The Economist’s Guide to Parenting

Listen now:

Season 1, Episode 2

Our second hour-long episode of Freakonomics Radio is called “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” (You can listen or download via the link above, or read a transcript here. This episode and four more hours will be airing on public-radio stations across the country this summer at various times, so check out your local station’s website. And you can subscribe to the Freakonomics Radio podcast on iTunes or via RSS.)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what the **** — economists? What can economists possibly have to say about something as emotional, as nuanced, as humane, as parenting? Well, let me say this: because economists aren’t necessarily emotional (or, for that matter, all that nuanced or humane), maybe they’re exactly the people we need to sort this through. Maybe.

You may remember that we wrote a bit about parenting in Freakonomics; now we’ve put together an entire roundtable of economists to talk about a great many elements of child-rearing, with one essential question in mind: how much do parents really matter, and in what dimensions? So you’ll hear about parents’ effect on everything from education and culture cramming to smoking and drinking.

The economists include: our very own Steve Levitt; Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (both of whom show up on this blog regularly); Bruce Sacerdote; Joshua Gans (the author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting; Melissa Kearney (whom you heard in our “No-Lose Lottery” podcasts); Valerie Ramey; and last but very, very much not least, Bryan Caplan (the blogger and author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Parenting is More Fun and Less Work Than You Think.

If you are like me, you will: learn a lot; gnash your teeth a lot; and laugh a lot.

Steve Levitt with his wife and four kids.

A few highlights:

LEVITT: So, I’m probably not a very good parent in the sense that I don’t obsess very much about my children’s success. I just kind of figure that everything’s going to turn out all right for them. And I probably wait far too long going down the path of things now turning out before we get involved. So, for instance, two of my kids were terrible readers for a long time. And they read fine now, but probably if I’d been paying more attention I would have been more troubled by it, I would have, you know, put them into tutoring programs and other things much more quickly.

Bruce Sacerdote and family

Bruce Sacerdote, whose research on adoption is featured prominently in the show, talks about some of the areas where nurture beats out nature:

SACERDOTE: You see that children are picking up their parents’ smoking and drinking habits with a very high degree of correlation, and it’s the same with the adoptees and the non-adoptees, they really pick up their parents’ habits, those type of habits explicitly. Another thing that’s undoubtedly contagious is that behavior of how you interact, how you treat other people, how you treat employees at a restaurant, or a retail store or something. I think those things are probably highly contagious as well.

Bryan Caplan with wife Corina, twins Aidan and Tristan, and baby Simon - named after the economist Julian Simon, who inspired his existence. (Courtesy Emily Korff of Veralana Photography)

And Bryan Caplan on the startlingly slim effect that parents seem to have on their children’s lifetime income:

CAPLAN: The Korean War orphans were adopted in the ‘50s and ‘60s at a time when it was much easier for low-income families to adopt. So, families were eligible as long as they were twenty-five percent above the poverty line, which would be quite unusual today. So, these kids were raised by a much broader range of the socio-economic spectrum than would happen to adoptees today. And yet, the finding of the study by Bruce Sacerdote was that the kids raised by the very poorest families grew up to have the same income as the kids raised by the very richest families. It’s striking that it’s the kind of thing that you would think of as being more about upbringing broadly defined than a lot of other traits. So it could be that it’s actual upbringing where your parents instill the value of a dollar and hard work in you. Or it could be something more like nepotism where because you get raised by the right kind of parents you get good connections, they actually make a phone call for you. And yet, actually the very best studies of the nature and nurture of income find that parents do have a moderate effect on your early income when you’re in your twenties, but basically zero for the rest of your life.

Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson with the beguiling Matilda Sloan Wolfers (the only child to appear in our radio show) (Courtesy of Sarah Miller Photography)

You’ll probably hear more from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers in this hour than anyone else (as well as their beguiling 19-month-old daughter Matilda); they are very entertaining talkers when it comes to parenting. And candid too:

STEVENSON: I think that the hardest thing as a parent is to admit that you’re going to take risks with your child’s life, to actually admit out loud, I take risks with my child’s life. If you said that at a cocktail party, people would look at you like you were a monster. But of course we take risks with our lives everyday. I take Matilda out on to the sidewalk and we cross streets. Every time we cross a street we’re taking a risk. It’s not risk free to cross the street, or to ride the subway, or to go in the car. Almost everything we do has risks, and as economists I think Justin and I are really comfortable with thinking about risks and making decisions with them. And that means we have to face the really painful thing, which is we take risks with our child’s life.”

Melissa Kearney and offspring

And Melissa Kearney on how an economist mom talks to her kids:

KEARNEY: The way I explain things to my kids, I hear an economist talking to them. I mean, I explain everything to my kids in terms of opportunity cost. My daughter, when she was two in the grocery store, and I’m like, “Listen, you’re making choices and if you pick that you don’t get that.” Right, there’s a cost to your choices? And I’ll hear my son tell my daughter — they’re toddlers speaking — they’ll be like, “Look, you made a bad choice.”

