Thursday, April 21, 2011

High investment parenting 2: quality vs quantity

The WSJ recently hosted a discussion about Bryan Caplan's book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids.

In his arguments Caplan relies heavily on the behavior genetics findings I have discussed previously here and here. These findings show that it is very difficult for parents to shape their kids, and that genes have a larger impact than "shared environment" (i.e., effects from being raised in the same family). One can study these effects by varying genetic relatedness (e.g., identical twins vs fraternal twins) and environment (adoption into different families, variation of family characteristics such as SES, parental education, etc.).

This is from some correspondence (slightly edited) I had with a new father about Caplan's book.

The question is whether you accept the behavior genetics conclusions at the Tiger Mom/Dad extremes. That is, the twin/adoption data covers mostly normal people and probably cannot be extrapolated with confidence to exceptional cases like high IQ families with a strong focus on education and achievement.

I am very committed to helping my kids, although not in the Amy Chua way, and I wonder how well I could succeed if I had, say, 4 instead of 2 kids. As it is I can think of stuff almost every day that I could have done with them if I wasn't so busy with other things.

I take my kids out and play with them as much as I can. But not just random play. For example, I run races with them and I notice that at this age they can improve their running ability a lot by practicing. They have probably run hundreds (or maybe thousands!) more flat out sprints (say 40 yards) than a typical Taiwanese kid of the same age. (Cities there are very crowded, so it's not easy even to find a place to do something like this.) I can imagine that their self-esteem and ability to do well in school sports might be improved by my willingness to not only spend time with them but to insist that we do something modestly constructive while we are having fun.

I see lots of US dads already teaching their kids how to hit a baseball or do other sports specific things. I've spent a lot of time in sports and athletics, and while genes matter, training also matters, especially at the K-12 level where the threshold for making the team is much lower than in college. Even in football, basic skills like accelerating out of a 3 point stance are things you learn through early repetition and are hard to pick up later in life.

My dad was a professor but not a natural teacher. We had a neighbor who was a math professor and very extroverted and passionate about his subject. His kids really didn't like to discuss math with him but I loved it and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I could offer that kind of thing to my kids (in many subjects), assuming the dynamics are right. But I certainly couldn't if I were too busy or had too many kids.

Early success in anything (sports, math, etc.) can be self-reinforcing and have non-linear effects down the line. I realize the behavior genetics data suggests that *averaged over large groups* such effects are small, but the studies are still crude and could easily miss some relatively significant strategies that you or I might take advantage of. Are you willing to take the risk of forgoing such positive impacts you might have on your kids?

I like Caplan in general but I think he's a little too hardcore libertarian and also a bit robotic (autistic economist) and simple-minded in his thinking.


J said...

"I've spent a lot of time in sports and athletics, and while genes matter, training also matters, especially at the K-12 level where the threshold for making the team is much lower than in college."

The question is, however, how does one disentangle the mix of genetics and training and their respective significance. The proclivity to train or to be training-susceptible (or easily induced to train consistently) may very well be largely driven by genetic factors. By far the best method is the one emloyed by Caplan - by looking at twin/adoption studies.

Also, the new dad seems to take for granted the notion that there is a linear relationship between time spent in "constructive" play/practice and associated results. It is entirely possible that the fixed costs associated with activities involving 2 kids are not sufficiently lower than those involving four kids - think one stopwatch, still one minivan, equal/similar amount of activity time alotted etc. Even if this wasnt the case, overmanagement of kids and their time can adversely affect both their morale and their ability to self-organize and self-direct, not to mention stifle their self-initiative. An additional point is the possibility that more kids means they can supervise each other (saving time and effort by enabling parents to delegate - this is good both for the "supervisors" and the "supervised") - research shows that kids are more influenced by their peers than their parents in a variety of aspects like language/accent or picking up a "personality niche" based on their particular group dynamic (see Ridley's "The Agile Gene" for more on the topic). This is a result of our evolutionary past during which kids hung out mostly with other kids (of their own sex) while the parents were minding their grown-up business. Kids have evolved perfectly to be kids - they are NOT prototypes of potential adults. This point is worth stressing because many people have a lingering bias to think of evolution and development in general in teleological terms. A chrysalis is not an imperfect butterfly just like a child is not an imperfect adult.

Another unacknowledged possibility is that kids are more invested in activities that are unrelated to those shared/initiated by their parents. Especially in puberty when everything to do with a parent is by definition uncool.

"I can imagine that their self-esteem and ability to do well in school sports might be improved by my willingness to not only spend time with them but insist that we do something modestly constructive while we are having fun." - Well, I can imagine that they will attribute their success at least a little on your (over)involvement, undermining their confidence and self-esteem. Nobody likes feeling like a pet project and kids are especially perceptive when it comes to social dynamics and what people expect of them. Just like a kid who did her homework with her dad may not feel as confident about her innate ability (and her dad's confidence in the latter), a kid who does well in sports due to prodigious parental investment
may not feel genuinely confident after outcompeting kids who were not overprepared.

Having said all this, this dad may actually be right about parental investment. However, the weight of the evidence so far seems to favor the counterpoint.

KenC said...

That is a good thing Mr. Hsu, and your children will always remember those “time trials” with fondness--long after you are gone or otherwise disabled. I can only think about my own childhood. My father was a tough, taciturn, hard nosed fellow who pulled himself up by his bootstraps--with help from his oldest sister. He was not without humor but I think his trying upbringing and subsequent difficult life crushed his spirit. And he ended up dying quite young after a life of stress.

I remember fondly as a youth throwing around a baseball with him and hearing stories of his childhood. Most I couldn’t relate to (living a relatively comfortable upbringing compared to the stories I heard)) but I have never forgotten them. Nor those from my mother. Keep sharing those stories and experiences with your children. They will never forget them--in fact they will help to shape them--and they will always be grateful having heard and remembering them. Familial stories indeed serve to keep us human.

Perhaps that is the difference between “us” and AI.

Eduardo Ballesteros said...

Interesting research by a Stanford professor on mindset. She basically says that effort can make a big difference in kids abilities and fostering a mindset where effort is praised versus intelligence or innate ability is praised can improve outcomes.

steve hsu said...

He might know the odds are against him, but is still willing to try :-)

steve hsu said...

I agree. If you praise ability kids can get insecure about it. Praising hard work and effort is always good.

Steve said...

I've got a long, pretty positive review of Caplan's book up at

Steve Sailer

steve hsu said...

I thought your review was an excellent piece of writing on it own.

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