DUBNER: It’s almost Father’s Day. If you’re totally out of ideas for what to get your dad this year, if you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, you might think about sending him this podcast. Today we’ve got stories about things our fathers gave us — one from my Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt, and one from me. And you’ll hear one more story about disciplining kids that’ll make any father proud. Happy Father’s Day. Here’s Levitt, reading an essay that’s just been published in the new paperback edition of SuperFreakonomics.
LEVITT: Growing up I was the worst kind of mama’s boy. Never has there been a bigger sissy. I would cry if an adult gave me a cross look. I sat on my mom’s lap until I weighed nearly as much as she did. I liked to needlepoint.
It drove my father crazy.
Although I’m sure he would have rather been doing just about anything else, he made it his mission to turn me into a man.
His initial attempts were pretty standard. He forced me to play baseball, but mercifully, that experiment ended after just a few years. He was disgusted by my lack of baseball instincts, and my tendency to sit down while playing shortstop. The final straw came when my team had a stirring come-from-behind victory to win the city championship. All the other kids mobbed one another in celebration. I just sat on the bench and watched.
We did a lot of fishing together. He was a remarkably good sport when one of my errant casts resulted in my fishhook lodged in his cheek. I suppose he expected me to be equally brave when another exceptionally poor cast on my part left the hook embedded in the back of my own head. I did not take it well. We didn’t do much fishing after that.
It was only when my father’s lessons veered off the beaten path that they really started to take hold. Our common ground turned out to be that we both liked to break the rules. So he’d take me to the hospital where he worked and when no one was looking, we’d sneak into the room with radioactive materials and play games with them. At the mall, just for fun, we would go up the down escalators. One April, when I was still a pre-teen, he introduced me to the idea that there might be a few “tricks” here and there that could be used to lower his payments to the IRS. It was only a few years later that he began taking me to country roads where he would let me take a try at driving the family car. He didn’t drink much alcohol, but whenever he did, he’d slide the glass my way when my mom wasn’t looking so I could have a swig.
As I look back, I can’t think of anything more valuable in my life than the time my father spent breaking the rules with me. It wasn’t just, or even principally, laws that we violated. He taught me to flout the limits that society imposed. Even though I was just a kid, I was supposed to be able to think like an adult, or better, for that matter. One of his favorite activities, starting roughly when I was ten years old, was to present scenarios from work (he is a doctor) involving other doctors making gross misdiagnoses. He would tell the stories in such a way that the answer he was looking for was attainable even for a 10-year-old, and when I gave the answer he wanted, he’d tell me I was already a better doctor than the one who had handled the patient. He made me believe that there was nothing I couldn’t do, if only I put my mind to it.
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.
Like my father, I have a son, and he too is one of the world’s biggest sissies. We recently celebrated his eighth birthday. That’s the perfect age to start breaking rules with his dad. And if he’s really lucky, maybe we can get his grandfather involved as well.
DUBNER: Hey, Levitt. Do you call your father on Father’s Day every year?
LEVITT: Probably. It’s the last day of the U.S. Open, so we have a reason to talk.
DUBNER: Would you say your father’s parenting is generalizable? Should it be replicated?
LEVITT: I think my father’s approach to parenting was a high-variance approach. In the sense that it put tremendous pressure on the child. I think I could have veered one way or the other. And I veered in a direction that I think was good. But I could see it breaking the spirit of the child, the way he parented.
DUBNER: So you’ve been father yourself for quite a few years now. What’s the best Father’s Day you’ve ever had?
LEVITT: Oh, God. I don’t even pay attention to Father’s Day. I hate holidays.
DUBNER: Does your family? Do you wife and kids do stuff for you? Like what do they try? They bring you breakfast in bed or something?
LEVITT: I get up too early for that. You know what it is.
DUBNER: Dad, we hereby grant you four hours today to play golf with no guilt.
LEVITT: Eight hours! Eight hours to play golf with no guilt.
DUBNER: Yeah, what am I thinking.
Coming up: what my father taught me.
