The Economist’s Guide to Parenting: 10 Years Later (Ep. 479)
In one of the earliest Freakonomics Radio episodes (No. 39!), we asked a bunch of economists with young kids how they approached child-rearing. Now the kids are old enough to talk — and they have a lot to say. We hear about nature vs. nurture, capitalism vs. Marxism, and why you sometimes don’t tell your friends that your father is an economist.
Listen and follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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In the first Freakonomics book that Steve Levitt and I wrote, there was one chapter called “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” We put forward a collage of data suggesting that much of what modern parents do — or are encouraged to do — probably doesn’t matter all that much. Especially when it comes to what you might call “obsessive parenting” — trying to maximize your child’s potential with an abundance of culture cramming and extracurricular activities. There might be a strong correlation between obsessive parents and successful kids, but it’s not necessarily a causal relationship. In other words, the kind of parent most likely to parent obsessively was also likely to have bestowed upon their kids some even more powerful tools: a high IQ, for instance, or a strong work ethic. A few years after that first Freakonomics book, right when I started this podcast, we did an episode called “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” We interviewed a variety of economist parents to see how they approached the task. The results were predictably nerdy. From the very beginning of parenthood:
Betsey STEVENSON: We approached getting pregnant like any other project we’ve done.
To preparing their kids for the real world:
Justin WOLFERS: Matilda was leaving the house the other day at 17 months of age, I said, “Matilda this is your first day of human capital accumulation. You can finish when you’re 27.”
We also heard some hardcore self-reflection:
Bryan CAPLAN: I do sometimes think, “What if my kids don’t turn out well and then everyone blames me?” And I would still say well, the data just say it was going to happen anyway.
At the end of that episode, we wondered aloud whether we should check in with those economists’ kids 10 years later to see how they were doing. It was kind of a joke: I’d started the podcast on a lark; I certainly wasn’t planning on doing it for 10 years. But joke’s on me. It’s been 10 years since that episode. So we decided to get back in touch with the economists and, even better, their kids. We discovered that some of them did not fall far from the economist-parent tree:
Aidan CAPLAN: I believe in capitalism, and I will defend capitalism to anyone who wants to hear me defend it.
But some absolutely did:
Sofia SACERDOTE: I have trouble seeing how market economics and capitalism are actually meeting our goals of taking care of people.
And some of them are just really good at doing what kids have been doing to parents forever:
Matilda WOLFERS: Sure, Mother. Whatever you would like to believe.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: 10 years later, the kids are all right. What about the parents?
STEVENSON: I truly do believe in evidence-based parenting. But what are you maximizing?
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DUBNER: What’s something that you know now as a parent that you wish you’d known at the beginning?
Justin WOLFERS: How quick it goes.
STEVENSON: Yeah, gosh, I was going to say the same thing. Basically, Matilda’s all grown up.
Matilda WOLFERS: I’m 12!
STEVENSON: So do you still need parenting?
Matilda WOLFERS: No.
Justin WOLFERS: Oh, all right.
STEVENSON: You see the conflict. “I’m 12. I’m not grown up. I don’t need parenting.”
DUBNER: Matilda, what I just heard your mother say is that you’re all grown up, which means you don’t need their permission to do anything.
Matilda WOLFERS: Yeah, obviously. But when I want help, they obviously have to give it to me. I’m at the sweet spot.
Justin WOLFERS: A welfarist libertarian.
Matilda WOLFERS: Don’t know what that means.
Matilda Wolfers is the daughter of Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson; Matilda also has an eight-year-old brother named Oliver. Both her parents are economics professors at the University of Michigan. Stevenson has also served on the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House and as chief economist at the Department of Labor. Of all the economist parents we interviewed in our episode 10 years ago, Stevenson and Wolfers were among those most devoted to following the evidence. They’d read a lot of research in order to create what they saw as a menu of best parenting practices. As a result, Matilda was already taking music and preschool prep classes; she had been taught sign language before she could speak; she was also being raised completely sugar-free until her third birthday.
Justin WOLFERS: So Stephen, I listened to that earlier episode and I was struck by how type-A we sounded. I would like to think we’re more relaxed, and we see the joy in all of this. The stakes are still pretty high. I love my kids. And you described us as being evidence-based, and, you know, parenting is complicated. You want to try and get it right; I can’t think of anything better to rely on than evidence. So I think you can be evidence-based without being the full type-A tiger mom or tiger dad.
DUBNER: I should say, neither of you seem remotely joyless. So I don’t think those are mutually exclusive.
Justin WOLFERS: That’s going on my headstone. “Not entirely joyless.”
STEVENSON: I truly do believe in evidence-based parenting. But what are you maximizing? The thing I want most for my kids is for them to live a joyful, happy life.
The family lived in Washington when we visited them for that first episode. Here’s Matilda, not even two years old, with Ellen, the family’s nanny.
Ellen: Do you want to write “I love Mama?”
Matilda: Mm, Dada!
Ellen: And Dada? You can write that.
Matilda: I — Dada!
Ellen: Good job, Ms. Mattie, yay!
Ellen was a former schoolteacher; Stevenson and Wolfers were paying her $50,000 a year.
