Before we get into the detail of the article, I really want to thank the team here for letting me post here with them. It means a lot to be able to get something published for my Parenting Blog at great site like this.
Middle-class parents should stop fretting about their children and simply let them be, says Barbara McMahon
Bryan Caplan thinks that parents should have more children and not worry so much about how to bring them up. In a controversial new book, the American author says that you can stick them in front of the television when they’re driving you mad and not feel guilty about it. Abandon the piano or karate lessons. And, as for forcing them to eat their greens, let them scoff delivery pizza to their hearts’ content.
Caplan is an economist at George Mason University in Washington, specialising in subjects that include the economics of the family. His reasons for encouraging a more laissez-faire approach are startling. In his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, recently released in the US, he says that middle-class mothers and fathers do not need to invest nearly as much time and energy in parenting because research clearly indicates that most parents have little or no influence on how their kids turn out as adults. Once parents understand that micro-managing their children’s lives has no effect on their life expectancy, intelligence, happiness or success, they can relax and enjoy the experience. “You can have a happier life and a bigger family if you understand that your kids’ future is not in your hands,” he says. He goes on to explain: “The economics of the family is based on a mistake because high parental investment and small families are not the keys to adult success.”
Such an argument is almost heresy to the legions of parents led by Amy Chua, the Yale law professor who wrote the bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She believes that tough love is good for children and that parental discipline is all that stands between them and failure or, at least, mediocrity. Most middle-class parents believe that it’s better to have fewer children and to pour all your attention into them than to rattle out a large brood.
Reaction to Caplan’s book has been mixed. “Will someone please help me pick new parents up off the floor? Some appear to have fainted. Splash organic milk in their faces,” wrote one parent approvingly after reading the book. But several child-development experts say that Caplan has oversimplified decades of research in behavioural genetics. They point out that parenting styles matter more in low-income families than in affluent ones.
A father of three — including identical twin sons, aged 8 — Caplan laughingly admits that he is Pussycat Dad. His wife is the disciplinarian, while he larks around on the floor with his children. “I don’t yell. I don’t get mad very often. I won’t put up with my kids screaming at me or behaving really badly, but mild punishment like the naughty corner usually works,” he says.
Caplan reads a lot to his children but thinks that television as a babysitter is “a vital component of cultural literacy. Activities are fun, communal family pursuits such as swimming, baseball and board games.” Neither of his twins, Aidan and Tristan, attend music lessons. There is also an 18-month-old, Simon.
Caplan says that he became interested in twin research even before he and his wife knew that they were having identical boys. He says that data from the past four decades shows that identical twins are often as similar when brought up apart as when raised together. He also cites a study called the Colorado Adoption Project, which found that infants adopted into high-achieving families displayed improved intellectual abilities only for the first few years of life; their abilities then levelled off alongside those of their biological parents.
“Once I became a dad I noticed that parents around me had a different take on the power of nurture,” he says. “I saw them turning parenthood into a chore, shuttling way across town for activities that they and their kids didn’t enjoy, banning TV and video games and not feeling able to leave children to their own devices for more than a few minutes.
“ Their rationale is that their effort is an investment in their children’s future … but twin and adoption research shows that the kind of person you are when you are grown up is largely a matter of genes and not the way you were brought up as a child.”
There are a few areas where parents can make a difference — such as religion and political affiliations — but even that influence diminishes when a child reaches adulthood, Caplan says. “You can make your kids have good manners and behave nicely when they’re young but, in the end, their true character, whatever that is, will come out.”
But what does all this mean for today’s parents? Parents are “overcharging” themselves for their kids emotionally. “What do economics and common sense tell you to do when prices turn out to be lower than you thought? Buy more. Stock up. Tell your friends,” Caplan advocates in his book. The 40-year-old academic says that he is responsible for a mini baby boom since he began blogging about the subject six years ago. “Isn’t that great?” he says. “There are more people in the world because of me.”
Deborah Siegel, a mother of 18-month-old twins and a member of the board of the Families and Work Institute in Manhattan, says that any message that tells parents to relax is good. “On the other hand, how can parents not matter?” she says. “Particularly as mothers, we’re bombarded with messages that we can never do enough for our children and a lot of us have taken it to heart. I think the answer is to stay in the middle and not to listen to these extreme views.”
Caplan says his message is that parents should just enjoy their offspring. “Amy Chua’s kids will probably remember her as a tough iron lady. I’d rather my own kids thought of me as Mr Nice Guy.”
This post was contributed by the Selfish Mother Blog who is a regular poster both here on their own blog. You can catch them on twitter, facebook or even their very popular youtube channel.