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So you’re having a baby! Congratulations! That’s great. Welcome to the wonderful world of parenthood! It’s exhilarating, challenging — and probably more than anything, perplexing. Why? One word: experts. So many experts and so much advice.

HULBERT: The first pediatrician whose book turned into a very popular manual absolutely forbid the eating of bananas. He said they were poisonous.DUBNER: That’s Ann Hulbert. She wrote a book called “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children”. It’s fair to say that the advice has, uhhh, shifted a bit over time.

HULBERT: I think the example that is perhaps the most notorious is the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, whose book “The Psychological Care of Infant and Child” was a big sensation in the late twenties. He said, you know, you should never kiss your child, you should never hug your child, you should never put your child on your knee. You’re honeycombing the child with weakness and he will not be able to face the harsh, cold, cruel world. That–I think the example that is perhaps the most notorious is the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, whose book The Psychological Care of Infant and Child was a big sensation in the late ‘20s. He said you should never kiss your child, you should never hug your child, you should never put your child on your knee. You’re honeycombing the child with weakness and he will not be able to face the harsh, cold, cruel world. That I think probably takes the cake.

DUBNER: Now what do we know about the scientific underpinnings of that argument? Did he–was it a scientific argument at all?

HULBERT: Well, that particular bit of wisdom there was no scientific argument behind it at all. He surrounded it in his book with all kinds of supposed science about the absolute influence of parents and sort of behavioral conditioning on children. And he had a very famous experiment of teaching a child, a baby, to fear a rabbit. And it was not a good experiment, but it was cited in his book and it was sort of his example of, if you present a furry creature and a very loud noise that scares a child and you do it often enough you can inculcate deep fear that will never go away. And that was kind of the sensational version of the science that underpinned his view that parents are themselves the absolute molders and total shapers of their children.

Now, if you thought it was bad in the 20th century, you might want to stay out of the 21st. In a lot of places, parenting has become a competitive sport. Experts are everywhere, each of them sounding more confident than the last, even if their advice contradicts one another — or contradicts themselves? So how are we supposed to know what’s really good for kids? How do we know what’s worth worrying about — and what’s not? That’s easy: Enter the economists!

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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, nuanced or humane — maybe they’re exactly the people we need to sort this through. Maybe.

Steve LEVITT: I’m Steve Levitt. I have four children. Amanda’s eleven, Olivia’s ten, Nicholas is eight, and Sophie is seven. Two are adopted from China, two are biological. We almost have two sets of twins. Although in each case, one of the twins is biological, and the other is adopted from China.

Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. Over the past several years, he and I have written quite a bit about parenting. I’ve got two kids – Solomon, who’s 10, and Anya is 9. But Levitt, he’s got his own approach.

LEVITT: Well, I’m just lazy. I could be investing in the kids or I could be indulging my own, you know, hobbies and sleeping and things. And so I’m sort of lazy. I mean, 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. And so, you know, you leave some of the parenting to the older siblings, or you just hope that the schools will take care of it. But it’s not like, if you have an only child, well sure, you’ve got two parents, you’ve got one kid, you can lavish attention on them. But when you’ve got four kids, and one wants to play soccer, and one wants to play baseball, the other wants to play the clarinet–

DUBNER: Let’s just watch TV instead.

LEVITT: Exactly.

Levitt may not strike you as the ideal parent but don’t worry, he’s not the only economist we’re talking to. In fact, we’ve put together a whole roundtable of them. Hey guys, introduce yourselves.

CAPLAN: I am Bryan Caplan. I’m a professor of economics at George Mason University and I’m the author of “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”

KEARNEY: I am Melissa Kearney. I’m in the economics department at the University of Maryland, and I study government expenditure programs and issues relevant mostly to low income populations in the U.S.

DUBNER: You’re also a mom.

KEARNEY: I’m a mom of three.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, and I say–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, right, they’re toddlers speaking, they’ll be like, look you made a bad choice. You know, so I realize that I talk to them like economists.

GANS: So, I’m Joshua Gans. I’m a professor of economics at Melbourne Business School, usually in Melbourne, Australia but visiting at the moment Microsoft Research. During my day job I am an applied economist, more of a theoretical bent than a data driven bent. And otherwise I engage in normal parts of life, and I like to leverage my career as much as possible, so when it came to parenting I ended up writing a book called “Parentonomics: An Economist Dad’s Parenting Experiences.”

SACERDOTE: I’m Bruce Sacerdote, I’m a professor of economics at Dartmouth College and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Oh, and I teach finance here at Dartmouth, but I’m primarily a labor economist and I study kids’ education and kids’ health, income, well being, that sort of thing.

DUBNER: Gotcha, and on your website, Bruce, on your professional website, you list yourself as a professional parent as well, correct?

SACERDOTE: That’s right, yep, and that probably is– I may even spend more hours on that than I do on research.

RAMEY: My name is Valerie Ramey, and I’m a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego. I’m married to another professor of economics at the same department. His name is Gary Ramey, and we write a number of papers together. We have two children: a college-age son who is twenty-one, who is studying engineering, although he was pretty good in economics in high school he decided to do something a little bit more applied, which is engineering; and a daughter who is a junior in high school, who at this point isn’t quite sure what she wants to study in college, but she’s thinking about taking some economics just to see if it’s any different from what she hears at the dinner table at home.

