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. Scott says:

    This would set a bad precedent. Being able to pass your genes on to your offspring is a personal right, not a privilege like driving on a public road. Regulating parenting with a license would effectively put it into the same category. Additionally, who gets to decide who gets to have license? There is no wrong way or right way to be a parent even if there are bad and good parents. Deciding what traits one must have to get a license is very subjective. And none of that even begins to address how you will prevent people from having sex, or how you can force someone to put hormones in their bodies, or use any other form of birth control. Humans have existed for more than 100,000 years without the need for a license. There are plenty of people that have “bad” lives that come from loving parents and families, and plenty of people that come from bad parents that turn out to have “good” lives. There is just no correlation that a “bad” life comes from having non-loving parents. There is a correlation of “bad” lives coming from poor and unprivileged parents, but that is something entirely different.

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  2. magic dave says:

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  3. Enter your name says:

    Being wanted and being loved are not the same thing.

    That a parent wants a baby (perhaps for social status, perhaps to keep the boyfriend involved, perhaps for any number of bad reasons) does not mean that the parent is going to be loving.

    On the other side, I know someone who says she was an unwanted child, but that she was also a loved child. The first belief still causes her pain, but you would declare her to be a success on all the usual metrics: college grad, professional career, plenty of money in the bank, stable marriage, devoted children, grandchildren who adore her, etc. As far as I can tell, the only practical effect of being unwanted is that she is a staunch believer in abortion on demand.

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  4. Craig O'Brien says:

    I’m sterile, so if I wanted children I would need adoption, artificial insemination, or something along those lines. I’ve talked to people who have adopted kids. The stuff they have to go through in order to get a child is tantamount to requiring a license. If adoptive parents should have to get one, why shouldn’t natural parents?

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  5. Rob Sharpe says:

    I think one way to feasibly implement such a license is to limit tax deductions for children. Definitely not popular but feasible.

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  6. Joel says:

    While the idea sounds good in theory, I suspect the practical considerations are overwhelming. As someone other poster pointed out, it implies mandatory contraceptive shots. This is interesting, since it would eliminate the controversy concerning abortion. I have reservations that staging mother hunts for woman avoiding their contraceptive shots will be popular.

    Although we don’t really know how to identify potential good parents, we could identify people with a high likelihood of being bad parents. Convicted felons, diagnosed schizophrenics, active drug users and alcoholics. Nevertheless I anticipate a negative public reaction if we start sterilizing convicts and crazy people.

    This is consistent with how we handle drivers licenses. We don’t look for good drivers. Just for people who are familiar with traffics laws and can keep their car off the sidewalk.

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  7. Dan says:

    Ha! Yes!

    I’ve been saying this for years – before being allowed to have a child every parent should have to pass a theory and a practical test.

    I’m thinking the practical part of it should probably be doing supermarket shopping with kid in tow.

    If they can make it round without screaming at them, hitting them or generally losing the plot then they’re already doing better than some of the parents you see out there

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  8. vince2517 says:

    I can’t believe all these people are giving this idea so much “oxygen”. It is INSANE. It is what they’ve done in China for the last 50 years, how well is that working for them? It’s nuts.

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