregon farmers who, after the Korean War, helped place Korean orphans with American families. Their policy? First-come, first-served. Which meant the orphans were adopted into all kinds of families, not just high-income families or high-education families.

SACERDOTE: They do it in a process that’s to all intents and purposes random. And so that got economists excited. The big point being that we have a sample of adult adoptees, for whom they were effectively randomly assigned to their adoptive parents. And that really, yeah, and that was the big deal in that study.

DUBNER: As Sacerdote was digging into the adoption data, Bryan Caplan -- he’s the guy who wrote Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids -- was reading every piece of twins research he could find. He’d end up having twin boys himself, but his fascination predated the birth.

CAPLAN: The simplest way to explain it is, look, there’s actually two kinds of twins. You’ve got identical twins that share all their genes, you’ve got fraternal twins who share half of their genes. So if identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, we could use that fact to measure how much genes actually matter. And once we’ve done that we can actually see how much room, if any, is left for parents to be mattering.

DUBNER: That all sounds very sensible so far. It sounds like you’re trying to isolate cause and effect, which in a typical case is hard, because you’re not going to, even a guy like you, you had twins, even you, an economist who wants to know these answers, you’re not going to ship off one of your twins to some stranger’s family to see how that child comes up differently than your other identical twin. But you’re using these kind of accidental experiments or shocks to the system to isolate what’s going on.

CAPLAN: Exactly. Now, uh, as turns out, over the last forty years, basically every trait the parents care about, or at least every trait that more than a handful of parents care about has been studied by researchers in a lot of fields using these methods.

DUBNER: So, if twin births and adoptions are accidental experiments that yield useful data, what do those data have to say about the influence of parents? The most important question, which Sacerdote went after immediately, was about educational achievement. Let’s say a low-IQ kid is adopted into a high-IQ family. You’d expect the parents to significantly boost the kid’s IQ, right? But some earlier research Sacerdote read suggested that adoptive parents weren’t that influential.

SACERDOTE: There’s this voluminous literature saying things very much like that, which is yes there’s some influence of adoptive parents on adoptees’ IQ scores.  But it’s small, and they also claim that it goes to zero as the adoptees get older.

DUBNER: But with the good Korean adoption data, Sacerdote was pretty sure he’d poke holes in that research. If there’s one thing that parents have to affect – just judging from how much effort we put into it -- it’s our kids’ educational achievements, right? So he sliced and diced the Korean data, and he did find parental influence.

SACERDOTE: But it’s not quite as big as I expected to find.

DUBNER: But how big is “not quite as big”? In the most advantaged families, where the parents were college-educated, the adoptees were 16 percentage points more likely to attend college than adoptees in the least privileged families, where the parents weren’t college graduates. Sounds pretty good, right -- sixteen percentage points? But the biological kids in the families with college-educated parents were seventy-five percentage points more likely to go to college than the biological kids in the low-education families, which suddenly makes the adoptive parents’ 16-percentage-point influence look kind of puny. Sacerdote’s findings made a big impression on Bryan Caplan.

CAPLAN: Basically his average result was that if you’re adopted by a mom with one more year of education, you the adoptee usually finished about five extra weeks of education. In other words, the mom would have to have about ten extra years to boost you by a year. Everyone I talked to considered that a small effect. Most people, when I said what would you consider to be a large effect they said one year of maternal education had to boost you six months, not four weeks.

DUBNER: And it wasn’t just education that parents didn’t seem to affect so much. Income, too. Caplan analyzed data from twin studies as well as Sacerdote’s adoption research. Those results were even more surprising.

CAPLAN: Korean War orphans were adopted in the fifties and sixties at a time when it was much easier for low income families to adopt. It’s striking that it’s the kind of thing that you would think of as being more about upbringing broadly defined than a lot of other traits. So it could be that it’s actual upbringing where your parents instill the value of a dollar and hard work in you. Or it could be something more like nepotism where because you get raised by the right kind of parents you get good connections, or they actually make a phone call for you. And yet, actually the very best studies of the nature and nurture of income find that parents do have a moderate effect on your early income when you’re in your twenties, but basically zero for the rest of your life.

DUBNER: C’mon: no effect on income? Puny influence on education? Now, if you’re a parent, especially the kind of hands-on parent who thinks hard about every input in your kid’s life -- every flash card and every museum visit, every taekwondo lesson and, god forbid, every video game -- you’ve got to be thinking: Oh man, these economists are full of crap!

LEVITT: One of the things that I think is true is that obsessive parenting has few rewards.

DUBNER: That’s my co-author again, Steve Levitt. He and another economist, Roland Fryer, analyzed data from a survey by the U.S. government that tracks kids from birth through grade school. How strong was the relationship between parental activity and school test scores?

LEVITT: It doesn’t matter how many activities your kids do, whether they go to museums, that at least in terms of academic success, the biggest nationally represented sample of data that the government has ever collected, Roland Fryer and I could find no evidence that that sort of parental choices, what we’ve come to call the obsessive parents of putting kids into ballet…

DUBNER: Kind of culture cramming, in particular, right?

LEVITT: That none of that can be correlated at all with academic success. And my guess is if, and this is just a pure guess, that when it comes to happiness of kids that that kinds of cramming has got to be negatively correlated…like being rushed from one event to the other is just not the way most kids want to live their lives, at least not my kids.

DUBNER: Levitt’s argument is simple, and sobering. What matters most is who parents are; not what they do. Following all the culture-cramming advice in a parenting book? Won’t have much effect. But: the kind of parents who are likely to buy parenting books and do all that culture cramming are high-achieving parents to start with, and those are the qualities -- high IQ, good health, determination, and so on -- that their kids inherit. But try telling that to a modern parent. Even an economist parent.

RAMEY: So, in the 1980’s, the average, young, college-educated mother spent thirteen hours per week on childcare.
DUBNER: That’s Valerie Ramey again. She and her husband Gary, also an economist, analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey.

RAMEY: Now, it’s 22 hours a week. So, the amount of time has increased by nine hours a week.

DUBNER: Nine hours. So, that’s about a seventy percent increase, that’s a huge increase.

RAMEY: It’s a huge increase.

RAMEY: Now, what’s interesting is over this same time period, the wages of college-educated women have really increased. So, the opportunity cost of time has increased at the same time they’ve decided to spend more time taking care of their children.

DUBNER: So, to an economist, like you, that has to be a little bit baffling, yes?

RAMEY: Yes, it is a puzzle.

DUBNER: After declining for decades, the amount of time that parents spent on childcare started to rise in the 1990’s and then skyrocketed in the 2000’s, especially among college-educated moms. Why? The Rameys found a surprising answer: college. Specifically: the increased competition for kids to get into good colleges. These high-end parents weren’t simply babysitting; they were chauffeuring their kids to the kind of extracurricular activities that look good on a college application. The Rameys called it the rug-rat race. You want to know the strangest part? Valerie Ramey was a prime offender -- until her family put a stop to it.

