Bryan Caplan  

Parents' Costs versus Childrens' Benefits - Does the Ratio Matter?

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When I tell parents that twin and adoption studies find small effects of nurture, they often respond, "That's OK.  I'm willing to make a big sacrifice to help my kids a small amount."

Frankly, it's not clear what these parents have in mind.  A few possibilities:

1. They like helping their kids, so what appears to be a "big sacrifice" is actually consumption plus a tiny investment in their kids' future.

2. They value their kids' well-being much more than their own, so they're making a big low-value sacrifice for a small high-value gain.

3. They think it's so wrong to weigh their welfare against their children's that they're choosing between a "big sacrifice" and "massive guilt" - and "big sacrifice" is the lesser evil.

Other interpretations?

My reaction:

If you say #1, more power to you.  But surely in a continuous world, it's still useful to know the cost/benefit ratio?  Most "sacrifices" will still be worth it, but something's always marginal, right?

If you say #2, I've just got to ask, "Why?"  Kids are great, but don't parents count for anything?  Wouldn't it be better if all generations switched from "Make massive sacrifices to help your kids," to "Love your children as yourself"?

If you say #3, I've got to ask, "Why have you got to feel guilty about?  You gave your child the gift of life!"

Sometimes I wonder if I give readers the sense that I ignore my kids.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The Caplan guys spend hours together almost every day.  But I still insist that our mix of activities includes stuff like hiking that I enjoy more than they do - and I don't feel the least bit bad about it.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Julian writes:

Another explanation might be that parents massively overact in caring for their kids in hopes that the kids will learn to care for them in their old age. An illusion, but an attractive illusion.

ajb writes:

Bryan constantly minimizes the issue of how to treat large effects for low probability cases.

For example, assume that a child has strong natural aptitude for music. Don't you think it would matter for whether the kid grows up to be a great musician if he studied piano at 5 or 15 or not at all? Or imagine a child with chess ability. Does it matter if he were born in Soviet Russia or Korea? In a family that plays chess or one that doesn't?

Isn't religious choice tied to parental behavior? Since Bryan is presumably an atheist he thinks this is unimportant.

These effects might all average out in a study of mostly middle class families in the US. I contend that these are large, but non-universal effects.

Phil writes:

Perhaps another explanation is that, for whatever reason, so many other adults believe parental effects do matter, and we fear that if our children do not turn out "right", we will be judged by others in the event that we did not do everything that others believe we are supposed to have done. Perhaps we feel compelled to parent the way everyone else does simply to signal our fitness as parents to our peers and avoid being judged rather than to actually help our children?

GU writes:


Have you been reading the "Idle Parent" posts that have been appearing recently on Slate? (There have been about four or so). I'm sure the author says things you disagree with, but the gist of his parenting advice is chill out, enjoy your life, your kids will turn out fine, etc.

Unfortunately, he slams "capitalism" as the cause of most of modern life's problems. But ignoring his political musings, I'd be interested to hear what you think of his parenting advice.

David Jinkins writes:

Parents aren't functioning in a vacuum. How about:

4. If I don't over-care for my child, other adults in my community will consider me a bad parent and lower my status in our social group.

I imagine that if you believe that over-caring for your child is essential for his future, then you will harshly judge parents who do not over-care for their children.

eddie writes:

ajb - I agree, and I made a similar point in a (delayed) comment in the thread from yesterday. I hope Bryan addresses such questions before he finishes writing his book.

Jesse writes:

Could it also be risk aversion? Yes, the studies seem to convincing, but if they are wrong, it wouldn't be the first time an 'ironclad' result was overturned. Then, exerting minimal effort would have a high cost.
I don't suppose that justifies significant effort, but I think risk aversion will give you some greater effort than perhaps otherwise is 'optimal' in some sense.

James Hanley writes:
don't parents count for anything? Wouldn't it be better if all generations switched from "Make massive sacrifices to help your kids," to "Love your children as yourself"?
Massive current sacrifices are investment, yes? And from an evolutionary perspective, we are all "designed" to invest in our genetic heritage.

So don't large sacrifices for your children make sense from that perspective? Sure, nurture has little effect on personality, but investment in children has large effects on their future income and status.

eric writes:

why not a simple selfish gene assumption? You want to maximize your progeny, so your first directive is to maximize their 'success'.

Les writes:

This discussion is a great example of why economics relies upon "revealed preference" (actual behavior) rather than endless and inconclusive speculation about motives.

Inconclusive speculation is the ocean forever ploughed by psychologists, but never fully understood.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and beyond the vision of the uninvolved bystander.

Troy Camplin writes:

Here's the real reason they answer as they do: they don't believe you for a minute, and they are responding as they are to be polite. Just trying to avoid a discussion/argument.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Bryan's theorizing, as well as the research on twins he refers to, assumes that parents are smart investors. That's an assumption that needs to be tested. Not all investments in kids are good investments, but some probably are.

For example, Bryan mentions spending time with his kids hiking, and they hate hiking. Well, tough for them. But he assumes that their dislike of hiking is made up for by the love he shows them by taking them along on joint trips. Maybe, maybe not. Bryan makes an investment, maybe it has a positive ROI, maybe not.

Parents send their kids to private schools, at huge expense, and to the most expensive colleges, with little or no discernible effect on lifetime incomes. Bad investment? Sure, some of those kids are not that kind of intellectual material. Others spend a lot of money on ballet lessons, music lessons, tennis lessons, soccer camps, baseball camps, riding lessons, whatever, and none of that shows up in superior performance in the arts or sports. Wasted money? Yes, for some of those kids who didn't enjoy it but did what Bryan's kids do, go along because dad says so.