Justin WOLFERS: The first thing is just to acknowledge the enormous privilege that we were able to do that. The other is neither of us lives near family. And so for many people, Grandma or Grandpa are a source of what looks like free childcare. But of course, it’s not. Their time has an enormous opportunity cost, it’s just never priced. Also, you pay people well because you want to treat them well and because you value them. And this was a really important job for us. It’s not just childcare. Betsey was working in the government at the time, and that means she didn’t have a lot of time, and —.
DUBNER: It also meant you had to pay above board.
Justin WOLFERS: Well, it did mean we paid very legally.
STEVENSON: Well, ethically, I’d be above board, either way. But what I wanted to make sure is that we were being fair to what we were asking someone else to do. And I wanted someone to do what I would do if I was going to cut back my career. So that meant I had to hire somebody with a lot of qualifications and a lot of dedication and a lot of commitment. And that means that you pay for that.
Justin WOLFERS: Stephen, I remember after that episode aired, a colleague said to me, “Wow, you pay your nanny a lot.” And I looked at my colleague, who’s a Ph.D. economist who was married to a Ph.D. economist, but she was staying at home looking after their kids.
STEVENSON: We were like, “Your wife gave up a lot.”
Justin WOLFERS: You guys are paying $150,000 a year. Literally.
STEVENSON: I mean, look, there’s something to looking after your own kids. And many people might want to make that sacrifice. But it is a real sacrifice. It’s hard to get your career back on track.
I asked Matilda — 12-year-old Matilda — to name some of the things her parents did that she would be sure to copy if or when she has kids.
Matilda WOLFERS: No sugar ‘til three.
DUBNER: Tell me about that.
Matilda WOLFERS: If I had to suffer, they have to suffer.
STEVENSON: Sugar before you’re three is a terrible idea. Sugar is a toxin.
Matilda WOLFERS: Sugar’s a toxin.
DUBNER: Matilda, what’s your sugar intake like now? Do you have any?
Matilda WOLFERS: Yes.
DUBNER: Do you sneak it?
Matilda WOLFERS: No! Why ever would you think that? No, I get dessert every night. Sometimes I get a treat after school if I’ve been a very good girl.
DUBNER: When you were little, last time we talked, you were already, I think, really good at sign language. Do you still sign?
Matilda WOLFERS: I pretty much know the alphabet and a few other signs. It’s not really something we do generally at home.
STEVENSON: My motivation for sign language was that the research showed that it helped kids communicate earlier and helped them talk earlier. So it definitely seemed to work. Matilda was a good and early communicator. And in fact, I know Matilda’s very first sentence. Matilda, what was your first sentence, which sums up her entire personality?
Matilda WOLFERS: Ready? “Because I don’t want to.”
DUBNER: So I have to say, Matilda, you are really good at talking. Do you think that these things that your parents did when you were very, very young — sign language, no sugar, etc. — do you think those were contributors to your intellect, your communication?
Matilda WOLFERS: The no-sugar did nothing for my personality. Who I am as a person has nothing to do with sugar. The communicating at an early age might have helped because I learned how to express my needs. I know how to say what I want, instead of just assuming people will get it for me. I have challenged authority multiple times.
STEVENSON: Actually, I remember, Matilda, a really funny time where you challenged a teacher, in second grade. She hadn’t been getting through all the work that you guys were supposed to get done. And so she kept canceling recess. And one day, Matilda went up to her after class. And Matilda said, “I know you have a lot of work for us to get done, but studies show that kids that get access to recess learn more in school.”
Matilda WOLFERS: You’re punishing us because you don’t get the lesson done fast enough.
DUBNER: That sounds perfectly sensible to me. Do you remember how that teacher responded?
Matilda WOLFERS: I didn’t know this happened.
STEVENSON: You don’t remember? I remember it was a teacher who took that pretty well. She actually had heard the same study on N.P.R. and she thought it was pretty great that a student mentioned it to her. But that is how Matilda does tend to — I wouldn’t call it challenge authority, honey.
Matilda WOLFERS: Question authority.
STEVENSON: I think you are not afraid to bring relevant facts to the table when the decision’s been made by authority.
DUBNER: Matilda, this is a question I always hated being asked when I was your age but —.
Matilda WOLFERS: Oh no, I know this one.
DUBNER: Tell me what it is.
Matilda WOLFERS: Oh, what do you want to be when you grow up?
DUBNER: Yep, you nailed it.
Justin WOLFERS: That’s the child of a labor economist right there.
DUBNER: I’ve heard you’re interested perhaps in advertising, particularly the psychology behind advertising. Is that true?
Matilda WOLFERS: Yeah. You can control how people think!
DUBNER: Tell me about that.
Matilda WOLFERS: I think the hardest part of living is not knowing how other people think and having your life be dictated by, like, “I think someone thinks about this.” If you can control how somebody thinks, then you don’t have to worry about that.
DUBNER: Do you want to use it for your own purposes only, or do you want to use it to make the world better somehow?
Matilda WOLFERS: I mean, I want to use it to make the world better.
DUBNER: You do not. You’re just saying that because that’s how I asked it, right?
Matilda WOLFERS: This is going out to a big audience, so I feel like if I said that — no, I want to use it to make the world better.
At 12 years old, Matilda Wolfers still has a lot of her formative years ahead of her, so it’s hard to say how much she has been shaped by her parents. Let’s hear from another economist’s kid, this one a young adult.
Sofia SACERDOTE: My name is Sofia Sacerdote, and I am a junior at Brown University doing American Studies.
