Bad Kids? Train the Parents

Here’s an interesting paper from the British Medical Journal which argues that children’s anti-social behavior can be significantly altered by training their parents to be better parents. (And here is the BMJ‘s editorial summary.)

The paper’s authors conducted a randomized study with 153 socially disadvantaged Welsh parents with children aged 3 or 4. Some of the parents were given a 12-week “intervention programme,” in which two professionals taught the parents how to reward, punish, and discipline their children. The control group of parents were wait-listed for this workshop.

The results showed that the children of the parents who took the workshop behaved significantly better afterward, at least in the short term. The authors make the point that, since childhood anti-social behavior is a strong indicator of adult anti-social behavior and criminality, the findings are potentially very important.

This kind of study does make you wonder why, here in the U.S., where you must acquire a license to drive a car, sell real-estate, or hunt deer, there is no such license (or commensurate training) for raising children. I’m not saying there should be such a license.

Or maybe I am?


I would support licensing, except I don't trust any agency of government to make that decision. How long before only those with "appropriate" beliefs, or appropriate political contributions, are permitted to have children?


How did they get the parents to cooperate? I do volunteer work with abused and neglected children. Many of their parents take these classes, but most of them seem to just go through the motions, and some are angry about having to do it.

If it were possible, I'd make it illegal to have kids before 21. Over and over we see 20-year-olds who figure out that their three or four kids are a drag, so they basically give them to the county.


egretman, I realize that my parents and family more broadly are anecdotal. However, I tend to have a slight overreaction to most Malthusian propositions.

I suppose that I could post links to Swifts "Modest Proposal", but that might just seem rediculus at this point.

Oh, and to beat the dead horse with a broken stick: licensing = revocation of liberty
revocation of liberty --> tyranny
thus we see the fall of the American dream

Unless a 'parental license' amendment was ratified (and there is no way any such thing would ever happen, they can't even curtail particularly obnoxious speech that way), it would never stand the inevitable legal challenge.


I think that most everyone would acknowledge that better parents make for better-adjusted kids. Optional parent training sounds like a great idea to me. I'd like to see the government run a test by providing vouchers to parents who live in certain zip codes or have income below X to receive subsidized or free parental training.



Statistically, heaterlyn (whom I picture as a bitter spinster) is correct, children and disposable income share an inverse relationship, suggesting that children are inferior goods. The explanation is in the enhanced opportunity cost and substitution effect of women in developed countries.

Anecdotally, as a member of a large family from members of academia, I agree with you. Academics, though, are beyond anecdote due to their eccentricity. Levitt, for example has opted to parent beyond the replacement rate (but adopted, so very socially responsible). I've chose (to the chagrin of my wife) to stick to two children as it is closest to 2.3. But, that's my prerogative, if heatherlyn feels that's wrong, that is hers.

I'm not following your reference to Malthus or Swift, however. Maybe Swift a bit, for the (was it) bologna loaf comment?


David Lykken is a world-renowned psychologist at the Univ of Minnesota. He has also advocated parental licensure. The data are indeed frightening. Overpopulation of the world is not the problem. 6 billion Dubners wouldn't be so bad. The problem is overpopulation by stupid people. Smart people are reproducing less. How long will it take for the good ideas to be completely overwhelmed by the weight and inertia of stupidity in the world? I think we're almost there.


Unfortunately, Mr. Dubner by including his last full paragraph and his last line managed to obscure his main argument and his main truth that he may or or may not have blundered upon but nevertheless was right about.

Namely, Parenting is the problem and the solution to all or most of the maddeningly intractable problems of this American generation, such as education, hard drugs, poverty, etc. Worse, better parenting is apparently beyond this society to promote what with religious zealotry preventing any other than parents from instructing children.

Nevertheless, next time someone asks you what is wrong with American schools just say, "Parents". Skip the part about more money, teachers, and/or disruptive children.'s that simple.


"whom I picture as a bitter spinster"

Naturally, snubgodtoh, you're choosing to picture me as a negative stereotype because you don't agree with me. Bless your simplistic little heart.

I'm sure it's beyond your breeder-brain comprehension that there can be well-adjusted, happy people in fulfilling relationships who choose not to have children. (And who, in fact, can't stand them!). I'll leave you to your mindless breeding, your squalling puking children. I'll be over here, using my disposable income and plenty of free time (free from needy parasite children!) to enjoy life. ::chuckle::


I think you just validated the justification for parental licensure, as I'm sure you'll leave most wondering what yours did to you when you were a needy parasite.


Although I cant find it online, Scott Adams drew a Dilbert strip along the exact lines of parental liscencing. Essentially the couple failed Dogbert's parenting test and had to 'leave some parts at the door'.

