Bryan Caplan  

The Parental Wish List: What's Missing?

The Bizarre World of Regulatio... Pessimistic Bias Strikes Again...
What is the point of raising kids?  On my view, the point is basically consumption.  Creating life and watching it grow is a fascinating and rewarding journey.  For many parents, though, the main point is actually investment: Taking little savages and turning them into civilized adults.  On the investment view, there is a desired end-state, and good parenting helps to bring that state about.  As Mr. Banks sings in Mary Poppins:
A British nanny must be a general
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands

A British bank is run with precision
The British home requires nothing less
Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools
With out them disorder, catastrophe, anarchy
In short you have a ghastly mess
But what exactly are the traits that parental investment is supposed to cultivate?  It's a critical question to answer.  After all, if parents aren't even trying to shape their kids' personality, a lack of parental influence on personality is not surprising.  To really test whether parental investment pays, we've got to figure out what's on the "wish list" of the typical parent.  In chapter three of my new book, I boil it down to six big wishes:

1. Intelligence
2. Happiness
3. Health - including life expectancy, lack of specific physical ailments, and of course good teeth!
4. Success - especially in the areas of education and income
5. Character - by which I mean uncontroversially desirable traits like industry, honesty, politeness, and kindness
6. Values - by which I mean positions on controversial areas such as religion, politics, tradition, and sex

Help me out: Can you think of any important omissions - wishes that a lot of parents try to realize that don't fit well under any of my six headings?

Update #1:  In the comments, ajb writes:

...Merely having children of good character and values would be inferior to having kids whose values and character are shaped within the preferred identity set of the parents. It is these notions of identity that are hardest for deracinated, liberal economists to take into account.

Actually, the whole point of the "values" heading is to capture parental efforts to pass on their identity to their children.  When parents try to affect their kids' views on religion, politics, tradition, sex, etc., their goal is almost always to make their kids agree with them, no?

Update #2:  In the comments, Zac Gochenour writes:

Do most people really want their kids to be intelligent for the sake of being intelligent, or because it leads to success in the areas of income and education? I think intelligence is a poor choice for the list.

In my experience, parents obsess about their kids' intelligence even before they're born (hence the popularity of prenatal Mozart!).  Almost immediately after birth, parents start trying to give their kids a head-start on language, reading, math, etc.  I strongly suspect, moreover, that if I told these parents that their efforts wouldn't affect their kids' income or even education, they'd insist that boosting their cognitive ability (or maybe "enriching their brains") was important in and of itself.

Still, I've often wondered whether intelligence should be first on my wish list.  I think I'm going to keep it there for two reasons.  First, parents' lack of long-run influence over IQ is so well-documented that it's pedagogically useful to start with it.  Second, intelligence is chronologically the first behavioral trait parents make a serious effort to influence.  (Serious effort to influence health comes even earlier, of course.  But when mom's take pre-natal vitamins or quit smoking, they're trying to directly improve their child's health, not "mold the breed.")

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Richard writes:

Two more:

1. Fecundity. Most parents want grandchildren.
2. Reciprocal love for parents.

BlackSheep writes:

Sense of guilt. So they keep visiting periodically and on the call. :P

tom writes:


ajb writes:

Moderns tend to underestimate the importance of filial piety and the cultivation of a sense that the family and the family bloodline are distinctly important issues that should be interwoven with all the above. In other words questions of collective identity that help to determine the preferred values and character. Merely having children of good character and values would be inferior to having kids whose values and character are shaped within the preferred identity set of the parents. It is these notions of identity that are hardest for deracinated, liberal economists to take into account.

Scott Wentland writes:

Are these wishes in absolute or relative terms?

To many parents intelligence, happiness, health, etc. are not sufficient in an absolute sense. Many parents care about their child relative to their own success and relative to other kids.

I'm not sure where you fit this in, but it might be a helpful addition (perhaps a different route with the data).

Fenn writes:

First time parent come July. Recently finished Nurture Assumption. Look forward to yours.

Happy and healthy sum it up for me.

Liberating to know she'll be who she'll be, and I'm unlikely to screw that up unless I plunk her in shitty environs or move her around too much.