DUBNER: Sofia, have you taken any econ courses in college?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I have not.
Bruce SACERDOTE: You know, a lot of my colleagues instituted a requirement somehow — I don’t even know how you would do that. We didn’t even want to go there.
Bruce Sacerdote is an economics professor at Dartmouth. A lot of his research is focused on education — specifically, the impact that family can have. His wife Michele is a teacher at a Montessori school. They have two sons — 16-year-old Sam and 12-year-old Leo — and Sofia is 21.
DUBNER: Sofia, if I asked you to describe your dad in a sentence or two, you would say what?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I sometimes will withhold the fact that he is an economist because in certain circles I run in, that’s going to raise some eyebrows. I’ll usually start with, “He’s a professor.” I often make a joke: my parents teach at both ends of the educational spectrum — my mom teaching preschool, my dad teaching university.
DUBNER: When you said “both ends of the spectrum,” I thought you were going to say your mom is the opposite of an economist somehow.
Sofia SACERDOTE: I mean, I could go off on a politics of care and how I think my mom enacts that, while my dad looks at people in a very different way.
DUBNER: What do you mean by that, “in a very different way”?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I think economists, like in all fields, they have to be differently reductive. But I think a lot of economics, as I understand it, is reducing people to competitive players in a market.
DUBNER: So “reductive” is not the worst critique I’ve ever heard of economists. Does it go beyond reducing people to data that makes you ambivalent about economics?
Sofia SACERDOTE: Um, yes.
DUBNER: All right, just pretend your dad is not here for a second. Bruce, it’ll be okay, I promise.
Bruce SACERDOTE: Yeah, I’ve probably heard it before.
DUBNER: Basically, Sofia, I’m saying give me your best shot. What is it exactly — I don’t mean about your father, per se, I’m sure you love your father and you think he’s a wonderful human — but what is it about being an economist or the field of economics that really doesn’t sit well with you?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I adore my dad. And I think a great deal of what he’s taught me about how to think about the world and how to approach problems and really just how to treat people — when I take that to the logical extreme, that’s how I come to form my politics. I have trouble seeing how market economics and how capitalism are actually meeting our goals of taking care of people. It’s treating people not as people, but as workers and interchangeable bodies. It’s not seeing people for the complexity that we are. And it’s leaving some things up to chance and to a market that’s been rigged from the very beginning.
DUBNER: But you also said that your worldview has been informed by what your father taught you. What do you mean by that?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I think both my parents did a really great job of instilling in me and my brothers a sense of kindness towards others. I think we have a really strong, beautiful ethic of mutual aid in which all of our money is shared and we make decisions pretty collectively. And when I think about a more beautiful world, I would want it to look a little bit more like our family, and for people to have those similar networks of care.
Sofia is planning to attend medical school, also at Brown, after graduating next year. People go to medical school for all sorts of reasons. In this case, you get the sense it is the continuation of a mission that’s been underway for a while. As an undergrad, Sofia has been working at a clinic that provides medical care and housing services for people who were formerly incarcerated. How much of this mission comes from the family Sofia grew up in? In our episode 10 years ago, we talked to Bruce Sacerdote about his research on twins and adoption. When he analyzed the data on Korean children who’d been adopted into American families, he found that parents didn’t have that large an effect on their kids’ educational outcomes. But you could imagine that parents have a powerful impact on their children’s worldview. So I wanted to know if he saw Sofia’s worldview as inconsistent with the economic worldview he’s devoted his career to.
Bruce SACERDOTE: No, not at all. I understand that there are market failures. And that’s a lot of what we talk about. I think that it depends on how broad a definition of economics you take. I think if you were to take classes in a modern U.S. university economics department, you’d see all kinds of faculty and viewpoints on public economics and development economics. In the empirical economics world, most of the attention is given to economists like Raj Chetty and John Friedman and Nathan Hendren, who are studying the lives of low-income folks and asking about income inequality. And they’re getting the most attention relative to any other economists.
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s a really good point. Sofia, how would you describe your politics or your political worldview?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I would say it originates out of a place of wanting to make the world a better and safer and more caring place for people, especially people for whom that’s least true right now in 2021, and to try to right some of the wrongs of history that have brought us to this point. And frameworks that I have found helpful in trying to think that through come from Marx and from a lot of Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, Audrey Lorde.
DUBNER: Do you think of yourself as a Marxist?
Sofia SACERDOTE: Yeah, I would say I’m a Marxist.
DUBNER: And how much of that was shaped by your father, even if not intentionally?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I mean, I think college has given me a lot of time and space to read a lot, to meet a lot of different peers who have helped expose me to a lot of ideas. I also just think that living through the Covid-19 pandemic, which laid bare so many inequities that have always existed, and then also living through the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and seeing how these things all came together, just really provided all that my brain needed to rethink a lot of what I’d been taught.
DUBNER: Bruce, you may not want to answer this question, but do you hope in your heart of hearts that Sofia, quote, grows out of Marxism, at least a little bit?
Bruce SACERDOTE: No, I don’t, because really what Michele and I care about are their actions.
Sofia uses the pronouns “they” and “she.”
SACERDOTE: And so they’re doing fantastic work. And that’s what matters. And so, while I don’t necessarily agree with the assumptions that lead to Marx’s conclusions, that doesn’t even matter that much, right? Outcomes matter more than stated positions on things. I think that Sofia outlined a lot of reasons why their generation feels that way and came to that conclusion.