As a high school teacher, I have found an observational correlation between poorly behaved students and parents from lower socio-economic demographics (no real surprise there). The idea of having a parenting licence IS unenforceable as mentioned, but parenting classes are an excellent way to attempt to give the parents some tools to work with, and can be tied directly to welfare payments.

It would hopefully save some time and result in better behaved kids, who value their education and future more, and this would have an ultimate knock-on effect on poverty, welfare, justice issues and essentially raise a larger portion of the population to a middle-class wage.

Now we just have to worry about who will serve our fries to us.



I think there *should* be a license, while at the same time I agree it's pretty much unenforceable.

However, I also want to refute the "it's all about the parenting skills" mentality that everyone has going and which has been glossed over in this article. Sometimes a kid is just bad and nothing the parents can do will change it.

I have two examples to cite. First, my sister. She and I were raised just alike - firm rules, attentive, emotionally available parents, fully functional family life, etc. A very good environment. I had no problems.

My sister, on the other hand, fell in early with the wrong crowd. She did poorly in school because it wasn't "cool" in her crowd to get good grades. She drank too much, did drugs and had sex with too many guys.

She ended up having a serious drug problem in her twenties and had to go to rehab. Fortunately, rehab worked well for her and she has turned her life around.

But the point is, none of that can be blamed on my parents. They did everything they could for her. They were firm. They were loving. They provided a therapist when she insisted it was "nerves" not drugs that made her act that way, etc. When she went to rehab, they couldn't get the checkbook out fast enough.

Second example. The child I live with now. Not mine. He had a difficult beginning - Mom skipped out when he was a baby and dad raised him mostly alone but with help from grandparents. But, the rest of his life, he's had everything he needs.

Stable, loving family. Psychiatric help. Medications. Therapy. None of it helped. He is a brat and always has been (he is now 16). He is incredibly destructive, doesn't care about anything or anyone other than his own desires of the moment.

We have tried being understanding. We have tried tough love. We have tried reward systems. We have tried punishment systems. We have tried lavishing attention on him. We have tried ignoring, lecturing, pleading and every other thing you can imagine. Every therapist says "try...." and so far, we have to say "we tried that. Didn't work."

So, my point is. Sometimes you can't blame the parents. When do kids start taking responsibility for their own behavior? Just because they're kids doesn't make them innocent.



I agree that we should all be taught how to parent, but what is a good parent? Someone with consistent rules? A moral person? A parent who doesn't spank or yell? A parent who treats homelife like a democracy allowing the child to act grown up without life experience as a guide? I have three children and battle with these questions everyday. My Dad is a Southern baptist minister. They NEVER denied me love, but were sometimes very harsh even borderline abusive. In retrospect they did only what an exhausted, overworked, well-intentioned parent would do according to the individual temperament they each had. Parenting is a crapshoot. There are definitely some hard fast rules. Your child should always feel loved, even when you are angry. There should be open lines of communication creating trust between the child and parent. We need to remember that we are supposed to love our kids UNCONDITIONALLY, this is quite tough and needs your constant vigilance as a parent to see that you aren't putting conditions on your love for them. I love you make good grades, you think like me, you dress a certain way, you play this sport well, you don't behave like that, etc. I've seen bad kids raised by incredibly kind and patient parents. As I said I have three children. My middle is one of the most difficult and defiant children I've known. She is obstinate and no matter how much gentle prodding, or firm warnings, time-outs she is given she continues to be my biggest challenge(and yes I have occasionally spanked out of anger and frustration with her). People have said some horrible things to me about my lack of "control" over her. I go away from these interactions feeling defeated and angry. When I was a child my family attended church with a couple who had a little girl. This little girl was whiny, sassy, and rude. She constantly interrupted when her parents spoke. She was wild and rambunctious. The other church members talked badly about her parents because, despite their efforts the little girl continued to behave this way until around 10. Her parents would sit her on a pew, they told her to wait that adults were speaking, they left rooms with her kicking and screaming! A few years back I was privileged enough to meet this girl turned adult. She was in her senior year at college. She is fluent in sign language and amazingly polite and even reserved. She has a great relationship with her parents whom, because of their patience, she still trusts and adores. Most said she would become a selfish brat. She has prooven everyone wrong and many of the older people in the church have had to eat their words while the parents who spanked and admonished their children constantly have adult children who consistently disappoint them and continued to have problems. Kids are born with unique personalities. And, Yes, genetics play a role. But in this day and age where children are in preschool from 2.9 years old, in school before they are physically and emotionally ready for those types of challenges, and exposed to media such as television and computers, inundated with commercials and messages telling them who and what to be or what items they need to become someone, can you REALLY put all the blame on the parents? Get real people!!! Society needs to take a big step back, when we again begin to value children, teaching them respect and also raising them ourselves, when our country values families again, if this happens...we will see change.