Bryan Caplan  

Credible Incentives for Your Teenage Bum

Don't Let Tyrone Off So Easily... More on Krugman and Wells...

This month on Econlib, Donald Cox has a great column on economics for parents:

Ever since I started the mind-bending journey that is parenthood—my wife and I have a daughter in first grade and a son in preschool—my appreciation for economics has roughly quadrupled...

Case study #1: It's go-home time at my daughter's preschool. I see a parent struggling to get snow pants on his toddler in an 80-degree room. I think: "Where's the incentive compatibility in that?" I do it the easy way: I scoop up my daughter in my right arm and her winter clothes in my left and out the door we go. Whereupon, in the 30-degree cold, she dons her winter duds at a speed rivaled only by local firefighters answering a call.

The only problem: Most of Cox's advice is aimed at parents of young kids, but most of the anguished parents I know have teen-agers! In particular, I know a number of parents who have 18-year-olds who refuse to go to school or get a job. What's a parent of a teen-age bum to do?

The simple answer, of course, is "Kick the bum out of the house and let him learn about real life!" The problem with this approach, unfortunately, is that it is not credible. When push comes to shove, most parents would rather let their kids shamelessly take advantage of them than throw them out on the street.

"But I'd take him back as soon as he got a job or enrolled in school!" Bad idea. If you've got a bum on your hands, he'll know just how to play you for a fool. To get back on the free room-and-board gravy train, he's only got to mail in a college application. And you won't be able to prove that he's slacking until you see his first semester's grades! If you insist on a job, he can do the bare minimum, get fired, and wait for you to start threatening him with eviction. Soon you'll be caught in a dreadful cycle: (1) Your kid slacks; (2) You make escalating threats until you boot him out; (3) He makes a token effort to appease you, but soon resumes slacking; (4) Repeat.

What then? Here's the least bad solution I've come up with:

(1) Tell your slacker he's got a year to show progress in school or get serious about a job, or he'll be booted out. Add that if you do kick him out, he can't return until he's got results - not good intentions - at school or a job.

(2) Stop nagging him. Save yourself the grief. At most, visibly cross off days on the calendar.

(3) When the year's up, follow through with your threat. After a year of watching him eat your food and watch MTV, you will be ready to harden your heart and carry out your threat.

Any other ideas? Any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise?

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The author at Tim Worstall in a related article titled NAMBLA writes:
    Looking around the economics blogs this morning I see a post with this title from Brian Caplan. Credible Incentives For Your Teenage Bum. Amazing how far the NAMBLA propaganda penetrates really, isn’t it. (Yes, yes, I know, English English and [Tracked on March 13, 2006 6:18 AM]
The author at Dull Geek in a related article titled Parent-onomics writes:
    What to do with the teenage bum? I would hope that my pre-teen children would see something like this coming from a mile away since they've been dealing with me and my devious wife since they were born. But if I just started practicing this parenting... [Tracked on March 13, 2006 8:49 PM]
COMMENTS (22 to date)
silvermine writes:

Let them know ahead of time that if they expect to live at home they had better be in school or paying you rent. Worked in my family. ;)

Of course, that takes planning.

Honestly, if you haven't gotten them under control and useful by the time they're 18, I'm not sure how much power you have to do anything about it. Too little, too late.

Robert Schwartz writes:

If you haven't established credibility by the time they are 18, you will need more drastic tactics. I would sell the house. Move out and not leave a forwarding address.

Richard Perry writes:

What is wrong with teaching each of your children, from the time they are born, that they are individual humans, responsible for their own decisions? Begin by giving them responsibilities within the family unit that can build confidence in their abilities. As they grow older, increase the level of those tasks, so that by the time they are in high school, they are fully able to prepare food for themselves and for the rest of the family, clean their own quarters and the rest of the house, and to be responsible for their own clothing and personal hygiene. Then, from the onset, make sure that each child understands that when he turns 18, he is responsible for his own life, including earning his own tuition for college through loans or scholarships, and all other living expenses. There can be no free ride for children once they reach their majority. People who learn early to take responsibility can handle it.

Bill writes:

At 17, I was a bum. My mother didn't kick me out; she moved away and didn't invite me along. A year later she invited me to live with her and my sister since I was starting junior college in her town. Nine months later I moved out because she is religious and I couldn't bring women home to my room. That got rid of me!

So, impose strict moral standards for your college age children and they'll flee!

Sir Bill writes:

I lived at home until age 27, smoking pot and hanging out in my Mom's basement until about the time I quit using at 24 and went back to school. It wouldn't have worked out so well if she had booted me out, but it's probably not typical to turn it around like I did.

rmark writes:

I have a friend with this very problem. So far heres how its gone -
Instead of his moms nice Mustang to drive around in, they pulled the old Grand Am out of the pasture, started it up and let him drive that.
2. cancelled his cell phone, heck, its on their account.
3.when he asks for money, she just gives him her lose change, no bills.
4.This last week he let her cut his long hair and he applied for some jobs at convenience stores near their home, saying he was tired of paying for things with change.

In case you're interested, I've put an example on my blog of using "noisy ex-post settling up" with our kids. It works a lot better than setting limits up front, and is a lot more fun from our perspective, too.

Randy writes:

I had an idea I'm going to try, though its still a couple of years off. I'm going to set aside a sum of money for each of my three - roughly enough to get them through college and make a downpayment on a car. But its up to them how they use it. If they choose to just sit around the house, I will charge their account for room, board, and expenses until the fund is gone. When its gone, they'll have to start paying their own way or get out. If it comes to that, they'll have had plenty of time to think about it.