RAMEY: I spent six hours a week at the stables with my daughter, and she enjoyed the horseback riding, but it was also stressful to have, you know, somebody else determine our schedules for us, particularly since both my husband and I work full time. And there was the Brownies, and softball.

DUBNER: And what was your state of mind generally during this period where you were doing a lot of chauffeuring and activist momming? Did it make you happy? Did it make you tense?

RAMEY: It did not make me happy. It did make me tense. Fortunately my family rebelled against me, because I felt we needed to do this, this sort of everybody else was doing it.

DUBNER: Now, before you go off and decide that good parenting is a complete waste of time, consider a couple of areas where economists have found parents to be very influential: smoking and drinking. Kids who grow up around parents who smoke and drink are much more likely to do so themselves. I asked Bruce Sacerdote about this:

DUBNER: So, if I’m a smoker, if I’m a parent who smokes, and I think that smoking is bad, which would probably describe a lot of smokers, and I don’t want my kids to smoke. And I’ve got let’s say, 10 hours of time or $100, or whatnot, and I’ve got to decide how to spend that 10 hours or $100. You’re telling me based on what you’ve seen in the research that it would probably be better for me to spend those hours and dollars trying to quit smoking than it would be trying to cram in some extra reading time at the library or whatnot.

SACERDOTE: No, that’s absolutely right, if you’re sitting there reading to them while smoking four cigarettes, I think you’d be doing damage on all kinds of levels. That’s absolutely right. Another thing that’s undoubtedly contagious is that behavior of how you interact, how you treat other people, how you treat employees at a restaurant, or a retail store or something. I think those things are probably highly contagious as well, and things that you really want to model carefully, and just like in the smoking example, you can make yourself better off as well as setting a good example for your kids.

DUBNER: Oh, great: so we finally find something that parents do influence and it’s … smoking, drinking, and talking to the waitress. OK. Well, at least parents are really good at protecting their kids, right? Keeping them safe from all the dangerous stuff out there, right? Like kidnappers.

CAPLAN: That it’s worth thinking about more than you think about being struck by lighting or something like that.

DUBNER: Here’s Bryan Caplan again.

CAPLAN: So, the FBI has statistics on what are called stereotypical kidnappings, which is basically like some stranger going and taking your kid from you, from some distance and holding the child overnight. And in that case, often something very bad will happen. But it’s really in the range of like, 100-200 per year. So, I mean, it literally is a one in a million annual event. So, it’s just something that is not sensible to worry about. And if you find you’re worrying about it even though you know that it’s not sensible, this is something where I recommend going and reading about how you can cure yourself of anxiety problems rather than trying to take action to reduce this illusory risk.

DUBNER: And then there are guns, of course. Here’s Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: If there’s one thing that terrifies parents, it’s guns. The thought of their child going to have a play date at a house where there’d be a gun, many parents would say no way. But there’s one object that parents should fear a hundred times more than the gun--although they don’t--and that’s the swimming pool. Because statistics say if your child spends a day at a house that has both a gun and a swimming pool, the likelihood your child dies is a hundred times greater from the swimming pool than it is from the gun.

DUBNER: And skiing is scary, right?

KEARNEY: So I don’t know if it’s one of these evolutionary biology things, but we take our kids skiing for example, and I know skiing is inherently risky, and I never used to be worried about sitting on the chairlift.

DUBNER: That’s Melissa Kearney, from the University of Maryland. She never used to be a scaredy-cat. Then she became a parent, and got swept up in the fear parade.

KEARNEY: But when I’m sitting on the chairlift with my kids, I mean I could barely breathe I’m so scared of them falling off.

DUBNER: Then she takes a deep breath and reminds herself that human beings are terrible risk assessors in general, and that no one is worse than a parent.

KEARNEY: But I fight it because I tell myself I’m not going to not teach my kids to ski, which I think is a really fun activity, to protect them from this small risk, right? If something terrible happens it would be hard to forgive myself, but try and remember that everything had trade-offs and, you know, the chances are nothing is going to happen. People don’t really fall off chairlifts, and hopefully they’ll have a lifetime love of skiing.

DUBNER: The fact is, parenting is an exercise in risk assessment. Here’s Betsey Stevenson again.

STEVENSON: I think that the hardest thing as a parent is to admit that you’re going to take risks with your child’s life, to actually admit out loud, I take risks with my child’s life. If you said that at a cocktail party, people would look at you like you were a monster. But of course we take risks with our lives every day. I take Matilda out on to the sidewalk and we cross streets. Every time we cross a street we’re taking a risk. It’s not risk free to cross the street, or to ride the subway, or to go in the car. Almost everything we do has risks, and as economists, I think Justin and I are really comfortable with thinking about risks and making decisions with them. And that means we have to face the really painful thing, which is we take risks with our child’s life.

DUBNER: Joshua Gans, our Australian friend who wrote “Parentonomics,” is proud to admit that he’s taken risks with his kid’s life -- but not how you might think.

GANS: We would go to the park and our child, this is our then-eldest child was probably around four, would invariably not want to leave. So, we would have this big song and dance about, we have to go now, you can’t keep on playing, she’d run off, you know it would be costly, let me put it that way. So what we did one day we were sitting there and she was doing it yet. Again and we said, you know, we keep threatening that we’ll just leave, why don’t we get in the car and just leave? And so we said, you know, you come or we’re going to go and we’re going to get in the car and drive off, and that is actually what we did in front of a full park, other parents as well, we had a screaming child running after us going, you know, no, don’t leave me, exactly to get that message across. Now, to be short, you know, while that might not have been obvious to the other parents standing there, I tell you, it was a tough thing for us to do, there was another family at the park that was going to at least watch out that she didn’t do something silly as a result of this like run on to the road or something like that. So, we weren’t totally crazy, but then again, we did drive off leaving our child thinking she’d been left behind.

DUBNER: And what happened the next time that she wanted to stay at the park longer?

GANS: Never ever happened again. Never, ever had another problem, perfectly well behaved.

DUBNER: Sadism works.

GANS: You now, at some point you’ve got to raise the price enough. You’ve got to be credible. I mean, you know that’s the dispassionate economist says you do what it takes. I guess I’ve become some hard-lined hawk in that regard. You know, so occasionally we break from social mores, but we only had to do it once.

DUBNER.: What a bunch of misanthropes! Unloving, uncaring, ungrateful parents, these economists are, aren’t they? Well, not quite. Coming up: the importance of being kind.