DUBNER: So your son is the real rebel, going into engineering?

RAMEY: That’s right.

Rounding out the roundtable is another pair of mom-and-dad economists. Justin Wolfers is an Australian-born professor at Wharton. Betsey Stevenson, who’s also at Wharton, is currently serving as chief economist for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. That’s where I visited them and their absolutely beguiling 19-month-old daughter, Matilda.

STEVENSON: You know, first of all, Justin and I met as graduate students in economics and we started studying issues related to the family right away, as soon as we started dating. And we started doing research on divorce, which is a very puzzling way to start dating.

DUBNER: Very sexy.

STEVENSON: And the first paper we ever wrote together was about the relationship between the ability to get divorced and avoiding violence in relationships.

DUBNER: And, and your finding was?

STEVENSON: That the divorce reforms that allowed one person to unilaterally walk out of a relationship saves lives. It reduced women committing suicide; it reduced women getting killed by their partners; it reduced domestic violence more broadly.

DUBNER: Now, are the two of you married?

STEVENSON: No, we’re not married.

DUBNER: So you’re…

WOLFERS: I feel like you knew the answer.

All right, so I did know that Stevenson and Wolfers aren’t actually married. They refer to each other as “partners” rather than husband and wife.

STEVENSON: I’m the person of the household who manage all of our money, so Justin and I do actually follow the old household specialization rules, but we do it much more narrowly. So, Justin does IT; I do money. Justin does diapers; I do breastfeeding. And when it comes to money I quickly realized that, particularly as young people, the costs of being married outweighed any of the benefits when it comes to financial costs. Particularly as two people who have similar careers and therefore similar earnings. The tax costs…

DUBNER: You didn’t want to pay the marriage penalty.

STEVENSON: Yeah, it would have been substantial.

DUBNER: So, what do you save a year by not being married?

STEVENSON: Over twenty thousand dollars a year.

DUBNER: Wow, you could have another kid and send her to private school.

WOLFERS: If you want to cause people to pause at a wedding ask them how much they think what they’re about to do is worth, and then tell them what the price tag is.

STEVENSON: Well, you know, for us, we’ve been together for fourteen years. And so…

WOLFERS: So marriage is an institution that people can get in and out of very easily. It doesn’t actually serve the purpose that most people want it to do. So what couples are usually trying to do when they marry is trying to make it difficult to leave. We have a far stronger bond than a legal contract, which is we have a daughter and you can’t cut a daughter in two. And that daughter right on cue, makes it incredibly difficult or expensive for us to part. That’s much stronger than a marriage certificate.

Once they decided to have a child, Stevenson started “training,” as she puts it: A lot of running, eating organic. Reading up on ovulation and all kinds of medical and behavioral literature …

STEVENSON: We approached getting pregnant like any other project we’ve done. I spent four months getting fit. I went to the doctor for a check-up four months…

DUBNER: This was before you were pregnant.

STEVENSON: Four months before I had my IUD out I went and got a check-up, all the medical tests I needed, I started training for pregnancy.

DUBNER: What did training include besides, there was running…

STEVENSON: Prenatal vitamins. Running, eating right, I was, you know, and then it involved charting, figuring out my cycle, ovulation.

DUBNER: And do all these data exist in an Excel spreadsheet somewhere in this very house right now?


Conception was just the beginning. Once the baby arrived, Stevenson and Wolfers put everything they knew as economists into being a mom and dad. Lesson No. 1: division of labor.

STEVENSON: Well the natural one was I breastfed and Justin did diapers.

WOLFERS: Yeah, so to put that in economic language, Betsy does inputs, I do outputs.

DUBNER: And you did diapers, because it’s not the corollary somehow of breastfeeding?

WOLFERS: That was actually Betsy’s argument.

DUBNER: It was?

STEVENSON: Somebody should do an input, somebody has to do outputs. It’s basically the same: the same about going in is what’s coming out.

WOLFERS: I would actually say, I now advise my male friends that they should put up their hand for this job.

DUBNER: I thought you were going to say that you advise you male friends that they should learn to be the one that breastfeeds.

WOLFERS: That does look even more fun. But no, it’s a nice time to spend with your kid actually. When they’re really young, it’s one of the few times they’ll make eye contact with you. You have a task, they like you having that role. So as much as I thought Betsy was taking advantage of me with superior bargaining ability getting me to do that, I just told my brother-in-law that he should do the same thing, and I think he did.

DUBNER: Now, Wolfers and Stevenson are both busy professionals. Which means that Matilda would be spending a fair amount of time with a babysitter. Could they have hired a perfectly nice, friendly, competent nanny for fifteen bucks an hour? Yeah, they could have.

DUBNER: So, you guys hired a nanny…

STEVENSON: Who was a public school teacher.

DUBNER: Who was extremely skilled as a nanny and beyond, right?

STEVENSON: And I think Matilda’s getting the same kind of upbringing and intellectual stimulation as if we were at home raising her. And I think there’s a certain level of comfort in that.

DUBNER: Can I ask what Ellen gets paid?

STEVENSON: Fifty thousand dollars a year.

DUBNER: Ellen does more than just watch after Matilda.


ELLEN: Do you want to write “I love Mama”?

MATILDA: Mm, Dada!

