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The Economics and Genetics of Parenting: A Guest Post by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger for EconLog, is the author of a new book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”  In the guest post below, he explains one of the central theses of his book: modern parents are working too hard at parenting, for no good reason. You’ll  be hearing more from Caplan in these environs soon, as he’ll be one of the guests in an upcoming Freakonomics Radio show tentatively titled “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”
Economics, Genetics and Hippies
By Bryan Caplan

Non-economists often take offense if you tell them, “You’re wasting your time.”  But economists are more likely to respond, “Really?  Please explain.”  Effort is a scarce resource.  Relaxing when effort doesn’t pay isn’t “lazy”; it’s a wise decision to conserve valuable effort.  The catch is that the effect of effort is hard to measure.

Photo: iStockphoto

Every now and then, though, solid measurements fall into our laps.  A case in point: People have argued about the effect of parenting on kids for thousands of years.  But the “wisdom to know the difference” between genuine and counterfeit effects of parenting emerged only recently.  As I explain in my new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, adoption and twin researchers have spent the last forty years measuring the effect of parenting on every major outcome that parents care about.
Their findings surprise almost everyone.  Health, intelligence, happiness, success, character, values, appreciation – they all run in families.  But with a few exceptions, adoption and twin researchers find that nature overpowers nurture, especially in the long-run.  Kids aren’t like clay that parents mold for life; they’re more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is released.
The most meaningful exception to this flexible plastic rule is appreciation – how your kids feel about and remember you.  One Swedish study asked middle-aged and elderly twins – some raised together, some raised apart – to describe how their parents raised and treated them.  Twins raised together painted much more similar portraits of their parents than twins raised apart.  If you raise your children with kindness and respect, they will probably remember it for as long as they live.
The upshot: Parents spend too much effort trying to mold their kids for the future, and not enough just enjoying life together.  Vainly struggling to change your kids isn’t fun for you or them.  And the struggle can easily hurt the main outcome where parenting really matters: the quality of the bond between parent and child.
Neither economics nor genetics are known as touchy-feely disciplines.  But when you put the two fields together and ask for parenting advice, they sound like a couple of hippies.  Parents need to love, encourage, and accept their kids.  Stop trying to change them.  Their future will take care of itself.