CAPLAN: Even when you’re in your seventies, whether or not your parents were kind to you stays with you, and you know, identical twins, fraternal twins have similar and quite high levels of agreement on these questions, which is the smoking gun for nurture really mattering.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So you’ve got to be thinking about all those hours, all those years that parents spend trying to improve their kids -- years that just don’t add up to much. But it all depends on your attitude. Why’d you become a parent in the first place: to make yourself happy? To give someone else the gift of life? To get a solid return on your parental investment? Bruce Sacerdote, before he wound up in academia, ran a hedge fund. I asked him what kind of a return parents should expect:

SACERDOTE: Yeah, I would expect low. Think modern Treasury bills here, low. Aim low and you won’t be disappointed. I think the return is going to be in happiness as opposed to necessarily cash flow, remittances back. The first thing is don’t be afraid to invest up until the margin of return is zero. So, you don’t want to be investing to the point where there’s a negative margin of return, where you’re not only chewing up a lot of your time, but you’re turning your kids off to what would otherwise be a great, and intellectual, and fun thing. You overinvest to the point where you’ve made you and themselves miserable. So, obviously you don’t want to go negative, you don’t want to have a negative return on these things.

DUBNER: All right, so how well do these economists follow their own advice? We already know Valerie Ramey got sucked into the very rug-rat race she was studying. What about Joshua Gans, the “Parentonomics” author?

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this, Joshua, if I’m not prying, what forms of insurance do you buy?

GANS: I have life insurance, I have disability insurance. We of course have, here in the U.S., so we’re paying out of pocket for health insurance. That isn’t fun.

DUBNER: You have some homeowner’s insurance?

GANS: Yes, homeowner’s insurance, car insurance.

DUBNER: Yeah, so what you’re describing now, which is engaging in a bunch of parental behaviors getting that the data say are not worthwhile, is really you’re just buying another form of insurance aren’t you?

GANS: Well, I’m buying hypothetical insurance. I mean, I know with health insurance, what I’m getting for that. Someone gets sick, the bill gets paid for. You know, if we’re going to be doing piano lessons, I’m not a hundred percent sure what’s coming out of that.

DUBNER: Joshua, how many children do you and your wife have?

GANS: So we have three; they’re twelve, ten and six, two girls and a boy.

DUBNER: How many of them have taken piano lessons?

GANS: All three.

DUBNER: It’s so depressing, I have to say, because we rely on people like you to represent the disinterested view, to make an unimpassioned assessment of the way things are and the way we think things are. And you often show in your research that the way things are is quite different than the way we think things are. And we want you, as economists, to behave as our data preaches just as we want, you know, a man of the cloth to behave as the liturgy and the sacred texts preach. What does it say about the human mind that even you, who’s written a book on this, is unable to break the ties that society presents to you as this is the way it must be done?

GANS: Well, you know, 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, or 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.

DUBNER: Let’s go back to our Washington D.C. couple, the marriage-tax-dodging Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. I asked them: If there were an Obsessive Parenting Index, from zero to ten, how they’d rate themselves …

WOLFERS: Aspirationally, we’re a three, reality we’re a nine and three-quarters. So, I want to be kind of a cool dad.

DUBNER: You have great self-awareness

WOLFERS: That just takes it easy. And I mean.

DUBNER: Well, talk about that gap. What lives in that gap?

WOLFERS: We’re pretty sure that some large chunk of that gap isn’t that productive. Like, as a parent you can wander around fretting about every fricking thing that could happen to your kid.

DUBNER: On just on a kind of safety level, or also on an achievement and happiness level, and so on.

WOLFERS: Yeah, also on an achievement and happiness level. For us the tradeoff’s not so bad. So, you know, what do we do on the weekend? We go to the Smithsonian. Well, that sounds like the most type-A parent that you could be. And the truth is I love spending time with Matilda and it doesn’t matter if it was a baseball game, the Smithsonian or sitting at home. It’s just every instance of joy, and the Smithsonian’s sort of a bit of distraction for all of us, it doesn’t actually matter.

DUBNER: And it’s free.

WOLFERS: And it’s free. You’re absolutely right. And so do all the stuff that you would do as a type A parent, and I know you’re going to talk to Bryan Caplan, right? And he talks a lot about, you know, doing all these expensive things, it’s not expensive to us.

STEVENSON: Well, but we do do expensive things, although I think that we don’t think they’re necessary, we understand that they’re nice. So, Matilda goes to a lot of classes. She likes her classes.

WOLFERS: You know, buying her organic food. Certainly she’s going to be fine eating anything.

DUBNER: Yeah, let’s talk about the food. Tell me the foods that she does not eat.

WOLFERS: Meat, any kind of sugar.

DUBNER: Any kind of sugar.

STEVENSON: Fruit.

WOLFERS: Except juice. I mean, so she’s allowed fruit.

DUBNER: So, has she ever eaten a doughnut?

WOLFERS: No, and she’s like a total Berkeley hippie.

DUBNER: Never eaten a piece of cake.

WOLFERS: No.

STEVENSON: No.

DUBNER: Piece of candy?

WOLFERS: No.

STEVENSON: No.

WOLFERS: Doesn’t even know what they are.

DUBNER: Now, what do you think is going to happen her first, like, Snickers bar?

WOLFERS: We’re in trouble.

DUBNER: Pretend for a minute that we wanted to distill everything the economists have taught us, and start a Reality-Based Parenting movement. Who should be its president? Unfortunately, I don’t think Wolfers and Stevenson are up for the job. Or Joshua Gans, or Valerie Ramey. I’d say it’s a tossup between Steve Levitt -- who says he’s lazy by nature, so that works in his favor -- and Bryan Caplan. Listen again to the title of Caplan’s book: “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. I mean, just listen to the man’s defense of television.

CAPLAN: People call them electronic babysitters as if it’s a bad thing. But babysitters are good, and nothing wrong with being electronic. So, I mean the idea that there’s some awful harm done when you’re children watch TV or play video games, there’s no evidence of that. So, you know, if they enjoy it and it gives you a chance to relax and get a little peace and quiet and do your own thing, and get some work done, no reason to feel guilty about it. And I’d actually go further and say, like, especially now, there really is a lot of fantastic culture on television and in video games. I would be sad if my kids didn’t like “The Simpsons,” even more sad than if they didn’t like opera.

DUBNER: Part of what motivated Caplan to write his book was a new pile of research suggesting that, on average, becoming a parent robs you of happiness.

CAPLAN: It is true that people who have kids are a little bit less happy than otherwise identical people who don’t have kids.

DUBNER: As Caplan sees it, parents make themselves unhappy by stressing out over any- and everything. So what does a Bryan Caplan parenting makeover look like?

CAPLAN: 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. All right, so I mean, 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, you know, that’s too bad. But it’s really unlikely so I’m just not worried, not that worried about it.

DUBNER: Bryan, if you had to pick one activity that you suspect has the biggest overlap of lack of enjoyment of parent and child, what do you think that activity would be?

CAPLAN: Music lessons.

DUBNER: Yeah that’s what I was thinking.

CAPLAN: The hourly commitment is so large, and yet, and the fights that kids have with their parents over doing it seem to be so interminable. And I also know that my dad was forced to do piano lesson until he was sixteen and hates music as a result. At least that’s his story. Whereas I’m actually so grateful my parents never took me to a single music lesson, and I love music. And I think that if they had forced me to, I might have actually rebelled and disliked it, which is a kind of parenting effect, although a perverse one. You know, to me the idea that because you love music you want to push your kid to become a musician makes about as much sense as saying I love action movies so I’m going to push my kid toward becoming a stunt man.