DUBNER: I am curious, do these political or worldview differences play out interestingly at the dinner table when you’re home, Sofia?
Sofia SACERDOTE: Definitely, things get me pretty frustrated. But also, I keep coming home and I keep calling my dad because he’s been a really helpful and safe person to grow with and, I think, grow alongside.
DUBNER: Can you think of one thing that your dad did as a parent that you would really want to emulate as a parent yourself?
Sofia SACERDOTE: I think my dad’s done a great job walking alongside us as a parent and letting us lead at times. Some people might see them as really soft parents, but I actually think softness is really beautiful and softness is something I think a lot about in my own work. I think softness is what gives way to a lot of kindness but also a lot of flexibility. I think that rigid systems are always going to fail. Larger-scale systems are never going to work for everyone. And that softness and flexibility that my parents showed me in how they parented is a lot of how I want to be a physician or, if I don’t go to medical school after all, in whatever role I have.
For all Sofia’s appreciation, for all the striving from both Sofia and Bruce to see the commonalities in their worldviews, you can’t deny that Sofia Sacerdote doesn’t exactly sound like the offspring of an academic economist. Coming up after the break, we hear from the offspring of another economist who has also pointed out that parenting isn’t as influential as we think. Except maybe in the case of his kids, who happen to be twins. Twin one:
Aidan CAPLAN: I’m very interested in becoming a professional economist. I think I would like to focus especially on economic history.
And twin two:
Tristan CAPLAN: I also agree that I would enjoy being an economic historian.
And we’ll hear from Steve Levitt, who’s expecting his seventh child. Surely, he must have all the answers by now:
LEVITT: You know, if I could just get to eight.
And don’t forget to check out Levitt’s podcast; it’s called People I (Mostly) Admire. In one recent episode, he interviewed his two oldest daughters, Amanda and Lily. It is an amazing episode, and I encourage you to listen; it’s Episode 46 of the People I (Mostly) Admire podcast — which, like all shows in the Freakonomics Radio Network, you can follow, for free, on any podcast app. We’ll be right back.
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The next stop on our tour of economists’ children brings us to a pair of 18-year-old twins.
Aidan CAPLAN: Hello, I’m Aidan Caplan. I am the son of famous economist Bryan Caplan. I’m an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt, my first year. I’m planning on double-majoring in economics and history with minors in math and Spanish.
DUBNER: Okay, Tristan?
Tristan CAPLAN: Hello, I’m Tristan Caplan. Everything that Aidan said could also be said about me. My majors are also economics and history, hopefully, with minors also in mathematics and Spanish. However, to make myself seem at least plausibly unique, I will also add that amongst my favorite pastimes are role-playing games and walks with my family.
DUBNER: And Bryan Caplan, father?
Bryan CAPLAN: I am Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University. And I’m the father of Aidan and Tristan, and in particular, I home-schooled them for the last six years.
Tristan CAPLAN: Yeah, so in K through six, I was just miserable in school, because they kept making us do stuff that seemed pointless to me. Music, art, dance, making posters every day. It was just dreadful.
Aidan CAPLAN: I am going to say I was the reluctant one but it was my brother, Tristan, that persuaded me to go through with it. His great pitch, which is still echoed in our family to this day, is, “Do you want to be a poster monkey for the rest of your life?”
Tristan CAPLAN: Yes, our dad just gave us this lifesaver and said, “You can come to my home-school, and you will get to learn about ideas. You will get to read. You will get to do what you actually enjoy.”
DUBNER: And Bryan, at what point did you conceive of home-school as a solution?
Bryan CAPLAN: I was interested in home-schooling, actually, long before I had kids, long before I was married. But then a lot of it was just paying attention to the kids and just seeing that they seemed to be getting less and less happy every year. There’s been a big change in the way that public school is taught, at least in our area, compared to what it was done in Los Angeles when I was growing up. There’s been a big rise of an anti-intellectual approach to education, where it’s much more about just socializing other kids. It’s always been me that’s taken the initiative on this. My wife has been supportive, but she’s got a full-time job that requires constant attention to work. And as a professor, I can juggle a bunch of balls simultaneously. So that’s why I’m the natural person to do this. And of course, I am technically an educator, actually.
DUBNER: Bryan, in our episode 10 years ago, you said, “In all honesty, I do sometimes think, ‘What if my kids don’t turn out well and everyone blames me?’” Now, you weren’t talking about home-schooling. You were just talking about your style of parenting. So I am curious whether that statement was, to some degree, a commitment device, whether you felt you needed to work as hard as you did at home-schooling because you planted your flag as being a different kind of parent?
Bryan CAPLAN: I wouldn’t say I was really too nervous about anyone except my wife. I was concerned that she would say that if we didn’t get a good score on a test at the end of the year that it was a failure, and they needed to go back to regular school. All that I did is just bring them to my office at George Mason University. I happen to be blessed with an extra-large office. Don’t tell anyone. I did spend a lot of time selecting textbooks and trying to find topics that I thought would be good for them, and also find out what interested them. There were some areas where I said, “Look, even if you don’t really like it, we have to do it because your whole future depends on it,” like math. And there are other areas where I said, “Hey, it seems like you like history. Let’s try that.”
