FREAK-TV: Levitt May Not Even Be the Cleverest Person in His Own House


We wrote quite a bit in Freakonomics about parenting, trying to figure out what makes someone a good parent. (Here’s an adaptation of one section, from USA Today.) A few weeks ago, Levitt and I were in New Orleans together for a lecture (where I embarrassed myself), and we sat for a bit afterwards while I forced him to tell stories into my video camera. (Levitt swears that this kind of thing makes him suicidal, but I think he secretly likes it.)

When I asked him to talk about his own parenting techniques, he didn’t hesitate for a minute. Rather than teaching kids the skills they’ll learn in school anyway, he said, he thinks it’s better to encourage creative thinking. His favorite teaching tool? The game of Rock Papers Scissors — which won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been following posts like this one, this one, or this one on our blog. There was, however, a big surprise: the skill with which one of his daughters put a big game-theory smackdown on her sister.


he should then teach her the higher-order skill of throwing a game- this will: a- engender bonding through competition (I'm presuming girls are not as competitive); b- teach her how to hustle, so when the time comes she can extract even more $ from her foes

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

I hope Amanda gets over this, like...some day. Don't worry; there are plenty of good therapists out there.
(I'm Kidding)!!!!
In all seriousness, though, I think Steven Levitt is *right* on when he says that creativity is the thing to encourage in kids (lord knows, schools can sure endeavor to stamp it out of them, sometimes).


My son, who was nearly 4 at the time, and I were playing rock-paper-scissors when he threw "key". (Index finger extended.) Apparently, "key" pokes a hole through paper, disassembles scissors, but is bent into unusability by rock. It also is effective as a device for tickling.

A proud moment.

There is actually an elaborate "extreme" version of the game with many other hand signals.


While this is certainly a cute little story, I hope part of the NY Times blog package isn't going to include incessant videos. I prefer to read a story, even a short transcription, to having to watch a video. Is this a new feature? To make videos an important part of your site?

That said, it's pretty funny that his daughter picked up on that. Maybe she'll be a poker player eventually.


Funny. I would have gone the other way.

That a good basic foundation in the academic rigors (which can be stressed at home) leads to natural outlets of creativity (because the "other" stuff is so easy).

That is, if you get good at math and reading, you have the time and energy to be creative.

Obviously "enough time" is not the concern of a 4 year old, but just a thought.


Steve, your next goal should be to get them to learn how to read betting patterns in no limit hold'em.

Maybe it is the pathetic life I pursue, but I feel most creative at the Borgata, trying to read my opponents hands.

no name

Wait a second ... isn't Levitt worried that his other daughter is dumb enough to never do the same throw twice in a row? Seems to me he's taken sides and loves one daughter more than the other.


Regarding your USA Today article on the results
of Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, I have
a couple of points of contention.

1. You wrote:
"A child with at least 50 kids' books in his home,
for instance, scores roughly 5 percentile points higher
than a child with no books, and a child with 100 books
scores another 5 percentile points higher than a child
with 50 books."

OK so far, but then you wrote:

"Most people would look at this correlation and draw
the obvious cause-and-effect conclusion: A little
boy named, say, Brandon has a lot of books in his home;
Brandon does beautifully on his reading test; this must
be because Brandon's parents read to him regularly.
But the ECLS data show no correlation between a child's
test scores and how often his parents read to him."

Sure, parents reading children's books to their children
is one obvious conclusion. But another equally obvious
conclusion is that the children themselves are reading
their own children's books. After all the study looks
at children from kindergarten to fifth grade, and most
kids know how to read by grade one (grade two at the
latest). Kids will learn how to read at school, but
the thousands of hours of "reading for pleasure"
needed to become a superior reader only take
place outside of school.

This is something you guys wrote about in your
"A Star Is Made" article. Where you argue that
"practice does make perfect" and that "you should
do what you love — because if you don't love it,
you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good".

Becoming a superior reader takes a lot of practice.
Kids are more likely to get this practice if there are
lots of enticing books in the home to choose from.

2. You wrote:
"It is obvious that children of successful, well-educated
parents have a built-in advantage over the children of
struggling, poorly educated parents."

That's true, but all is not lost from poorly
educated parents. If these parents, or some other adult
can encourage their kids to "read for pleasure" and
"read idependantly" this can have more of an impact than
the parents socio-economic level. for pleasure.pdf



I wonder if there is a similar debunking of parenting attributes (in the chapter reference), but for teachers and schools.

For example: does it matter if a teacher is experienced? Does it matter if a teacher has a masters degree? Does it matter if a teacher graduated with a high GPA? Does it matter if a school has high test scores? Does it matter if a school improves their test scores suddenly? Does it matter if a teacher has real-world experience before teaching?

Maybe these are questions for Freakonomics 2.

Gwen Billingsley

I am of the opinion that “education” is focusing on the wrong area of learning.
Most educators focus on the effective: “Readin', Ritin', & ‘Rithmetic”. When the “Real Learning” that occurs is more “Affective” and incidental.

