10 Dec 2012

Caplan’s Parental Experience

Bryan Caplan 15 Comments

Bryan opens a recent post by saying:

My eldest sons just turned ten, which means I’ve been a father for ten years. Ergo, it’s time to inventory the top things I’ve learned from my decade of experience. In no particular order:

Now in his list, some of the items make sense to me, while others don’t. But I want to focus on a few for which I wonder, “What in the world does Bryan mean when he says he learned these from a decade of experience?”

To show you what I mean, first let’s look at two examples that do make perfect sense:

7. Mild discipline, mechanically enforced, deters bad behavior far more effectively than harsh discipline, arbitrarily enforced. Idle threats, no matter how lurid, (“I’ll sell you to the gypsies if you don’t eat your dinner” “I’ll turn this car to Disneyland right around”) do not improve behavior at all.

9. Expressing anger at your children is counter-productive. It undermines your authority and gives wayward children hope of besting you.

So sure, I can believe that Bryan has learned from first-hand experience what he is expressing above in #7 and #9. But now look at these:

1. Kids are a consumption good, and always have been.

2. Have kids to create beloved companions, pay forward the gift of life, and see the world anew, not to get a person to mold or boss around.

4. You have little effect on your child’s intelligence, success, or even character….

6. Don’t use discipline to turn your kid into a good person when he’s an adult. It won’t work. Use discipline to turn your kid into a good roommate when he’s a kid. It won’t work miracles, but it’s way better than nothing.

I submit that the four “lessons” above aren’t things Bryan learned from his decade of parenting, as he claimed. (Did Bryan spend the first three years teaching a kid to be honest, then the next three teaching the kid to lie?) Instead they are things he believes because he did a lot of research writing a book on children.

15 Responses to “Caplan’s Parental Experience”

  1. Z says:

    Well as long as we have free will, none of these are absolutely true I would argue. I think it all depends on the context in which you are raising your children. For example, if you shut off the TV, then I would argue that #4 becomes slightly less true. If you homeschool, it becomes even less true. But for the average person, these may be more or less true.

  2. Lurker says:

    According to my intro to sociology class, number 4 is not true and parents indeed do have a profound effect on children’s success and character.

    • Jonathan M.F. Catalán says:

      From my limited interaction with the literature, I think it depends on what we call parenting. Studies show that children who grow up without their mothers, or parents in general, suffer psychological handicaps which translate to other areas, including education. Caplan might mean something more narrow, although I think I’d still disagree.

      • Z says:

        In other words, Caplan’s #4 is false to one degree and possibly true to another, since the ‘control’ in this experiment would be a child who does not have a mother and father. Just being there will have some benefit, while being there and ‘parenting’ will have no difference from just being there, according to Caplan.

      • Ken B says:

        This has been orthodoxy in psych since a famous review article published 20 years ago or so. I forget the article.
        The same article claims that peer groups and friends have a strong influence. Whether this split is plausible I leave to you. What is clear is that parents can directly *and indirectly* affect what peers their kids have and how they interact with them.

        My own guess is that like most stuff in psych and other such disciplines, the evidence is too confounded to justify the claims.

        • Z says:

          Exactly, the evidence is confounded and varies from person to person. The ridiculous thing is when govt attempts to use all these faulty studies to impose one public policy or another on everyone.

  3. Z says:

    “4. You have little effect on your child’s intelligence, success, or even character….”

    I think this all depends on what he is comparing his child to. If he is comparing him to the rest of society, then he may not see any difference, because if he is the average parent, then he is looking at the children of other parents who are just like him, so then he won’t see any difference.

  4. Tel says:

    1. Kids are a consumption good, and always have been.

    Means he does not see them as an investment, does not expect to ever get a return on the effort he puts in.

    4. You have little effect on your child’s intelligence, success, or even character….

    This is a bit self contradictory. If success is genetic then it must come from the parents, if success is learned then at least a good part of that must come from the parents. If success just comes down to how much wealth you start with (the Marxist position) then this also comes from the parents.

    The only conclusion is that Bryan believes that success is blind luck and nothing else, but I don’t think any moderately rational person can believe that (although luck does play some part). If he really believed in nothing more than blind luck then forget all his other recommendations.

    • Christopher says:


      As far as I understand Murphy, it’s not about what Bryan meant by these statements but what he meant by saying he learned them from the experience with his son.

  5. Ken B says:

    Good catch btw Bob. You’re right on every point.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      Well now I’m doubting him 🙂

  6. Z says:

    “1. Kids are a consumption good, and always have been. ”

    To me this sounds a lot like:

    “I love kids. They taste great.”

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