Bryan Caplan  

Paternomics: Levitt's Parenting vs. Mine

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I can't believe how much I disagree with Steve Levitt's goals as a father. Here's a line-by-line contrast:

[Steve] I care most about raising kids who are happy and successful as adults, even if that happens to mean that they aren’t very happy as children.
[Me] I care most about raising kids, who, like me, believe in enjoying every single day of life.
[Steve] I want my kids to like me when they are grown up, but I also want them to do what I tell them to do, the first time I tell them to do it.
[Me] I too want my kids to like me when they are grown up. But I'm happy to amicably negotiate with them except on issues of imminent danger and daily routines.
[Steve] I don’t want my kids to be sissies, the way I was — I want them to be tough, and able to take whatever criticism and misfortunes the real world has to offer.
[Me] Laugh if you like, but I want to give me kids a better life than I had. I don't want them to be bullied or mocked by teachers or other kids. Since adult life is far more civilized than childhood, sheltering your kids is not "delaying the inevitable"; it's skipping pointless suffering.
[Steve] I also want them to be creative, and to take risks (but not too many risks).
[Me] For once, Steve and I almost agree. I hope that my kids are creative, and I hope that they take intellectual and social risks. Why? Because they're intrinsically valuable, and instrumentally profitable. At the same time, I hope they avoid physical risk-taking, because they're neither.

Awkward question for discussion: Suppose you could have either me or Steve as your dad. Who would you pick - and why?


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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Joshua Gans writes:

Actually, the best essay on this issue comes from Orson Scott Card: http://www.ornery.org/essays/warwatch/2006-11-12-1.html

HispanicPundit writes:

You...because Levitt seems to result in pointless suffering. You also enjoy more kid centered activities: comics, video games, and playfulness. Though Levitt comes across as playful as well.

TGGP writes:

I say Levitt. Bryan seems like a nice guy to know but a bit too much of a kid himself.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Bryan, you can't have your kids screaming and running around when you go out to dinner. If they're smart kids, they'll appreciate the company and genuine positive attention from adults if they can behave peacefully in adults' world as needed. I'd imagine your kids in particular would have all sorts of opportunities to meet really smart adults and would have some interesting stories when they become adults if they can be good. Advantage Levitt.

eric writes:

Unfortunately, by the time we figure this out, we'll be grandparents.

But I do think kids shouldn't be sissies. A child who learns that 'others' will bail them out, is a bad lesson. Tit-for-tat as children, and adults, is an essential skill, physically and intellectually. Learning to deal with physical bullies is instructive, and will give them confidence. No 16 year-old girl wants to date a 16 year-old physical coward, regardless of his knowledge of the envelope theorem.

I look at my kids and think: in 30 years, I want them to love me very very much. To that end, I can't indulge them, because kids don't respect parents who cater to their whims and don't set boundaries, and respect is part of true love. But I want them to always know that my guidance is in good faith, that I give them the benefit of the doubt.

The key is moderation, and wisdom. The latter, alas, per child rearing, I probably won't have until they go to college.

kap kool writes:

1) There's a lot of literature that argues that imposing strict rules on children while they are young doesn't make much difference once kids grow up. So why impose a lot of needless suffering on yourself and the children when you might just as well have fun?
2) If you think dealing with physical bullies is such a great character builder, why don't you drive down to the nearest ghetto, find some bullies, and tell them what you think of them. See how much character that builds. The best lesson you can teach your kids about bullies is to avoid them if possible (by, for example, being smart and getting a decent job).

blink writes:

You win Point 3 for specificity about risks, but I believe Levitt would claim your stance as his own. It sounds like the difference in Point 1 is that Levitt will force his children to defer gratification in some cases in which you will not. Perhaps he will require his kids to attend school, even when they would rather not, while you will negotiate amicably to ensure that they enjoy the day.

Incidentally, the outcomes Levitt wants his kids to avoid – disobedience, cowardice, a carpe diem attitude – are typically taken as signal s of bad parenting. That is, Levitt appears to be more interested in being seen as a good parent than in actually being one, while you forsake your own reputation for your children’s benefit. Prediction: You will consider alternative educational arrangements (a la David Friedman); Levitt’s kids are destined for a top-ranked prep school.

BGC writes:

I think Bryan's posting on children and parenthood are excellent.

I haven't seen this said before: 'Since adult life is far more civilized than childhood, sheltering your kids is not "delaying the inevitable"; it's skipping pointless suffering.' but it strikes me as spot-on.

Kap Kool's comment is also great: 'If you think dealing with physical bullies is such a great character builder, why don't you drive down to the nearest ghetto, find some bullies, and tell them what you think of them. See how much character that builds.'

It reminds me that Calvin's Dad, in Calvin and Hobbes, who always describes misery as 'building character'.

In fact most of character (as well as intelligence) is inherited genetically (and the non-genetic component is of unknown provenance at present), so attempts to mold and shape a child's character are futile and potentially cruel.