ELLEN: and Dada? You can write that.


ELLEN: Good job, Ms. Mattie, yay! (Clapping)


DUBNER: So Matilda’s already learning her ABC’s. But it doesn’t stop there.

WOLFERS: OK, so one randomized trial that we actually did read had a huge impact on us, which was teaching babies sign language. And it turns out that this is a great way of even increasing their vocab before their speaking skills kick in. And Matilda speaks terrific sign language and his been able to sort of communicate her needs whether she wants milk or Cheerios, you know, for about a year now. No not a year, I misspoke, six, seven months now. But you know, preverbal. We made that a priority.

DUBNER: What kind of classes does she take?

STEVENSON: She goes to music class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: Music class is one day a week. She goes to art class.

DUBNER: How many days a week is that?

STEVENSON: That’s one day a week. And she goes to a preschool prep class.

DUBNER: Preschool prep, uh huh, preschool prep.

WOLFERS: Matilda was leaving the house the other day at 13 months of age, I said, Matilda this is your first day of human capital accumulation. You can finish when you’re 27.

So how much human capital will Matilda accumulate by the time she’s 27? And — here’s the hard part — how much of that human capital will be because of what her parents did versus who her parents were? I mean, that’s the central issue here, right? In the never-ending nature-versus-nurture debate, genes versus environment, what we really want to know is how much influence do parents have on their kids once the kids are out of the womb?

DUBNER: Well how confident are you? I mean, you guys are making a lot of choices from organic food, and sign language, and all kinds of behavioral things, how confident are you that your investments are, forget about optimal, even worthwhile?

WOLFERS: Not at all confident.

Uh, pardon me Professor Wolfers?

WOLFERS: Not at all confident.

Here’s the thing. As much as Wolfers and Stevenson sound like your typical obsessive, sweat-the-small-stuff, micro-managing parents, they actually agree with the rest of our economist roundtable on one crucial and quite surprising fact: Parents just don’t matter as much as we think we think they do. Here’s Joshua Gans again:

GANS: So my, you know, having experienced it for twelve-odd years, I don’t think they matter a huge amount.

And Bryan Caplan:

CAPLAN: In all honesty I do sometimes think, What if my kids don’t turn out well and then everyone blames me? And I would still just say that the data say it was going to happen anyway.

And Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: One of the things that I think is true is that obsessive parenting has few rewards.

What are they talking about? What do these economists mean when they say that parents “don’t matter” very much? Do they have evidence to back up this redonkulous claim? Yes, they do. Coming up: From education to income to drinking and smoking, we’ll hear what the data say about how much influence parents really have.

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So if we’re talking about parenting, why on earth do we want to listen to economists? Well, there are different species of economists. Here’s Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: There are two kinds of economists. There are macroeconomists and there are microeconomists. And macroeconomists, they study the big questions–inflation, financial crisis. Now microeconomists–and those are people like me–we do something very different. We’re focused on individual choices, on behavior, on how incentives effect what people do, and how you can use data to test for hypotheses, and whether our simple theories can turn out to be right or not.

DUBNER: Like: does teaching a baby sign language really increase her chances of success? Or: are the kind of parents who are likely to teach their baby sign language going to have successful kids anyway because they’re high IQ parents? Now, with something like parenting, establishing cause and effect is really hard. There are so many inputs in a kid’s life — genes, environment, school, friends — it’s hard to know how each of them affects the outputs. So economists think: If only we could run experiments on kids the way we do with lab rats! But, since they can’t — not yet, at least — the best they can do is look for an “accidental experiment.” Bruce Sacerdote, the economist-dad from Dartmouth, went looking for such an experiment in adoption data.

SACERDOTE: I hunted, and hunted, and hunted, and I talked to a wide variety of adoption agencies, and the thing that I really latched on to was my conversations with the Holt Adoption Agency, where they are the biggest placer of adoptees into U.S. families, and they were among the first to place Korean adoptees with American families.

If you’re trying to tease apart nature and nurture, adoption is an experiment. But the Holt adoptions were particularly good for this purpose. Harry and Bertha Holt were Oregon farmers who, after the Korean War, helped place Korean orphans with American families. Their policy? First-come, first-served. Which meant the orphans were adopted into all kinds of families, not just high-income families or high-education families.

SACERDOTE: They do it in a process that’s to all intents and purposes random. And so that got economists excited. The big point being that we have a sample of adult adoptees, for whom they were effectively randomly assigned to their adoptive parents. And that really, yeah, and that was the big deal in that study.

As Sacerdote was digging into the adoption data, Bryan Caplan — he’s the guy who wrote Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids — was reading every piece of twins research he could find. He’d end up having twin boys himself, but his fascination predated the birth.

CAPLAN: The simplest way to explain it is, look, there’s actually two kinds of twins. You’ve got identical twins that share all their genes, you’ve got fraternal twins who share half of their genes. So if identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, we could use that fact to measure how much genes actually matter. And once we’ve done that we can actually see how much room, if any, is left for parents to be mattering.

DUBNER: That all sounds very sensible so far. It sounds like you’re trying to isolate cause and effect, which in a typical case is hard, because you’re not going to, even a guy like you, you had twins, even you, an economist who wants to know these answers, you’re not going to ship off one of your twins to some stranger’s family to see how that child comes up differently than your other identical twin. But you’re using these kind of accidental experiments or shocks to the system to isolate what’s going on.

