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.

Should You Have to Get a License to be a Parent?

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  1. BL1Y says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 44 Thumb down 74
    • nobody.really says:

      That’s a reasonable choice, and I hope that decision has worked out well for you.

      In the interest of balance, could we hear from those who made the alternative choice?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 57 Thumb down 4
    • James says:

      Which is of course an utterly nonsensical argument. If you didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a you which could fret about not existing.

      Indeed, we could turn that argument around, and by the same logic force every fertile woman into continuous childbearing from puberty to menopause because, after all, not becoming pregnant is preventing someone from existing.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 69 Thumb down 9
      • Fitty Stim says:

        I imagine that you explain jokes after they’re told as well… get it? It was used!!! Get it??? Ugh!

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4
      • Nikki says:

        You prove a point how can we argue about parental licencing, like you said its like were trying to prevent our own existence.

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Nick says:

      You say that as if those are the only options. Adoption?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3
    • Sri says:

      Ahem, in case you haven’t noticed it, if you weren’t born you won’t be thinking about how bad it is to not exist at all.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 2
    • miriam says:

      If my options are having a neighbor have a kid she doesn’t love, or not having one at all, I’ll go with the latter.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1
  2. Liz says:

    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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 37 Thumb down 23
  3. Doug says:

    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.”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 103 Thumb down 5
  4. Melissa says:

    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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 60 Thumb down 4
  5. Liam says:

    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?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 18
    • Tiffany Madison says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

      Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 46
    • Dave Sohnchen says:

      It’d be easy to punish those who have kids without a license but that doesn’t mean that the kid will be automatically be loved. It’s love that’s the determining success factor right?

      Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4
  6. David says:

    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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 5
  7. Katie says:

    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.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 56 Thumb down 29
    • Peter says:

      All very good ideas except for the old-age thing. Parents should make a personal sacrifice to allow more of the earth’s reasources for their kids. Also, the financial support requirement should include the full cost of educating their offspring.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 8
    • jake3_14 says:

      “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.”

      The USA is dependent on a supply of cheap labor to prevent exporting of business or stopping it completely. Witness the devastation on farming in Alabama, where the state has outlawed the cheapest labor — illegal immigrants. And if middle-class children take all the McJobs, then, by definition, they are no longer middle-class. So what would be the point of restricting parenting licenses by economic condition?

      “…so if the parents have ever done drugs, we should deny them too.”

      Don’t you believe in redemption or even second chances?

      “Kids are also improved by having a stay at home, breast-feeding mom, right? ”

      This is optimal (assuming the mom *wants* to stay at home, but you can turn out acceptable, productive people with the mom working.

      Seriously, Katie, stop trolling.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
  8. Scott W says:

    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.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 9