DUBNER: So Bryan, a few years ago, you wrote a book called The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Can you untangle for me what appears to be a slightly paradoxical maze in which you, a university professor at a public university, which is supported in large part by tax dollars, can make an argument totally against education, and then use your university-professor position, including bringing your kids into your office, to home-school them for the education that you also don’t want them to participate in? Is that as paradoxical as it seems to me, or for you, is there more of an internal consistency than I’m seeing?
Bryan CAPLAN: I see great internal consistency, but you’re totally sensible to wonder what it is. So the first thing is, I see myself as a whistle-blower. A lot of the reason why people took that book seriously is I could begin by saying, “The system has been great to me. It’s all worked out for me. And yet I don’t think that it’s a good use of taxpayer money.” In terms of trying to help my sons out, well, here’s the thing: they’ve known for a long time they’re interested in being professors. So for that, there is no home-schooled path to becoming a professor. What I was able to do was to help them skip through the most meaningless, time-wasting parts of education while really doubling down or multiplying tenfold on the parts that actually count. In terms of, taking advantage of my office, well, what’s the point of not doing it? I’ve got office space. I’ve got kids that need education. Why not bring them to the office?
DUBNER: And did your department ever say, “Hey, it’s lovely that you’re home-schooling your kids here, but you’re really supposed to be here spending all day, every day, reading, doing research, and teaching”? Did you ever get any pushback?
Bryan CAPLAN: I never got any pushback from anyone. Everyone was supportive. I think honestly, people appreciate someone who’s taking education seriously. And it’s kind of fun, little kids who want to learn economics are great mascots to have around in economics departments.
Bryan’s wife, Corina, is a lawyer; they also have two younger children. As an economist, Caplan is best known for his libertarian views. In addition to writing about the education system, he also wrote a book arguing in favor of open borders to boost the global economy, as well as a book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. In that one, he argues that parenting should be fun and that parents are less influential than most people think. So how influential has Bryan Caplan been to his 18-year-old sons? I asked Aidan and Tristan to describe their economic philosophies. Aidan first:
Aidan CAPLAN: Yeah, so I’m at Bryan Caplan’s position. I believe in free trade, I believe in libertarianism, I believe in capitalism, and I will defend capitalism to anyone who wants to hear me defend it.
Tristan CAPLAN: I’d say that I’m ultimately more of a minarchist.
A “minarchist” being an advocate of minarchism, which is essentially libertarianism with minimal government.
Tristan CAPLAN: Basically, my position is: Let’s get to minarchism and then see how we can proceed from there.
DUBNER: Tristan, I’m curious: after being home-schooled for so many years, why did you want to go to college? Was it purely to get the credentials so that you could become a university professor?
Tristan CAPLAN: I’d say about 70 percent of it. I really need the credential, not necessarily to become a university professor, of course. I also would need the Vanderbilt degree to get a pretty high-paying job generally.
DUBNER: Aidan, can I have your answer to that as well?
Aidan CAPLAN: I felt like I needed that credential to get any sort of job that I would want to do. I will say that the reason we went to Vanderbilt specifically is because they gave us a great scholarship. So for me, the financial concern was very overwhelming in comparison to other factors.
DUBNER: What are some things that your parents did that you will not emulate as parents yourselves? Aidan?
Aidan CAPLAN: I think I’m ultimately going to pay more attention to what it is that my children want rather than what I think they should do. I think our dad went along with that to a great extent, but I think I would do it even more so. Our mom certainly is more interested in what she thinks her kids should be doing than what it is they actually want to do.
DUBNER: And do you attribute that difference to the fact that your dad is an economist?
Aidan CAPLAN: Definitely being an economist had a profound impact on our dad’s thinking. Our dad is what he likes to call a selective nonconformist, which means that he looks at the whole range of things that he could do, the rules that would be easiest to break, the norms that would be easiest not to follow, and then he breaks those rules and those norms, and he goes along with the rest. And so I think I would do something very similar, but maybe err a little bit more on the side of just do what you want and don’t worry about what society expects or cares about.
“A selective nonconformist.” Someone who “doesn’t worry what society expects or cares about.” That sounds like another economist I know, the economist I know best.
LEVITT: My name is Steven Levitt, and I am a professor at the University of Chicago.
Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He has always marched to the beat of his own weird drum. In my view, that’s one reason he’s always done such interesting and unusual research, on topics that other scholars probably wouldn’t even consider. Collusion among sumo wrestlers. Discrimination among game-show contestants. And let’s not forget his ground-breaking research on the relationship between legalized abortion and crime. Levitt is also unusual — at least in 21st-century America — in having a relatively large family.
LEVITT: Amanda is my oldest daughter. She’s 21. Olivia, who calls herself Lily, is also 21. My son Nick is 18. My daughter Sophie is 17. Two of those, the oldest and the youngest, are adopted from China.
There was also a son, Andrew, the first-born, who died at age 1 from pneumococcal meningitis.
LEVITT: And then I also have a second family with a different mother, my wife Susanne, and those are two little girls, Anna, who’s age four, and Nina, who’s age three.
DUBNER: And expecting a seventh?
LEVITT: A little boy is on the way.
DUBNER: So first of all, congratulations on procreating so fully. Do you have anything particular to say about what that gap is like, between having a set of kids who are now older and then a younger set? I guess really what I’m asking is: are you fundamentally different as a parent this time around?