DUBNER: I can understand if by now you think Caplan is just a kook -- some kind of unfeeling, un-nurturing monster, an economics textbook made incarnate. But the fact is that he has his eyes on a different kind of parenting prize. It’s not achievement he’s after; it’s--I think I’m going to cry here--it’s warmth.

CAPLAN: There’s a great Swedish twins study, where the people, ah the twins were in their fifties and sixties and seventies, and even when you’re in your seventies, whether or not your parents were kind to you stays with you, and you know, identical twins, fraternal twins have similar and quite high levels of agreement on these questions, which is the smoking gun for nurture really mattering. So the way that your kids feels about and remembers you. The quality of the relationship. This is where you really have an effect and where it is very long lasting, it really does last a lifetime. To look at your child like a science project is just going to make you unhappy. You know, just the same way, if you marry someone, step one is I’m gong to totally change the person after I marry him or her. That is a recipe for disaster. It’s probably not going to work, and it’s going to really sour the relationship, because people don’t like being treated like that. And it makes people feel bad about themselves and feel bad about you if your concern is to turn them into something different than what they are. So, this is the kind of thing where if you really can just accept a little humility, realize, look this child is a separate person than me, the child is going to want different things than I want, and that’s OK. That is part of the beauty of being a human being.

DUBNER: You’ve got to admit -- Bryan Caplan might seem crusty on the outside, but man, once you get beneath the surface -- what a softie! And listen to Steve Levitt, self-proclaimed lazy dad who says obsessive parenting is way, way overrated:

LEVITT: There’s a lot of research on un-wantedness and tremendous historical data sets from social science of the last fifty years that suggest that if your mother doesn’t love you, nothing good will happen to you in life. The lowest common denominator for having a kid who turns out well is the kid being loved. And if I were president for a day, maybe dictator for a day, one of the first things that I might do would be to make it harder to be a parent, to make the standards for being a parent more difficult. You should have to demonstrate some proficiency at parenting perhaps to be a parent.

DUBNER: So, you need to get licensed, let’s say?

LEVITT: Yeah. I mean, we make people prove they can parallel park before they can get a driver’s license, maybe we should make people prove that they can interact in a productive way in teaching their kid. Now there’s nothing more un-American than intervening in the family. People just hate the idea of big government looking over their shoulder and telling them how to be parents.

DUBNER: And you’re not a big government guy by any stretch.

LEVITT: No, I hate big government. But on the other hand, I could imagine there being a sensible set of things that you would want to do to make sure that people were ready to be better parents.

DUBNER: I think we’d all agree that parental licensing isn’t bound to happen any time soon -- nor should it -- but you can see where Levitt’s going with this, can’t you? We probably could all agree on a “sensible set of things you’d want to do to be a parent.” Heavy drinking and smoking and hitting your kids? Not sensible. But, on the other end of the spectrum: fueling the rug-rat race and turning into obsessive parents? Probably also not sensible. The evidence suggests that obsessive parenting tends to make parents less happy and, at the end of the day, the best parent is probably the happiest parent. That’s what Stevenson and Wolfers figured out.

STEVENSON: In fact, we were trying to get pregnant and we were writing a paper on women’s happiness. And I kept cutting the data to try to find myself in the data and say I won’t get less happy, let me find a mid-thirties woman with a PhD, with you know, high household income, and you know, I want to show that people like me don’t get less happy. And I couldn’t find that. I found that the happiness hit was much smaller than it would be for a twenty-year-old high school dropout who was having a, becoming a single mom for sure. But we made, I think we made the leap fully informed.

DUBNER: And you made the leap thinking what? Think that there’s a happiness penalty to pay, and we’re willing to pay it for experience of seeing if it’s not so bad?

WOLFERS: You make us sound terribly non-rational. Yeah, I guess. You don’t get too many…I’m thirty-eight, I don’t get too much longer to figure it out.

STEVENSON: I mean, the bottom line is that the data still suggests that people with kids are less happy than people without, even though among the people like us, that happiness hit is smaller, it does suggest they’re less happy. So, that why would I do something that said well look.

DUBNER: I mean, you guys are the ultimate rationalists, theoretically, economists. You were trained, well at least you assume rationality in most people, and one would assume that one who assumes rationality in most people practices rationality him or herself.

STEVENSON: Justin and I joke about the type A things we do, but we don’t actually have a type A attitude towards raising Matilda. If you know, if we feel like going out to dinner, and it’s not organic, she’ll eat off our plate, that’s fine. We know that these things don’t matter that much. We’ve traveled with her extensively. We figure she’s pretty robust and I think that we’ve tried not to let ourselves have a lot of anxiety over parenting. And I figured that that was part of what was behind this lack of happiness was the stress and the anxiety, and the guilt that people felt. And if we could parent without that, then perhaps we wouldn’t be less happy.

DUBNER: I guess it all comes down to expectations -- and, to me, one basic question: Why have kids in the first place? I asked our roundtable why they decided to become parents. Here’s Bruce Sacerdote.

SACERDOTE: I can certainly tell you why we had children number two and three, which is I realized, and I think my wife already knew this, but I realized that oh my goodness this is the greatest adventure ever. You know, this is so much fun, it’s so interesting, you learn so much from them, and you get to do all those things that you wanted to do, that you haven’t gotten to do since you were ten. And you get to do it with someone who actually looks up to you and thinks that, and wants to take advice from you and things. So, it’s just a tremendous adventure.

DUBNER: And Bryan Caplan.

CAPLAN: Before I actually started having kids, that I started feeling something that is unusual for men to feel. So I actually started getting what psychologists call ‘baby fever.’ Where I just had these paternal feelings, like I need to go have a little child and teach him stuff and raise him and do things with him. And so I mean, I actually felt this kind of hole in my heart where I started wanting to have kids when I was you know, around…around thirty. And you know the other thing is, I’ll admit I have a childish personality. I just like doing things the kids like doing. I like cartoons. I like comic books. I like games. I relate very well to kids and in many ways I feel like I relate better to kids than adults, where adults, you know it’s so boring. I’m bored. Let’s do something fun. But with kids you don’t…you don’t have that conflict usually. It’s like, yeah, okay, let’s do something fun.

DUBNER: And Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: J just because I’m an economist doesn’t mean I can’t be deceived by evolution just as strongly as someone else. I mean, I think if you buzzed me when I was with my kids I’d be just as unhappy as the next guy. But still, in my head I float around thinking it’s great to have four kids. Self-deception -- it’s a wonderful, powerful force.