Parents get all fired up over:
• Evolution vs. Creationism
• Sex Education.
• Discipline (Spanking)

The main skills that most students need to be learning are

• To be someplace regularly and on time
• To dress in a manner appropriate to the task
• Appropriate Social Interaction Skills
• Elocution
• How to Express Ideas
• Organization of Ideas
• Organization of Information
• Organization of Materials
• Where to go for answers
• How to set goals and recognize the tasks to get there.
• That there are winners AND LOSERS
• Learning through failure
• How to find a path to self satisfaction through performance of mundane tasks or projects
• Respect for any work well done

These skills can and should be learned by and through learning the “3 R's”

Rock Stars and Athletes are fine – but we only need a few of those – we need people to do ordinary tasks with skill and a cheerful attitude.

We have spent 40 years building “Self Esteem”. All we have done is created a mass sense of entitlement, with no understanding of how to accomplish anything. We also have 2 generations of parents that see their children as “Mini Me's” and any criticism of their child is a personal attack.

All of this has been compounded by the Women's Movement that has translated into the “the age of the child”. We greet pregnancy with celebration, regardless of the circumstances or the ability to properly take care of a child.

It's time for a reality check!
• Have no more children than you can handle (financially or emotionally)
• Adults are in charge
• It's OK for mothers to stay home but they should be wives as well as mothers
• Women should be treated as adults, even if they don't work outside the home
• Men deserve respect, they are not just impregnators
• Neither sex should be treated as a sex object
• People should be lauded for their accomplishments – especially those that improve the lives of the community at large.
• THE COMMUNITY is more important than the individual!



So the fact that my three-year-old went tearing around the house the other day in her Curious George underwear shouting "HERE COMES RATMILK! HERE COMES THE RATMILK!" and laughing her head off means I'm doing something right?

Julie Driscoll

I'm dying to know if there was a conversation with his other daughter. Did Steven try to level the playing field by offering her strategic hints? Would that information impact Olivia's game plan? Did she adapt a new style or not?

My overbearing mother in law, who, like so many people, seems to view children as long-term projects that will eventually reflect her own superiority, unwittingly taught me early on in my child-rearing years, that there is great value in letting your child's creative project begin with a framework, and then evolve into WHATEVER. If you're invested in the outcome of your young child's creative projects, the results will really be yours, not theirs. And the results will be predictable and BORING. Public education will provide the mediocrity; try to counterbalance the dumbing down of your child's creativity. Here's the distillation of my 19 years of parenting - for free!: for their sakes, just let them make some mistakes. What safer framework than home to continually make mistakes and follow diversions from the plan? Extend that to the teenage years! Let your kids figure it out themselves. That way they may not die in college on a couch from alcohol poisoning.



The only thing you want for your children is that they would know how to take advantage of an opponent, even if it is the child's own sister? What I want for my children is to understand and appreciate relationships, to have altruism as well as self-interest, and to understand that cooperation is often more fun than winning. Sounds like you are planning for your children to grow up to be capitalists rather than mature adults.

greg from daddytypes

suggestion: if you're going to make hilariously Spongmonkey-esque video animations, why not put the producer/editor's credit somewhere?

I assume it's better if more than just the animator's parents know about her creativity.

Rembrandt Q. Einstein

Why that video format? It's nearly impossible to download without a very fast connection as you can't completely download it before watching. It looks entertaining but there's no way I'm patient enough to wait for buffering after every syllable.


"Dad plays games with the kids when it is bedtime"

Philip J Tramdack

I'm with # 4: douse the videos. I realize that at 58, I am past video. Video doesn't work. Levitra doesn't even work. Anyhow-- this one is all wrong in my view. Steven is probably doing no harm "teaching his kids how to be creative," the well-meaning ass that he is. What he SHOULD be doing is not PREVENTING them from being creative, which is what kids dooz all by themselves, unless interrupted by "teachers." He should turn them out at dawn to roam the woods and fields without supervision. Also I agree with 13 there. What you are so proud of in the Young Genius is her skill at taking advantage of another. That's Big Dog Eat Little Dog. It's the American Way, it's true, but what does it have to do with creativity? C'mon-- what this BLOG needs is some creativity Steve. Git it ON. Ask the kid for ideas. P J Tramdack


Stephen, I think you're doing it right. But don't let me or any other commenters influence your parenting.

Roberta Prada

Creativity comes from exploring brain centers that are not being fully expoloited in schools. We already know that arts education will form many new brain connections and strengthen academsics and creativity at the same time.
Muisc is particularly powerful in that regard, and can even be used to straighten out academic problems.
Easiest: Everybody sing. Next: let the kids take music lessons, dance, act, paint, sculpt. Dynamite creativity enhancing, teaches self discipline and self-confidence ans well as problem solving.


I laughed when I read this article - I wrote about Rock paper scissors from an economists' perpective a while back. Once you analyse what appears to be a simple child's game through a microeconomics perspective, it opens up a wealth of guidance on a number of joke!