LEVITT: I have to say, when I started the second family, I had big visions. I had the belief that, “Wow, I’m so lucky I get to try again. And I’ll do everything differently.” Now, there are two things that have changed. No. 1, I’m a lot older and I have a lot of experience with parenting. But No. 2, there’s a different mom. And it turns out in my case, my wife Susanne has very strong beliefs about parenting. So of all the things that have changed, I’d say more things have changed because of her different approach to parenting than from what I learned. Susanne is German and she’s kind of a mix of authoritarian and hippie. And so she’s totally against T.V. and she’s against sugar and candy and all sorts of things. But I have to say, when I went back to reflect on what I would do differently from parenting the first time around, I couldn’t really remember how I parented the first time around, and it was all just a bit of a blur. And in the end, I think I’ve repeated many of the mistakes I did the first time around.
DUBNER: What do you mean by mistakes?
LEVITT: Well, “mistakes” is maybe too strong. And actually as I thought about talking to you, I was going to come in here and say, “Look, I’ve really been humbled by parenting.” But then I listened to the podcast episode that you did 10 years ago and I was already completely humbled by then. I think I was sleep-deprived chronically.
DUBNER: You did say back in that episode, 10 years ago, “The other problem I have is I have four kids. If you have too many kids, you can’t invest that heavily in any one of them because you go crazy.” How would you reassess that now? And if you felt that way, why did you want to have at least three more kids?
LEVITT: I mean, there’s just no doubt that the amount of investment you can make in your children is a function of how many you have. It’s just impossible to spread two adults as thickly over four children as you would over one. Now, I had to believe then, I continue to believe it now, that helicopter parenting isn’t really very important. The kind of investments that you make in your kids I think don’t actually pay very big returns. I would say honestly, I didn’t invest very intensely in the first round of four kids and they mostly turned out pretty good. Certainly academically, they didn’t seem to suffer at all. And socially they’re mostly pretty good. Honestly, I was ready to stop. But Susanne, my wife, calls the shots and she really, really wanted a third one and a boy. And so we’re going to make a go with three.
DUBNER: So Susanne is also an economist, but you’ve told me that she doesn’t really parent like an economist. What do you mean by that?
LEVITT: I think she’s a hippie first. She’s German second. And she’s an economist third. So there are elements of economics that float around in our household. But not intensely. So for instance, listening back on the episode from 10 years ago with Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. It makes me laugh — just what economists can do if you really treat children like economists. I mean, it’s great. It’s awesome. It’s fun to hear that. But that’s so far from our experience. I mean, I would say if you came to our house and you had to guess what our professions were, you might think that we were fortune tellers and, I don’t know, failed professional golfers.
DUBNER: So at the risk of being presumptuous, I want to run what I see as Levitt-the-parent theory past you, from the older set of kids to the younger set of kids. You are a university professor — went to Harvard, went to M.I.T., teach at Chicago. Those are levels of accomplishment and credentialism that are intense. And my sense is that even though you didn’t feel that being a helicopter parent or overinvesting, especially in culture-cramming and different kinds of obsessive parenting, were the right way to parent, you admire accomplishment, and it would naturally follow to me that you would admire accomplishment in your children. I see now, not that accomplishment has gotten less important, but you embrace more — and this is where I’m being presumptuous — just unconditional love as a human and as a parent. And I’m curious whether that presumption is correct?
LEVITT: It’s certainly true that I’ve moved in the direction of unconditional love, both towards the world, but especially towards these kids. One guiding principle is I just want these kids, the young ones, to feel loved in almost whatever they do. But honestly, I don’t think it was so different with the older ones. I would say of all my children, the one who you might say, in traditional terms, has been “least successful” maybe would be Amanda, the oldest, because even though she was a straight-A student, she decided not to go to college. And I thought that was a bad idea. I tried to talk her into going to college, but she’s headstrong. And I will say watching her over the last three years, I can’t say anything but it was the right choice for her. She has worked harder, writing her own book and being an entrepreneur and marketing that book, and done it with a joy and a kindness to others that — how could I be anything but incredibly proud of what she’s doing?
DUBNER: Does a part of you hurt a little bit that Amanda rejected literally your profession, but also your belief in the power of education?
LEVITT: Oh God, you know me better than that. Not in the slightest. I mean, I teach at a university, but I don’t hold any illusions that everybody needs to go to university and teach at a university. I mean, some people get caught up in wanting the world to look like them, but that’s not my particular problem.
On a recent episode of his podcast People I (Mostly) Admire, Levitt had a conversation with Amanda and Lily, his other oldest daughter. Here’s a clip of Lily talking to her dad. She’s a student at Vassar College, majoring in psychology and minoring in economics:
Lily: I think me minoring in econ is a reflection on how I’ve changed my outlook on incentives. Because really, my biggest incentive in life is other people’s approval and feeling smart and feeling capable. So any opportunity that I had in my life to impress you, that was a huge incentive. When I realized that majoring in psych probably wasn’t hugely impressive to you, I was like, let’s do something else.
LEVITT: Wait, I didn’t know you wanted to impress me. That’s so — I didn’t think that you had any interest in impressing me.
Lily: No, absolutely. I do want to impress you.
LEVITT: So let me just say, if that’s the reason you’re doing econ, you should please stop because I do not — first of all, it doesn’t impress me. Second of all, I don’t need to be impressed by you. So that’s a terrible reason that is literally the —.
Lily: It probably is a terrible reason, but it is the truth.