CAPLAN: Exactly. Now, uh, as turns out, over the last forty years, basically every trait the parents care about, or at least every trait that more than a handful of parents care about has been studied by researchers in a lot of fields using these methods.

So, if twin births and adoptions are accidental experiments that yield useful data, what do those data have to say about the influence of parents? The most important question, which Sacerdote went after immediately, was about educational achievement. Let’s say a low-IQ kid is adopted into a high-IQ family. You’d expect the parents to significantly boost the kid’s IQ, right? But some earlier research Sacerdote read suggested that adoptive parents weren’t that influential.

SACERDOTE: There’s this voluminous literature saying things very much like that, which is yes there’s some influence of adoptive parents on adoptees’ IQ scores. But it’s small, and they also claim that it goes to zero as the adoptees get older.

But with the good Korean adoption data, Sacerdote was pretty sure he’d poke holes in that research. If there’s one thing that parents have to affect – just judging from how much effort we put into it — it’s our kids’ educational achievements, right? So he sliced and diced the Korean data, and he did find parental influence.

SACERDOTE: But it’s not quite as big as I expected to find.

Buthow big is “not quite as big”? In the most advantaged families, where the parents were college-educated, the adoptees were 16 percentage points more likely to attend college than adoptees in the least privileged families, where the parents weren’t college graduates. Sounds pretty good, right — sixteen percentage points? But the biological kids in the families with college-educated parents were seventy-five percentage points more likely to go to college than the biological kids in the low-education families, which suddenly makes the adoptive parents’ 16-percentage-point influence look kind of puny. Sacerdote’s findings made a big impression on Bryan Caplan.

CAPLAN: Basically his average result was that if you’re adopted by a mom with one more year of education, you the adoptee usually finished about five extra weeks of education. In other words, the mom would have to have about ten extra years to boost you by a year. Everyone I talked to considered that a small effect. Most people, when I said what would you consider to be a large effect they said one year of maternal education had to boost you six months, not four weeks.

And it wasn’t just education that parents didn’t seem to affect so much. Income, too. Caplan analyzed data from twin studies as well as Sacerdote’s adoption research. Those results were even more surprising.

CAPLAN: Korean War orphans were adopted in the fifties and sixties at a time when it was much easier for low income families to adopt. 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, or 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.

C’mon: no effect on income? Puny influence on education? Now, if you’re a parent, especially the kind of hands-on parent who thinks hard about every input in your kid’s life — every flash card and every museum visit, every taekwondo lesson and, god forbid, every video game — you’ve got to be thinking: Oh man, these economists are full of crap!

LEVITT: One of the things that I think is true is that obsessive parenting has few rewards.

DUBNER: That’s my co-author again, Steve Levitt. He and another economist, Roland Fryer, analyzed data from a survey by the U.S. government that tracks kids from birth through grade school. How strong was the relationship between parental activity and school test scores?

LEVITT: It doesn’t matter how many activities your kids do, whether they go to museums, that at least in terms of academic success, the biggest nationally represented sample of data that the government has ever collected, Roland Fryer and I could find no evidence that that sort of parental choices, what we’ve come to call the obsessive parents of putting kids into ballet…

DUBNER: Kind of culture cramming, in particular, right?

LEVITT: That none of that can be correlated at all with academic success. And my guess is if, and this is just a pure guess, that when it comes to happiness of kids that that kinds of cramming has got to be negatively correlated…like being rushed from one event to the other is just not the way most kids want to live their lives, at least not my kids.

Levitt’s argument is simple, and sobering. What matters most is who parents are; not what they do. Following all the culture-cramming advice in a parenting book? Won’t have much effect. But: the kind of parents who are likely to buy parenting books and do all that culture cramming are high-achieving parents to start with, and those are the qualities — high IQ, good health, determination, and so on — that their kids inherit. But try telling that to a modern parent. Even an economist parent.

RAMEY: So, in the 1980’s, the average, young, college-educated mother spent thirteen hours per week on childcare.

That’s Valerie Ramey again. She and her husband Gary, also an economist, analyzed data from the American Time Use Survey.

RAMEY: Now, it’s 22 hours a week. So, the amount of time has increased by nine hours a week.

DUBNER: Nine hours. So, that’s about a seventy percent increase, that’s a huge increase.

RAMEY: It’s a huge increase.

RAMEY: Now, what’s interesting is over this same time period, the wages of college-educated women have really increased. So, the opportunity cost of time has increased at the same time they’ve decided to spend more time taking care of their children.

DUBNER: So, to an economist, like you, that has to be a little bit baffling, yes?

RAMEY: Yes, it is a puzzle.

After declining for decades, the amount of time that parents spent on childcare started to rise in the 1990’s and then skyrocketed in the 2000’s, especially among college-educated moms. Why? The Rameys found a surprising answer: college. Specifically: the increased competition for kids to get into good colleges. These high-end parents weren’t simply babysitting; they were chauffeuring their kids to the kind of extracurricular activities that look good on a college application. The Rameys called it the rug-rat race. You want to know the strangest part? Valerie Ramey was a prime offender — until her family put a stop to it.