MjrMjr writes:

A year deadline seems like it's just delaying that hard decision that a parent doesn't want to make. If the threat lacks credibility to begin with, saying that you'll do it in a year is even less credible.

If a parent is looking for consequences short of kicking a kid out of the house, how about simply not paying for anything? Don't pay their cellfone, car, gas, insurance, etc. Don't pay for cable tv. Don't pay for their internet connection. Make it unpleasant to live at home. If you really want to get crazy(I had a friend whose father did this) wire their room so that none of the electrical outlets work, only a swith to turn on/off a built in light in the ceiling.

I'm sure there's millions of parents who are sick of their children living at home yet probably pay for cellfones, car, insurance, clothes, pocket money, etc. Seems like a contradiction.

Actions reveal preferences. If the parent's don't kick the child out (or demand rent), then they must not mind the mooching very much.

I also agree that training children for self-sufficiency should begin well before age 18. However, assuming that the parent's don't recognize their mistake until late in the child's life, I would recommend that the parent's give the child first/last month's rent, a couple of hundred dollars for food, and a week to find an apartment.

If the child fails to get a job, don't let them back into the house. A few nights spent sleeping on a cold park bench is likely to provide a lot of motivation. ( And in the long run, is likely to be better for the child than continued coddling.)

user writes:

Good parenting involves understanding incentives. However, that's not really economics. It seems that many people label any kind of analytical or statistical thinking or strategizing as economics.

Lord writes:

Pay them for work around the house at a low rate so finding a job becomes more desirable. No work, no money.

David Getman writes:

The children of the United States, as well as all present on the Earth, inherited a sack of excess idle leisure time with very small demands for creativity, and even lesser demands for acquisition of physical strength and undiscovered knowledge.

Thanks to the thoroughly polluted enviroment of Earth as we know it, where we go from here is a question that is to be left for our intellectual input.

Read the previous sell fless-ness above and watch tomorrow's headlines and determine if we are able to make choices for our offsprings's usefulness without harm to the enviroment.

Nancy and David Getman

David J. Balan writes:

Neither the article nor any of the comments seem to allow any role at all for loving encouragement or understanding or anything like that.

Tough crowd.

Spotcash writes:

The age of 18 is much too late. The child is responding to perverse incentives from his [or her] lifetime. The parents probably will not be able to amke it stick either.

Start early and move often.

Randy writes:


I disagree that the comments leave no room for loving encouragement and understanding. We're not talking about invalids, but kids who are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Giving them a push in the right direction is both loving and understanding.

Kirk from Colorado writes:

David J. Balan believes this group is a tough crowd. Possible, but I'd offer an alternative. Love for children includes showing them both unconditional love, and conditional rules and expectations, just as they will encounter in the real world outside of your home.

I have five children; the youngest is now in 11th grade. All have been growing in taking on successively more and more responsibility for themselves since they were toddlers. No time to go into detail here, but this included buying their own clothes after age 12 (with limited funds they received for chores around the house); I did not have to be concerned if they wanted expensive "Jordache" or other name-brand clothes. They had choices, but they had a realistic constraint on their choices rather than a (seemingly) unlimited source of money in dad and mom.

After high school? All of them had two options after their senior year. To be accepted and enrolled for full time study for the fall after graduation (by late May), or deliver to me a check for their first month's rent on June 1st, just days after graduation from high school.

I've had one child choose to pay rent to live at home for a year, and another did so for about 6 months after spending a year at school. All four who are out of high school are taking full responsibility for their lives and doing very well in early adulthood. No bums here.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Here's another approach. Along these lines, why not make a MySpace account dedicated to your slacker kid and post his sad life for all to see?

Kevin writes:

As a person who recently moved out of my parent's house again my incentive was that as long as I lived at home I felt like a child. I wanted to leave because I wanted to be my own person.

If you kick a child out of the house he won't automatically become their own person , they'd probably just go mooch off someone else. I used to have an apartment with two roommates. One was often unemployed or underemployed and borrowed rent from the other. The other at one point decided he didn't like his job and quit. He went unemployed for a while but it was okay because he folks paid the rent (they encouraged him to quit the job he didn't like).

At the end of the lease they tried stiffing the landlord half a month's rent which I ended up paying because I didn't want to get sued. The landlord and I discussed it and we both agreed they were children.

After that I moved back to my parent's house while I worked on buying a house. Going from a single guy living on your own to a single guy living with his parents will drive anyone out of the house as quickly as possible. (NB: I was not allowed overnight female guests)

Robert Speirs writes:

Better be careful being too hard on your kids. What if you're planning to mooch off them when you're old? Don't most people in the world expect their kids to support them at some time? Perhaps that's the problem - kids don't see themselves as having any responsibility for their parents because the state will take care of them.

cb writes:

Good point, Robert. I don't plan on helping my dad one bit in his 'golden' years, Mom, on the other hand will be getting my attention.

Randy writes:


Re; "Perhaps that's the problem - kids don't see themselves as having any responsibility for their parents because the state will take care of them."

Good point. But I am being forced to be responsible for my parents via social programs. The way I see it, I've done my part to help my parents. And because I have little confidence that the next generation isn't going to get screwed when the system fails, I'm focusing my attention on my kids instead of my parents. I'm investing in them up front by paying for their education, first cars, etc., at the expense of saving for my own retirement. The result will be a balance. My parents get paid by me through the government. My kids get paid by me directly. And I will have whatever is left of social security and medicare to take of myself.

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