Bryan Caplan  

10 Things I Learned in My First 10 Years of Parenting

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My eldest sons just turned ten, which means I've been a father for ten years.  Ergo, it's time to inventory the top things I've learned from my decade of experience.  In no particular order:

1. Kids are a consumption good, and always have been

2. Have kids to create beloved companions, pay forward the gift of life, and see the world anew, not to get a person to mold or boss around.

3. Discover things you and your kids enjoy doing together, and make plenty of time to actually do them.

4. You have little effect on your child's intelligence, success, or even character.  But you have a genuine effect on his appreciation of you - how he feels about and remembers you.

5. Your kid's preferences may differ from your childhood preferences, but it's still helpful to remember and try to be the kind of parent you wish you'd had.

6. Don't use discipline to turn your kid into a good person when he's an adult.  It won't work.  Use discipline to turn your kid into a good roommate when he's a kid.  It won't work miracles, but it's way better than nothing.

7. Mild discipline, mechanically enforced, deters bad behavior far more effectively than harsh discipline, arbitrarily enforced.  Idle threats, no matter how lurid, ("I'll sell you to the gypsies if you don't eat your dinner" "I'll turn this car to Disneyland right around") do not improve behavior at all.

8. Never lie to your children.  Kids soon see through your deception, reputation matters, and in any case, lying is wrong. 

9. Expressing anger at your children is counter-productive.  It undermines your authority and gives wayward children hope of besting you.

10. Raise your children with kindness and respect.  When they behave badly, calmly carry out promised punishments like Javert, then restart the game like Valjean.

Bonus lesson: If your kids say you're embarrassing them, they're probably right.  Don't argue, don't tease, just stop.


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COMMENTS (35 to date)
Rob writes:
pay forward the gift of life

Calling life a "gift" is like calling rape "surprise sex" - it's a euphemism that hides the following facts:

1) It is non-consensual and cannot be freely rejected or disposed of.
2) It causes inevitable involuntary harm, including, in some unlucky cases, unimaginably severe suffering.

Even if you are a natalist, you have to acknowledge these facts as long as you value intellectual honesty.

JVA writes:

@Rob

There is nothing in the dictionary definition of "gift" that says it should be consensual or freely rejectable or enjoyable. The only characteristics of a gift is that it is given voluntarily and without compensation.

Rob writes:

@JVA

So, if I hit you in the face with a brick, I can call that a gift and you wouldn't think it's a euphemism?

Joey Donuts writes:

A very nice list. I only have one quibble. You cannot emabarass anyone. Embarrassment is a feeling that a person controls. People may feel embarrased by something you do, and children should be taught to express their emotions that way. E.G. I feel embarrased when you do that.

Otherwise, the person is giving you power over the way they feel.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Rob, the overwhelming majority of people enjoy living. In fact, for most people I would say their own life is by far their most precious possession, as it is the one thing that makes all other things possible. There may be some who do not like it, but if the intention is good and the reasonable expectation is that it will be well-received, yes I think we can call that a gift. It is nothing like getting hit in the face with a brick.

Tracy W writes:

@Rob: The same may be said of CPR (if you can consent to CPR, you don't need it, it will probably cause suffering) and a quick google finds many references to CPR as the gift of life.

It remains, as Zac says, that most people enjoy life and prefer to stay alive, even with the inevitable suffering.

Jesse Fuchs writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

Dan writes:

@Rob

Actually, life can be freely rejected or disposed of. It's called suicide, of course.

Life in itself does not cause suffering. Suffering does depend on life (as far as we know), but it is not caused by it. I have life but not suffering.

So life is not like rape. It's more like a gift that perhaps you and others don't care for and wish you hadn't received. But it's still a gift, one that most people do appreciate.

Kevin writes:
Bonus lesson: If your kids say you're embarrassing them, they're probably right. Don't argue, don't tease, just stop.

Somehow need to send this message back in time to my mom.