DUBNER: So I grew up in this fairly slightly strange family; this was in upstate New York, in the boondocks, in the back and beyond, in this little farm outside of Albany. And it was strange in part because my parents were this pair of city people, these Brooklyn-born Jews who each of them, before they had met each other, they both converted to Roman Catholicism. So that was pretty traumatic; there families really didn’t care for it that much. They really cut themselves off from their families; and they were cut off from their families, so they migrated upstate. And they really reinvented themselves. They started a new life up there and started having kids and kept having kids and, you know, they were very Catholic and so they kept having kids. And a measure of their devotion is the fact that they had eight children. I was the eighth and the last of the kids.
Now, my dad worked as a newspaperman in Schenectady. And my mom took care of the kids and a million other things. We grew most of our own food; we had a cow, and usually some chickens, and a pig and a goat once in a while. And it turns out we were pretty poor, but everybody around there was pretty poor. Being poor wasn’t a problem at all. We didn’t want for things, really. We worked hard and were pretty happy. But money wasn’t really the scarcity that we were concerned with. The real scarcity when you grow up in a big family, is time with the parent, like one-on-one time with the parent. It was a really big deal. And for me, as the youngest kid, especially with my dad, that was like the treasure, one-on-one time with my dad. It was very, very rare. And it was rare in part because there were a lot of kids but it was also because he worked far away. It was a pretty long drive to work, and also his health wasn’t good. In fact, my father had died by the time I was ten. So every minute with him alone when I was a kid was pretty really precious.
I remember this one time–I must have been like seven or eight years old–my dad took me to Gibby’s Diner. This was in the closest village called Quaker Street. And Quaker Street is just like one stoplight, a general store and the diner. And all my brothers and sisters had at one point worked at Gibby’s Diner either cooking or as a waitress or whatnot. And for my dad to bring me there alone, the two of us to sit at the counter, to this kind of sacred place. It was surreal to be there. And I remember we sat at the counter, and I don’t remember what I got to eat, but I remember my dad got a cup of coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it, which looking back I realized–he could have been a Starbucks imaginer. And I was having whatever I was having, and he introduced me to this game he called Powers of Observation.
And the way Powers of Observation worked was he would say, “All right, Stevie. I just want you to look around and take it in. Just really look around, pay attention, see what you’re looking at, take it in, and get attuned–and listen hard too, OK?” Like I said, I was probably just eight or seven years old, and he said “I’m going to give you five minutes to just take it all in.”
So I sat there and I looked around; and I took it all in. And I don’t really know where he’s going with this. And then after a few minutes, he told me to close my eyes.
He’d say, “OK the waitress, Ann”–you know, we knew her, “Ann–what color is her apron?”
And I said, “White?” And he said, “Ahh, you’re just guessing.” And I said, “White!” And he said, “That’s right, that’s right. OK. The lady behind us, what did she just order?”
“Nope. Chili. OK, how many people have come in since we started playing Powers of Observation?”
And on it went, just like that. And he’d grill me on these facts large and small, any kind of site, smell, sound–anything like that. And the first couple rounds we did this, I was terrible. I couldn’t get anything right at all. I just didn’t have any powers of observation. And then as we kept doing it, I got better. And then about after 20 minutes, I felt that I could take these little snapshots with my mind. And then repeat what I’d seen. My father, that one day, at Gibby’s Diner in Quaker Street, New York, he taught me that memory–or at least observation–is a muscle that you can build. And I’ve been flexing that muscle every day since then. Or at least trying to. So we were a family with practically no money, and without really that much time with each parent, but I will never forget that one day, that incredibly great thing, an incredibly valuable thing, that my father gave me.
Now one thing I’ve been observing these past several years is that economists are strange people. Now you heard from Levitt already; I’d like you to hear from one more economist. This is an Australian named Joshua Gans who wrote a book about being a father, called Parentonomics. This is from an upcoming hour-long Freakonomics Radio program we’ve made called “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.” Here’s the story of how Gans got one of his kids to behave.
Joshua GANS: Right, so the story is this. 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. And you know, one option was, you know, we could say, you know we won’t go to the park very often and as a solution to that, which is perhaps what occurred but we could never pre-negotiate this fully.
By the time we got to the park, she was off and on her own. So what we did one day we were sitting there and she was doing it yet gain 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 morays, but we only had to do it once.
DUBNER: Doesn’t that just warm your heart? There’s more from Joshua Gans in our upcoming parenting special on Freakonomics Radio. So if nothing else on this Father’s Day, you can be thankful that your father is not an economist. And if your father is an economist, then–