Bryan Caplan  

Parents Say the Darndest Things

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Steve Levitt often quips that "People lie, numbers don't." I say that both people and numbers lie some of the time. The tough question is figuring out how much trust you should give people or numbers in any particular case.

Example: I suspect that many parents really do like some of their kids more than others. How couldn't they?... unless they've got identical twins, of course! Even so, I would expect people to say that they feel the same about all of their kids. At least in our society, you're not supposed to play favorites.

It turns out that I'm wrong. In her latest book, Judith Harris discusses two fascinating studies in which parents admitted the very thing I would have expected them to lie through their teeth about:

In two separate studies, British and American parents of two small children were asked whether they felt more affection for one than the other. More than half admitted that they did. The overwhelming majority of these parents - 87 percent of the mothers and 85 percent of the fathers in the American study - said they favored the younger child.

Why do I believe the parents who admitted to favoritism? As they say on Law and Order, it's a "statement against interest." Of course, the results are so surprising that we should wonder a bit about where the numbers came from. But Harris is an unusually careful reader of research, so I'm not too worried.

P.S. If you don't know much about Harris, here's an interview where she answers ten pointed questions.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Terri W. writes:

As an adult, I asked my mother about all the times she told us when we were kids that she loved us both equally ... was that crap?

Her response: "Of course! But who I loved more changed from day to day. Usually hour to hour."

Now that I'm a parent, it makes all the sense in the world. Heh.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I'm calling "bull shitake". Parents who have a favorite would not overwhelmingly favor the younger child. They would overwhelmingly favor the older one. Trust me. I know. I am an oldest!! So I think what's happening here is that the ones who tell the truth about favoring then make up for it by lying about which one.

And a little anecdotal evidence. I have two big dogs. The first has been three tons of trouble and the second is the sweetest dog you ever met. I still favor the first.

Dan Landau writes:

I think there is a whole chain of unproven assumptions behind the notion that parents believe they must love their children equally. The obligation that we parents have, or for the older of us had, is it to do everything possible to improve the lives of all their children. If the children ask, that may mean saying you love them equally. You don’t have to believe it.

As for some general preference for the younger child, they require more inputs of the parent’s time and effort. Perhaps loving them more helps motivate this.

Bill writes:

In my limited experience, it sure seems that the data is correct. Younger children do indeed seem to be favored over the older ones. Is it evolution? Younger children need more protection in nature, don't they?

Paul N writes:

I agree with Bill; evolutionarily I think we are set up to be more affectionate towards our younger offspring.

T.R. Elliott writes:

I've got two kids. I'm not sure there's any favoritism one way or the other.

Now about Harris and her books. Breaking my long record of annoying irate angry pabulum, everything I read about Harris tells me she's not allowed herself to be influenced by precedent or ideology. She seems very sharp, attentive to detail, and has drawn conclusions that everyone should consider.

That said, I still take issue with Caplan's using her books to argue for nature over nurture. If I understand Harris's arguments, and from what I remember of another interview or review, she attributes human behavior to approximately 50% nature and 50% nurture, her important point that nurture is community or social milieu, not parents. I think that is the crux of her argument. Which I think makes sense.

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