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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Do Parents Matter? Economists Look at Child-Rearing

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You ThinkSo here's a podcast produced by the folks at Freakonomics that is worth listening to ("The Economists Guide to Parenting"). They've pulled together a roundtable of economists to talk about a number of aspects about child-rearing, with one primary question in mind: how much do parents really matter, and in what dimensions? The podcast discusses parents’ effect on everything from education and culture cramming to smoking and drinking.

Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at ParentingThe roundtable includes Steve Levitt (co-author of the Freakonomics books); Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (both of whom regularly appear on the Freakonomics blog); Bruce Sacerdote; Joshua Gans (the author of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting; Melissa Kearney; Valerie Ramey; and  Bryan Caplan (the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Parenting is More Fun and Less Work Than You Think).

As with most Freakonomics podcasts, they highlight findings that challenge the conventional wisdom. For example, while many parents worry about sending their kids to homes where firearms are present, few worry about sending them to homes that have pools. They should, however, be worried about the latter rather than the former because more children die each year from drowning in pools than they do from gunshot wounds.

Research has also found that many of the things that we parents do--such as hiring tutors, involving them in numerous activities, getting them into the best preschools (or pre-preschools), teaching them to read at a young age--have little or no effect on how they do as adults. On the positive side, what appears to matter most (aside from the genetic makeup that we pass on) is being kind to and having fun with them.
Note: Having fun does not mean taking them to music lessons when they don't want to, forcing them to play competitive sports when they'd rather be flying a kite, and so on. Rather, it means spending time with them where everyone is having fun. In other words, if we and our kids are constantly stressed about getting to some "fun" activity, then that activity probably won't be fun for either them or us and won't have a positive lasting effect on their lives.
On the negative side, the children of parents who drink and smoke are much more likely to drink and smoke as adults than are children of parents who do not.

The takeaway? Be nice, have fun, drink moderately, and don't smoke! (Oh yes, and listen to the podcast--there's a lot more to it than what I've written above.)

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