Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Does parenting make a difference?

Bryan Caplan wrote a provocative article in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago (‘The Breeders’ Cup’, June 19, 1010) in which he presented some selfish reasons for people to have more children. In brief:

• While happiness research suggests that modern parents are less happy than their childless counterparts, ‘happiness researchers rarely emphasize how small the happiness gap is’. Beyond the first child, ‘additional children are almost a happiness free lunch’.
• The costs of having kids are front-loaded and the benefits are back-loaded. The more kids you have the more grandchildren you can expect.
• There is some evidence that few people who have children regret that decision. Gallup poll data suggests that most childless adults over the age of 40 say they would have children if they had to make the same decision over again.
• Parenting can be less work and more fun than many people think. The long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are small. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

Most of Bryan’s article is about the last point. Before discussing this, however, I want to comment briefly on the relevance of happiness research to the decision to have children. Bryan seems to be implying that happiness researchers argue that if having kids doesn’t make people happier, then they shouldn’t have kids. I have read a fair amount of the happiness research literature but I haven’t ever actually seen any researcher put that view. Researchers seem to be almost silent on this issue. I hope this is an embarrassed silence in the case of those happiness researchers who have been quick to suggest that people are making poor decisions when they do other things that do not make them much happier such as working longer hours to earn more income. The point that needs to be remembered, as I have discussed in previous posts (e.g. Do well-being surveys measure utility? and Do good decisions always make us happy?), is that happiness surveys measure current emotional well-being (or something similar) and people often sacrifice some happiness in the short term in order to have greater happiness in future, or to pursue other objectives.

I think that Bryan is probably right that in the modern world there may be a tendency for people to limit the size of their families because they believe that the quality of parenting has a huge impact on children’s futures and they assume that there is no way that parenting could be less work and more fun. He points to fairly strong evidence from research on twins and adoption that supports the view that parenting makes little difference to the way kids turn out.

However, I think Bryan may be at risk of under-stating the importance of good parenting. It seems to me that there are a lot of people whose parenting is so poor that it does damage the future prospects of their children. I don’t claim to know much about this topic, but it is hard to accept that there are no important links between child neglect and antisocial and criminal behaviour.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureSteven Pinker discusses some relevant research by Judith Rich Harris in ‘The Blank Slate’ (2002). Harris argues that the main environmental shaper of personality is the child’s peer group. In Pinker’s words:
‘Children do not spend their waking hours trying to become better and better approximations of adults. They strive to become better and better children, ones that function well in their own society. It is in this crucible that our personalities are formed’ (p. 390).

I imagine that would appear as a blinding insight to very few parents. Most people would know already that it is important for their children to choose their friends wisely, but they would also know that they can’t choose their friends for them. Perhaps the most important way that parents can make a difference is through decisions about where they live and what schools their children attend.


Lorraine said...

I suspect Bryan Caplan situates himself on the genetic far pole of the genetics vs. environment spectrum as an expression of political incorrectness for its own sake.

Winton Bates said...

I could couldn't guess his motivaton for attempting to be provocative.
Interestingly, when economists set out to be provocative their bias has usually been toward arguing that everyhing can be explained in terms of rational actors responding to incentives in their environment - to emphasize the importance of incentives. That tends to put them in the company of behaviouralists who argue that environmental influences are all-important.