I asked Levitt now how he felt about one of his kids wanting to impress him by following in his economist footprints.
LEVITT: Honestly, it makes me feel like a failure as a parent that I so poorly communicated to the kids what does impress me. And what impresses me is, more than anything I’d say, working hard, being kind.
DUBNER: So in that interview, Lily also talked about a serious eating disorder she has had, and she believes it stemmed from when she was very young, that she had low self-esteem. I was curious to know, Levitt, whether you knew that before that interview and how it affected you as a parent to hear that.
LEVITT: Yeah, Lily, for reasons I don’t understand, has had a lot of self-hatred from a very early age. And it wasn’t so apparent, it didn’t manifest itself in a way a parent could see. But she’s been really open about that. So I knew about it ahead of time. And I have to say, self-hatred is just one of those things, it’s hard to explain.
DUBNER: Did you feel guilty at all when she said that? Because I guess most of us like to think as parents that we are somehow responsible for our children’s self-esteem, whether that’s deserved or not.
LEVITT: I can’t say that I felt guilty about it. I’m deeply saddened by it, but I do feel — maybe it’s just making excuses after the fact, but I do feel there wasn’t a lot that could have been controlled. Do I have any idea where that self-hatred comes from? No, I don’t understand where it comes from. I think it’s just one of those complexities of the human psyche.
DUBNER: What’s something you know now as a parent, Levitt, that you wish you knew a decade or two decades ago?
LEVITT: When my son Andrew died, that really shaped my parenting. With Andrew, I was much more confident as a parent that I could control things and that I was important. And then when he died, one of the lessons I took away from it was that I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t even keep him alive. And I really was just forced to accept that I wasn’t that important. I wasn’t living their life. I couldn’t keep them safe. The universe is what it is, and I just had to offer them up to the universe and do the best I could to guide them along the way. And I think that in some sense has been so central to what I do.
DUBNER: In that podcast conversation with Amanda and Lily, you said to them, “I have an unusual chance to be a dad a second time around because I got remarried. Do you have any advice for me about how to do a better job than I did the first time around?” And Amanda said — I thought this was amazing, she said — “I think you’re doing a much better job than you were the first time around. You are a lot more present and active in their lives. I think you’re doing a pretty good job.” What’s your take hearing that?
LEVITT: I was a little surprised that both of my older daughters, their main memory is that I was completely absent, that I was always golfing, which is true. I did do a lot of golfing. I didn’t know they realized I was doing a lot of golfing. But a difference this second time around is I do have more time. When the older ones were young, I was incredibly busy. We were doing Freakonomics and I was being a professor. So I wouldn’t say it’s so much a change in who I am or how much I know, but I just — I am home more, and I am more available. So whether more of me is a good thing or a bad thing, we’ll find out in 17 years.
DUBNER: So Levitt, where has this entire parenting experience — especially with two distinct sets of kids — where has this led you to land on the power of nature versus nurture?
LEVITT: The first set of kids, I would say individual differences were large across those four, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to point directly to a particular genetic component. I wouldn’t say that my two biological children are radically more like each other than the two adopted ones. Lily was an extremely hard worker and so were the two adopted ones. Nick wasn’t a hard worker. But obviously there are many dimensions and there are only four kids. So it’s easy to find some things where the two biological ones are similar. In the end, I didn’t really take that much away. My sample size of four wasn’t nearly big enough.
DUBNER: So is that why you’re having more kids now?
LEVITT: Yeah, I got to get my sample size up. If I could just get to eight.
This is a big question for any parent, whether you’ve got a Ph.D. in economics or not: how powerful are the hereditary forces of nature versus the many factors that constitute nurture, and how do nature and nurture blend in a given person? It’s plainly not a simple thing to sort out. Just think about schooling. The older a kid gets, the more time they spend outside the home, with their peers. There’s some evidence that peer influence can be very powerful; that said, parents are the ones who choose the school their kids will attend — and, to a lesser degree, what kind of peers their kids will spend time with. So if you had to summarize the nature-versus-nurture research from an economist’s perspective?
Bryan CAPLAN: The main punch line of this work is, yes, that nurture is greatly overrated.
That, again, is Bryan Caplan of George Mason University.
CAPLAN: Now, there’s a few different ways that you can interpret those results. One of them is just to say that parenting just cannot matter. That’s not really what the data say. What the data say is that it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t say what can or can’t happen. So one possibility is maybe what you really need to do to make a big difference in your kids’ lives is just to multiply your effort many-fold.
Caplan, remember, home-schooled his twin sons Aidan and Tristan.
CAPLAN: If I had just given them 10 minutes of economics a week, then, yeah, probably there’d be barely any visible difference. Instead, if I give them 10 hours a week, then you do start to see that there is a big payoff.
I asked Justin Wolfers, father of Matilda, for his take on the power of nature versus nurture.
Justin WOLFERS: Uh, who cares? You do the best you got with what you got. So if it’s 80 percent nature, it still leaves me with 20 percent. If it’s 20 percent nature, it leaves me with 80 percent. And either way, I want to get that part of the puzzle right.
DUBNER: I know that in that old episode, I asked how confident you were that all these choices you were making — a certain kind of really wonderful nanny, organic food and no sugar, teaching Matilda sign language — I asked how confident are you that all your investments are worthwhile? And you said, “Not at all confident.” So has that confidence fallen even further or do you think risen, now that you’ve seen some of the results in 12-year-old Matilda?