But for some of them, i.e., where the investment matched the kid's talent rather than the parents' preferences, it's hard to believe that the ROI would not be positive. So, the empirical lack of correlation between investment and outcome may not at all indicate that investments are bad, only that they are misdirected. Smart parents who invest smartly make money, dumb parents who invest stupidly don't.

Be wary of the fallacy of composition here, that's what I'm saying. Even if average parents don't make money on their investment, that does not mean that many of them do -- with a normal distribution, you'd expect half of them to.

AlanW writes:

What kind of measurable investment would you expect to see from taking kids hiking anyway? There's no professional hiking circuit that I'm aware of.

My mom dragged my brother and I on hikes and we groaned and moaned and dragged along.

Now, of course, I like being outdoors and hiking. So you could argue my mom's investment in listening to us bitch paid off by priming a (latent) interest in being outdoors that now offers a return on our health or environmental awareness or something. Or maybe her investment in listening to us whine simply paid off by allowing her to go hiking.

Paul writes:

Empircal studies can only measure impacts that are measurable. How do you measure whether a child grows up to be crappy person, or more objectively, a person unlike the person the parents wishes they would be?

If the time you spend with your children results in them not believing that the government can solve all their problems would that be a positive return on your investment? Or would you be equally satisfied with them being a well paid lobbyist advocating for a constitutional guarantee of government provided healtch care?

SydB writes:

Does this mean that alcoholic drug addicts who largely neglects but sometimes beats and sexually abuses their children will have no impact on said kids? Your argument about nurture has to work both ways. And I simply don't think you can argue what you are saying from twin and adoption studies.

Can you construct a richer and sounder argument drawing upon actual data, not simply the sentence "twin and adoption studies find small effects of nurture."


Andy writes:

I nag my kids. I don't do it so that they'll be millionaires. I do it because repetition helps them learn at ages 4 & 2 and what I want them to learn is manners & courtesy & "niceness." To my knowledge none of that is measured in the twin/adoption studies. I want my kids to say "Please" & "Thank You" because it makes the world an ever so slightly better place when their polite. I want them to learn to treat each other nicely because it makes our home a much better place and the world an ever so slightly better place. The nagging about picking up has started because the sooner they learn to do this on their own, the sooner my wife and I don't have to spend the time right before bed putting all their toys away. That will be worth the investment.

liberty writes:

If you say #3, I've got to ask, "Why have you got to feel guilty about? You gave your child the gift of life!"

Just because you keep repeating this argument doesn't mean it will start to make sense, all on its own.

If I had never been born, I would not care. There would be no "I" to care. My parents did me no favors by creating an "I" to care, and simultaneously giving that "I" life (which is the same thing) as some kind of gift.

Giving of life is therefore neutral.

Yet, if you choose to do this neutral act, you need to take responsibility for what you then do. For example, you could give birth to a baby and then leave it to die on a frozen sidewalk: this would be bad. On the other hand, you could give birth to a baby and then raise it in a loving household: this would be good.

Parents who do BAD things like leave their child to die on a sidewalk, or abandon them at some later date, or never come home until 11 at night and make their kids feel unloved, or do drugs in front of them, or argue and get a divorce and make them pick sides, or any number of other things DO have something to feel guilty about, and people SHOULD think about these things when deciding whether to have children.

Grant writes:

Bryan, I think it might help to get a bit more Hansonian here.

In my experience, parents don't really do that many things their kids enjoy. They force their kids to do activities to signal things beneficial to them (their devotion as parents, or the status of their family in general) despite how much their kids may hate those activities. Sure they may convince themselves its for their kids' own good, but any kid knows very little of it actually is.

Parents often pressure their kids to do well in school and at their jobs. How much of that is genuinely wanting the child to succeed, and how much of that is wanting to be the parent of a successful child?

Jim Clay writes:

Troy nailed it.

Peter writes:

I have to agree with SydB above. While I would be willing to give that if you took identical families with identical beliefs, incomes, houses, social structure, etc etc and the only variable you allowed to change was did they watch baby Einstein or not, most likely that extra nurturing isn't worth the cost or effect the long run prospects of the kid.

The problem is, as SydB stated, Bryan isn't looking at the inverse and making a broad assumption that all families are like him. Nutrition has a huge impact on child's mental development .. a starving infant in Rwanda isn't going to have the same IQ as his well fed counterparts. His parents sacrifice of working two jobs and his mother whoring herself to feed him will greatly impact their long term economic outlook given IQ correlates to economic well being.. A kid who can't read from some S. America tribe will be worse off than his peers who's parents went to the local missionary and learn English and/or read+write. I would be willing to bet my entire salary for a year that Elisabeth Fritzl long term outlook in life was seriously hampered and/or destroyed by her over-nurturing father.

Twin studies only work when comparing likes in the same social strata. Show me two twins that turned out the same where one was raised by W. Gates and the other by a incestuous child rapist (who lets say raped them from age 1 to 18) in a poverty stricken Cambodian refuge camp and I will agree with your nurture argument. (for the sake of argument, the 18 year old abused kid magically flies to America and enters the university the same day as her W. Gates raised counterpart)

I am parent myself and I agree we go way overboard on the nurturing and also concur it will have minimal impact within their peer group. Sure mine and my neighbors kid (who is less nurturious) will turn about about the same but the study's don't address the extreme's nor does it account for the outliers.

RL writes:

I think the mother and father should try to make things Parento optimal...

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Massive sacrifices are not necessarily what a child will remember in years to come.

For me, the warmest memories emanate from the times I spent with my father sitting on a bench under the shade of a lovely tree as we shared confidences in the final months of his life.

And for that I am rich.

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