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The Worst Mistake I Ever Made: An Economists' Parenting Quorum

For our latest podcast, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting,” (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player, or read a transcript here) we turned to some of our favorite economists for advice on how to raise children. It’s safe to say you won’t find much of what you hear in any “expert’s” guide to parenting (which was of course the point) but it was a thought-provoking exercise in applying economic principles to one of life’s most perplexing and stimulating activities. As a supplement to the podcast, we thought it would be fun to convene a Freakonomics Quorum and ask some of our contributors, not for their best moment as a parent, but for their worst. The specific question we asked was:

What is the worst mistake you ever made as a parent?

Good sports that they are, they obliged with some lighthearted anecdotes of how sometimes the best intentions of rational, unemotional economists often run face-first into something called kids.
Bruce Sacerdote is a professor of economics at Dartmouth College and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

My worst parenting moment? When I asked my family for suggestions, they couldn’t stop laughing long enough to settle on a single story. Last year I tried to demonstrate to the kids that sailing a dingy on the ocean is perfectly safe given the right wind conditions. We were on our annual pilgrimage to Martha’s Vineyard. I decided to add a new activity by trailering one of our three old sailboats with us. You’d be amazed at how many strange looks you get when you drive around with a jog stroller, trailer bike and a porta-crib aggressively bungee-corded into an eight-foot dingy.
Once on the island I managed to sail the boat from the boat ramp around to the beach where we were staying on Vineyard Sound. The two older kids climbed in with life jackets tightly fastened; they know me. The first twenty minutes were so pleasant we decided we might sail the five miles across the Sound to Cape Cod.
Turns out it’s important to know the area where you are sailing. About halfway across the very welcoming water we met this ferocious tidal current. We tried to run back to shore but the waves kept chasing us like a dog chasing a squirrel. I made the fatal mistake of stopping to try to start the outboard motor. That’s when the evil waves made their move and filled the old dingy completely with water. The good news is that the crazy current is exactly where all the bluefish are and hence also the fishermen with, gee guess what, the sort of boats actually meant for the ocean. A very nice young couple with a real boat plucked the kids out of the water and threw me a line to tie to our swamped bathtub/ dingy. We managed to get all of the people and most of the boat parts and my iPhone (may it rest in peace) back to the beach. The very best part is that I managed to spin this fiasco into proof that we needed a much larger sailboat complete with cabin, beer and refrigerator.

Steve Levitt is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, where he directs the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory.

The worst parenting move to which I am willing to publicly admit occurred many years ago when I had just two little girls, Amanda and Olivia, both two years old. Having not jogged or done any physical fitness in a decade, somehow I got it in my head that I would find joy in jogging, pushing my little ones in front of me. So we invested in a very expensive double jogging stroller. Wow, was that thing amazing. It would roll so easily it was like you weren’t pushing anything at all. It was some sort of engineering miracle.
Unfortunately, I think I only jogged twice with the kids in all the years we owned the stroller. But it wasn’t a total waste of money because it became our regular stroller for walks and outings.
So one day I decided to take the two girls for a walk in the stroller. I wheeled them out the front door and turned back to lock the door behind me. It was at that moment that this frictionless miracle of a stroller decided to demonstrate its powers. I turned back in time to see the stroller rolling down the slightest of inclines outside our front door. Before I could catch it, it smashed down the five steps leading to the sidewalk. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Being the lazy parent that I am, of course, I had not bothered to do any of the restraining straps on the kids. Somehow the stroller remained upright. Somehow neither of the kids were thrown out. It was still gaining speed when I caught if just before the next set of steps.
I peeked inside. The kids were laughing their heads off. They wanted to do it again. It was five years before I worked up the courage to tell my wife what had happened.

Joshua Gans is a professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. His book Parentonomics was published by MIT Press in 2009.

