The Parental Wish List: What's Missing?
By Bryan Caplan
What is the point of raising kids? On my view, the point is basically consumption.
Creating life and watching it grow is a fascinating and rewarding
journey. For many parents, though, the main point is actually investment:
Taking little savages and turning them into civilized adults. On the
investment view, there is a desired end-state, and good parenting helps
to bring that state about. As Mr. Banks sings in Mary Poppins:
A British nanny must be a general
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands
A British bank is run with precision
The British home requires nothing less
Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools
With out them disorder, catastrophe, anarchy
In short you have a ghastly mess
But what exactly are the traits that parental investment is supposed to
cultivate? It’s a critical question to answer. After all, if parents
aren’t even trying
to shape their kids’ personality, a lack of parental influence on
personality is not surprising. To really test whether parental
investment pays, we’ve got to figure out what’s on the “wish list” of
the typical parent. In chapter three of my new book, I boil it down to six big wishes:
3. Health – including life expectancy, lack of specific physical ailments, and of course good teeth!
4. Success – especially in the areas of education and income
5. Character – by which I mean uncontroversially desirable traits like industry, honesty, politeness, and kindness
6. Values – by which I mean positions on controversial areas such as religion, politics, tradition, and sex
me out: Can you think of any important omissions – wishes that a lot of
parents try to realize that don’t fit well under any of my six headings?
Update #1: In the comments, ajb writes:
…Merely having children of
good character and values would be inferior to having kids whose values
and character are shaped within the preferred identity set of the
parents. It is these notions of identity that are hardest for
deracinated, liberal economists to take into account.
Actually, the whole point of the “values” heading is to capture parental efforts to pass on their identity to their children. When parents try to affect their kids’ views on religion, politics, tradition, sex, etc., their goal is almost always to make their kids agree with them, no?
Update #2: In the comments, Zac Gochenour writes:
most people really want their kids to be intelligent for the sake of
being intelligent, or because it leads to success in the areas of
income and education? I think intelligence is a poor choice for the
In my experience, parents obsess about their kids’ intelligence even before they’re born (hence the popularity of prenatal Mozart!). Almost immediately after birth, parents start trying to give their kids a head-start on language, reading, math, etc. I strongly suspect, moreover, that if I told these parents that their efforts wouldn’t affect their kids’ income or even education, they’d insist that boosting their cognitive ability (or maybe “enriching their brains”) was important in and of itself.
Still, I’ve often wondered whether intelligence should be first on my wish list. I think I’m going to keep it there for two reasons. First, parents’ lack of long-run influence over IQ is so well-documented that it’s pedagogically useful to start with it. Second, intelligence is chronologically the first behavioral trait parents make a serious effort to influence. (Serious effort to influence health comes even earlier, of course. But when mom’s take pre-natal vitamins or quit smoking, they’re trying to directly improve their child’s health, not “mold the breed.”)