RAMEY: I spent six hours a week at the stables with my daughter, and she enjoyed the horseback riding, but it was also stressful to have, you know, somebody else determine our schedules for us, particularly since both my husband and I work full time. And there was the Brownies, and softball.

DUBNER: And what was your state of mind generally during this period where you were doing a lot of chauffeuring and activist momming? Did it make you happy? Did it make you tense?

RAMEY: It did not make me happy. It did make me tense. Fortunately my family rebelled against me, because I felt we needed to do this, this sort of everybody else was doing it.

Now, before you go off and decide that good parenting is a complete waste of time, consider a couple of areas where economists have found parents to be very influential: smoking and drinking. Kids who grow up around parents who smoke and drink are much more likely to do so themselves. I asked Bruce Sacerdote about this:

DUBNER: So, if I’m a smoker, if I’m a parent who smokes, and I think that smoking is bad, which would probably describe a lot of smokers, and I don’t want my kids to smoke. And I’ve got let’s say, 10 hours of time or $100, or whatnot, and I’ve got to decide how to spend that 10 hours or $100. You’re telling me based on what you’ve seen in the research that it would probably be better for me to spend those hours and dollars trying to quit smoking than it would be trying to cram in some extra reading time at the library or whatnot.

SACERDOTE: No, that’s absolutely right, if you’re sitting there reading to them while smoking four cigarettes, I think you’d be doing damage on all kinds of levels. That’s absolutely right. 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, and things that you really want to model carefully, and just like in the smoking example, you can make yourself better off as well as setting a good example for your kids.

Oh, great: so we finally find something that parents do influence and it’s … smoking, drinking, and talking to the waitress. OK. Well, at least parents are really good at protecting their kids, right? Keeping them safe from all the dangerous stuff out there, right? Like kidnappers.

CAPLAN: That it’s worth thinking about more than you think about being struck by lighting or something like that.

Here’s Bryan Caplan again.

CAPLAN: So, the FBI has statistics on what are called stereotypical kidnappings, which is basically like some stranger going and taking your kid from you, from some distance and holding the child overnight. And in that case, often something very bad will happen. But it’s really in the range of like, 100-200 per year. So, I mean, it literally is a one in a million annual event. So, it’s just something that is not sensible to worry about. And if you find you’re worrying about it even though you know that it’s not sensible, this is something where I recommend going and reading about how you can cure yourself of anxiety problems rather than trying to take action to reduce this illusory risk.

And then there are guns, of course. Here’s Steve Levitt.

LEVITT: If there’s one thing that terrifies parents, it’s guns. The thought of their child going to have a play date at a house where there’d be a gun, many parents would say no way. But there’s one object that parents should fear a hundred times more than the gun–although they don’t–and that’s the swimming pool. Because statistics say if your child spends a day at a house that has both a gun and a swimming pool, the likelihood your child dies is a hundred times greater from the swimming pool than it is from the gun.

And skiing is scary, right?

KEARNEY: So I don’t know if it’s one of these evolutionary biology things, but we take our kids skiing for example, and I know skiing is inherently risky, and I never used to be worried about sitting on the chairlift.

That’s Melissa Kearney, from the University of Maryland. She never used to be a scaredy-cat. Then she became a parent, and got swept up in the fear parade.

KEARNEY: But when I’m sitting on the chairlift with my kids, I mean I could barely breathe I’m so scared of them falling off.

Then she takes a deep breath and reminds herself that human beings are terrible risk assessors in general, and that no one is worse than a parent.

KEARNEY: But I fight it because I tell myself I’m not going to not teach my kids to ski, which I think is a really fun activity, to protect them from this small risk, right? If something terrible happens it would be hard to forgive myself, but try and remember that everything had trade-offs and, you know, the chances are nothing is going to happen. People don’t really fall off chairlifts, and hopefully they’ll have a lifetime love of skiing.

The fact is, parenting is an exercise in risk assessment. Here’s Betsey Stevenson again.

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 every day. 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.

Joshua Gans, our Australian friend who wrote “Parentonomics,” is proud to admit that he’s taken risks with his kid’s life — but not how you might think.

GANS: We would go to the park and our child, this is our then-eldest child was probably around four, would invariably not want to leave. So, we would have this big song and dance about, we have to go now, you can’t keep on playing, she’d run off, you know it would be costly, let me put it that way. So what we did one day we were sitting there and she was doing it yet. Again and we said, you know, we keep threatening that we’ll just leave, why don’t we get in the car and just leave? And so we said, you know, you come or we’re going to go and we’re going to get in the car and drive off, and that is actually what we did in front of a full park, other parents as well, we had a screaming child running after us going, you know, no, don’t leave me, exactly to get that message across. Now, to be short, you know, while that might not have been obvious to the other parents standing there, I tell you, it was a tough thing for us to do, there was another family at the park that was going to at least watch out that she didn’t do something silly as a result of this like run on to the road or something like that. So, we weren’t totally crazy, but then again, we did drive off leaving our child thinking she’d been left behind.

DUBNER: And what happened the next time that she wanted to stay at the park longer?

GANS: Never ever happened again. Never, ever had another problem, perfectly well behaved.

DUBNER: Sadism works.