So I'd rather have Bryan than Steve as a Dad - on this basis at least - so as to avoid my being subjected to character-building.

Bryan! Could we have more posting on kids?

And, when you've done with the education signalling book - why not think about an 'evidence based' guide to child rearing (not so much a self-help book - but an antidote to most self-help books)?

Morgan writes:

As the product of a top ranked prep school I feel terrible for Levitt's children. Perhaps there will be a happier outcome for them.

Chris Rasch writes:

What's your stance on candy subsidies and BB gun control? Those are my hot-button issues.

Jody writes:

Levitt.

The world isn't nice and children aren't little adults.

Les writes:

I think Steve is trying to prepare his kids for becoming responsible adults by caring about others as well as themselves, and by learning to delay immediate gratification in favor of greater future rewards.

I think Bryan means well, but is trying to remain as juvenile as his kids in the immature hope that he (like Peter Pan) and his kids can forever resist growing up.

Tom writes:

I'll go with Levitt.

To quote you from the previous post:
"My problem with my proposal, as you might guess, is that I think voters are so irrational that the correlation between actual performance and popular approval might well be negative."

So it is the same with parents. What makes your child happy may not be good for him. Should we call it 'The Myth of the Rational Child'?

Selfreferencing writes:

Can't we have both Bryan and Levitt, you know, as gay dads? Who needs moms when you can have two gay economists as parents?

DrObviousSo writes:

Hmm, I would have said Bryan right up until he end. Physical risk taking was very important to the development of young Dr Obvious. I engaged in some legitimately dangerous activities that really did develop character. Fist fights, playing sports injured, wilderness survival training, etc.

I wouldn't want to be barred from them, or worse, have to do them without the support structure of my parents.

Floccina writes:

I say amen to this:
Since adult life is far more civilized than childhood, sheltering your kids is not "delaying the inevitable"; it's skipping pointless suffering.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Just for the record, as Bryan's friend, I can vouch that Bryan is a great parent. He treats his boys with much dignity and respect and they get lessons in good behavior. I think any kid would be lucky to have him as a parent.

"Suppose you could have either me or Steve as your dad. Who would you pick - and why?"

Being that we have similar views of low theory applied econometrics, I'm sticking with Bryan.

jp writes:

I would pick Bryan. Levitt's thing about instant obedience is a little scary. And I do suspect that a lot of supposed character-building is indeed pointless suffering.

Patri Friedman writes:

I'm with Bryan 100%.

I think one difference I have with the commenters may be the type of adult world that they are in. For example, Les writes: "I think Bryan means well, but is trying to remain as juvenile as his kids in the immature hope that he (like Peter Pan) and his kids can forever resist growing up."

I bet Bryan would describe his adult life as having many childlike qualities. And that he likes this, and thinks it's good for him. I feel exactly the same way. People like us never need to "grow up", at least not in some ways. So it's no surprise that we don't expect our kids to have to "grow up" either. For people with a different experience, who live in an adult world which (unlike being an economist at GMU or an engineer at Google) punishes childlike qualities, I can see why they would have different expectations about what their kids need to make it in the world.

Timothy Taylor writes:

Economists have a useful if not universally applicable rule: don't ask people about their opinions, but observe their actual behavior. Similarly, talking the talk about parenthood is not revealing -- it usually only reveals what excesses you are reacting against. In parenthood, the rubber hits the road in a parent's body language and tone of voice and where lines get drawn and how bright those lines are. The only cookbook for parenthood is to react out of your best sense of self -- which means that parental styles should differ across parents.

jp writes:

That wouldn't by any chance be THE Timothy Taylor, of Teaching Company fame? If so, I loved your basic econ series. How about one just on Austrian economics?

Julianna writes:

Levitt.

My goals for my childhood as a preparation for adulthood correlate with his goals for his children's. To add to my argument, I am 15.

Furthermore, parents who raise their children thusly are actually easier to argue/negotiate with than parents who strive to negotiate with their children. Parents like Levitt have a strong, obvious and foundation that is so articulable it borders on a thesis. Living under such conditions breed not only strong work ethics, but an emphasis on rational thought, analytical thinking and an accordance with social contracts.

When you never know where your parents are coming from, you feel like you are being guided by a blind man.

Gil writes:

Bryan, hands down.

Children deserve respect. They are more ignorant than many adults, but not less rational or deserving of being taken seriously.

Treating children as pets, or clay to be molded, is hideous. They need trusted advisors, not masters. The need to be protected from imminent harm, but otherwise uncoerced.

Gary Rogers writes:

From reading Freakonomics, it seems that "who the parents are" makes more difference than individual parenting decisions. There are an infinite number of ways to prepare children for life, but the example you set is probably the key. I would not worry about either your children or those of Mr. Levitt, no matter what philosophies you employ in raising them. Just keep them away from swimming pools.

SheetWise writes:

[Steve] I care most about raising kids who are happy and successful as adults, even if that happens to mean that they aren’t very happy as children.

Happiness is a zero sum game? This sort of thinking may partly explain why the modern boardroom so closely resembles a kindergarten sandbox.