Alex Martelli writes:

Culture: not prominent everywhere (esp. in the US), but in many sociological groups parents generally desire that their children appreciate and acquire "culture" (art, classical music, fiction in the "canon", ...and typically to a much lesser extent math and science as opposed to artistic/humanistic "culture" ). This desire is also observed in parents who don't themselves have much knowledge and appreciation in such areas, in which case it may be said to be "aspirational", rather than related to cultural cohesion between generations.

There are of course indirect connections, via signaling, to Intelligence ("refined tastes" are seen as signaling intelligence) and Success (such signaling is thought to promote upwards social mobility), but also to happiness and character/values (thorough grounding in "culture" is seen as intrinsically promoting an individual's "nobility of character" and happiness). Given its many faces, this desire is worth singling out from each of the above.

Matt writes:

If you own a farm it might be helpful to have kids so you have a workforce, but this is likely in addition to the other values since hired hands are probably cheaper and work better. This would be a relatively short-term investment since they would be old enough to work in a little over a decade. If you get a good base of kid labor going you can focus yourself full time on producing an even larger work force, which is far more fun than farm work.

Ryan Singer writes:


Given the 9-month incubation where a woman is literally incapable of producing additional babies than the ones already growing inside her, your farmer would have to have a very large capital base of wives to be able to be so productive. It is almost assuredly cheaper to have hired help.

Randy writes:

Safety. I suppose that kind of falls under health, but not exactly. Something awful happening to mine is the nightmare scenario. I suspect it may be instintive, and the main topic to which all the others are subordinate.

eddie writes:

In the senses you use them here, "investment" is also "consumption". The fascinating and rewarding journey includes not just creating life and watching it grow, but also influencing the shape it takes on as it grows.

PrestoPundit writes:

Maybe time to read a book or two in biology -- or buy a People magazine or the Star.

People want their kids to be good looking, fashionable, attractive, cute, popular, they want them to have friends, etc.

Think -- what matters for sexual reproductive success in the tribe, then translate it into the modern world.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Do most people really want their kids to be intelligent for the sake of being intelligent, or because it leads to success in the areas of income and education? I think intelligence is a poor choice for the list.

I would replace it with commenter Richard's suggestion of fecundity.

ck writes:

Bryan Caplan:

You depict #4 and #5--success and character--as uncomplicated and uncontentious. But this is mistaken given any kind of serious consideration of cultural variation.

There are some families and communities where growing up to be a research scientist is considered a success and others where this attainment is considered low-prestige.

It's similar with character traits.

You say that "industry" is universally sought after, but an aristocratic culture is one in which honor, which is highly prized, is associated with not working.

Your search for simple universals should proceed from an empirical, not theoretical, basis.

Tom B. writes:

How about conformity? Although it seems to overlap some of your other goals...

Ian Dunois writes:

I think the short answer would be that parents wish that their children get everything that they had wanted and everything they are glad they had.
Not many parents would wish for their children to receive less than they had.

Peter A writes:


hacs writes:

I do not know if guidance in their choices is well defined by the stated alternatives. That answers "...their goal is almost always to make their kids agree with them, no?" too. For example, I did not baptize them, leaving them free to choose their faith, inclusive the option for atheism. My work was only to explain at my best about the possibilities, sometimes appealing to others better informed than me about the matter. They chose to follow the Catholicism, despite I remain without religion (it is not the same as atheism). They were baptized, receiving the first communion and the confirmation at same time (the Easter Vigil Mass).

PJens writes:

I want my daughter to become a productive citizen in the society (tribe) she chooses to live in. In the past I think Prof Kling mentioned something about wanting his children to work in a profit versus non profit company. While I am not going to try and choose the company my kid goes to work for, I do hope she embraces capitalism and the good old plain hard work ethic. This summer I am teaching her the joys of physical labor. So far it is mostly work and not much joy, but it will appear I am certain!

carolus writes:

I find all of this off because I can't tell whether Bryan's initial list is positive or normative. I accept it as a description of what most people want, but I don't as a normative prescription of what they *should* want.