GANS: You now, at some point you’ve got to raise the price enough. You’ve got to be credible. I mean, you know that’s the dispassionate economist says you do what it takes. I guess I’ve become some hard-lined hawk in that regard. You know, so occasionally we break from social mores, but we only had to do it once.DUBNER.: What a bunch of misanthropes! Unloving, uncaring, ungrateful parents, these economists are, aren’t they? Well, not quite. Coming up: the importance of being kind.

CAPLAN: Even when you’re in your seventies, whether or not your parents were kind to you stays with you, and you know, identical twins, fraternal twins have similar and quite high levels of agreement on these questions, which is the smoking gun for nurture really mattering.

*      *      *

So you’ve got to be thinking about all those hours, all those years that parents spend trying to improve their kids — years that just don’t add up to much. But it all depends on your attitude. Why’d you become a parent in the first place: to make yourself happy? To give someone else the gift of life? To get a solid return on your parental investment? Bruce Sacerdote, before he wound up in academia, ran a hedge fund. I asked him what kind of a return parents should expect:

SACERDOTE: Yeah, I would expect low. Think modern Treasury bills here, low. Aim low and you won’t be disappointed. I think the return is going to be in happiness as opposed to necessarily cash flow, remittances back. The first thing is don’t be afraid to invest up until the margin of return is zero. So, you don’t want to be investing to the point where there’s a negative margin of return, where you’re not only chewing up a lot of your time, but you’re turning your kids off to what would otherwise be a great, and intellectual, and fun thing. You overinvest to the point where you’ve made you and themselves miserable. So, obviously you don’t want to go negative, you don’t want to have a negative return on these things.

All right, so how well do these economists follow their own advice? We already know Valerie Ramey got sucked into the very rug-rat race she was studying. What about Joshua Gans, the “Parentonomics” author?

DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this, Joshua, if I’m not prying, what forms of insurance do you buy?

GANS: I have life insurance, I have disability insurance. We of course have, here in the U.S., so we’re paying out of pocket for health insurance. That isn’t fun.

DUBNER: You have some homeowner’s insurance?

GANS: Yes, homeowner’s insurance, car insurance.

DUBNER: Yeah, so what you’re describing now, which is engaging in a bunch of parental behaviors getting that the data say are not worthwhile, is really you’re just buying another form of insurance aren’t you?

GANS: Well, I’m buying hypothetical insurance. I mean, I know with health insurance, what I’m getting for that. Someone gets sick, the bill gets paid for. You know, if we’re going to be doing piano lessons, I’m not a hundred percent sure what’s coming out of that.

DUBNER: Joshua, how many children do you and your wife have?

GANS: So we have three; they’re twelve, ten and six, two girls and a boy.

DUBNER: How many of them have taken piano lessons?

GANS: All three.

DUBNER: It’s so depressing, I have to say, because we rely on people like you to represent the disinterested view, to make an unimpassioned assessment of the way things are and the way we think things are. And you often show in your research that the way things are is quite different than the way we think things are. And we want you, as economists, to behave as our data preaches just as we want, you know, a man of the cloth to behave as the liturgy and the sacred texts preach. What does it say about the human mind that even you, who’s written a book on this, is unable to break the ties that society presents to you as this is the way it must be done?

GANS: Well, you know, this is the difference between the positive and the normative. You’re right, as a normative act that doing the good, showing society the way to go, or course I should do all those things. But as a normal, selfish, economic rationalist person, it’s too costly for me. I really don’t want to have to deal with that, not even to do what objectively might actually help the happiness and perhaps the even well being of my child. Apparently I’m willing to stick with the social mores on that. So, even economists, you know, we can say these things publicly, but doing them is very, very hard. The social pressures are there.

Let’s go back to our Washington D.C. couple, the marriage-tax-dodging Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. I asked them: If there were an Obsessive Parenting Index, from zero to ten, how they’d rate themselves …

WOLFERS: Aspirationally, we’re a three, reality we’re a nine and three-quarters. So, I want to be kind of a cool dad.

DUBNER: You have great self-awareness

WOLFERS: That just takes it easy. And I mean.

DUBNER: Well, talk about that gap. What lives in that gap?

WOLFERS: We’re pretty sure that some large chunk of that gap isn’t that productive. Like, as a parent you can wander around fretting about every fricking thing that could happen to your kid.

DUBNER: On just on a kind of safety level, or also on an achievement and happiness level, and so on.

WOLFERS: Yeah, also on an achievement and happiness level. For us the tradeoff’s not so bad. So, you know, what do we do on the weekend? We go to the Smithsonian. Well, that sounds like the most type-A parent that you could be. And the truth is I love spending time with Matilda and it doesn’t matter if it was a baseball game, the Smithsonian or sitting at home. It’s just every instance of joy, and the Smithsonian’s sort of a bit of distraction for all of us, it doesn’t actually matter.

DUBNER: And it’s free.

WOLFERS: And it’s free. You’re absolutely right. And so do all the stuff that you would do as a type A parent, and I know you’re going to talk to Bryan Caplan, right? And he talks a lot about, you know, doing all these expensive things, it’s not expensive to us.

STEVENSON: Well, but we do do expensive things, although I think that we don’t think they’re necessary, we understand that they’re nice. So, Matilda goes to a lot of classes. She likes her classes.

WOLFERS: You know, buying her organic food. Certainly she’s going to be fine eating anything.