Rob writes:

@Dan

Actually, life can be freely rejected or disposed of. It's called suicide, of course.

If I were to quote to you the total amount of insult and abuse I have received from complete strangers, simply for demanding that I be allowed to buy good suicide drugs to dispose of my own life at my own discretion, you would not believe your eyes.

If natalists who - predictably and falsely - play the suicide-as-free-disposal-card were to even do a glancing google search for suicide survival statistics and associated involuntary suffering, they would not embarrass themselves by playing that card any longer.

The following are empirical facts:

1) The vast majority of suicide attempts fail, even ones that are meant to be lethal by the attempter. This causes great immediate suffering and often leaves behind a person who no longer has the means to attempt suicide again.

2) Announced or attempted suicide is legal cause for human rights violations such as involuntary hospitalization and medication, combined with derogatory social conduct and deliberate degradation of the - involuntary! - "patient".

3) All young children - but also many adolescents and adults - are psychologically and cognitively incapable of rational suicide.

4) The best suicide methods - barbiturate drugs - are actively banned by almost all governments on the planet. Even black markets are attacked with shocking effectiveness.

5) Suicide harms those left behind emotionally, psychologically and sometimes financially.

6) Politically, there is not even a pretense that we are supposed to have the right-to-die as we see fit. The legal and political landscape shows a completely different picture, the right-to-die is rejected by a critical mass of voters, ideological lobbyists and legislators. Natalists who cite suicide as an option show little effort in changing this.

To simply ignore these facts when playing the suicide-as-free-disposal-card is intellectually negligent and ignorant at best, and deceitful and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Ken B writes:

On a related note, I am at the age where I am hearing some friends I grew up with start to sound a bit censorious about kids today, and how it would be a good thing if they had less sex, beer, etc. My reaction is have you forgotten your own life so completely?

Ken B writes:

On a related note, I am at the age where I am hearing some friends I grew up with start to sound a bit censorious about kids today, and how it would be a good thing if they had less sex, beer, etc. My reaction is have you forgotten your own life so completely?

Trespassers W writes:

@Rob,

While I agree that life can't be called a "gift", you're making the same mistake as Bryan. (Although I suspect Bryan is speaking colloquially.) It's not that it's a euphemism, it's that you're dropping the context within which any of these concepts apply.

Non-living things cannot receive gifts (even nasty 'gifts') in any meaningful sense. Life can't be gifted, because a gift presupposes a living recepient. To whom are you giving the gift?

But similarly,

1) It is non-consensual and cannot be freely rejected or disposed of. 2) It causes inevitable involuntary harm, including, in some unlucky cases, unimaginably severe suffering.

"Consensual" and "nonconsensual" presuppose a living thing (in fact, one of a special class of living things) that may consent or not consent. Coming into existence as a living being cannot be consensual, nor can it be non-consensual, because there's nothing there with the capacity to consent or dissent.

Nor can you 'cause involuntary harm' to somebody by bringing them into existence. Until that happens, there is nothing there to be harmed or not harmed. (Of course, you might harm them once they do exist.)

You have to acknowledge these facts as long as you value intellectual honesty.

Ken B writes:

Joey Donuts:

You cannot emabarass anyone. Embarrassment is a feeling that a person controls.

You've never had parents I presume?

Finch writes:

Egad Rob,

Suicide attempts fail because they're not meant to succeed. The evident halfassery in the attempt says it's more about signalling or being really drunk or high and not making good decisions. In fact, the number of successful suicides probably overstates the number of people who really want to die, as some of the successes were likely attempts "to get Mom to notice something's wrong" rather than "to end the life."

Sometimes you hear of a suicide where the person was careful and thorough. I recall one around here a while ago involving a guy who'd been arrested for murder. But this is the exception not the rule. I have no problem with access to medically assisted suicide with reasonable safeguards. But I don't think easy access would budge the suicide numbers at all.

John Fembup writes:

@Rob who said "If I were to quote to you the total amount of insult and abuse I have received from complete strangers . . . you would not believe your eyes."

