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. David Clayton says:

    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

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  2. Natalia Garabato says:

    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…

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  3. Tiffany Madison says:

    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.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 29 Thumb down 27
    • nobody.really says:


      Yeah, government regulation ain’t perfect. But the point is, LACK of regulation ain’t perfect either. You acknowledge that neglected kids impose costs of millions per year — who do you think pays that cost? Why isn’t that cost part of “your business”?

      When the police ask if you would testify against the poorly-socialized kid that burned down your house, will you tell them to stay the hell out of your affairs? Or does it become ok for Big Brother to intervene then — after we’ve raise another generation of poorly-socialized kids?

      No, there are no good options. We need to find the least bad ones.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 39 Thumb down 15
    • jake3_14 says:

      “You can’t even manage your own affairs, Big Brother.”

      That’s never stopped any government in the history of the world. Take China and its one-child policy, for example. They have effectively slowed their population growth by 1/3 every year. Of course, the price for this policy is gender-selected abortions, leading to an oversupply of males. But the silver lining is Darwinian; only the fittest (by Chinese definition) will marry and breed, slowing down population growth further.

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  4. dan says:

    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

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 7
    • Nick says:

      If you ever get a vasectomy, the doctor will warn you ad nauseum that the reversal surgery is far from 100% effective. When I got mine about 6 years ago, the reversal success rate was only about 60%.

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    • Hibernia86 says:

      There are plenty of bad mothers out there and girls who have irresponsible sex without contraception. Why do you want to punish only the guys for the couple’s mutual mistakes?

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  5. Eric M. Jones. says:

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

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 27
  6. johnadamsxii says:

    Controlling reproduction is a step away from eugenics.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 10
    • James says:

      Perhaps, but what’s wrong with eugenics? If you knew that you would pass on the genes for some debilitating disease, say hemophilia or cystic fibrosis, would you decide to have kids?

      If you would, what sort of monster are you?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 17
      • Heather says:

        and who decides how much risk is too much risk? Is it 20% or less? 5%? 80%? Genetics are hardly the whole story. And, who decides what diseases are too risky and which aren’t? Some things may seem obvious (Huntingtons, as an example), but what about diabetes? Do we take the license away once a woman hits 35+ to reduce the risk of chromosomal abnormalities like Down’s Syndrome? Will obsese people be able to be licensed? After all, obese parents tend to have obese kids. Where does it stop?

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  7. Gary says:

    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?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 6
    • Ashley says:

      I don’t think the problem is with the idea of licensing, in terms of driving proficiency, but how easy it is to pass the licensing process. Americans have it so easy compared to other countries that requre licensing to drive. In Germany, most people do not pass the first time around. If more rigorous testing was part of the process, we’d probably have a lot less morons on the road.

      That’s not to say I agree with licensing for children. I have said such things off the cuff, but I don’t believe it’s a practical solution because telling people they can’t breed is overstepping by a long way. I do think a lot of people need to stop breeding though!

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2
      • Steevn says:

        Stats from Wikipedia say that per 1 billion vehicle km driven, Germany has 7.2 fatalities vs 8.5 in USA. Not a huge difference and both fall comfortably within a range for Europe, from about 5.0 to 20.

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      • Kiaser Zohsay says:

        I agree that it should be much more difficult in the US to pass a drivers license test. There are a number of people behind the wheel that have no business being there which creates risk for everyone else on or near the roads such people use. The point of licensing is that the roads are safer for everyone because the individuals who did *not* pass the test are not on the road.

        Literally for years, I have said (somewhat sarcastically) that there should at least be a written test you should have to pass to have kids. And me saying “S/He would not have passed the written test” is the strongest criticism of parenting skill that I can deliver. But the point of a written test would be be to apply some draconian standard of fitness to any and all potential parents, but simply prevent the foreseeable parental train wrecks.

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    • vr1000 says:

      Levitt was not talking about the decline of parenting. His point was that if your mother loved you, you were much more likely to turn out well. How could motherly love ever be quantified?

      I bet if you had to license parents, people who were more likely to be terrible parents would pass because they would game the test and because they would not want to be seen in a poor light.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
    • Innocent Bystander says:

      Well, I think that it’s less about technical “parenting” ability that anybody can learn, and more about resources, and your life being in order.

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    • miriam says:

      Putting as much thought into having a child as one would take to put ones name and address on an envelope and putting it into the mail seems like a good step…

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    • jake3_14 says:

      I like the idea of mandatory continuing education for parents as a means of improving their parenting skills. There is also a hidden benefit. Continuing education requirements would reduce the amount of time available for parents to work or sleep. In turn, this would lower their economic productivity. That would lead them to have lower economic value, leading to lower salaries directly or indirectly, through a lack of promotability, Lowered labor costs would raise the profitability of businesses.

      Yes, let’s proceed!

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  8. Joe says:

    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?

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