Bryan Caplan  

My Father's Day Essay for the WSJ

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My Father's Day essay for the Wall St. Journal is now up, and I've got EconLog readers to thank.  You've been a great sounding board for all the main arguments about family economics I've been stockpiling over the last five years.  My favorite part:

Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it's great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids' future rests in your hands, you'll probably make many painful "investments"--and feel guilty that you didn't do more. Once you realize that your kids' future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

...In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids "for their own good" rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.

The punchline:

Father's Day is a time to reflect on whether you want to be a parent--or want to be a parent again. If you simply don't like kids, research has little to say to you. If however you're interested in kids, but scared of the sacrifices, research has two big lessons. First, parents' sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children. Second, parents' sacrifice is much larger than it has to be... Instead of trying to mold your children into perfect adults, you can safely kick back, relax and enjoy your journey together--and seriously consider adding another passenger.
Happy Father's Day!

P.S. The link changed.  Fixed it.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Scott Wentland writes:

Great article. Bring on the new book!

Bill writes:

Well done, I just read it with my wife. We have 1.

Steve Sailer writes:

The issue is less your children than it is positioning your children in the mating market to optimize the quantity and quality of your grandchildren.

That's what much of the frenzy is about, and that's particularly hard to study.

Keith Eubanks writes:

Am reading your article, but on the like. As an adult, I never spent much time with kids until my first daughter was born in my mid-30s. Prior to that, I could not have imagined how much I would enjoy being a father. I now have 3 ranging from 13 yrs to two weeks.

I view parenting more as teaching. Sometimes directly as in showing someone how to tie one's shoes or paddle a canoe or do a math problem or learning to read. But more importantly by telling stories: stories of my life and what I know of my parents and grandparents lives. Stories, told or read, can help kids learn a little more about how others have approached the challenges, complexities, hard times and good times in life.

Fmb writes:

How does the research solve the endogeneity problem? Maybe parents that ride their kids generally do so because they've identified a good reason to. Similar to how police force increases correlate with higher crime, not lower.

Jason Malloy writes:

It's nice to see informed discussion of behavior genetics in the mainstream press, but I don't think you give a fair summary at the end.

...research has two big lessons. First, parents' sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children.

First, lumping 'married' and 'children' is misleading in the context of a summary statement, since the large measurable benefit is wholly from the marriage, not the children. Second, parental sacrifices are very large (life-time cost per child are high, especially for college-going children), what are you are trying to say is that parental sacrifices can be smaller. There is a big difference.

Jason Malloy writes:

The issue is less your children than it is positioning your children in the mating market to optimize the quantity and quality of your grandchildren. That's what much of the frenzy is about, and that's particularly hard to study.

I don't think these are particularly hard to study. For quantity of grandchildren you'd simply look at the shared environment component for grandchildren (e.g. are adopted siblings more alike in how many grandchildren they have). For offspring quality you can look at the shared environment component of social status, or, more directly, the social status of spouses.

A bigger problem, I think, is that behavior genetics currently answers questions too crudely to be helpful to parents.

Can't parents who drop $100,000+ on a high status college education expect better outcomes for their children than parents who don't provide this opportunity? Logically, you would think that parents who provide costly opportunities would be dramatically affecting their child outcomes. But behavior genetic studies suggest that parental socioeconomic status doesn't do much.

Why not?

Is it because the poor parents are spending proportionately more on opportunities than rich parents? Or is it because children somehow compensate in proportion to their own abilities (e.g. making due with student loans)? Or is it because the supposed advantages of fancy colleges are a spurious reflection of student ability (consistent with Dale and Krueger)?

Behavior genetics doesn't yet help distinguish between explanations like the first and third AFAIK. But if parents take the research to indicate something like the third explanation, when the true explanation is the first, the consequences of that misinterpretation could be severe.

Jason Malloy writes:

But if parents take the research to indicate something like the third explanation, when the true explanation is the first, the consequences of that misinterpretation could be severe


By the way, this is one problem I potentially have with Dr. Caplan's new book. He is advocating the idea that behavior genetics indicates parents can invest less in their children without consequences. While I do suspect this is true, the same research could conceivably be indicating the opposite. Which would mean that Dr. Caplan's suggestions could be harmful.

Tracy W writes:

Jason Malloy - on the other hand, if parents take the research to indicate something like the first explanation, when the true explanation is the third, then the consequences of that mis-interpretation are severe - about $100,000 per college-educated child.

Jason Malloy writes:

Tracy, that is correct. There is certainly nothing wrong with advocating the third position (and, for the record, this is close to my viewpoint); my point was that it could be problematic if based on faulty or misleading arguments.

dj superflat writes:

the grandparent argument ignores differing discount rates (someone with a high discount rate should be less likely to buy the argument, given what's given up in the short term for the prospective long term).

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