Bryan Caplan  

Perfectionist Parents: Perfect Yourself

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I've got a question for perfectionist parents who strive to raise prodigies: Instead of pushing your kids to succeed, why don't you try to perfect yourself instead?  Why don't you start taking piano lessons for three hours a day?  Why don't you devote yourself to mastering Mandarin?

For adults, the answer's pretty obvious: There's a huge opportunity cost of these extracurricular activities, and low expected payoff.   Sure, perfectionist parents could object, "You have to start young to excel in this task," but that's just another excuse for failure.  And a true perfectionist parent summarily dismisses all excuses for failure with: "You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.  Back to work."

My challenge for perfectionist parents: Instead of trying to perfect your child, why not focus on perfecting your parenting - to show your children by constant example how reasonable, just, and loving one human being can be to another?

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Mike writes:

This one is easy...

Don't do as I do, do as I say!

thruth writes:

"I did, just look at all my achievements! Now get to work!"

Ben Hughes writes:

Interesting! There's an asymmetry with respect to realized costs and benefits *from the perspective of the parent*. This asymmetry produces incentives for parents to impose costs on the child, despite the allocation of time not necessarily being optimal for the child.

Sounds a little like government's relationship to its citizens, and the associated public choice problems with that.

blink writes:

This is good advice to be sure and will reveal many hypocrites. If you apply the criterion to Amy Chua, however, I think it lets her off the hook: She really does push herself as hard as she pushed her kids.

Lazy Federal Employee Posting from Work writes:

Because parents aren't going to apply to college, while kids will apply to college. My understanding is that all of the things perfectionist parents want their kids to do is for the purpose of getting into a top college. This is certainly what my parents told me when they forced me to play the violin growing up: that it would get me into a good college (it didn't, I got rejected from all three of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton).

Steve Sailer writes:


You don't have adolescent children yet, do you?

GU writes:

I think perfectionist parents are just seeking good life outcomes for their children. And may perfectionist parents are in fact quite successful themselves. Amy Chua is a tenured professor at Yale Law School, the most prestigious law school in the country. She has also managed to stay physically attractive, a feat few women her age achieve. Moreover, she is married to another YLS professor who is handsome as far as law prof's go. One of her daughters is going to Harvard this fall, the other will surely do something similar.

Most perfectionist parents have not succeeded (by typical upper-middle class standards) as much as Chua, but many are objectively successful. Again the motive isn't to breed perfection, but try your damnedest to ensure your children have a high probability of success.

This is not a defense of tiger momming, but rather I think a more accurate statement of their motivation.

GU writes:

Oh, and I should mention, "good life outcome" for America's professional class = attending a prestigious college.

Patrick writes:

They are narcissists. They don't care about the suffering of others. They care a lot about their own comfort, though. "Better you than me," sums up their philosophy on this issue.

Callousness, by the way, is the most strongly inherited of all personality traits. You can't argue them out of it. It's the trait of kings, so they're often successful. Narcissists are overrepresented in the upper echelons of business, politics, government bureaucracy, medicine, the military, the clergy, basically anywhere it pays to lack a conscience.

dieter writes:

@Bryan Caplan:
Be careful! You are treading into dangerous territory. The entire business model of the nefarious piano and mandarin teacher industry depends on the widespread belief that it is to late for adults to learn musical instruments or foreign languages.
There isn't much business to be made with adult autodidacts.

I would argue that for the most part, adults can learn much faster and more efficiently than kids.

Adult learners
a.) are (presumably) motivated
b.) can guide their own learning process
c.) seek out and comprehend suitable teaching material
d.) (wrt piano) have adult hands.

Let me address potential objections right away:

It is obviously true that few adults manage to attain native speaker level in any foreign language. But neither do kids. Kids acquire and retain only their _native_ tongue, the language that is spoken in their daily environment with ease. To replicate that with a foreign language you would need to have your kids live with a chinese couple, preferably in China, for extended periods of time.
Kids need formal instruction in their native language too.

Evan writes:


I would argue that for the most part, adults can learn much faster and more efficiently than kids.

There's a reason you're missing that explains why kids often learn a skill faster than an adult:
If an adult fails to learn the skill they are trying to master a giant won't come, take away all their stuff, and place them under house arrest, all without any fear of the police. If the world was inhabited by a race of giants who could take your stuff if you didn't learn a skill, and who were immune to prosecution, we'd all learn skills a lot faster and more frequently.

Jason Malloy writes:

Here's a new study that finds that children of tiger moms are more depressed.

I know I'm supposed to assume causation, but the tiger parents and tiger children are probably both more depressed because they share genes related to fear of failure and status anxiety.

Tom Powers writes:

I'm not in favor of forcing kids to play piano, but I don't think Tiger Moms are hypocrites. Children have much lower opportunity costs than parents, and also little perspective regarding what it takes to get into a top school. Even if you completely buy the signaling theory of education, you must think think that a degree from a good school is useful, and having kids play piano instead of playing outside could help them achieve that.

Scott G writes:


Why are you trying to persuade these particular parents to change their parenting behavior?


Evan writes:

@Scott G

Why are you trying to persuade these particular parents to change their parenting behavior?

My guess is that Bryan's reply would be twofold:
1. Those parents are jerks. They make their kids suffer for no good reason.
2. Those parents are being foolish. They stress themselves out nagging their kids for for no good reason.

Being a person who cares about his fellow persons, and a knowledgeable person in that field, he naturally wants to try to stop them.

Alex writes:

Hi Bryan,

From a physiological point of view, children 14 years old and below tend to have better learning abilities than adults when I comes to learning new languages, new skills.

That's one of the reason why an eight year old can learn a new language faster than his/her parents, speak it fluently, and without any accent at all. There's a part in the brain of the child that is still in its development stage. This area of brain allows the child to learn new skills, and abilities very easily.

Scott G writes:

Another way to think about this, is that the parents see themselves in their children and are thus perfecting themselves. On a religious level some parents may even believe they will live on through their children.

Take this a step further and ask how different or similar the children and the parents are. Consider the idea that a child is his parents - that is a mixing of two human life forms into one body.

The parents created the child and are in many ways the child.

Dan Weber writes:

This one's been bugging me for a few days. Lemme bullet-point my scattered thoughts:

1. Maybe I already am a violin prodigy. I did all the work, you should do it too.

2. Maybe I'm willing to commit time to your training as well. This is a valuable resource and should be valued.

3. Increasing one's lifetime earnings is more valuable the younger you are.

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