Apr252011

No ‘Tiger’ Here: Professor Applies Economics to Parenting

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By James Greif

Bryan Caplan. Creative Services photo

Have more kids, don’t stress out about parenting and spend less time on activities you and your children don’t enjoy. These are a few key bits of advice that Bryan Caplan, professor of economics, shares in his new book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”

Caplan, a parent to three children, including a set of identical twins, focuses on the advantages of being a parent as opposed to the reasons many people use to put off having children: stress, money and time.

He came to these conclusions after exploring twin and adoption studies that have determined that parenting methods have very little effect on children when they become adults. These studies in the field of behavioral genetics compared children to their adopted families and identical twins to fraternal twins.

“The surprising conclusion of these studies is that the actual extent to which parents change their kids by the way they raise them is very small or, in many cases, zero,” Caplan says.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

In the book, Caplan argues that if parenting has temporary effects, this is actually good news, because parents can spend less time worrying about the right parenting method that will allow their children to be successful adults and spend time on activities that everyone in the family enjoys.

He writes that children are less like clay to be molded by parents and more like flexible plastic that snaps back into its original shape once the child leaves home. He cites an example from his own college days at the University of California:

“I was raised in a no-soda household, and once I got to college I had access to unlimited soft drinks — and I took advantage of it! If you raise your child in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that they are going to be that way forever,” Caplan explains.

Since Caplan believes you can’t shape kids for the future, he focuses on the here and now in his family.

“With my own kids, we focus on spending time reading books, swimming, watching cartoons and doing things we all enjoy doing,” Caplan says. “As long as they are safe, comfortable and happy, I try to let them do what they enjoy. I do try to limit television and video games, not because they are bad or because I don’t like them, but I don’t want them to miss out on other activities that they would also enjoy.”

No Tiger Needed

In a recent review, The Wall Street Journal described “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” as the antidote to Yale professor Amy Chua’s controversial book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Chua’s book attracted media attention for advocating an authoritative and demanding style of parenting. The most-often cited story in the book details Chua battling her daughter over learning how to play the piano.

“You can teach your kid specific skills,” Caplan says. “However, the idea that if you force your child to learn an instrument, it will help them in other areas or build character that will take them further in life is just wishful thinking.”

As further proof that the methods of the “Tiger Mother” are not effective, Caplan points out that Chua’s husband is also a professor at Yale — making him a success by most standards — yet he did not endure the style of parenting she promotes.

Nobel laureate Gary Becker of University of Chicago was one of the first economists to branch into topics that were traditionally considered within the realm of sociology. This approach has influenced how Caplan sees the world. In addition to tackling the economics of parenting, Caplan applied economics to the political system in his 2007 book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.”

“The idea that economics isn’t just about studying the unemployment or interest rates is something that just about everyone here at Mason agrees on,” Caplan says.

“To us, economics is more of a method than a subject matter. The idea that you would apply these ideas to everything in front of you is still not fully in most economists’ hearts. To me, if you are going to be an economist, you take these ideas and use them everywhere on everything.”

Econ 101

While the book is written from an economist’s perspective, Caplan says he avoided complicated economic theory and tried to apply principles that students would learn in their first few weeks of introductory economics.

“When something costs more, do less of it, and when something costs less, do more of it; and if it doesn’t pay and there is no benefit, don’t bother,” he says. “While these principles are basic, the researchers conducting the twin and adoption studies were not really thinking of what the results mean for parenting.”

When deciding how many children to have, Caplan says people should consider each decade of their life and how many kids they would like at each stage — not just how many they can handle at the current moment — and strike a happy medium.

“It might make sense to have more children than you are comfortable with in your 30s so that you don’t have fewer kids than you would like to have when you are in your 60s and 70s,” he says, adding, “If you are someone that enjoys seeing the world from the eyes of a child or doing childish things, then having more kids is for you.”

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