Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

When Economists Talk Parenting


For some reason, I’ve veered off-piste recently to read not one but two books by economists: Freakonomics by the Steph/vens Levitt and Dubner and The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman. Both were enjoyable in different ways – the Freakonomics guys like making apparently random connections between things (such as why most drug dealers still live with their mothers or why twenty years after abortion was legalised in the States the crime rate went down) and Friedman wishes to show us that the flattening of the world by the growth in technology can be a positive force not only for business, but for the environment and people everywhere. Both books, surprisingly, contain chapters on parenting.

In Freakonomics, the writers devote a couple of chapters to the question Do Parents Really Matter? Clearly, they say, bad parenting matters a great deal, but it’s not that evident how much eager parents can accomplish on their children’s behalf. Levitt and Dubner pick up on the nature/nurture debate, using a tool called regression analysis to ascertain that things that parents are (well-educated, successful, healthy) tend to have more effect on children’s early test scores than things that parents do (take children to museums, regularly spank children, allow them to watch television). They say:

But this is not to say that parents don’t matter. Plainly they matter a great deal. Here is the conundrum: by the time most people pick up a parenting book, it is far too late. Most of the things that matter were decided long ago – who you are, whom you married, what kind of life you lead. If you are smart, hardworking, well educated, well paid, and married to some equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed. (Nor does it hurt, in all likelihood, to be honest, thoughtful, loving, and curious about the world.) But it isn’t so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it’s who you are. In this regard, an overbearing parent is a lot like a political candidate who believes that money wins elections – whereas in truth, all the money in the world can’t get a candidate elected if the voters didn’t like him to start with.

Interestingly, one of the factors that doesn’t appear to have any effect on children’s test scores is if the mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten (the US pre-school year). What does matter though, according to Levitt and Dubner, was if the mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth. To this they say:

A woman who doesn’t have her first child until she is at least thirty is likely to see that child do well in school. This mother tends to be a woman who wanted to get some advanced education or develop some traction in her career. She is also more likely to want a child more than a teenage mother wants a child. This doesn’t mean that an older first-time mother is necessarily a better mother, but she has put herself – and her children – in a more advantageous position.

Their data also show that having books in the home does affect children’s early school performance, but that reading to children almost every day does not. Once again, this boils down to the who parents are rather than what they do dichotomy.

Friedman, on the other hand, believes strongly that what we do as parents will affect not only children’s early test scores, but their competitiveness in a working world that has grown increasingly flat. He believes that the competition facing the US and the West of hundreds of thousands of clever, well-educated and eager Indian and Chinese graduates means that parents are going to have to be a lot tougher on their children in insisting they knuckle down and work. Western children seem to grow up with a puffed-up sense of entitlement that the world is theirs, and employers will be waiting gratefully for them to shine their brilliance on their place of work. Friedman says:

The sense of entitlement, the sense that because we once dominated global commerce and geopolitics – and Olympic basketball – we always will, the sense that delayed gratification is a punishment worse than a spanking, the sense that our kids have to be swaddled in cotton wool so that nothing bad or disappointing or stressful ever happens to them at school is, quite simply, a growing cancer on American society.

He emphasises that modern schooling no longer seems to focus on character-building, on pushing children beyond their comfort zones in a way that will prepare them for the world ahead. He wants parents to be tougher on their children, and politicians to be tougher on school systems. Friedman apparently does not tell his children to finish their dinner because people in China or India are starving – he tells them to finish their homework, because people in China or India are starving for their jobs.

In Friedman’s flattened world, individuals have to think globally in order to survive. There will be no such thing as an American job, just a job, and it will go to the best, smartest, most productive, or cheapest worker, wherever he or she lives.

If you fancy a little nip of very readable economics, I would strongly recommend the Freakonomics book. The authors have been challenged that they have no over-arching theme, and this is true, but what they do, they do entertainingly. Styled as “rogue economists”, they claim to “uncover the hidden side of everything”. The book is not nearly that broad, but their random connections and general cheekiness make for an entertaining read. They blog here.

