Today I learned that I (partly) inspired a charming parenting experiment.  British journalist Lucy Cavendish

There are various blogs and websites devoted to the notion that we
should give our children free choice, and, in this way, encourage their
development while at the same time teaching them responsibility.

this week, Dr Bryan Caplan from George Mason University in Virginia,
U.S., said parents should ‘cut themselves some slack’ and stop trying
to control every aspect of their children’s lives.

He called for
a relaxed and fun style of bringing up children — dubbed ‘serenity
parenting’ — which involves us taking a backseat role.

It’s particularly interesting to me because I recently decided to
try an experiment. In the style of ‘free parenting’, I would say yes to
everything my children wanted for an entire week — and see what

The only rules were not to let the children know what
I’d decided to do, and to ensure that I alerted them to the
consequences of their actions, so they could make their own
well-informed choices.

This experiment doesn’t really test what I’m advocating.  While I question the view that parenting has much long-run effect on kids’ adult outcomes, I freely admit that parenting has lots of short-run effects on kids’ current outcomes.  Still, I like Cavendish’s experimental design.  I pride myself on being a Fun Dad.  If saying Yes is more fun for the whole family, I’d like to know.  The lead experimenter/subject reports some drawbacks, but her experience exceeded her expectations:

Day 1:

Suddenly, my daughter, Ottoline, asks if she can eat her breakfast
in front of the television. I would usually say no to this, for fear of
crumbs in our sitting room attracting an infestation of ants. When I
tell her to go ahead, the other children raise their heads like

‘What about us?’ they say. ‘Can we eat in the sitting room?’

‘Yes,’ I say, through gritted teeth. ‘But remember the ants.’

‘We love ants,’ they say, giggling.

Day 2:

Things are beginning to change. ‘Why are you being so nice to us?’ they say, as I nod my head to all requests.


evening, when they get in from school, we make a chocolate cake. They
get the mixture everywhere, spreading the flour all over the floor. For
a split-second I panic — but does it really matter?

My daughter
cracks an egg in her lap and they all burst out laughing. I try not to
giggle along with them, especially when I realise that I am actually
having fun.

I suppose I should make them clear up the kitchen themselves, but I’ve enjoyed myself so much that I haven’t got the heart.

When the cake is baked, they demand slice after slice, which of course I agree to, while reminding them they might feel sick.

Ten minutes later? ‘Mum, I feel sick.’

‘Well,’ I say sagely, ‘I did warn you — but you insisted.’

all nod their heads, looking rather serious. I leave the kitchen
feeling slightly delirious. Will they actually start to self-regulate?

Day 4:

It is a bit of a joke in my family that I am mad on yoga — and any
chance I can, I practise standing on my head. The children love it when
I do it. They think it’s funny.


‘Can you stand on your head for half an hour?’ asks Raymond.

children giggle non-stop, before trying to get me to drink water upside
down, while feeding me biscuits. I feel torn between choking to death
and waves of nausea, but the children are having such fun I don’t want
to disappoint them.

I realise this is what makes them happy — silly, nonsensical family fun.  

Final write-up of the lab results:

[B]y the end of the week the children are imploding. My acquiescence
to everything has meant that they are not only buzzing with e-numbers
and sugar, but are exhausted, too

But I have also learned some
important lessons. The hassle of clearing up the kitchen after they
have made a cake is nothing compared to the joy I feel when I hear them
laughing so freely.

They just wanted to have fun, to laugh more; to not have every request quashed by a negative.

also, I think, really started to understand why I create boundaries in
their lives, because as much as they don’t like them, they are lost
without them.

The lesson: Parents really do err on the side of saying No.  As Jim Carrey learned in Yes Man, religiously saying Yes is better imagined than experienced.  But the marginal Yes pays off.  Say Yes to your kids 10% more often.  My conjecture: They’re be happier, you’ll be happier, and the negative side effects will often solve themselves.