Most of us who are parents (particularly, I imagine, those of us who consider ourselves geeks) care a lot about how our kids will turn out. We have strong opinions about the right way to raise our kids and about what sort of people we’d like them to be when they grow up. Of course, we don’t all do the same things. Some are strict, some are lenient, and some are anywhere in between.
But one thing many of us probably agree on is this: parenting matters — that is, what I do as a dad has an impact on the sort of women my daughters will be someday.
Two books I’ve read this summer about kids and parenting have really had me thinking about the way I was raised, the way I raise my kids, and the effects I hope my parenting will have on their futures. While they’re not exactly opposites, they do represent two very different styles of parenting, and I think together they make some fascinating claims about kids.
The first book is one I’m sure you heard about earlier this year: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, which made headlines when an excerpt was printed in the Wall Street Journal at the beginning of the year. The book is about Chua and her daughters, and describes her “Chinese mother” style of parenting. Here was my own take on the subject, based on the article and some conversations with others (but before I’d read the book itself).
The second book, published in April of this year, is Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. While it’s not a parenting book, strictly speaking, it does have a lot to say about the long-term effects of parenting. As the title suggests, the point of the book is to convince you to have more kids, but a large piece of that argument is that parenting can be much less work than we typically make it out to be.
So although one is a memoir and the other is a compilation of statistics and studies, the two books do make a good pair for some contrasting views. I’ll give a more detailed overview of each book, and then share some of my thoughts on the matter.
If you missed all the hoopla over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother earlier this year, then you must lead a well-insulated life. Heated discussions erupted all over the blogosphere (both in the parenting blogs and the Asian-blogger circles) after an excerpt of the book appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The excerpt was quite one-sided, praising the benefits of Chua’s “Chinese mothering” and slamming “Western parenting” techniques as coddling and lazy.
Of course, then after all the backlash, Chua went on record to say that the book is much more nuanced, that she hadn’t seen the excerpt before it ran, that she had no say in the title of the article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Really? She’s a law professor — I hardly think she just let all that happen without her permission.
But enough about the media hype: what about the book itself?
The book is, in fact, much more nuanced than the WSJ article would have suggested, with a lot of self-deprecating humor and Chua’s acknowledgment that her parenting style is often pretty extreme. While her Chinese parenting techniques worked fairly well on her older daughter, the younger one fought back all the way. Chua’s writing is engaging and easy to read, because you want to see what happens next in these stories and how her kids will respond to her next outrageous demand. Even though my own parents weren’t nearly as strict as Chua, I did recognize a lot of ideas and philosophies that were familiar to me either through my own upbringing or some of my other Chinese-American friends.
When you boil everything down, though, you find that Chua, despite being “humbled by a thirteen-year-old” and admitting that Chinese parenting isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, still believes in her style of strict parenting. It’s a tremendous amount of work for her and for her kids, but I get the sense that if she did it all over again, she wouldn’t have changed much. She’s still proud of the way her kids have turned out, and she still attributes most of that to how they were raised.
This is a pretty central philosophy, and if you read my earlier reaction to the article, you’ll find that I was partly in agreement there. I said that if your goal is to have a piano-playing prodigy for a child, certainly forcing them to practice four hours a day is going to get you much better results than letting them play outside and run around. That doesn’t answer the question of whether a piano-playing prodigy is a better child and a worthwhile goal, but I believed in the power parents have to shape their children. It’s why I’m fairly strict with my own kids and expect a lot out of them — perhaps too much at times.
That’s where Chua and I are mistaken, according to Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan. The subtitle of Caplan’s book says a lot: “Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.” Caplan’s argument, based largely on twin studies and adoption studies, is that in the Nature vs. Nurture debate, Nature wins hands-down in most aspects of parenting.
Therefore, Caplan continues, our assessments of the relative costs and benefits of having kids are skewed: a lot of the biggest benefits come later (when we’re retired and want grandkids), which is something that a lot of people don’t take into consideration. But even more importantly, we overestimate the up-front costs because we over-parent. We think being a parent is a lot of hard work, and we’re not willing to pay those up-front costs for benefits down the line.
That’s an oversimplification of Caplan’s book, of course. There’s a lot more to it than that, and he’s not saying that everyone should have lots of kids. What he is saying is that if you want kids, you might want to consider having more than you originally planned. On the fence about having kids? Have one. Would like to have a big family but can’t really imagine raising more than the two you have? Try for three.
Now, my wife and I are pretty happy with the two we’ve got (and we always knew we wanted to have more than one), and I’m not sure that reading this one book is going to change our minds about expanding our family. However, it did make me think a lot about the way I raise my daughters and how much work I think parenting is. A lot of the studies and tests Caplan cites apply to parenting in general, not just as it pertains to the question of how many kids you should have, and that’s what I want to focus on here.
Caplan lists a lot of the things that parents complain about, the things that make raising kids such hard work. He cites the increase in hours that modern parents spend with their kids compared to parents from the 1960s, enough so that the average working mom spends as much time with her kids as stay-at-home moms did thirty years ago. What do we expect to get out of these increased hours? Well, we want our kids to be healthy, intelligent, happy, and successful. We want them to have good character and good values (usually meaning: like our own). We want them to appreciate us.
The book explains a little bit about statistics and twin and adoption studies, showing how they filter out which things are the results of nurture (parenting and environment) and which things are due to nature (genetics). What he finds, at least according to the studies he has, is that what we do as parents matters a lot less than we think for most of the items on the “parental wish list.” The biggest thing we can affect is the last one: appreciation. How kids perceive and remember their parents is affected by how they were raised and what their parents did. Almost everything else I mentioned above is heavily weighted toward nature.
So, basically, what the studies show (assuming you believe Caplan’s interpretations of them) is that, on the whole, your kids are going to turn out a lot like their biological parents. If you (as biological parents) like who you are, then you don’t have to do anything extraordinary to have them grow up to be adults that you’d be proud of. Caplan doesn’t really say much about parents who don’t like the people they’ve turned out to be — though the implication is perhaps that you should quit having kids.
I should also note that parents have large short-term effects on their kids: adopted kids tend to be more like their adoptive families as kids, but then become more like their biological parents as adults. So it’s not a bad idea to get them to clean their rooms even when they resist, if a neat house is a worthy goal to you — but don’t expect them to suddenly take to it on their own when they’re kids. Yes, have them brush their teeth at night, but chances are their dental health is already largely determined by your genes.
All of this, Caplan explains, should take a lot of the burden off the shoulders of parents (who should then have more kids). It’s a view that contrasts highly with Chua’s, which suggests that parenting is everything. While she certainly doesn’t suggest not having as many kids, if you take her advice I can’t imagine really wanting to have more than two. Even one sounds like a huge challenge. Caplan’s parenting style, on the other hand, is to let kids largely raise themselves: have fun with them, do things you both like instead of forcing them to do something that’s “good for them” but is a chore for you, too. Caplan is a big fan of Lenore Skenazy and her idea of Free-Range Kids, and it’s clear that a nature-over-nurture view of the world would lean toward that philosophy.
So, where do I stand on the issue now?