The World is Flat is an altogether weightier tome. Friedman is energetically enthusiastic about his topic, and peppers the book with quotes from CEOs worldwide about the changing nature of business. He talks about the democratising forces of blogging and podcasting, which I liked, and while talking up technology and its ability to connect people, he is also very frank about the darker side of all this connectivity. He doesn’t appear to have a blog. I wonder why.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

16 thoughts on “When Economists Talk Parenting

  1. Pingback: Education Quotes » Education Quotes May 23, 2007 4:03 pm

  2. Very interesting Charlotte- I’ve been eye-ing Freakonomics for awhile and now I think I’ll have to read it.

    On a related note Steven Pinker in the Blank Slate(?) presents some research findings (which I can’t actually remember the details of!) which suggest that frequently parents imagine they have far more control over their off spring’s development and achievement levels than they actually do. Because in fact a baby is not a blank slate at all. They are born with a lot that is already innate. So he thinks nurture matters but not as much as we’d like to think.

  3. I read Freakonomics last year, and while I haven’t read The World Is Flat, I have just finished The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford. It’s interesting to read that Friedman says Chinese and Indian people are starving for American people’s jobs. Tim Harford draws quite a different conclusion that surprised me.

    I liked Freakonomics but I couldn’t agree with some of the conclusions they drew. When I go to the library with Kiko I think about what they say, that going to the library with him isn’t going to have any affect on him. I feel a bit disappointed! Not that I’m taking him there because I want him to be Einstein, I just want him to love books and have fun. Mind you, on the whole, while I believe in both nature and nurture as forces in shaping a child’s personality, I think nature is probably stronger.

  4. Hi Charlotte. When talking about people, I believe talking in terms of broad patterns of cause and effect had limited meaning.

    I also question his logic regarding the world job market. His prediction that productivity will rule will only happen if we let it. The world market is not something over and above humanity. It is us. It is not a predetermined juggernaut. We have a say in valuing what we choose to value. There is a thriving family business in our suburb – a petrol station. The bloke who works on the bowser is disabled and he hobbles out to fill up my tank when I pull in. I love the service I get here. It suits me not to get out of the car because I usually have children in the back. I don’t care that he takes a little longer. The workers here are happy, we always have a conversation and they give the children a lolly pop. Productivity and efficiency isn’t everything! The popularity of this business is a shining example of how we as a society do not have to discard those who are not fast and efficient for some external money making machine. This economist bloke needs a good dose of motherhood! I reckon that would sort him out.

  5. Children should always come before money.

  6. When I think back on my childhood and children who ‘succeeded’ at whatever, work, happiness, life, having children, etc, the most common theme to me seems to be the happiness of the familial unit.

    I agree with both economists although the Freakonomics guy seems easier to swallow, because I can then lie back and think ‘oh, it’s ok if I don’t do anything with my kids – I have a higher education so they’ll just assimilate it’ 😉

    Whereas the other guy seems to believe that we need more motivation to achieve success.

  7. Thank you Charlotte for the tidbits into this book I bought Freakonomics for a very old friend for his birthday — and he is the kind of person who would – and did – devour this book. But, now I see how much I would enjoy this book. And Ash, I think the message is this: because you have a higher education and are successful, you do not just lie back and think, “Oh it’s OK if I don’t do anything with my kids.” People who are already successful when they head into parenting do not lie back — we are more conscious of whatever steps need to be taken — and take them — to ensure the well being of our children.

  8. Ms Make Tea, I am sure you would enjoy Freakonomics, and I know I would enjoy your take on it. I learned quickly that babies are not a blank slate when I had a second – the same parenting methods turned out two completely different individuals. And now there’s a third to add to the mix. I think we parents can hope that we have some effect, but until they are functioning grown-ups we can’t know for sure.