Justin WOLFERS: We adore 12-year-old Matilda.
Matilda WOLFERS: I know.
Justin WOLFERS: So we could pat ourselves on the back. Or we could have just been lucky, or we could be genetically programmed to adore our offspring. All of those seem pretty likely to me. It is humbling. And I think, honestly, it makes one a better economist as well. We economists are known for having egos, and having them cut down to size over the dinner table each night is probably very good for our souls.
DUBNER: Okay, Matilda, what would you say is the very best thing about your parents?
Matilda WOLFERS: Well, if I want something, they let me argue my case for it.
DUBNER: Give me an example.
Matilda WOLFERS: Like, I wanted a TikTok account, so I had to make my case why that would be a safe thing, and what I would do to put the protocols, and why it was a necessity for daily life.
DUBNER: I can’t disagree with you. It plainly is a necessity for daily life.
Matilda WOLFERS: It is.
DUBNER: What was your argument?
Matilda WOLFERS: Because I was bored. And I had nothing to do. And would you rather have me watching TikTok, or making TikToks? Which is more creative? What’s a better use of my time? Because I’m going to do one or the other.
Justin WOLFERS: You made a better argument than that. Matilda told me she was only interested in one niche of TikTok. What was that, Matilda?
Matilda WOLFERS: Making videos about books. With my parents, you have to have one firm base of what you want to do, something they would approve of, and then you just kind of build onto it.
DUBNER: And when you said that you proposed the protocols that you could put in place, do you remember what those were?
Matilda WOLFERS: It’s just I have to show my mother before I post anything.
STEVENSON: Matilda knew that I was concerned about things like, would she say something in social media she would later come to regret? And internet privacy, like, how much of herself is she revealing to the world? And then I have concerns about how peers are relating to each other through social media.
DUBNER: Matilda, what do you think of those concerns? I mean, I’m an old person, but they sound pretty legit to me.
Matilda WOLFERS: Yeah, they’re legit. Mother, use less fancy language when telling them to me.
DUBNER: Matilda, are you fun to live with, would you say?
Matilda WOLFERS: Oh, yes. I’m an absolute joy.
Hey, what do you think: should we check in with Matilda — and Aidan and Tristan and Sofia — in another 10 years if we’re still around? I’d love to know what you thought of this episode; we’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Ascha Miles and several other listeners who wrote in to suggest that we do this 10-year follow-up episode. Also, one more reminder to check out the episode of Steve Levitt’s podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire, where he interviews his daughters Amanda and Lily; it’s episode No. 46. Thanks to all the young people who spoke with us today and to their economist parents, too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Mary Diduch. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Justin Wolfers, professor of economics at the University of Michigan.
- Betsey Stevenson, professor of economics at the University of Michigan.
- Matilda Wolfers, daughter of economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson.
- Bruce Sacerdote, professor of economics at Dartmouth College.
- Sofia Sacerdote, student at Brown University concentrating in American Studies; child of economist Bruce Sacerdote.
- Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University.
- Aidan Caplan, student at Vanderbilt University majoring in economics and history and minoring in mathematics and Spanish; son of economist Bryan Caplan.
- Tristan Caplan, student at Vanderbilt University majoring in economics and history and minoring in mathematics and Spanish; son of economist Bryan Caplan.
- Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- Lily Levitt, student at Vassar College majoring in psychology and minoring in economics; daughter of economist Steven Levitt.
- Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, by Bryan Caplan (2019).
- The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan (2018).
- “Minarchists and Anarchists — i.e. Champions of the Night-Watchman State and Opponents of Any State — Aren’t as Clearly Distinguishable as One Might Think,” by David S. D’Amato (Libertarianism.org, 2018).
- “Recess Makes Kids Smarter,” by Caralee Adams (Scholastic, 2017).
- “CDC Healthy Schools: Recess,” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017).
- Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, by Bryan Caplan (2011).
- “Peer Effects in Education: How Might They Work, How Big Are They and How Much Do We Know Thus Far?” by Bruce Sacerdote (Handbook of the Economics of Education, 2011).
- “Is Sugar Toxic?” by Gary Taubes (The New York Times Magazine, 2011).
- “How Large Are the Effects from Changes in Family Environment? A Study of Korean American Adoptees,” by Bruce Sacerdote (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2o07).
- “Testing Theories of Discrimination: Evidence from Weakest Link,” by Steven D. Levitt (The Journal of Law & Economics, 2004).
- “The Probability That a Real-Estate Agent Is Cheating You (and Other Riddles of Modern Life),” by Stephen Dubner (The New York Times, 2003).
- “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling,” by Mark Duggan and Steven D. Levitt (The American Economic Review, 2002).
- “The Power of Peers,” by Caroline Hoxby (Education Next, 2002).
- “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” by John J. Donohue III and Steven D. Levitt (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001).
- “School-Based Peer Effects and Juvenile Behavior,” by Alejandro Gaviria and Steven Raphael (The Review of Economics and Statistics, 2001).
- “Peer Effects with Random Assignment: Results for Dartmouth Roommates,” by Bruce Sacerdote (NBER Working Paper, 2000).
- “Amanda & Lily Levitt Share What It’s Like to be Steve’s Daughters (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 46),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting (Ep. 39),” by Freakonomics Radio (2011).