George writes:

I'm not sure Steve's self-reporting is very representative of what he's actually like as a parent.

"...I also want [my kids] to do what I tell them to do, the first time I tell them to do it."

Me, too. I also want a million dollars. I have a much better, faster, surer plan for the latter.

"I want my kids to like me when they are grown up..."

This never enters my decision-making at all. I figure if my kids don't like me when they're grown up, that's their problem. And I have no idea what it would take to make them not like me now: sure, they're mad at me when it's time for bed or to go out, but it's pretty clear they still really, really like me -- OK, love me. I'm their dad; they're kids; what else are they going to do?

On the Bryan side: "I care most about raising kids , who, like me, believe in enjoying every single day of life."

OK, let's exclude days in the hospital with a hole in your abdomen, and days with food poisoning, and days where drug interactions make you feel like hell. I'm still not sure I enjoy "every single day" that remains. Your kids may be pretty disappointed if this is what you tell them life is like. Some days you just have to grind through, thinking about the future payoff (not that I'm applying to grad school anytime soon).

Back to Steve: "I don't want my kids to be sissies, the way I was...."

a) Only p*****s say "sissies" anymore.

b) Here it's pretty clear he's reacting against the way he was raised (or allowed to grow up). So we don't know if he's merely insisting his kids be exposed to criticism, or if he's making them walk in the snow without a coat uphill both ways and then cutting them in half with a bread knife.

As for who I'd pick to be my dad: well, Bryan's so much like me that having him for a father probably would have made me turn out completely different than either of us as a reaction. So he's out. As for Steve, I don't get a good sense of how he really is as a dad. So I pick my actual dad -- while he really could have thrown in a couple dozen more lessons about toughing it out and how you can't always think your way out of work, it was always obvious he loved me and wanted the best for me.

Matt writes:

Gil said: Treating children as pets, or clay to be molded, is hideous. They need trusted advisors, not masters. The need to be protected from imminent harm, but otherwise uncoerced.

You're mixing some extreme ideas with ones that are completely acceptable. Of course you shouldn't treat children like pets, but to say that you shouldn't treat them as clay to be molded is just an excercise in hypocrisy . I guarantee that you mold your children every day and you do sway their ideas to line up with your own. You just can't see youself doing it.

If you say that you teach your children completely unbiased then you don't know what bias is. To say that they need "trusted advisers" means you feel that they need people to teach them what you agree with. You wouldn't trust people to advise them that didn't advise what you agree with or espouse philosophically. If an "advisor" told them that global warming was bunk, if you disagreed with that statement, you wouldn't "trust" that person and allow them to be an advisor.

Anyhow, I understand what you are saying, but doing it is really not possible. You're deluding yourself if you think you can achieve it. I sense from your comment and from the fact that you profess atheism on your own blog that you probably think that people who "mold" their children to believe in God is what is "hideous". It's a common thought among atheists. It's just terribly hypocritical. In all liklihood you don't promote theism in your home. Are your children *really* uncoerced? If they came home from school and were told about a Christmas program they want to go to because their friend invited them, would you let them go?

Gil writes:

Hi Matt,

I don't want to hijack this comment thread into a personal back-and-forth, but to briefly respond to your points:

I agree we all affect our children's ideas. What I meant is that we shouldn't explicitly set out to dictate them. We shouldn't demand immediate obediance to our whims, and we shouldn't pretend to have infallible parenting strategies that justify coercion.

What I meant by "trusted advisors" is that we should be people that the children themselves will come to trust because they have had good experiences with our history of being reasonable, and generally helping them to further their own goals.

Religion didn't even enter my mind when I posted my original comment. And, of course I would let them go to a Christmas program that they were interested in.

I didn't want to preach. Just to lend to support to Bryan's side of this disagreement.

If you want to learn more about the kind of parenting that I support, I suggest that you check out this site:

http://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/.

Eric Crampton writes:

Bryan's kids are some of the best behaved that I've met. I've never met Levitt or his kids though...

Matt writes:

Gil,

You said: What I meant is that we shouldn't explicitly set out to dictate them. We shouldn't demand immediate obediance to our whims, and we shouldn't pretend to have infallible parenting strategies that justify coercion.

We *must* demand immediate obedience to many things--whims are not among them. If we don't demand immediate obedience, young children may walk into streets and get run over. There is no such thing as infallible parenting, yet we all must do our best and the lines between being responsible and *coercing* our children become pretty blurry.

The TCS philosophy looks interesting, but it's pretty short on practical. I'll have to look at it a bit closer.

-Matt

Faré writes:

@proponents of character-building: this concept sounds a lot like nation-building and I'm sure our government has as much success with the former in its schools as it has in the latter with its armies.

In school, I learnt to obey pointless rules, to agree to the suffering of imprisoned children, to consider learning as drudgery, to repeat government propaganda, to lie to the oppressor, to bow to bullies, to accept irresponsible and incompetent superior men as authorities and referees.

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