DUBNER: Yeah, a “wonderful, powerful force.” For me, that pretty much sums up parenting too. So before we go, let me just say one thing to little Matilda, and to Levitt’s kids Olivia, Amanda, Nicholas and Sophie, and to the kids of the other economists we heard from today -- Sam and Leo and two Sophias; Aidan and Tristan and Simon; Sean and Michelle, William and Adelaide: Your parents are strange people. They have strong feelings about what’s best for you -- which is, for the most part, to leave you alone. So do us all a favor: ten years from now, and then again in 20 years, and again in 30 or 40, give us a call and tell us how things turned out. Let us know if the sign language paid off, and the piano lessons, and what that first Snickers bar tasted like.

[CREDITS]

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COMMENTS: 53


  1. WholeMealOfFood says:

    It seems like everyone on this podcast missed one of the main benefits of having kids: they’ll take care of you when you’re old. That seems like the real trade-off – some relative unhappiness in the near term for more security in your old age.

    I don’t think anyone mentioned that obvious benefit (unless I missed it, it was pretty long).

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 15
    • crquack says:

      Don’t count on it!

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 1
    • Joy says:

      Around 38:21 they talk about it.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Joe Clave says:

      But if you were to invest the resources expending on kids, then the return on those investments could take care of you.

      In all seriousness, I would like to see the happiness difference of seniors, with and without kids. It’s not just security that is important.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • A says:

      Caplan does at length in his book I suppose (Selfish Reasons to Have More Children)

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • JustMe says:

      Having kids does not guarantee that you will have someone to take care of you when you’re old. I work near a retirement community and most of my clients are seniors. I can tell you that the vast majority of them have kids, yet they are living alone, trying to make ends meet, and/or trying to figure out what to do as their health declines alone. Chances are you will end up in the same place as someone that never had kids: a nursing home. However, those that never had kids could save more and now can afford better nursing homes.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  2. Jaclyn Magnusson says:

    The couple who is not married said that they saved $20,000 /year by not being married. I think this would make a good podcast topic – Economist perspective on marriage – I am planning to get married in the next few years and think this would be good to hear before I make that step…

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 35 Thumb down 0
    • Katie says:

      Ditto! I’ve been engaged for 2 years, and are not planning a wedding as my fiance is currently out of work. Perhaps since we are not economists earning big bucks it would be different. I had not heard of marriage costing more, aside from the wedding.

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    • TeeBend says:

      Excellent point! I got married last October, so essentially we each earned a years income under “Single Status.” We also made around the same level of income — this put us at the bottom of a high tax bracket when we had to file as “Married.” MAN were we stung by the IRS. If we would have thought about this at all, the wedding would probably have been moved to January! Overall, the only Married tax benefit is if one person makes little to no income AND you have a cute little tax write-off…I mean kid.

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    • Nick says:

      Along a similar line, I’d like to see a podcast/topic on the incentives of relationships. Not monetary incentives but the various incentives that keep a couple together. Although we like to think of love as the underlying glue that keeps a marriage together, I’m sure that incentives play a bug role. In particular what are the differences in incentives between men and women… might get a bit [cough] delicate to discuss on public radio…

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      • Debbie says:

        Do you know I have been thinking about this as well (mainly because I’m going through an absolutely heart-wrenching break-up)… but why are we even capable of being soooooo dependent on another human being, to the point of being rendered pretty much helpless when for all intents and purposes their no longer really needed in your life. Just something I’ve been pondering lately

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  3. HB says:

    Question: How does Bruce Sacerdote’s research stating that “children are picking up their parents’ smoking and drinking habits with a very high degree of correlation, and it’s the same with the adoptees and the non-adoptees” reconcile with David C. Rowe’s who is cited in a Malcolm Gladwell article on the influence of parents (http://www.gladwell.com/1998/1998_08_17_a_harris.htm).

    Gladwell states that per Rowe’s research “children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers…but if parents really cause smoking there ought to be elevated rates of smoking among the adopted children of smokers, and there aren’t.” He ends the paragraph by saying “with smoking, as with niceness, what parents do seems to be nearly irrelevant.”

    These seem to be similar studies …are they just coming up with very different conclusions or is there some other explanation?

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    • John K. says:

      “How does Bruce Sacerdote’s research… reconcile with David C. Rowe’s? … Are they just coming up with very different conclusions or is there some other explanation?” I don’t think we can know until and unless we do a detailed comparison of their methods. Complex research results have been reduced to single sentence conclusions, so there is probably more room for two views to be compatible.

      My guess is that a mix of the two — nature and nurture — contribute to drinking and smoking, with nature being the dominant force. Nurture may be a stronger factor if we lived in socially- and materially-isolated societies. They say, “nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger.” In our society the opportunity to smoke and drink are everywhere, so the trigger is almost always pulled. If we lived, say, as dispersed, nomadic families, a person predisposed to alcohol or nicotine addiction is probably less likely to be a drinker or a smoker. But that addictive nature would probably exhibit itself in some other way available to such a social- and material-society.

      I think a key less that should be emphasized — and one that many parents instinctively get right — is that you can strongly influence your child indirectly through the environment you set up for them. You control them at a macro-scale, not micro. So you should do your best to settle in a nice neighborhood and stay put (hard to do in this economy), so your children are likely to create healthy, stable ties with other good children.

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      • John K. says:

        MODERATOR: Sorry to re-submit. I’m fixing a few typos.

        “How does Bruce Sacerdote’s research… reconcile with David C. Rowe’s? … Are they just coming up with very different conclusions or is there some other explanation?” I don’t think we can know until and unless we do a detailed comparison of the two research methods. Complex research results have been reduced to single sentence conclusions, so there is probably more room for two views to be compatible than it seems.

        My guess is that a mix of the two factors — nature and nurture — contribute to drinking and smoking, with nature being the dominant force. Nurture may be a stronger factor if we lived in socially- and materially-isolated societies. People say, “nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger.” In our society the opportunity to smoke and drink are everywhere, so the trigger is almost always pulled. If we lived, say, as dispersed, nomadic families, a person predisposed to alcohol or nicotine addiction is probably less likely to be a drinker or a smoker. But that addictive nature would probably exhibit itself in some other way available in such a society.

        I think a key lesson that should be emphasized — one that many parents instinctively get right — is that you can strongly influence your child indirectly through the environment you set up for them. You control them at a macro-scale, not micro. So you should do your best to settle in a nice neighborhood and stay put (which can be hard to do in this economy), so that your children are likely to create healthy, stable ties with (hopefully) other good children.

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  4. Mary says:

    We learn as a parents that we are only able to control a few elements of our children’s lives. When my husband and I bought our house in 1991, the first thing we did was remove the swimming pool because we were worried about safety (and expensive maintenance.) We have four children now, and although we try to be “there” for them, it seems that large scale interventions can have puzzling results. Choices about education that seem clear at the time turn out to be wrong; your child is his/her own person from the very start. But we never regretted taking out the pool, although everyone in town fell out of their cars as they watched us do it!

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  5. Cañada Kid says:

    One thing that bothered me about this podcast is that all the economists focused on quantifiable and numberical results form parents help/lack thereof. What about morals, characteristics, political/social views? Many religious kids inherit their parents’ beliefs.

