Art Carden  

Parental Economics and Risk: A Couple of Reading Suggestions

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Last week, I raised a few proverbial glasses to my wife and two of my kids. It's only proper that I continue with a few words on parenting.

While I've basically given up Facebook (I'm still cleaning out my friends list), there are still a few pages I follow. Sanctimommy is hilarious(HT Steve Horwitz) and a little disturbing because every post is just plausible enough that it's not obviously a joke.

Steve has criticized what he calls "corner solution parenting," or, in other words, parenting that tries to reduce the probability of a given risk to zero. He is inspired, as I am, by Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids, which is probably the best book I've ever read on how wise parents should approach risk.

My sense is that a lot of parenting books are filled with pure nonsense based on bad interpretation of data. Indeed, I went on the warpath about the abuse of statistical significance testing when we were expecting our first child because of reading passages in "so you're expecting" books about the significant effects of this thing or that thing without any reference to magnitude.*

That's why our very own Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids was such a welcome addition to this literature. He builds on Skenazy in some places but summarizes the literature on the effects of "nurture" in many others. In light of Caplan's insights, my review was titled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Love My Kids."

My favorite "Christian parent" book is by Elise Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, and it's called Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus (here's the website). It's a useful companion to Skenazy and Caplan because it questions the "good parenting" and "make your kids good" paradigms (see this blog post, for example). This book also helped me "stop worrying and just love my kids" while resisting the temptation every parent knows: to try to turn the kids into a project, or to try to turn them into vessels through which we live vicariously.

In this discussion with Stefan Molyneux, David Friedman points out that we can think of children as either "pets that can talk" or "small people who don't know very much." If we treat them as pets who can talk, then our goal is to teach them the right (moral or intellectual) tricks. If we view them as small people don't know very much, we see that we have a much deeper responsibility not as masters and trainers, but as leaders and mentors--in other words, as parents. Do I have this all figured out? Not by a long shot. Am I making constant mistakes? You bet. Am I making fewer mistakes because of these three books? Just a few of those avoided mistakes alone have been worth the price of the three books.

And finally, as you go through these readings, I suggest that you look at one of the funniest pages on Facebook: Sanctimommy.

*Here's my review of Ziliak and McCloskey, The Cult of Statistical Significance. Here's an ungated draft.



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Tom West writes:

Wow, is that Sanctimommy site ever dangerous! My blood started to boil while my brain kept trying to remind me "satire, satire, satire". Only barely worked.

While it's trendy to blame over-protective parents, I think the reality is that we're only recently (in the last 25 years or so) in a situation where it's actually feasible for most parents to insulate their children from almost all risk (to the detriment of their children).

Because there's a huge difference between being unable to protect your children and choosing not to do so, when the tail risks bite and a child is injured or killed in a preventable fashion, society pounds the parent into small dust instead of simply viewing it as a tragedy.

Thus letting your 6-year old walk to school on their own (as we all did) becomes child-abuse in the eyes of society, and how many parents can avoid internalizing it (as well as not wanting to be social pariahs)?

(I still remember fighting with my MIL. "If your child is badly hurt because you let him [insert-activity-here], you'll have to live with that choice for the rest of your life." Of course, she also said she'd be paralyzed bringing up children today - "you kids simply know way too much...")

Mark writes:

Let's not forget that child rearing is an evolutionary process much like markets. One hundred years ago you had about a 10% chance that your child didn't make it past his or her first birthday (30% in some areas), and about a 20% chance they didn't make it past their fifth birthday. Consequently, you became less attached to your children than we are today. I permitted--actually encouraged--my children to take risks 100 years ago that I'm less willing to take today because if they didn't die taking that risk, which would apparently lead to some favorable outcome if successful, there was a good chance they'd die in their sleep anyway.

As we've make the world safer in general, and especially for kids, and as our incomes increased substantially, requiring less work from our kids, we've also become less willing to put our children in situations that might be detrimental to their lives or some fantasy "childhood experience." To their detriment, we believe they should have some idyllic childhood experience free from any risk of harm since the loss would be too great--so much greater than a century ago (or even less)--or we're too shamed to admit that our child (has to) works. Unfortunately, too many parents do not see the selfishness on their part of such behavior.

Tom West writes:

Consequently, you became less attached to your children than we are today.

You know, I'm not so certain. About 20 years ago, I read some diaries from bereaved parents in the 1800's, and it just ripped my heart out. They were still parents who loved their children just as much as I love mine.

After that, reading the front-piece of the family bible with all those buried 1-3 year-olds was even more poignant.

My question then was how did anyone actually survive the heartbreak that was life back then?

MingoV writes:

Parenting has become over-intellectualized. I have a simpler approach that works unless your parents were evil.

Using your adult maturity and objectivity, look back to your childhood and note what your parents did right. Emulate those behaviors with your children.

Next, look back and note what your parents did wrong. Figure out what should have been done instead, and do those with your children.

-----------------------

I am thankful that I had "be back by" parents instead of helicopter parents. A typical scenario when I was twelve: "Mom, Rusty and I want to walk to the river (a mile away through the woods) and play for a while." "OK. Be back by supper."
Note: In rural upstate NY in the 1960s, the "be back by" approach was the norm.

Ken P writes:
David Friedman points out that we can think of children as either "pets that can talk" or "small people who don't know very much."

I like the small people definition, and would add, "..and are smarter than we give them credit for".

I was surprised to find that I could learn from my son when he was 2 yrs old, because young children have a zen-like lack of entanglement.

Give a child a decision (tell them what to do), they will have a decision for a day. Teach a child to make a decision, they will have decisions for life.

It's always good to leave them an out, like if they say they aren't cold, and you let them make the decision to not wear their coat, as you leave the house, you can respond "Let's grab your coat just in case it gets cold later."

Tom West writes:

I honestly think that if I gave my children the freedom that my parents gave me and my siblings in urban Toronto, mid-60's (and which I appreciate to no end), there would be a significant chance that I'd be charged with child endangerment.

I don't think I've seen a pair of under-8 children going to the park on their own in 25 years. Certainly don't see a pair of 10 year-olds making a 10-mile urban bike expedition. Even worse, my son was a minor celebrity among his peers at school for taking public transit (horrors!) to school at grade 7. (That made me really sad for kids these days - grade 7!)

Ken P writes:

Tom West, some of my FB friends got in a discussion about how old children should be allowed to be dropped off at a movie theater without parental chaperones. 17 was a common answer. So strange.

Tracy W writes:

Mark: I remember my history teacher saying that while Stone had originally argued that parents were less attached to their children back pre-19th century or so, modern historians thought this was wrong, based on reading diaries, poems, etc of people who lost children (Shakespeare's son died young).

MingoV: this assumes that your children are like you as a child. But they might not be, especially since they get 50% of their genes from their other parent.

(Note, I had that sort of "be back by" childhood growing up in a NZ city, except that the local stream was only about 5 minutes walk away.)

Ken West: 17 a common answer? Yikes! I'd left home and moved away to uni at 17 because I'd run out of high school. My mother had done the same at 16.

Ken P writes:

Tracy W: Good for you! I'm not sure where this trend towards overprotection comes from.

Tom West writes:

I'm not sure where this trend towards overprotection comes from.

Because we can.

It's costly to be overprotective, and we're the first society that can afford to have the middle-class do so.

(Same reason our health costs are so high and why we have our government do more and more.)

Also the ratio of preventable risks to unpreventable risks keeps rising over time making preventable risks look more and more like negligence.

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