Freakonomics Poll: Should Being a Parent Require a License?

Toward the end of our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting,” Steve Levitt points to the loads of social science research demonstrating that the one sure-fire way to have a bad life, is to have a mother who doesn’t love you. Which brings him to a rather radical point: should parenting be licensed? Here’s a bit from the transcript:

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.

We thought we’d put the question to our readers with a Freakonomics Poll.

[poll id=”16″]


If my options are having a parent who doesn't love me, or NOT EXISTING AT ALL, yeah, you know what, honestly I'll take the parent who doesn't love me.


Seriously, how would you implement this? Install semi-permanent contraception in everyone at puberty (such as an IUD or Depo Provera)? What if they have a negative reaction to said contraception? And what happens to those who break the law? Force people to have abortions if they get pregnant without a license? Send them to jail?

I think the best way to help society with regards to child rearing is to provide better education and healthcare access for all. Provide child care for working parents. Etc. There are so many better ways to solve this without restricting the right of an adult to make decisions about his or her own life.


The best Keanu Reeves quote ever: "You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car ~ hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming a****** be a father."

Andrew CJ

you dont become a father by reaming butt.


I miss the logic here. If the common denominator is love, how does a license that proves you have parenting skills the answer? You can love your child and still be a terrible parent.


Why isn't it feasible? Having a dog, a gun,a car, being a doctor/lawyer etc all need a licence. There is a method of punishing those who don't have a licence. So why not for having a child?

Tiffany Madison

Wow. I hope you aren't a registered voter.


I'm sure we've all had points in our lives where we see a family in public and when we see how the parents interact with their kids one of our firsts thoughts is that they should not be a parent.

I've always believed that so long as they are sane, caring and responsible then people can have as many kids as they want. I realize the importance of financial well-being when having children as well, but my own dad was the fifth born in a poor family, so if there was a financial background check, my grandparents never would have made it to him.


Yeah, I can't see how this could turn out poorly. I mean, you put some people in charge of what a good parent is, and they decide if you meet the qualifications.

Of course, we all know good parents have enough money to have a child, so we should just deny anyone who isn't comfortably middle class.

Oh, and drug users are bad, so if the parents have ever done drugs, we should deny them too. People who smoked pot on college? They'll probably backslide and start feeding the baby meth or something.

You know what? Education is important, too. We all know every one has to have a college education these days, so if they didn't bother to get into a good school? No kids for them. They're probably too poor for it anyway, so no big loss.

Kids are also improved by having a stay at home, breast-feeding mom, right? So let's make sure we deny any of those uppity women-folk who want to go back to work before the kid goes to college. And let's deny the ones who might want to use formula, or would have to due to medical issues. Sorry, breast cancer survivors! You'd probably die on the kid anyway, right?

Oh, and speaking of that, let's deny anyone who has any proclivities for dying before 90. We don't want to traumatize the kid, right?

They want to have more than one kid? What the hell?! No one has money for more than one kid! Good parents will only want to lavish their attention on one child.


Seriously, stop trolling, sirs.


Scott W

You also need to consider that people can change over time. I know more than a few couples and single parents who definitely weren't ready for kids but had them anyway, putting their own parents and other people who cared about them through the ringer.

Now years later some of these people have grown up a bit and realized that life isn't all about them—they're trying to be good parents and by golly they're making some progress.

My point is that we may have an idea who shouldn't have children now, but what about later? I'm not voting, because I don't see a "we need to discuss this more" option.

David Clayton

TOD: You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.

from the screenplay of Parenthood (1989), by Ganz and Mandel

Natalia Garabato

I'm curious, What skills would you test?? besides most of us know what you need to be a good parent, now whether you put it into practice that's another thing...

Tiffany Madison

Wow. Talk about Orwellian. Neglected children cost states millions per year, true. However, the regulation of life-creation is not the government's business and to even fathom that level of control is impossibly dangerous. You can't even manage your own affairs, Big Brother. Stay the hell out of mine.


one of my graduate school friends at some point in time threw out the idea that every male should have a reversible vasectomy at birth. the procedure would then be reversed after passing a test (or some other licensing mechanism) after one's 18th birthday

Eric M. Jones.

This--or some form of reproductive control will happen--maybe sooner, maybe later, but it will happen. The drive to out-breed the neighboring tribe will eventually have to be changed.

Factoid: One First-World child has a million kilogram CO2 footprint.

Human beings have a say in the reproduction of every single species from whales to viruses, but hasn't yet found a way to control its own numbers better than wars (the Chinese aside...).

Now, I don't think some anti-reproduction fascist horror is necessary. There is great promise in:

1) When women rule the world....
2) When computers become conscious....
3) When the Chinese take over....
4) When the standard of living increases for all....
5) When the Rapture comes....
6) When some magic pill is invented....


Controlling reproduction is a step away from eugenics.


And how does licensing make you a better driver? Passing a couple of tests does not compare to experience and training. Maybe we should figure out how to teach people to be better parents? Used to be that extended families and social institutions, especially churches, did that. Is it a wonder that there might be a correlation between the decline of these things and the decline of good parenting?


As noted by many here, you need a license to drive a car, own a gun, and catch a fish, so why not kids? Well, with those licenses, you can still crash a car, shoot someone, and go home without catching any fish, so what's to say a parenting license would be any more effective?


While love is a wonderful essential, I believe, to being a good parent, it is too abstract and non-measurable to be of any use in making reproductive determinations. However, there are several quite measurable requirements that would serve.

Very simply (and this may require implanted contraception), you can't have a baby unless FOUR THINGS have taken place:

1) The parents-to-be must have completed high school.
2) The parents-to-be must both be at least 25-years-old.
3) Neither parent must have been on gov't assistance for the last year.
4) They parents must be married to each other.

Each of these is based on various studies. We know, for instance, that girls that have completed high school and waited until age 25 to have children tend to have better outcomes for their children.

We know (not from a study, but from commonsense) that parents on gov't assistance not only will up the need for assistance, but are likely not in the best situation to have children, or provide their children with a solid environment.

Lastly, we know that illegitimacy is a definite marker for drug abuse, criminal activity, and illiteracy. Marriage alone doesn't mean these things will not take place, but the odds are much more favorable.

There will likely always be those who would find a way around such requirements, but if we even got 70% acceptance, it would likely tilt the balance. That being said, I was born on my mother's 23rd birthday...into the most loving home imaginable.