Oh, I think I would.

Rob writes:

@Trespassers W

I don't accept the non-identity objection because under the condition that the child is created there really is going to be a living child who did not consent and whose identity we can reference before the fact.

Coming into existence as a living being cannot be consensual, nor can it be non-consensual, because there's nothing there with the capacity to consent or dissent.

I don't share this definition. For me, the absence of capacity to consent or dissent implies the absence of consent, i.e. the act is non-consensual. As an analogy, having sex with comatose people is rape even if they can't dissent and even if other people condone it.

@Finch

Suicide attempts fail because they're not meant to succeed.

What evidence do you have to back this up? It strikes me as similar to claiming that, if a paralyzed person doesn't stand up, they must prefer to sit. Where does your epistemic state come from when you claim alleged lack of intent? What reason do we have to assume that, say, this teen did not really want do die?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/zachery-gray-florida-teen-brain-damage-paralyzed-gay-bullying_n_1550440.html

Rob writes:

@Tracy W

The same may be said of CPR (if you can consent to CPR, you don't need it, it will probably cause suffering) and a quick google finds many references to CPR as the gift of life.

If someone were to perform CPR on me when I am unconscious, without my prior approval, I would want them to be sued for assault.

Mike W writes:

You have little effect on your child's intelligence, success, or even character.

Really...raising your kids in and upper-middle class neighborhood will not have a greater probability of a positive effect their success than raising them in a working-class neighborhood?

Finch writes:

> What reason do we have to assume that, say, this
> teen did not really want do die?


Um, from the article, he "tried to hang himself with a dog chain in a shed behind his home." I'm not a mind reader, but that strikes me as pretty good evidence that this was not well thought out. It sounds like "problem with impulse control" + "really bad day."

"Sober" + "careful" + "thorough" = evidence of intent.

Jack writes:

Rob is my new hero on this thread. It's simply a fact that no one ever asked to be born, and if given the choice, many would not have been. How many people fall into this category? Who knows. But it's likely much more than the number of people who commit -- or even attept to commit -- suicide.

Matt C writes:

How did this end up a thread about suicide? Gah.

I can't disagree with much in your list, Bryan, although some of those ideals may only be approximated in real life.

I do appreciate #8 especially. The number of parents who think it is OK to blithely lie to their children appalls me.

Here's a corollary to #7 that might be a little controversial: a calmly delivered swat on the butt is a simple, effective, and humane form of punishment for younger children.

Not controversial in my parent's generation, but very few families seem comfortable with spanking any more. If there seemed to be an effective replacement it wouldn't bug me so much, but I have watched a lot of parents flounder helplessly when their kid starts acting like a brat, dragging some bit of perfectly typical 5-year-old misbehavior into a cringe-worthy drama lasting fifteen minutes or more.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I am undecided about whether physical punishment is necessary, or if it is harmful (certainly a light spank isn't GREATLY harmful).

But I do know that parents that can't handle brats aren't in this situation because of no physical punishment. When one lives with a child full-time, it is very easy to determine what the kids care about. It may be TV time, a favorite food, a trip somewhere, whatever. I don't recommend taking away a favorite toy or whatever often, but sometimes it is necessary. A parent has great power to take away these things, and thus had great power over their kids, if they use it. But it takes self-discipline to use these punishments consistently and judiciously. The parents with the brats don't have this self-discipline, or they just don't care if their kids are brats. Nothing to do with physical punishment.

Chris H writes:

@Rob,

We know most suicide attempts are meant to fail because there are obvious methods of suicide with over 95% mortality rates. If a person wants to commit suicide these methods lead to quick deaths. Here's a list. Something to note about this list. In the United States at least it's very easy to get a hold of firearms (even if you live in DC where the laws are relatively onerous, more lax Virginia is right next door). Even without that, stopping someone who's determined from jumping in front of a train or off a sufficiently high building is nearly impossible. You will also note from the list that these means of suicide are some of the means with the lowest levels of agony associated with them. Now if most people who committed suicide truly wanted to make sure they would die, we would expect them to do research on the most effective methods. Once they did that they would choose methods with high likelihoods of death. Instead they tend to choose ineffective methods that often are MORE agonizing than the more effective ones. What conclusion can we draw from this? Most people who try to commit suicide want to fail.