DUBNER: Yeah, let’s talk about the food. Tell me the foods that she does not eat.

WOLFERS: Meat, any kind of sugar.

DUBNER: Any kind of sugar.


WOLFERS: Except juice. I mean, so she’s allowed fruit.

DUBNER: So, has she ever eaten a doughnut?

WOLFERS: No, and she’s like a total Berkeley hippie.

DUBNER: Never eaten a piece of cake.



DUBNER: Piece of candy?



WOLFERS: Doesn’t even know what they are.

DUBNER: Now, what do you think is going to happen her first, like, Snickers bar?

WOLFERS: We’re in trouble.

Pretend for a minute that we wanted to distill everything the economists have taught us, and start a Reality-Based Parenting movement. Who should be its president? Unfortunately, I don’t think Wolfers and Stevenson are up for the job. Or Joshua Gans, or Valerie Ramey. I’d say it’s a tossup between Steve Levitt — who says he’s lazy by nature, so that works in his favor — and Bryan Caplan. Listen again to the title of Caplan’s book: “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” I mean, just listen to the man’s defense of television.

CAPLAN: People call them electronic babysitters as if it’s a bad thing. But babysitters are good, and nothing wrong with being electronic. So, I mean the idea that there’s some awful harm done when you’re children watch TV or play video games, there’s no evidence of that. So, you know, if they enjoy it and it gives you a chance to relax and get a little peace and quiet and do your own thing, and get some work done, no reason to feel guilty about it. And I’d actually go further and say, like, especially now, there really is a lot of fantastic culture on television and in video games. I would be sad if my kids didn’t like “The Simpsons,” even more sad than if they didn’t like opera.

Part of what motivated Caplan to write his book was a new pile of research suggesting that, on average, becoming a parent robs you of happiness.

CAPLAN: It is true that people who have kids are a little bit less happy than otherwise identical people who don’t have kids.

As Caplan sees it, parents make themselves unhappy by stressing out over any- and everything. So what does a Bryan Caplan parenting makeover look like?

CAPLAN: The easiest step is just getting rid of stuff that nobody likes. What you’re doing is based upon some illusory long-run benefit like you’ll go to karate and that will teach you discipline, and you’ll do better in school, then you’ll get into a good school, and then you’ll become an investment banker. Something like that, and you owe it all to karate. All right, so I mean, I also go further and say, even if your kid does like the activity, if you don’t like it, it’s OK to say, look we’re not going to do as much of it. I’ll take you to soccer, but we’re just doing the easy league where people don’t take it that seriously. If this prevents you from becoming the next Pele, you know, that’s too bad. But it’s really unlikely so I’m just not worried, not that worried about it.

DUBNER: Bryan, if you had to pick one activity that you suspect has the biggest overlap of lack of enjoyment of parent and child, what do you think that activity would be?

CAPLAN: Music lessons.

DUBNER: Yeah that’s what I was thinking.

CAPLAN: The hourly commitment is so large, and yet, and the fights that kids have with their parents over doing it seem to be so interminable. And I also know that my dad was forced to do piano lesson until he was sixteen and hates music as a result. At least that’s his story. Whereas I’m actually so grateful my parents never took me to a single music lesson, and I love music. And I think that if they had forced me to, I might have actually rebelled and disliked it, which is a kind of parenting effect, although a perverse one. You know, to me the idea that because you love music you want to push your kid to become a musician makes about as much sense as saying I love action movies so I’m going to push my kid toward becoming a stunt man.

I can understand if by now you think Caplan is just a kook — some kind of unfeeling, un-nurturing monster, an economics textbook made incarnate. But the fact is that he has his eyes on a different kind of parenting prize. It’s not achievement he’s after; it’s–I think I’m going to cry here–it’s warmth.

CAPLAN: There’s a great Swedish twins study, where the people, ah the twins were in their fifties and sixties and seventies, and even when you’re in your seventies, whether or not your parents were kind to you stays with you, and you know, identical twins, fraternal twins have similar and quite high levels of agreement on these questions, which is the smoking gun for nurture really mattering. So the way that your kids feels about and remembers you. The quality of the relationship. This is where you really have an effect and where it is very long lasting, it really does last a lifetime. To look at your child like a science project is just going to make you unhappy. You know, just the same way, if you marry someone, step one is I’m gong to totally change the person after I marry him or her. That is a recipe for disaster. It’s probably not going to work, and it’s going to really sour the relationship, because people don’t like being treated like that. And it makes people feel bad about themselves and feel bad about you if your concern is to turn them into something different than what they are. So, this is the kind of thing where if you really can just accept a little humility, realize, look this child is a separate person than me, the child is going to want different things than I want, and that’s OK. That is part of the beauty of being a human being.

You’ve got to admit — Bryan Caplan might seem crusty on the outside, but man, once you get beneath the surface — what a softie! And listen to Steve Levitt, self-proclaimed lazy dad who says obsessive parenting is way, way overrated:

LEVITT: There’s a lot of research on un-wantedness and tremendous historical data sets from social science of the last fifty years that suggest that if your mother doesn’t love you, nothing good will happen to you in life. The lowest common denominator for having a kid who turns out well is the kid being loved. And if I were president for a day, maybe dictator for a day, one of the first things that I might do would be to make it harder to be a parent, to make the standards for being a parent more difficult. You should have to demonstrate some proficiency at parenting perhaps to be a parent.

