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The Nurture of Gretchen Carlson: A Guest Post by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger for EconLog, has written a new book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”  And he’s been guest-blogging for us about parenting. I had a chance to interview Caplan yesterday for an upcoming Freakonomics Radio show called “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” He had a great deal to say on the topic, all of it interesting and much of it provocative. I think you will enjoy it as much as I did.

The Nurture of Gretchen Carlson
By Bryan Caplan
The night before my interview with Fox & Friends co-anchor Gretchen Carlson about Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I read her Wikipedia article – and started worrying.  Adoption and twin research find little effect of upbringing on adult outcomes. But Gretchen’s life story is a vivid counter-example. In 1989, she won the Miss America pageant. Her talent? Violin.  Since few kids master the violin on their own initiative, Gretchen could plausibly say, “Without my parents’ pressure, I wouldn’t have learned the violin. Without the violin, I wouldn’t have won Miss America. And if I hadn’t won Miss America, I probably wouldn’t have broken into television. I owe everything I have today to parenting.  Thank God my mom and dad didn’t believe in ‘Serenity Parenting.’”
Luckily for me, Gretchen didn’t use her life story against me. But if she had, my plan was simply to tell her, “Most people aren’t you, Gretchen. In fact, almost no one is.” Millions of parents force their kids to study the violin. Only a handful reap any tangible benefit from it. Few even manage to break into the low-paid, low-security, lonely world of professional music. Far fewer use their violins as shortcuts to television fame.
If upbringing were as powerful as most people believe, stories as good as Gretchen’s would be more common. Successful people could plausibly pinpoint the key parenting decisions that opened the critical doors at the critical moments. The rest of us could use our 20/20 hindsight to blame our disappointments on our parents’ mistakes – without sounding ridiculous. In the real world though, the secrets of success are ability, determination, and dumb luck. If you’d been raised by a very different family, you’d have different relationships and memories. But adoption and twin research tell us that your adult success would have been about the same.