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    • Cañada Kid says:

      After finishing the podcast (I was only halfway through it at the time of this post), I still think they focused on academic and quantifiable results as well as on very obvious moral decisions like smoking and drinking

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  6. Eric says:

    First Snickers bar… We didn’t give our daughter chocolate until she was about 3 years old. I video’d so many things, and my biggest regret is not video’ing when we gave her chocolate for the first time. We gave her one of those Dove chocolate squares, and the look in her eyes, on her face, the salivation… right there and then we created an addict. Any questions I had about why our society struggles with weight problems were immediately answered. The power of chocolate is probably something with which we, as mere mortals, should not have been entrusted.

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  7. Brandon says:

    Anybody know he main song played throughout?

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  8. Timothy Travis says:

    I didn’t know this until well into the parenting of my (now) 21 and 17 year old daughters, but I know the meaning now of that cliche about the child being parent to the man/adult. Being a parent made me more mature than I was before–to an extent that surpasses the mere passing of that many years. I had to learn about putting someone else’s needs above my own and to eschew what was most convenient and in my short term interest. I look around and know that having children doesn’t get those lessons across to everyone. But it worked that way for me. I was 42 years old, by the way, when I became a father. I speculate that this is what having children is “designed” to do, but whether such a noti0n is true or not doesn’t change the importance of the phenomena it is designed to account for.

    Great podcast, but, then, I like them all.

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  9. eiaboca says:

    I just listened to the podcast. A few things bothered me. You asked what the qualitative states for the parents were (their level of happiness going down after having children), but you never asked about qualitative states for the children. You sort of assumed that all children hate classes and languages and music lessons, and that just isn’t the case. Some enjoy things like music lessons after they have been forced encouraged for several years, because music is not a skill that is immediately rewarding.

    Anecdotally I wish my parents had forced me to keep up with music lessons; today I’d love to be able to play music. Not to mention all of the studies that show music to improve brain function, especially learning to make it.

    Another point is the “happiness level” of the parents with and without children. What were the metrics of this? Levitt talks near the end of self-delusion being strong, but are whatever data you are relying on for happiness levels self-reported? How did you measure this? What kind of happiness? In the moment? Lifelong satisfaction? Pride in creation? Or just day-to-day dreariness of mundane tasks that need accomplished?

    I fully understand (I think I do, anyway) that the super-obsessive parenting is just a waste of time in terms of academic achievement and future income, but I think it’s conducive to a fun, jam-packed, adventurous and experience filled life! I love to take classes, I love to learn, I love to travel, and I love to go to museums, and I think if I had children (I have none) I would still continue to do those things, not as an investment, but because I enjoy it. I guess since they’ll have my DNA they’ll enjoy it too.

    (Disclaimer: I still have to look at the above-referenced article as to happiness levels, and will perhaps find some answers there.)

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  10. Ethan D says:

    Wow. An entire show about reproduction and only one mention of evolution (I think it was Levitt, right at the end.) Why have kids? We’ve evolved to do so.
    Here’s a simple thought experiment: where are the tribes of people who _don’t_ have traits that make them prone to having and successfully raising kids? (Like a sex drive, the ‘biological clock’, being a sucker for babies, wanting to nurture others). Answer: they’re all extinct. All humans–all sexual species–have innate drives that result in reproduction.
    The stories we tell ourselves of the ‘benefits’ of children or the ‘value’ in having a family are just accessories the conscious brain uses to dress up the innate.
    And as for those who don’t want kids or choose not to have them, that’s probably an expression of the diversity of those traits mentioned above (just like height or strength or bone density); but the ‘not wanting to have kids’ end of the spectrum is, ipso facto, unlikely to be passed on as much :).

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    • Crunchy says:

      Excellent point! And “failed contraception” as a pretty frequent reason for having children as well.

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    • Lee Spector says:

      Ethan D: You beat me to the comment that I came here to make. There are a lot of controversies regarding evolutionary psychology, but if there’s one case in which gene-centered, evolutionary thinking about behavior almost necessarily applies, and quite directly, it is in reproductive behavior.

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  11. Crunchy says:

    I really enjoyed this podcast! One criticism though – your children’s academic achievement and future earning capacity may not be the best way to measure the success of your parenting. Childhood is more than preparation for adulthood, so I think it’s reasonable to view the happiness and wellbeing of children as a measure of success in itself. Personally I’m more concerned that my child grow up to have good mental health, self-esteem, positive attitudes with others and the freedom to follow his interests than I am in him having a high-earning career.
    Also on the point of removing the activities which have the greatest cross-over of dislike with adults and children, how about school?

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  12. Mark S. says:

    Here’s a sterling example of the old saw: “Economists know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.”

    Witness the soul searching of Betsey Stevenson, who along with her partner, sounds like an adoring and attentive parent, and yet she cannot quite get over her observation that according to a statistical analysis, she’s likely to experienced reduced happiness due to parenthood.

    Despite her obvious brilliance, Dr. Stevenson can’t see the obvious truth that statistical averages are not individual prognostications.

    Here’s a few examples which appear to contradict the idea that “parents don’t matter”:

    – Increased television viewing is strongly correlated with attention deficits, unhealthy adult weight, etc

    – Unhealthy food consumption is strongly correlated with adult metabolic pathologies

    Both of these are completely under parental control. One could easily make a much larger list of such factors.

    Finally, it’s quite obvious that the underlying data supporting the conclusions about the minimal impact of parenting only accounts for a few variables, and yet real life parenting involves a great many, a number of which provide synergistic effects (positive and negative).

    In conclusion, the proclivity for economists to form narrow, non-holistic conclusions is why you probably shouldn’t allow them to be placed in charge of matters of importance. As evidenced by the participants in this program, they often don’t even take their own advice to heart.

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    • MJPF says:

      I generally agree with you. But you think unhealthy eating patterns are completely under the control of the parent? Really? My daughter can do a lot of damage in the hour she gets off the bus from school and I get home. Maybe you have not seen kids sneaking food or getting served snacks at school, or any of the other ways kids get food. I did the same when I was a kid especially because I knew it would get to my mom. Lock your food up? Put a lock on the fridge? Maybe for a kid who is not interested in food but for one who is, good luck.

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  13. Phlash says:

    What about the Perry Preschool study that determined a whole host of statistically significant differences in adults that had been to preschool for two year versus those that hadn’t.

    I’m very surprised that isn’t mentioned as it is something that is clearly under parental control and was proved, by economists, to make a startling difference (in crime levels, income, savings etc).