This isn't surprising given that suicide is a highly effective way to draw the kind of attention that a person experiencing severe depression might need. After all, even when someone uses methods that have high likelihoods of survival, their loved ones rarely want to take chances.

Now, one problem here is that this argument does not technically prove a majority of people wish they were never born. This only proves most people don't want to die. These are technically speaking separate issues (though I would expect them to be highly correlated). For instance, people with religious beliefs that promise hellfire for those who commit suicide might view the cost of dying as too high, while at the same time thinking that it was a bad thing they were born. Indeed, one might even come up with secular reasons, such as not wanting to bring suffering to family members or loved ones. In order to determine that for certain the best method would be to have a survey asking people whether they are happy they were born.

Unfortunately a quick google search didn't reveal a survey asking that specific question as opposed to suicidal thoughts (which is a very small percentage of the populace) so technically speaking I can't answer this for sure. On the other hand, the low number of people with serious suicidal thoughts and just anecdotal experience would seem to indicate to me that the number of people who wish they had never been born is rather low.

Rob writes:
"Sober" + "careful" + "thorough" = evidence of intent.

No. Seriously, Finch, no.

Free disposal is not just for people who are sober, careful and thorough. It is not just for competent and unemotional people. That makes a mockery of the concept of free disposal, because being competent and thorough is not always achievable. Being incompetent is not voluntary.

@Jack

How many people fall into this category? Who knows. But it's likely much more than the number of people who commit -- or even attept to commit -- suicide.

Yes, it's probably considerably more likely. If people could just decide to fall asleep and not wake up, as an internal function of their brains, the numbers might look very different from now.

@Matt

How did this end up a thread about suicide? Gah.

Because suicide is routinely brought up as an argument by natalists who want to pretend life is voluntary, even though it is not. Caplan himself has used this argument to defend his natalism, and so has Dan in the comments upstream. And from there we are compelled to discuss the details of suicide.

Effem writes:

I'm sort of with Rob. While suicide is not very common (partially because of the factors Rob outlined), I do think there are a very large number of people who wouldn't do life over again. It's not clear to me at all that life is a gift.

Now, it may not be like getting "hit with a brick." But it certainly isn't an absolute positive in my opinion.

I've had a great life by most standards. If asked to do it over, I'd probably decline.

Finch writes:

Rob, you're romanticizing it. When a person fails to take two minutes to even think about what he's doing it's an impulse, not a plan.

Clearly people exist who are serious about not liking their life, but I think the evidence (Chris H did a nice job presenting some of it) is that this represents a fraction of suicide attempts, and a fraction of suicides. An unsuccessful suicide attempt is strong evidence that the person did not actually want to die. A successful one requires investigation to determine intent accurately.

Therefore the number of successful suicides overstates the number of people who actually want to die.

If you allowed medically assisted suicide (which I'm all for) and required just the most basic safeguards, like a one month waiting period, a couple of counseling sessions to make sure there was no coercion or simply treatable disorder or anything like that, and completion in a hospital, I think very few people would sign up.

Jotto999 writes:

Rob, people can't turn down a gift while they don't exist (before they are born). Giving or denying consent is something only the living can do, making your argument, as far as I can tell, redundant. It would apply to everyone, even people who ended up being gad they were alive. Which is the vast majority of people, which brings me to my second point.

You said the following:
"If I were to quote to you the total amount of insult and abuse I have received from complete strangers, simply for demanding that I be allowed to buy good suicide drugs to dispose of my own life at my own discretion, you would not believe your eyes."