When raising my own children, I was guided by only two criteria: first, and most important, I wanted my kids to feel good about who they are, so that they could achieve a measure of personal satisfaction and happiness; second, as a derivative of the first, I wanted to give them every opportunity to make the most of whatever individual, special gifts they had. It happened that my children met all the wishes on Bryan's list, plus a bunch of others, but that's entirely beside the point. I hope I would have been a good father, with same two criteria I set up above, if my children had been mentally or physically disabled in some way, or if they had had severe social behavioral problems.

I'm sure my kids have given me a lot of happiness, and therefore can be easily confused with consumption goods, but they have always been, first and foremost, the most challenging responsibility I've ever assumed in my life. And, as long as they knew their paths to individual fulfilment and contentment, it would not have mattered to me if they had joined a convent or become refugee camp workers or Wall Street bankers or taxi drivers or even liberals (actually, one of them is). Their contentment and happiness would always be my foremost goal, and the rest is pretty much irrelevant. My primary, perhaps sole, responsibility as a parent is not to get in the way of their inner peace, wherever they may find it. I'm not looking for a better version of myself, nor for my kids to enhance my social status. I believe that egocentric parents are bad parents, and that's why I dislike Bryan's list.

Zac Gochenour writes:

carolus, Bryan is trying to describe what parents do want. That leads to a discussion of whether or not the things parents do actually lead to better outcomes vis a vis the things parents want, or if perhaps they would have been better off doing other things, or nothing at all.

You want your kids to be happy and fulfilled above all else. The book should help you determine what sorts of behaviors do and don't increase kids happiness. The title of the book suggests that for most common parental desires, having more kids will get you more of what you want without a proportional increase in cost. For example, when you were having children you might have figured that if you had another child, you wouldn't be able to buy as expensive toys or send your kids to the best private schools. The question becomes whether or not having expensive toys and going to expensive schools makes kids happier.

As a side note, you've revealed some of your additional preferences besides filial happiness already: nun, banker, refugee camp worker, taxi driver are a wide range of careers but all require some traditional character virtues; I doubt you would have been happy if your kids were happy heroin dealers, rapists, or con men. I also figure you prefer them to be happy and healthy than happy and unhealthy. Children having the same values as you is a less universal desire, success even less so but still quite common. Intelligence, I think, is more important to a subset of the population (those who are intelligent themselves) than to people in general, who are more likely to focus on success and mostly care about intelligence only as it relates to success, happiness, and health.

ajb writes:

I suspect Bryan wants this list because (based upon his other writings) he will argue that parents can do so little to influence their children's outcomes in the long run. But then his answer to my post misses the point. Moreoever, the evidence he will adduce will derive from studies overwhelmingly focusing on individual family behavior. The "same" values and character may not be viewed the same if labeled with a different religion or worldview.

Character and values cannot be taken out of their social context. Many of the most identity driven groups (whether religious fundamentalists or traditional Chinese) are making family behavioral decisions in a joint individual-social framework. Some of the things a fundamentalist might do will not work if surrounded by atheists. Conversely, many interventions may work better in the right social context. Moreoever, such attitudes may have the externality of encouraging the maintenance of certain group norms. No simple regressions will pick these non-linear effects up.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Can you think of any important omissions?"


Specifically, parents want their children to be able to attract high quality mates so that their grandchildren will have good genes and good upbringings.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Parents can have multiple agendas, many of which would really have more to do with their own needs rather than those of their children.

The most important (and difficult) thing one can do for their child is to be able to stand back and let the child make it on their own.

Parents need to let their children experience failure and disappointment and to learn from it.

When the child has a problem, parents need to understand that throwing money at the problem may or may not bring about resolution; but it will do nothing to prepare the child for future crises.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the day will come when the child's parents will no longer be available to the child. It is therefore important for the parent to make sure that they do not leave behind an emotional cripple who spends the rest of their life looking for someone else to tell them what to do.

The greatest gifts a parent can give a child are self-reliance, self-confidence, self-discipline, and a healthy self-esteem. To teach them to be critical be street keep their wits about them when all others are running amok.

Even greater yet is a parent's ability to teach their children to love, to eventually enter into mature, loving relationships and to one day pass on to their children all the wonderful gifts bestowed upon them by their parents.

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