    I heard about it on Planet Money: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/06/13/137109349/the-friday-podcast-the-case-for-preschool and I see that there’s an article in Wired from last year: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/07/how-preschool-changes-the-brain/

    Lastly, as another type-A parent we taught our daughter sign language (or, more precisely, we learnt some sign language together). The jury is out on whether it will help her in the long run but who cares: do you know how much fun it is to sit outside with a 10 month old baby and have her say “dog” and “cat” and “flower” and “swim” and “sun” and “cloud” and “wind”, pointing at the stuff and getting excited. The little thing couldn’t even walk and she was speaking to me already (she had a vocab of over 50 signs and she understood another 50 or 60 before she was one). Just saying…

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  14. John Christie says:

    What’s missing in the section about happiness falling off for parents is a critical look at what happiness is being measured in the studies referenced. Generally, what’s being measured is contentment. People who score high on the happiness scales do so because they’re content, not because they find a particular joy in being alive every day. I think that’s a perfectly good measure of happiness in a lot of ways. But it can drop for multiple reasons. For example, an increase in aspirations for the future, and desire to improve one’s circumstances can also cause the happiness to fall. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I’m also pretty sure that happens to parents. They become future oriented and aspirational in a lot of ways from wanting their kids to go to the best kindergarden to best college.

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  15. Gayle says:

    I love ALL Freakanomics shows. I wish I was an economist. This one confirmed my fears … you can’t buy happiness (or a place at a good school on a middle-class, nonlegacy wage).

    My poor kid is dependent on my behaviour.

    Oh well, just add another middle-aged alcoholic to the mxs. But … she will have played varsity field hockey (possibly college); can play the piano, sax, and clarinet; has her girl -scout gold award; was a scholar athlete; and helped old ladies across the road.

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    • Julien Couvreur says:

      It’s never too late and you can learn economics without “being an economist” (professionally). Start with “The armchair economist” (Landsburg), “Undercover economist” (Harford), “Freakonomics” (obviously), “Economics in One Lesson” (Hazlitt).

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  16. mjpf says:

    The problem i have with economists is they are seem so satisfied with themselves. Thinking you are so clever is a danger.  i realize they are using the best tools at their disposal at times but some of those tools seem really flawed.
    One of the oldest stereotypes is the undeducated parents who push their kids relentlessly to finish school, yet we always look at uneducated parents to be the best indicator of their children’s success. Then everyone seems to scratch their heads and then look at a completely different area. As a complete lay person, i wouldn’t presume that the differences between uneducated adoptive parents and educated adoptive parents to be very great at all. Regardless of their education, parents who choose to adopt at all, let alone a foreign child of a different race, would tend to have a great deal in common. Being less traditional parents with a fairly open mind and the iniative to adopt from overseas would distinguish them despite ther lack of educational attainment though this isn’t discussed. Why the surprise at the outcome?

    It reminds me of when i worked as a librarian of the leading pay and human resource consultants. They had a formal evaluation tool to determine qualifications for leadership roles. Any statememt made by an applicant that began with “I was responsible, I did, I generated, I…blah blah” were counted as reliable statements and counted. Any “we” statements were dismissed.  While scanning articles, I came across a study that said women were way more likely to make “we” statements even when they were solely responsible and men were found to make make “I” statements even if the effort was a team project. This consultancy never factored how we use language into their calculation and yet at the same time could not answer why if women were performing as well or better than men in school and business this was not reflected in higher numbers of women directors. At the time, I thought – these people are so smart yet they can’t see what’s in front of them. Economists and business majors all glom together patting themselves on the back, always looking at the same data from the same angles.
    Using education as the sole measure of whether parents will be useful to their children is so simplistic. My mother was uneducated (like many women of her generation) because her father didn’t see it as necessary to educate girls in a family where resources were tight. So, those parents are going to make sure their children get to go to university.

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  17. AG says:

    Having two developmentally disabled children, parenting DOES matter. Getting early services is statistically shown to make a huge difference in the successful outcomes of these children – and it was hard, necessary work. Having 3 Individualized Education Plan meetings per year per kid, making arrangements for behavioral services outside of school, getting an aide so they can go to summer camp to be around typical kids – again hard, necessary work. If I and my husband did not do this work and fight to get services, no one else would.

    My goals are modest: happy, healthy, and self sufficient kids if possible (which I would hope for any child), but with my children these programs I have arranged for are necessary for their survival as adults that most parents would take for granted that their child would be able to do – communication, crossing the street safely, self care, knowing how to tell time, how to take the bus, etc.

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  18. Pittsburgh Mom says:

    I get very frustrated when I see stories on parenting advice from people who have just had their first kid. They discuss the risks you take with kids – crossing the street, taking the subway…ect. Really? How about when you’re weighing the risks of a trip to the ER? Leaving them with a teenage sitter? Allowing them to play outside while you make dinner? I want to hear from families that have figured things out, not those who have yet to experience potty training!

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    • Julien Couvreur says:

      Why do you think those economists were only relying on their personal experience to weight risks? To the contrary, the point is that they study the evidence across many instances. For example, in his book, Caplan cites a number of twin studies which he bases his conclusions on.

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  19. PJ says:

    This is a bait-and-switch story that takes its queue from commercial journalism. It promises to talk about one thing, but is actually talking about something else.

    At first they make it sound like it’s about nurture vs. nature. They claim at one point that who your parents are matters more than how they are when it comes to education achievement, etc, which they never properly define.

    Their opening “bait,” is nonsense – that we need people who are unemotional, non-nuanced and inhumane in their thinking (economists) to tell us about something organic, humane and emotional. WHY? I have no idea. And they never say.

    Their “switch” in the middle of the story conflates “parental/social influence” with “obsessive parenting.” Not the same things.

    And their basic conclusion after a series of questionable if not bizarre claims is so inane, common sensical and mundane: “Don’t hit your kids, smoke or drink because that will influence them badly…but don’t do the other extreme of obsessive parenting and constantly shuttle them to tons of lessons and museums (culture cramming). Being kind to them is more effective.” Um…DUH!

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  20. NW says:

    You have your kids watch TV instead of take them to sports? You’re a bad parent. Your kids are going to be fat, uncoordinated dorks who get their butts kicked by the studs who steal all the attractive women.

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  21. Jeremy says:

    Is there a way to get a list of the music used in this episode? Or in any episode, for that matter?

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  22. Erb says:

    “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Robert Frost. Substitute the word parents for home, and you have the most important role of parents and family: unconditional love.

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  23. Julien Couvreur says:

    Late comment here since this was re-broadcast.

    Regarding the playground situation (leaving your kid behind to “teach her a lesson”): do you really think this is the way to teach as peaceful and civilized parents?

    I have no doubt that your kid was subsequently afraid that you’d leave her behind and altered her behavior as a result. Similarly, I’m sure you can beat your wife not to interrupt your watching a game by beating her up.
    The point is that the threat of harm is not an acceptable way to interact with adults and it is even less acceptable with children, as they are more vulnerable, dependent and trapped.
    Threatening to leave her behind is a threat of grave harm for a little kid, and it would be especially distrubing coming from someone who says they love you and who are is supposed to protect you.

    The observation in the podcast was spot on, this is a statist method. It is the initiation or threat of force to achieve what you want. All you have taught your kid, aside from being afraid of abandonment (great for self-esteem btw), is that this is an acceptable way to deal with interpersonal conflicts.

