Bryan Caplan  

Karacter: From the Cutting-Room Floor

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Cross-Country Musings... Paranoia About Paranoia...
I've very fond of this passage from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but Alex Tabarrok suggested a much more accessible substitute - Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue."


In 1997, the Dutch movie Karacter won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Set in 1920s, it's the story of Jacob Katadreuffe, an up-and-coming lawyer accused of patricide.  Why would he throw his life away by murdering his own father?  We find out through a series of flashbacks.  Decades earlier, Jacob's mother Joba was the housekeeper for his father, Dreverhaven.  When Joba becomes pregnant, Dreverhaven repeatedly proposes marriage, but she refuses to have anything to do with him.  When Jacob grows up, his estranged father singles him out for emotional abuse.  He denies paternity when his young son is in trouble with the police, sues him over a minor debt, and loans him money on onerous terms.  Is Dreverhaven after revenge?  He denies it.  He says he is only trying to teach character.  When Joba asks him, "Why don't you leave our boy in peace?," he responds, "I'll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last tenth will make him strong."  In the end, Dreverhaven's cause of death turns out to be suicide.  He acknowledges Jacob in his will, and leaves him his entire fortune. 

Most parents aren't as ruthless as Dreverhaven, but his motivation should be familiar.  We want our children to grow up to be men and women of substance - of character.  While the details vary, almost all parents want their kids to be hard-working, diligent, honest, polite, cooperative, and kind - and almost no parents want their kids to become common criminals.  

When you tell parents that they overestimate their influence, they often retreat to the bunker of character: "Maybe I can't affect his IQ or his income, but I can control whether he grows up to be a decent person."  For intelligence, happiness, health, or success, most parents eventually learn some modesty; we're convinced we make a difference, but accept that we don't run the show.  For character, we're practically parental determinists: If you raise your children right, they will grow up to be good people - and if they turn out bad, the reason must be that you raised them wrong.  Is there any truth to this?  Is character a genuine exception to the rule that nurture doesn't matter much?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Publius writes:

That's a great passage! It's a shame to discard it. If anything, I'd have made it longer by appending the famous Neitzche quote, "That which doesn't kill me only makes me stronger." I'd rather be weak than be estranged from my parents.

neel writes:

Obvious reason for that. The moral of parents is always with children, I hope.

David writes:

The answer to your question is no, and I'll leave the explanation to Sly Stone:

One child grow up to be/
somebody that just loves to learn
Another child grows up to be/
somebody we'd just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them/
you see it's in the blood...

Brian Shelley writes:

There's also an arrogance factor at work. We like to assume we are in that 99th percentile for character ourselves. Or, that we know how to inculcate high character, as if we were some genius who's got it all figured out. It's likely, though, that we are in that big mass in the middle. Given that you're at the 50th percentile of character building you're not likely to pump out a Mother Theresa without some significant help from other factors.

Floccina writes:

parents that they overestimate their influence

Does this also go for politicians and schools. There seems to be an idea among many in the USA, both liberal to conservative, that that they can remake our poor population by taking their children from their parents at an earlier age and putting them in preschool with some federal employees who really know how to raise them right. They promise that can give them the head start that they need. A head start that allow them to develop into people who can learn factoring of quadratic equations and so all go to college and become more productive people.

Joshua Macy writes:

Yeah, I think Alex is right, "A Boy Named Sue" is better. It's not just less obscure, it's clearer what the father is hoping to accomplish and more importantly how; it's not exactly a plausible child-raising strategy, but it's understandable. Just going by the description, it's hard to see what sort of character the father in Karacter is hoping to build.

[mistyped url corrected--Econlib Ed. You had the http part twice.]

John B. writes:

I'm a parent of two, now 18 and 20.

I never believed I had that much control. I think you overstate what parents believe.

My two had characters which were evident prenatally: one was very lively in the womb and the other was not; their current activity levels reflect that difference. Their reactions to stress and strangers at two prefigured their current reactions.

I think bad parenting can have a big negative impact on character, but that good parenting has only a slight impact compared to "medium" parenting. In other words, it's like all the other environmental issues: if the environment injures or has severe limits, then there's a visible impact; if the environment is adequate, you get the result that the genes of the individual describe.

It's true that animal examples show that the genes encode a variety of results (one for a good environment, others for different kinds of bad ones), but there's an "optimal" form. An example I recall reading about was earlier sexual maturity for female deer in a low-calorie environment. When the offspring were put into a non-restricted environment, the second and third generations switched back to the standard pattern of later maturity.

-John

Fenn writes:

when will this book come out?

dullgeek writes:

Could evolutionary biology explain this? Could it be that parents who believe that they have more influence over their children's character have a tendency to work harder at educating their children than those who believed they have no such influence?

Matt writes:

I know there are all sorts of statistics that say parents really don't influence their children's adult lives as much as they think they do. Still, I have a very hard time believing that they don't influence character.

I think that parents biggest contribution to their children's character comes indirectly where parents influence culture, and the culture determines a child's character.

If you see adults around you lying about all sorts of things, and your parents taught you to never lie, my guess is that you would be more prone to lie, because you grow up thinking that's the way the world works.

Thomas Sewell writes:

See Dr. C. Terry Warner's work on Collusion (his term) between generations and how it can play a "significant and decisive role in shaping" personality.

Most of the actual evidence centers around what parents can do to screw up their kid's character and personality, not how they can ensure it turns out great.

Sort of like government regulation vs. markets in achieving desired outcomes. It's difficuly for government to actively make the market better beyond a certain point (equiv. to food and shelter and access to educational tools for kids), but it can easily actively make things much worse.

Sarge writes:

Dr. Caplan,

I see no reason why you couldn't use both example you provided, and then throw in a reference to "A Boy Named Sue" to reinforce the point.

ajb writes:

Bryan constantly undervalues the importance of labels and identity. Take his relative weak claims about religion. Supposedly a parent can only affect what religion a kid professes to believe in adulthood, not how he behaves. But as a parent it matters enormously to me whether a child who grows up religious does it as a Catholic or a Jew or a Muslim.

And all this assumes that I grant the value of the research he cites. I am unconvinced by his survey data and various studies. They are suggestive, but as Hayek would say, the weight of tradition is just as important even if unpublishable in a journal.

hacs writes:

"Parents are irrelevant" or similar results do not seem robust conclusions. Were the data of those studies sampled from the entire US population or just from a subgroup of Ivy league students? Were they corroborated in different countries (different cultural, institutional and socioeconomic backgrounds) including developing countries, poor countries, etc?

It is just a doubt.

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