    Helen, I also thought, “What all that reading aloud for all those years – for nought?”. I don’t think I quite buy it. I hope we’ve engendered a love of books that lasts forever.

    Bindi, absolutely. We all certainly love what’s local and a little flawed and not necessarily perfect. However, I do think what Friedman was saying is that Americans will have to wake up to the global market force – that Dell might be a US company but it’s not only going to hire US citizens, it’s going to hire the world citizen who can do the job best.

    Ash, I also had a moment of “Oh, OK I’ve got some good genes and a few degrees, so according to Freakonomics, my kids are going to be fine”, but of course we all know and we all do so much more. Because we’re probably all Friedman-style parents at heart – we want the best for our kids and we can’t help doing whatever we can to ensure that.

    Susie, I think you would enjoy Freakonomics. It’s very readable and interesting. And I think Ash was joking! Which we are all allowed to do after a long hard day looking after small people, working and generally doing our best to be good people.

  9. It’s a bit of a circular discussion. It’s not what you do, but who you are, but you do things the way you do, because of who you are anyway….though it would be nice occasionally to lie back with the cocktail in one hand, book in the other and ignore the children for hours, knowing that they’ll grow up fine ‘cos I was over thirty when I had them!…as if!

  10. I think these economists are dancing around something very fundamental for young children: they copy what their parents do, but only what reflects who the parents truly are, not what the parents do out of compulsion or abstract thinking. So if you read to your kids every day, but the kids never see you personally enjoy a book or have books in your home, they will not form the picture that reading is fun. We take our kids to museums, but we also look at art books, talk about art, and make our own art, so I’m confident that my kids will grow to love art as I do.

  11. I think it matters what you do and who you are. The way you say, it’s like kids can’t be happy with teen mums. Like they just lay back and don’t do anything.
    You’re deeply misguided, that’s all I can say.
    Maybe I’m not in an advantageous position, I’m nineteen, my sons’ two, but that doesn’t mean my son won’t end up somewhere.
    Maybe it’s somethign wrong with the system…
    Oh, btw, just to distill any of your ‘school drop-out theories’ I’m a journalism student at uni

  12. Kat’s example is exactly why ‘economics speak’ and statistics cannot be applied to persons.

    Also one should not be prejudiced against people because of their age or level of schooling (or any other reason) these are not categories that can help us judge a person’s goodness.

  13. Kat, well done to you for providing such a great example to your child. He will grow up knowing that self-empowerment is good. As Henitserk says above, and what I understood the Freakonomics book to be saying too (perhaps very vaguely), children do what their parents do, but only what their parents actually show that they truly are.

    Personally, I don’t believe that there’s only one model for parenting. There are many ways to raise children – the only essential condition for doing it well is love.

  14. Read Freakonomics but not the other one. I am not entirely convinced by his argument, I have to say. There are studies that show, for example, that children who were exclusively breastfed have higher IQs down the road than children who were not. And then there are studies that show that there is no difference. So it all depends which study you believe, I guess. Also, all he discusses is whether a parenting method will affect grades in school. And yet there is so much more to a child than that. Surely one does not choose “attachment parenting”, for example, just so that the baby will get better grades in school later on.

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  16. Kat,
    In your comment, “The way you say, it’s like kids can’t be happy with teen mums. Like they just lay back and don’t do anything.” you missed the point. The authors (not the blogger) took existing data on which to base their conclusion: that kids with older parents do tend to end up more successful in life. They don’t say that young mums don’t do anything – I’ve read the book. Just that kids with mum’s over 30 are at an advantage.
    What disturbs me more is your comment (if you meant it straight up) “Maybe it’s somethign [sic] wrong with the system”. That’s hopefully an attitude you won’t pass on to your son and will hopefully shake yourself, as it, along with misinterpreting what you read so easily, is one that can set someone up for a life of failure.
    Best of luck in uni.

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