Why parents can’t cut the apron strings

There’s a reason parents now get intensively involved in their kids’ lives: it’s because society is incapable of socialising young people, heaping more and more responsibility on to families.

Nancy McDermott

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If Amy Chua is cast as the wild-eyed Tiger Warrior of twenty-first-century parenting, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and author of a new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, is its amiable Buddha figure. He even looks the part. His publicity photos invariably picture him hugging his kids and grinning from ear to ear. It’s a far cry from Amy Chua’s formal, somewhat stiff family portraits.

Pitting the two against one another has proved irresistible. Media pundits have dubbed them ‘gurus’ and taken to sorting parents into one category or another. Of course the irony is that the ‘debate’ between the two is not, as Jennie Bristow has pointed out on spiked, a real debate in any meaningful sense. It’s really more of a half-hearted rehearsal of the old nature-vs-nurture argument. It does not change anyone’s mind; it offers no answers and is unlikely to have any effect on what parents actually do. And this is a pity because Caplan’s book at least represents an attempt to address some of the excesses of today’s parenting culture.

Selfish Reasons begins with the observation that the American family is shrinking, and the main reason for this, according to Caplan, is that parents are stressed out about taking care of kids. More kids mean more stress and less happiness. This in itself might give some readers pause. It seems a bit glib and appears to ignore the long-term demographic trends and yet, just as a snapshot of American life today, it feels true.

Anecdotally at least, family size does seem to be something parents worry about, not so much because of concerns about population but more about how having more children will affect the children they have. It is often posed as a question of how much harder it will be to manage with another child, or how it will affect the child we have if we don’t have another child. The assumption is that each child demands an exceptionally high level of commitment and good parents will think very carefully about whether they are truly up to the task.

This is where Caplan thinks we’ve got it all wrong. It’s not being a parent that is inherently stressful – it’s the way we go about it. We spend way too much time and effort trying to shape the children we have now and thus deprive ourselves and the world of the children we might have if only we’d ‘chillax’ a little. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he is a behavioural economist, Caplan turns to The Numbers to ‘prove’ his points. He uses data from twins studies to argue that genetics are the most reliable determinate of how kids turn out, so you might as well just relax and have fun.

Think you can turn your lazy but musical kid into a virtuoso? Think again. You can try, Caplan says, but just look what happens in the long term. Parents influence their kids a lot early on, but genetic traits tend to reassert themselves over time. Drawing in part on the work of Judith Rich Harris, he argues that parental determinism isn’t right, at least not in the sense of how parents raise their kids; rather, genes and environment are what really matter. And our environment is pretty much the same for most people in the developed world. Want to really change the destiny of a child? Adopt from Ethiopia.

On the face of it, this seems like a nice rejoinder to people who believe that children are essentially extensions of the way that they are parented. There’s also a lot to be said for Caplan’s belief that parents should have fulfilling lives that do not revolve entirely around their children.

The problem is that data doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Societal factors do matter. The current obsession with the parent/child relationship can’t simply be dismissed as a misreading of reality. Parents really are more important today because of the way children’s relationships with other adults have changed.

In a culture as deeply ambivalent about adulthood as America, it is not surprising that socialising young people has become problematic. The rich web of traditions and conventions that governed the interchange between one generation and the next is broken – and parents are left to pick up the slack. Even something as simple as teaching children how to behave in public becomes difficult today because adults can’t agree upon common standards of behavior, let alone enforce them collectively. Children run wild, and naturally the parents are to blame.

Caplan is right that the pressures parents bring to bear on their children only last so long as parents are deeply engaged in their children’s lives. But when the dynamics of children’s interactions with other adults change, that also affects dynamics within the family.

In the past, the adult world generated positive and negative pressure on individuals that helped them to fit in and to succeed. The decline of these pressures means the transition from childhood to the world of adult responsibility doesn’t always happen smoothly and many parents feel compelled to stay more engaged in their children’s lives for longer. The problem is not so much that parents won’t let go but that adult society lacks the capacity to assimilate young people.

The sad result of Caplan’s labour is an argument that is actually more deterministic in many ways than the outlook he is trying to criticise. It doesn’t matter what you do, he seems to be saying: your kids will still be who they were born to be.

He would have been better off taking ownership of his opinions as opinions than trying to present them as scientific fact. And yet there are some parts of the book where he backs off from trying to untangle nature and environment. And it is here that he is at his most compelling.

So chapter six is a rousing defence of having more children because they are a good in and of themselves. ‘Will the birth of another baby make the world better or worse?’, he asks. And his answer, in defiance of naysayers of all stripes, is: ‘Better.’ Better for children, better for parents, better for society – even better for the planet because the human imagination is our most precious resource.

Selfish Reasons ultimately won’t help parents chill out. The only way to make parenting culture better is to stop focusing on the parent/child relationship entirely. And yet this book is still an enjoyable read because, as flawed as Caplan’s analysis sometimes is, his genuine enthusiasm for children and his optimism about the future shines through and might just remind parents that having children really is worth it.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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