Things Our Fathers Gave Us (Ep. 34)

Listen now:

Young Stephen
Dubner learning to play Powers of Observation. (Illustration: Ben Arthur)

Father’s Day has a shamelessly commercial history. Some people think it was invented by the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers to push ties and socks. (It seems to have done a great job!) But we have a better idea: this year, send Dad a podcast. Our new Freakonomics Radio podcast, called “Things Our Fathers Gave Us,” (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player at the top, or read the transcript here) contains a Father’s Day trifecta. First, Steve Levitt talks about what he learned from his dad, good and bad:

LEVITT: Not everyone will agree that all the lessons my father taught me were the right ones. For instance, I learned from him that men don’t cry, ever. That’s a lesson I’ve tried to unlearn as an adult, but without much success. I can say this, however. Everything that is interesting about me today I owe to the mischief that my father and I engaged in when I was young.

Next, I share one of the best lessons I ever learned, over a diner meal with my dad, who taught me to play a game called Powers of Observation.

Finally, we hear from Joshua Gans, the Australian economist and author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting. Gans offers a frank assessment of fatherhood:

GANS: I think ultimately it’s very interesting that one of the things that people have looked at is, of course, do babies and children make you happy? The evidence, as much as we can posit on that, is no…. So, we have to actually leave aside happiness as a reason to think about how people have children. And it’s not a very good guide either. If you’re expecting to be happy parenting, that’s going to be a bit of a shock to you.

The stories that Levitt and I tell can be found in printed form in the new paperback edition of SuperFreakonomics. The Gans interview is part of an upcoming hour-long Freakonomics Radio special called “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”

Happy Father’s Day to all who are eligible.

Miley Cyrax

"Father’s Day has a shamelessly commercial history."

Unlike Mother's Day or Valentine's Day, right?


I was the "son of a preacherman." Three wonderful things stand out at this moment (though if I had time, I could write a book) about what my father gave me....

First, I was not at all taught not to cry (except after a good spanking--and I was never able to turn off the spigot!). In fact, I learned to cry from my dad. He was and is the most balanced man on earth. He did not cry out of some sort of mental breakdown, etc. He cried when he, a man of God, would come home from his evangelistic efforts and find that his beloved kids had been "acting up." While we might be punished with a good spanking (he was old-school), often he would look at us as tears poured from his eyes and say, "I'd rather them put me in the ground today...than for you to bring a reproach to the church."

Even today, at nearly 50 years old, I never once considered it manipulative. It was done with a sincere heart in the hopes that his children would see just how very important it was to him that we lived good lives.

Second, whether in the parsonage or the pulpit, he was the same man all the time. He was not one person for the church, but another one for his family. He was solid ALL THE TIME. Still is.

Lastly, I remember the ONLY spanking I got out of. You have to know that if my dad said, "I'll tend to you when we get home," he NEVER, NEVER, NEVER forgot. Mom? Well, she might forget. Or at least she could be negotiated with ("How many licks? Five! How about four?") Not so with dad. The best I could get him to commit to was "When I get done." That's how he was raised and the best he knew to do.

But there was one time when...well, you know how preacher's kids sister and I had been fighting. I was called to get a spanking. There was nothing to do except offer my only defense: "Dad, you can spank me, but I don't think I did anything wrong."

That was the ONLY time in my life that he refused to carry through. He was all about integrity. I got my last spanking when I was 21-years-old (did I mention dad was old-school? did I mentioned he was from the sticks of southeast Tennessee? did I mention he was a Pentecostal preacher?). After all these years, I can say assuredly that I DESERVED EVERY SPANKING I GOT. Every one. And deserved many more than that.

How's my relationship with my dad? He is still my "pastor," still my closet advisor, still respected above everyone else, and I speak to him virtually every day...and tell him I love him. And I mean it!

Happy Father's Day, Daddy!



Gotta love how old school parenting works. You don't have to whip or abuse, or tell them they're worthless, not THAT kind of old school parenting, but simply being firm and demonstrating who's really in charge.


Steve called you? Wow!


Everything I know about parenting I learned from Cesar Millan.


I'm not sure what evidence Mr. Gans is looking at but it seems a gross overstatement that parents don't enjoy at least some measure of happiness as a result of having children. If what he asserts is true then what's puzzling is why parents have more than one. Discounting the inevitable accidents, having concluded from the experiment that they've found no additional happiness why would they have more?

Maybe I'm an outlier. Sure I'm at times infuriated, frustrated, annoyed and angry while parenting. Sometimes all at the same time. But I don't think I could say that having my son in my life hasn't brought me much happiness.


I have to agree with you here. One of the chief criticisms of microeconomics from psychologists is the notion that the measures used to measure human emotion--especially satisfaction from something as averse to quantification as one's children--are fatuous and, more bluntly, miss the point entirely. On the other hand, when the economist side of my brain retorts "OK, so what's the point, then," I'm not entirely sure that there's a good answer. Psychiatrists are deluded if they think they know, and so is anyone else. Perhaps the best answer is that we don't really need a point; that it is what it is; and that such exercises are exercises in futility doomed to circularity. But that's not particularly satisfying, now is it?


"Men don’t cry, ever." Is this universal tips? Many Japanese fhters taught this.

Jake Petersen

Quick question: Will all these radio specials be put out on the podcast page? Not all of us listen to NY radio.

Leutrim Mehmedi

But still he was your father. If he wasn't, you wouldn't be. That is just one of the million things we owe to our parents especially fathers for giving us males virility and females virtues and morale.


My father has been mostly a negative example. Through him I learned to be conscious in my dealings, to take all my due responsibility, to respect others and to speak softly.
At some point I had to take the choice whether to become like him or to try to be constructive. For this lesson I am thankful.