How Much Can I Influence My Child's Success?

How Much Can I Influence My Child's Success?

How Much Can I Influence My Child's Success?

A conversation with Bryan Caplan, author of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, on the degree to which parents influence their child's success.

In 1930, the behavioral psychologist John B. Watson famously said:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.”

Watson, although admittedly taking an extreme nurture position, has raised the important question that many parents ask themselves: Can my kids really be anything I want them to be?

Research has come a long way since 1930, particularly in the area of behavioral genetics.  For example, for data on the heritability of many traits, such as intelligence and personality, see this article by Razib Khan in Discover here.  Nurture, and how we raise our kids, still has a role to play.  But just how large and where will that impact be?

As a new parent myself, this is exactly what I am wondering about as I watch my infant son.  What is he going to be like when he grows up?  What can I do now to help him along to be the best that he can be?

In Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids: Why Being A Parent Is Less Work And More Fun Than You Think, economist Bryan Caplan clearly reviews the behavioral genetic literature, arguing that “parents picture kids as clay they mold for life, when they’re actually more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but pops back into its original shape when the pressure is released.”

Bryan is a professor at George Mason University, has published on a wide array of topics (see his writings here), and blogs at EconLog.  After reading his book, I asked him some questions.

JON: I just had a son recently, and it is tough taking care of an infant, so at this point I can’t imagine having another.  Going from zero to one kid is like leaving behind a much more comfortable and free lifestyle.  So why do you argue that going from one to more kids is a good idea?

BRYAN: I don’t actually argue that “going from one to more kids is a good idea.”  Rather I argue that parents needlessly inflate the sacrifice of having additional kids.  In particular, modern parents greatly overestimate the effect of “investment” of time and money on their kids’ future, leading to a lot of painful but fruitless parenting.  My advice is to cut back and focus on having fun together.  If you’ve done this and still feel overwhelmed, one child may be the right number for you.

I also argue, though, that parents focus too much on their short-run comfort and too little on long-run satisfaction.  The costs of kids are “front-loaded” and a lot of the benefits (e.g. grandchildren) come later in life.  Wise parents will take their whole future into account when they decide how many kids to have.

As I’m watching my infant I’m constantly trying to figure out his personality, and I really hope he ends up being a smart, responsible, kind, and positive contributor to society who finds love and happiness in his life.  But I realize although my parenting probably will make a difference, I also can’t make my son into anything I want him to be.  Why do you think parents have such high hopes for their kids when in reality they may not have as much control over how their kid ends up as they’d like to think?  What should parents do for the best outcomes for their children?

Part of the problem is just generic wishful thinking.  But the science of nature and nurture does reveal a deeper problem: The effect of parenting on kids is much larger in the short-run than the long-run.  Since the short-run is very visible, parents naturally imagine they’re putting their kids on the right course for life, when the reality is that they’re just temporarily moving kids off their long-run trajectories.  As I explain in my book, parents picture kids as clay they mold for life, when they’re actually more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but pops back into its original shape when the pressure is released.

What should parents do to get the best outcomes for their children?  Accept that your child’s future depends chiefly on him or her.  Focus instead on enjoying today, and building a loving relationship with your child.

It seems people are refraining from having kids until they are older, especially if they are highly educated.  What would you say to a career-driven person who thinks having a kid would dampen their career prospects?  Why should they choose to have a child?  Don’t more children mean less time for career and a huge increase in cost?  Does this differ for men and for women?

To repeat, I’d say that parents overestimate the required sacrifice of having kids, and focus too much on short-run pain rather than the entirety of their lives.  If childless people are aware of these facts but still don’t want kids, their choice is none of my business.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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