    It is quite disturbing that you would be so smug to boast about this incident. It only shows your lack of principle and respect as a parent. Is that really the best you can do to resolve the situation? Is that how you deal with disagreements with adult friends?
    How about you work on negotiating and agreeing to ground rules next time you go out? You can explain how her behavior makes it less enjoyable for you to go to the park together. I’m sure you can arrive at a deal, given that she’d want to go to the park but you expect a commitment to go home when time has come.

    See Dayna Martin, Stefan Molyneux and others for tons of literature and material on peaceful parenting. Along the same lines, spanking is just not ok (I’m surprised this was not discussed in this episode since much data on this).

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  24. Brian says:

    Also late comment since the rebroadcast…

    Despite all of the talk about relying on data and reason, I was unimpressed about how much of this episode was essentially anecdotal. Particularly about music lessons. (Disclaimer: I am the spouse of a piano teacher)

    The question was raised about the worst investment and the person responded “Music lessons.” It was clear that his answer was only his best guess and he supported it through the anecdotal evidence of his father… and his own experience. In so many conversations my wife and I have with others, very often adults bemoan the fact that there parents let them quit piano.

    Additionally it seems that the only result being judged was if people loved music more or less. There is plenty of research that shows benefits beyond that, particularly in math and science development.

    I guess self-professed lazy parents just don’t want to deal with any hassle whatsoever.

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  25. miK says:

    While it may be that parents don’t have much effect, how about high school’s effect? In 1980′s, Garfield high school, made famous by the movie “Stand and Deliver”, went from gang infested 18th percentile to college bound 75th percentile in 4 years. There’s a very interesting book by Henry Gradillas, Garfield high principal at the time, called “Standing and Delivering” that describe the circumstances of its meteoric rise.

    The parents of those students come from poor backgrounds. But having gone through Garfield high school, and many going to college, did the kids turn out well? I assume they did, but hard scientific evidence is needed to address the question: does good high school and high school success lead to better outcome in life, even if they come from poor home background?

    SL & SD, this sounds like an interesting project for a talented freakonomics researcher to explore (employing lots of free labor from graduate students, of course!). How about study on current status of students who graduated from 5 year before Gradillas, during, and to 10 years after his departure? We know the school stats of how it went from bad to good to bad, but life stats of the graduates during his tenure are sorely missing.

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  26. Jonathan says:

    I loved the episode. Regarding the proposition “having kids makes you less happy” I don’t doubt that the numbers are what you say they are. What I do doubt is that you are measuring something interesting.

    I’m pretty sure that in another freakonomics podcast I heard about how people were terrible judges of what mechanism would be most likely to influence their behavior (texas? water conservation?) with the upshot being people had no idea what would really affect them. The researcher in that study “advanced the ball” not by asking people “what would influence you” and then using that data — they advanced the ball by objectively measuring what worked.

    The point I’m making is I’m guessing all the “parents are less happy” are based on self reporting answers to the vague question “how happy are you on a scale of 1-10″ or some such. Any measure that is based on self reporting deserves a lot of scrutiny and suspicion.

    What also comes to mind are studies about lasting happiness and success being based on working hard towards goals that feel meaningful.

    I’m not saying that the self reporters are definitely wrong. I’m saying I don’t trust them to give useful answers.

    About the only interesting part of the “having children makes you less happy” result it that it may stimulate more meaningful investigation.

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  27. Ringo says:

    Love your podcasts…
    Must agree that signing the kids up for various activities will in no way make for a “better” kid, however my wife has a more practical, if not statistical theory. The point is to keep them occupied; you present them with various activities, sports, music, art, and hope something will keep their attention. If they have no interests and hobbies when they become teenagers with too much free time, my wife believes there is a greater chance of them winding up hanging out at the mall, falling in with the “wrong crowd” etc.
    Certainly not a 100% theory, but anecdotally I can see her point.
    “Idle hands do the devil’s work.”

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  28. Brad says:

    Great rebroadcast!

    You stated that studies show a small influence of parenting on attending college. This was based on studies of children in adopted families vs. biological families and their corresponding rates of college attendance vs. their parents.

    Has anyone studied the correlation of adopted children vs. their biological parents with respect to attending college? If this is high, then that would bolster the claim. If not, then that might suggest other factors are coming into play.

    Thanks much!

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  29. Jacqui says:

    I was interested to hear that Justin (who is Australian) and Betsy calculated the cost of marriage as $20,000 per year.
    I was wondering if this is true just in the USA, or also in Australia, where I am from.

    Also, how is this figure calculated?

    … Curious!!

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  30. Jason says:

    Awesome Podcast.

    But, I do find a flaw in the korean adoption statistics, where they compared korean adopted kids’ income versus the biological kids’ income.

    Did they factor in the discrepancy between average asian american income versus white caucasion? It’s very obvious that whites have higher income than asians, or immigrants in general.

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    • Linch says:

      “It’s very obvious that whites have higher income than asians” I love how you say something is “very obvious” and then immediately follow that with an empirically untrue statement.

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  31. Natasha says:

    With regards to leaving your child at the park to ‘raise the price’ or cost of her refusing to come. There IS another way. You can make it more worthwhile to leave by offering candy to leave, and/or TV when they get home. There are other ways of creating consequences for the child without them learning to fear they will be abandoned when they are difficult. Not good for girls to feel this as it can be manipulated to keep her in her place as a grown up.

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  32. rp says:

    Fantastic podcast! However, I am not sure that the data is complete for the conclusion though.

    The data suggests that adopted kids, presumably from low-income parents, end up similarly regardless of the kind of parents who adopt them. Thus, nurture does not matter. The conclusion is valid for those kids in the sample space.

    However, I do not see data that kids from affluent families end up similarly regardless of the type of parenting .. i.e. higher IQ kids (presumed in the podcast) will end up similarly regardless of nurture. Higher potential kids will intuitively benefit a lot more when there are many more opportunities in the environment. (E.g. USA vs Africa,India etc.). Hence, shouldn’t parents take active nurturing decisions around finding the best environment? Hence, nurture should matter?

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  33. Amelia says:

    I am writing this post in the hope that if anybody returns to this podcast page having listened to the re-broadcast, they will disregard what they learnt in the podcasts.

    I am researching in child psychology, and I will tell you with utmost confidence that the role that parents play in bringing up children has been seriously misunderstood in this podcast.

    Psychologists acknowledge the definite underlying ‘nature’ in everybody; constructs like temperament and IQ have strong genetic determination. However, the environment is key. The way a child learns to interact socially and emotionally in their early years is the most predictive of their life course.

    I tried an elective course in micro-economics with a spare unit while studying Psychology, and was surprised at the similarities of the disciplines – finding ways to measure and explain relationships using empirical evidence. However I did not try for a second to apply my psychology research methods to economical questions.

    The economists should stick to their own turf – this information given to the public is extremely misinformed, disrespectful to the progress psychology has made, potentially damaging to parents and children, and in my opinion, unethical.

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  34. Aileen says:

    That’s true. You cannot control everything in your children.

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