I think you are suffering a bias, and my choice of a verb is probably apt. You seem to have depression. Have you tried exercise? Sun exposure? Interesting conversations with people? Getting a pet? Eating healthy? Meditation? Singing? Some or all the above?

I'm not aiming to tell how you to live, but I will have you know this: I frankly can't remember a single 5km walk session where I didn't feel much better coming back than when I stepped out the door. If you hate existing, first make sure you aren't doing it wrong.

Janet Dubac writes:

I think number 9 is the best one on this list. You shouldn't ever get angry in front of your children. It will obviously happen sometimes, but doing your absolute best to control anger is a good idea.

Rob writes:

@Finch

If you allowed medically assisted suicide (which I'm all for) and required just the most basic safeguards, like a one month waiting period, a couple of counseling sessions to make sure there was no coercion or simply treatable disorder or anything like that, and completion in a hospital, I think very few people would sign up.

This suggestion is something I fully endorse, and it would give us much better evidence of who really wants to die and who doesn't. The very fact that governments - even those with democratic legitimacy - ban this kind of thing through physical force is evidence that life is not at all voluntary, nor supposed to be voluntary. I can barely see this being legalized for adults, let alone globally, and even less so for minors.

As long as people don't have the ability to die reliably without pain, I'm not going to claim that their lives are voluntary.

@Jotto999

Thanks for your advice. I can handle my life but still don't consider it a gift.

Matt C writes:

Mark, I think spanking is most useful in younger children, age 3-7 or thereabouts, when they are not fully able to reason or appreciate future consequences (especially when they're upset). When they're older, you don't really need swats any more. I stopped getting swats when I was eight or so, and it fell out pretty much the same way with my kids. I haven't given either of them a swat in years.

There is this idea out there than you can always reason and negotiate your way through any conflict with your children, even with a four year old who is bouncing off the walls in high octane freak out mode. I don't think this idea is true though.

> The parents with the brats don't have this self-discipline, or they just don't care if their kids are brats. Nothing to do with physical punishment.

We have known more than one family where the parents are conscientious, responsible, intelligent, and compassionate, and are still very ineffectual at handling their kids when they start acting bratty. I am not saying these people needed to spank--if you think swatting your kids is one step removed from punching them, you're never going to spank effectively--but they certainly needed something else in their toolkit. It was not lack of reason, or self-discipline, or responsibility that was making them ineffectual.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Matt--

My kids are 18 and 22, so I have to remember what it was like back when they were younger. But my memory is that I didn't ever have to hit the kids, even from 3-7. The only time it is truly necessary is if needed to prevent harm, such as to get the kid's attention that is about to run into traffic, or is going to bite another kid. But usually discipline isn't so urgent that the slow but sure methods of taking away privileges won't work. Sometimes force is needed, such as keeping their door shut when they are supposed to be in bed, or a child gate at the top of the stairs. But not hitting.

I've seen innumerable parents that were very competent in other areas of life but unable to keep their kids under control. It always seems to come down to self-discipline and consistency in my experience. The kids know the parents won't hold their ground so they do whatever they want. I think they truly believe they are being enlightened parents, but they are making life miserable for both themselves and their kids.

Of course these parents also tend to be flaming liberals who treat the poor and minority groups the same way, with similar results.

Chris H writes:

The psychological consensus is against spanking kids, even from ages 3-7. The only behavior that is produced from that is an immediate "I don't want to be hit" behavior not any kind of long term learning.

But however much I can say this or find study after study supporting this idea, I think Louis CK says it best.

Joey P writes:

As a mom of a wonderful 24 year old, I would have to throw numbers 4, 6, and 8 out the window!!! Apparently you were not a stay-home dad for those first 10 years! Secondly, when you hit the teenage years, you will probably throw all 10 out!!! As far as embarrassing your children...it a passage of life that once you are gone they will reminisce about with fond memories like my family does about our parents!!!

Mark writes:

Bryan,

I was telling my wife about this advice and she wants to know if there's a story that resulted in the advice about not embarrassing your kids?

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