05 Mar 2011

Why I Claim That Caplan Said “Parents Don’t Matter”

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I just want to make a quick point to defend my honor. Whenever I say, “Bryan says ‘parents don’t matter,’ but I think he’s wrong because of XYZ…” I get people saying I’m misrepresenting his position. Don’t get me wrong–I concede that in a formal debate, or if pressed for clarification on his blog, Bryan would give the very nuanced, “Sure the research doesn’t show genetics causes 100% of your kids’ outcomes, and of course if a parent serves molybdenum for lunch that might affect you, but what I’m saying is the more modest claim of…”

However, Caplan has certainly–perhaps in moments of weakness–given the impression that he basically thinks “parents don’t matter.” I did about 10 minutes of looking and found two examples of what led me to this view. So just for the purposes of documenting it, here they are:

==> In April 2009 Bryan had a post titled, “Do Parents Affect How Long You Live?” Here is an excerpt:

Parents – especially moms – spend a lot of time nagging their kids to eat right, get some fresh air and exercise, not smoke, etc. If nagging changed behavior, and there is some validity to popular perceptions about “what’s healthy,” then parenting should affect life expectancy. Does it?

According to the literature I’ve tracked down, the answer is no. When you analyze life expectancy and mortality using twin studies, you get the standard behavioral genetic answer: genes aren’t everything, but parents still don’t matter. A couple of relevant studies…

At least in my experience, most parents claim that their nagging has long-run health benefits. “It may seem OK to eat ding dongs and play videogames all day when you’re ten, but you’re building bad health habits that will haunt you later in life.” Once again, though, it looks like parents overestimate their influence. If the short-run benefits of health nagging aren’t enough to justify it, it turns out that you might as well just hold your tongue.

Now it’s true, if you go look at the stuff I replaced with an ellipsis, then it seems the literature might not support what Caplan is saying here. But c’mon, give me a break: Caplan is here quite clearly telling us that parents don’t affect how long you live, and he literally says “parents…don’t matter.”

Now maybe you will say, “OK sure, but that’s just for longevity. Caplan never said anything comparable for other aspects of kids’ outcomes.” Oh? Because of a reader comment on the above post, Caplan followed up and said this:

One of the big lessons of twin and adoption studies is that the short-run effects of parenting are much bigger than the long-run effects. So when a parent nags a kid and sees immediate improvement, his first-hand observation confirms that nagging works. It’s very tempting to infer that the difference between an average kid and a great kid is several thousand hours of nagging.

What twin and adoption studies have taught us, though, is that nagging isn’t cumulative. It’s not like trying to hold back the ocean by building a sea wall brick by brick until it’s high enough to get the job done. It’s more like building a sea wall out of sand – you have to keep building just to stay in place. And once your kids grow up and start making their own decisions, the tide comes in whether you like it or not. Or as I’ve put it before:

Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents “mold,” we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure – and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away.

To repeat myself, though, the glass is half-full. You have little effect on your kid’s long-run prospects, but most kids’ long-run prospects are still bright. If you’re the kind of parent who reads econ blogs, your kids’ prospects are probably very bright indeed, because they’re going to painlessly inherit your brains, charm, good looks, and modesty.

So if you can’t understand why I take Caplan to be picturing kids as impervious (in the long run) to their parents, the reason is because…that’s how Caplan told us to think about it.

2 Responses to “Why I Claim That Caplan Said “Parents Don’t Matter””

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    Putting aside extreme cases (neglect, abuse, etc.), I think Caplan is basically right. In the long run, parenting styles do not matter very much. The biggest impact a parent can have on a child is by controlling the child’s peer group. (Ever notice that the children of immigrants speak with the accents of their peers and not their parents? This is true even when they spend more time with their parents). I doubt the particular style of parenting is even half as important, and it will mostly just change how the child behaves towards and around the parent themselves.

  2. Jon Dough says:

    Wow…are these folks surreal? Parents are the direct line of defense…and offense..for their child(ren). Where do these people come from? Wow…

    Sorry to repeat that but that kind of cognitive distortion is astounding…

    Yes, children are so dependent on everything but their parents for their growth, their total mental attitudes, etc, it’s a wonder parenthood hasn’t died out.

    Apparently they have not seen a child imitate their parent down to the finest detail.