What is our worse parenting move? There have been so many, it is hard to pick just one. I could point to our error when our son (at age one) walked in on us watching the first Harry Potter movie just as Voldemort’s face was melting and, not surprisingly, screamed in horror. But that wouldn’t make for a long, or economically relevant, story. I could also go through the myriad of bad moves we made while toilet training but that is too long for a post. So let me move on to punishment and extract liberally in the process from my book, Parentonomics. And let me be even more unfair and recount a story that was not strictly speaking “my mistake” but admittedly one I could have made.
In trying to obtain good child behavior (and by that I mean getting them to do what I want them to do), you have to offer credible incentives. At times, this requires punishment of bad behavior. You need to be clear and consistent just as economic theory would say.
One problem with trying to be credible is that you can make mistakes. The common one is punishing a child and then finding out they didn’t do it. When the children were young, I would just shrug my shoulders, say “oops,” and elect not to tell them. I know this isn’t fair, but there is a bigger picture here, and it doesn’t happen that often. After all, think of all the things they should be punished for but we don’t know about. Next time they might actually commit the offense. All in all, it is best to hush it up. The system balances out on average.
But when they get older and they realize this type of thing, legitimate protests occur. When our son was 7 years old he came back from swimming, but his mother could not find his bathing suit in his bag. Not only that, his spare suit was missing too. It was not the first time this had happened, but previously it had been realized before everyone arrived home, and the bathing suit was duly rescued.
Forgetfulness is not something we want to encourage, so he received a punishment. On Friday nights the family sits down to watch Survivor. That week he missed out. He was upset and kept on claiming that he “didn’t know” how this could have happened (for good reason, as it turned out). Those protests of innocence fell on deaf ears.
The next day, his mother found the bathing suits—both of them—in his bag exactly where they should have been. Oops. Indeed, this was the second such incident in as many weeks. The previous week, he had been accused of misplacing his school pants at home, something that seemed to me a hard thing to do. Turns out someone had mistakenly put his pants away in his sister’s closet. Double oops.
Each time, the accuser was his mother. The evidence was irrefutable. What could we do? First up, we made amends for the unfair punishment. I offered him a “free pass”: the next time he did something that was due a punishment, he would get off with just a warning. As that was likely to be in the near future, he was happy with the deal.
But we also had to consider the false accusation, which (a) had not been a one-time occurrence and, most important, (b) did not involve me. I suggested that he be allowed to think up a punishment for her. That created amusement all around—well, except for one person. But it was accepted.
He struggled with what type of punishment to dole out. He toyed with sending her to bed early but quickly realized that wasn’t a punishment at all; and if he hadn’t realized it, I would have pointed it out. Then he naturally gravitated toward the “eye for an eye” philosophy. “Next time on Survivor, you won’t be watching, Mommy.”
He started to speculate on whether that was enough or whether she should also be forced to sit through The Wiggles while we all watched her. I loved his sense of irony but pointed out that the extra bit was really just for his amusement and that perhaps he didn’t want us to start adding things we found amusing to punishments too. So he left it at reciprocity.
This was a satisfying outcome, and no doubt his mother will think twice before accusing him of crimes in the future.

Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

I think I just made my biggest parenting mistake. Though he may also prove to be a parenting triumph. You see, Matilda’s second birthday is coming up, and she loves dogs. So I got her a four-legged tail-wagging friend.
My big mistake wasn’t Max, who is the sweetest puppy you’ll ever meet. It was my timing.
You see, I figured a dog would provide Matilda with stability during a time of turmoil. Betsey is about to finish her stint in the Obama administration, so we are leaving DC.  Our wonderful nanny is about to head off traveling. We are also leaving Wharton, and beyond spending next year visiting Princeton, we are yet to sort out our next destination. Amidst all this uncertainty, surely Max can provide some continuity. At least in theory.
I knew that a puppy would need a lot of work. I was prepared for taking walks, cleaning up accidents, and dealing with a desire to chew everything in sight. A lot like fatherhood, really. But I wasn’t prepared for Matilda to perceive Max as a competitor; he was meant to be a friend. She’s an only child, unused to sharing our time, attention and affection. And as Max has rewritten the rhythms of our family life, I realize that my idea for continuity yielded greater disruption.
But this is also a healthy disruption. Matilda is learning to share. When she takes Max for a walk, it’s clear she’s learning responsibility. And they’re teaching each other empathy. So in the long run, Max is also going to be a parenting triumph. As in much of economics, the challenge is the short run transition.
Oh, and about Max?  He’s from a rescue shelter–the unfortunate result of a chronic mismatch between puppy supply and demand.  Max is the Rorsach test of puppies–if you have a favorite breed, you can probably see some of it in him. More than just a mutt, he’s at least third generation mutt.  He’s also doe-eyed, dopey,and funny.
And why did we call him Max? I say it’s in homage to constrained optimization, which is the unifying theme of modern economics. Betsey says he’s named for The Grinch’s sunny companion. Matilda reckons that we’re both right–that Max is all about extracting the maximum joy from whatever situation you’re in. Sounds right.

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, a blogger at EconLog, and the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.

Ned Flanders: Well, the folks at the Senior Center sure will love that peach tree we planted.
Rod Flanders: I wish we could see their happy faces!
Ned Flanders: Sin of pride, Roddy.
Rod Flanders: I’m sorry.
Ned Flanders: Sin of regret.
The Simpsons
My book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, urges parents to stop beating themselves up. Adoption and twin research reveals that parents have little effect on their kids’ adult outcomes. So families have every reason to focus on enjoying today. Indeed, making painful sacrifices “for the children” is often worse for the whole family. When asked, kids’ main complaints about their parents are that they’re too tired, stressed, and angry. Reading between the lines, it looks like many parents dutifully do “whatever’s best for the children,” then periodically explode at them for changing the radio station.
The upshot is that being a great parent is pretty easy. Just raise your kids with kindness and respect, share good times together, and accept that their future is largely in their own hands. My closest thing to a major regret or mistake: I wish I had more kids. Lots more. I wouldn’t trade my three sons for the world. But in retrospect, nothing has been more rewarding than simply enlarging my family. When my wife and I found out we were having twins, I was terrified. But during our second pregnancy, I hoped for a second pair – or triplets.
Sometimes people ask me, “What’s the point of having another kid?.” I always retort, “What’s the point of having another friend?” Laugh if you must, but (almost) every person is a beautiful and unique snowflake. To share the gift of life with another piece of yourself, to witness a reboot of the human drama, to see The Simpsons through fresh eyes – all are literally awesome. The cost of another child seems trivial by comparison: A few months of lost sleep, changing a bunch of diapers, spending some extra money when my family already has plenty to eat and a roof over our heads. I barely even notice.
Of course, I’ve never been pregnant. But still.