27 Apr 2009

Do Parents Matter?

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Bryan Caplan has been pounding on his theme over at EconLog that “parents don’t matter.” (See here and here.) I must confess that I am incredibly biased because one of my core beliefs is that parents have an incredibly profound influence on their kids. But having confessed my bias, I must report that I find this whole line of thought to be silly, because the proponents are quite obviously exaggerating their findings.

For example, in the first hyperlink above, Caplan asks, “Do Parents Affect How Long You Live?” Do we really need to debate that? Does Caplan deny that if a parent locks a toddler in the closet, he’ll die? Of course not. OK let’s make it fairer: Does Caplan deny that a kid raised by parents in certain African regions will have a shorter lifespan than a kid raised in 90210? Of course not.

Well then what does he mean? Turns out he’s referring to nagging, as in, if you tell your kid not to eat potato chips, will he end up living longer. Bryan says the literature on twin adoption studies shows once again that “parents don’t matter.” I confess I haven’t looked at the studies, but I will go out on a limb and say they are flawed (if they conclude what Bryan says they do).

As I pointed out in my critical review of Freakonomics, these “parents don’t matter” arguments seem to really just rule out a particular mechanism through which parents might matter. In Freako, Levitt said that telling your kid to read doesn’t affect how much he reads. Aww dangit, I can’t influence my kid. Shoot.

Oh wait a minute, you know what Levitt says does get your kid to read more? If you have a lot of books around the house and your kid sees that you yourself are a reader and value reading.

And I feel the same way about other studies that purport to show, “Hey it’s not parents, it’s a kid’s peers that affect his personality.” Well duh, you don’t think parents influence that? Just deciding where to live and what school to send the kid to, has a huge influence in that respect. It’s not just threatening Johnny to stop hanging out with those hoods down the street.

Last point: I asked Bryan for the single best article to show me that parents don’t affect outcomes, and I promised I would read it carefully. But he sent me an article that DID say parents affected outcomes, and Bryan was merely quibbling about how big the effect was.

So for all you parents out there, sorry, you should still feel responsible for how your kid turns out. I know I know, you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep since they were born, and on top of that now I’m saddling you with a bunch of guilt too. But at least they’re outrageously cute. (Bryan agrees with us on that score.)

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