DUBNER: So, you need to get licensed, let’s say?

LEVITT: Yeah. I mean, we make people prove they can parallel park before they can get a driver’s license, maybe we should make people prove that they can interact in a productive way in teaching their kid. Now there’s nothing more un-American than intervening in the family. People just hate the idea of big government looking over their shoulder and telling them how to be parents.

DUBNER: And you’re not a big government guy by any stretch.

LEVITT: No, I hate big government. But on the other hand, I could imagine there being a sensible set of things that you would want to do to make sure that people were ready to be better parents.

I think we’d all agree that parental licensing isn’t bound to happen any time soon — nor should it — but you can see where Levitt’s going with this, can’t you? We probably could all agree on a “sensible set of things you’d want to do to be a parent.” Heavy drinking and smoking and hitting your kids? Not sensible. But, on the other end of the spectrum: fueling the rug-rat race and turning into obsessive parents? Probably also not sensible. The evidence suggests that obsessive parenting tends to make parents less happy and, at the end of the day, the best parent is probably the happiest parent. That’s what Stevenson and Wolfers figured out.

STEVENSON: In fact, we were trying to get pregnant and we were writing a paper on women’s happiness. And I kept cutting the data to try to find myself in the data and say I won’t get less happy, let me find a mid-thirties woman with a PhD, with you know, high household income, and you know, I want to show that people like me don’t get less happy. And I couldn’t find that. I found that the happiness hit was much smaller than it would be for a twenty-year-old high school dropout who was having a, becoming a single mom for sure. But we made, I think we made the leap fully informed.

DUBNER: And you made the leap thinking what? Think that there’s a happiness penalty to pay, and we’re willing to pay it for experience of seeing if it’s not so bad?

WOLFERS: You make us sound terribly non-rational. Yeah, I guess. You don’t get too many…I’m thirty-eight, I don’t get too much longer to figure it out.

STEVENSON: I mean, the bottom line is that the data still suggests that people with kids are less happy than people without, even though among the people like us, that happiness hit is smaller, it does suggest they’re less happy. So, that why would I do something that said well look.

DUBNER: I mean, you guys are the ultimate rationalists, theoretically, economists. You were trained, well at least you assume rationality in most people, and one would assume that one who assumes rationality in most people practices rationality him or herself.

STEVENSON: Justin and I joke about the type A things we do, but we don’t actually have a type A attitude towards raising Matilda. If you know, if we feel like going out to dinner, and it’s not organic, she’ll eat off our plate, that’s fine. We know that these things don’t matter that much. We’ve traveled with her extensively. We figure she’s pretty robust and I think that we’ve tried not to let ourselves have a lot of anxiety over parenting. And I figured that that was part of what was behind this lack of happiness was the stress and the anxiety, and the guilt that people felt. And if we could parent without that, then perhaps we wouldn’t be less happy.

I guess it all comes down to expectations — and, to me, one basic question: Why have kids in the first place? I asked our roundtable why they decided to become parents. Here’s Bruce Sacerdote.

SACERDOTE: I can certainly tell you why we had children number two and three, which is I realized, and I think my wife already knew this, but I realized that oh my goodness this is the greatest adventure ever. You know, this is so much fun, it’s so interesting, you learn so much from them, and you get to do all those things that you wanted to do, that you haven’t gotten to do since you were ten. And you get to do it with someone who actually looks up to you and thinks that, and wants to take advice from you and things. So, it’s just a tremendous adventure

And Bryan Caplan.

CAPLAN: Before I actually started having kids, that I started feeling something that is unusual for men to feel. So I actually started getting what psychologists call ‘baby fever.’ Where I just had these paternal feelings, like I need to go have a little child and teach him stuff and raise him and do things with him. And so I mean, I actually felt this kind of hole in my heart where I started wanting to have kids when I was you know, around…around thirty. And you know the other thing is, I’ll admit I have a childish personality. I just like doing things the kids like doing. I like cartoons. I like comic books. I like games. I relate very well to kids and in many ways I feel like I relate better to kids than adults, where adults, you know it’s so boring. I’m bored. Let’s do something fun. But with kids you don’t…you don’t have that conflict usually. It’s like, yeah, okay, let’s do something fun.

And Steve Levitt:

LEVITT: J just because I’m an economist doesn’t mean I can’t be deceived by evolution just as strongly as someone else. I mean, I think if you buzzed me when I was with my kids I’d be just as unhappy as the next guy. But still, in my head I float around thinking it’s great to have four kids. Self-deception — it’s a wonderful, powerful force.

 Yeah, a “wonderful, powerful force.” For me, that pretty much sums up parenting too. So before we go, let me just say one thing to little Matilda, and to Levitt’s kids Olivia, Amanda, Nicholas and Sophie, and to the kids of the other economists we heard from today — Sam and Leo and two Sophias; Aidan and Tristan and Simon; Sean and Michelle, William and Adelaide: Your parents are strange people. They have strong feelings about what’s best for you — which is, for the most part, to leave you alone. So do us all a favor: ten years from now, and then again in 20 years, and again in 30 or 40, give us a call and tell us how things turned out. Let us know if the sign language paid off, and the piano lessons, and what that first Snickers bar tasted like.

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