Valerie Ramey with husband Gary, also an economist at UCSD; and their children Michelle and Sean.

Joshua Gans

Thanks to all the above economists and many others whose research we drew upon, and to everyone involved in producing the show. Additionally, here are a few of the research papers the show mentions or alludes to:

Product Recalls, Imperfect Information, and Spillover Effects: Lessons from the Consumer Response to the 2007 Toy Recalls.”

The Rug Rat Race.”

Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress.”

What Happens When We Randomly Assign Children to Families?”

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.”

Parental Education and Parental Time with Children


The hour-long podcasts aren't appearing on iTunes.

Ted Pavlic

I notice that the LATEST hour-long episode is available via RSS at the alternate Freakonomics feed:

Strangely, this feed is called "Freakonomics" while the podcasts are called "Freakonomics Radio". However, in the podcast content, it implies the other way around... That is, that the specials are the radio and the podcasts are the ugly stepchild.

So for now, subscribe to that RSS feed above (from what I remember, in the old days, iTunes could do RSS; you shouldn't have to go through the iTunes store). You'll then get the hour-long specials as they come out (I'm guessing) but don't hope to automatically download episodes 1 and 2 unless they fix the /feed to include them.

Of course, just including everything in the podcast/iTunes feed would be best... but if there has to be two separate feeds, that's OK (just so long as the second feed carries all the specials; it's silly to have to manually download them in this day and age of automation and smart devices).



Are we going to see these on iTunes or should we just download them ourselves?

Ted Pavlic

See the reply I gave to the similar comment above. In summary, try the alternate Freakonomics RSS feed:

for the latest hour-long special. For some reason, the archived specials aren't showing up there...

Byron Gardner

It seems as though the definition of happiness is lacking. If people are less "happy" yet many people are drawn to this depression what does this say about human nature?
Consider the majority of parents who say time and time again: "Given all these [bad] issues, I would still do it again." Now, assuming most parent are not masochistic, this would lead me to at least 2 conclusions, 1) Happiness is defined incorrectly in almost all various studies or 2) There may be more to life than happiness, and that thing, whatever it is, is pleasing and desirable.


While it may be true that adults with kids are less happy than those without how about after the kids are grown. Are those adults who never had kids and are past the age to have kids still happier, more fulfilled than those who had kids (and maybe have grand kids)?

Also if things like piano lessons don't really matter; how many musicians weren't given/forced to have music lessons as a child?

E. Tatar, MD

Loved the podcast. As a pediatrician, I do want to comment on Levitt's statements regarding "lazy" parenting" specifically, television viewing for kids. While I'm all for giving parents time to relax while the kids are entertained, Levitt claims there is no evidence that TV and video games are derogatory to children. This is inaccurate when you consider the well documented relationship between "screen time" and childhood obesity, a very real and current pediatric health epidemic. Both from pediatrics and economics perspectives, there may be benefit to restricting time spent in front of the tube.

Please see policy statement from AAP regarding this matter:

Best regards,
Emiliano a. Tatar, MD
Philadelphia, PA

Julien Couvreur

Late comment here since this was re-broadcast.

Regarding the playground situation (leaving your kid behind to "teach her a lesson"): do you really think this is the way to teach as peaceful and civilized parents?

I have no doubt that your kid was subsequently afraid that you'd leave her behind and altered her behavior as a result. Similarly, I'm sure you can beat your wife not to interrupt your watching a game by beating her up.
The point is that the threat of harm is not an acceptable way to interact with adults and it is even less acceptable with children, as they are more vulnerable, dependent and trapped.
Threatening to leave her behind is a threat of grave harm for a little kid, and it would be especially distrubing coming from someone who says they love you and who are is supposed to protect you.

The observation in the podcast was spot on, this is a statist method. It is the initiation or threat of force to achieve what you want. All you have taught your kid, aside from being afraid of abandonment (great for self-esteem btw), is that this is an acceptable way to deal with interpersonal conflicts.

It is quite disturbing that you would be so smug to boast about this incident. It only shows your lack of principle and respect as a parent. Is that really the best you can do to resolve the situation? Is that how you deal with disagreements with adult friends?
How about you work on negotiating and agreeing to ground rules next time you go out? You can explain how her behavior makes it less enjoyable for you to go to the park together. I'm sure you can arrive at a deal, given that she'd want to go to the park but you expect a commitment to go home when time has come.

See Dayna Martin, Stefan Molyneux and others for tons of literature and material on peaceful parenting. Along the same lines, spanking is just not ok (I'm surprised this was not discussed in this episode since much data on this).



Reading Caplan's book (Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids) makes me, as a prospective adoptive parent, want some feel-good--though rigorous and well-researched--literature on the topic. He makes the undertaking seem like a nearly-fruitless undertaking leaving little hope for those not in a life situation to have biological children. Does Caplan have any suggestions? Does anyone have any suggestions?