This is a review of Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Co-written with Walid.


Adoption studies indicate that differences in parenting styles have mostly small impacts on long term life outcomes of children, such as happiness, income, intelligence, health, etc.. This means that parents can put less effort into parenting without hurting their children’s futures. If you think kids are neat, then you should consider having more. 


Note: We think this is a pretty useful book, and it has changed our minds on how many children we want to have, though neither one us has any children yet. Also, neither of us are experts on twin or adoption studies.

Caplan argues that parents drastically overestimate their ability to improve the adult lives of their children. His argument is driven by adoption studies, which suggest that there is very little that parents can do beyond techniques employed by the average parent that would get them better results with their children. Specifically, the following areas are identified as areas where differences in parenting don’t seem to matter:

  • No effect on life expectancy, overall health (as measured by the presence/absence of particular health problems and self reported health), height, weight or dental health.
  • No effect on intelligence.
  • No effect on various measures of personality: conscientiousness, agreeableness or openness (not certain about extroversion or neuroticism).
  • Little or no effect on marriage, marriage satisfaction, divorce, or child bearing.

But that is not to say that styles outside of the average do not matter at all -- there are a few areas where parenting differences do seem to have an effect:

  • A small effect on adult drinking, smoking and drug problems.
  • A small effect on educational attainment, but no effect on grades in school or on income.
  • A large effect on political and religious labels, such as whether you call yourself democrat or republican or Christian or Muslim but small effects on actual political and religious attitudes or behavior.
  • A moderate effect on when girls start having sex (but not boys), but no effect on teen pregnancy or adult sexual behaviors. 
  • Possibly a small effect on sexual orientation.
  • A moderate effect on how children remember and perceive their parents.

So how do adoption studies lead to these conclusions?

Adoption studies (If you have a link to a better overview or discussion of adoption studies, we'd appreciate it) help find out the influence of parenting differences on adult outcomes by comparing adoptees to their adopting family. If adoptees systematically tend to be more like their adopting family than like other adoptees along some measure (say religiosity or income), that implies that parenting differences affect that measure.

When an adoption study finds that parenting does not affect outcome X, it does not mean that parenting cannot affect it, just that the parenting styles in the data set did not affect it.

The evidence Caplan talks about is primarily long run life outcomes. Shorter run life outcomes often do show larger effects from parenting, but these effects diminish as the time horizon increases.

If parenting doesn’t matter, what does?

Caplan references twin studies in showing that genetics have relatively big effects on all the measures previously mentioned. This explains why we see strong correlations between parents’ traits and children's’ traits. He specifically uses it to call out attributes that we would commonly ascribe to parenting, but may actually have a much larger genetic component.


Once Caplan has argued for the stylized fact that parenting has only small effects on major life outcomes, he explores some of its implications. 

Don’t be a tiger parent

One big implication is that you should put less effort into trying to make your kids into great adults and more effort into making your and your kids’ lives more fun right now.

For example, parents probably spend too much energy convincing their children to eat their vegetables and learn the piano, given that it won’t affect whether they will eat healthy as adults or be more intelligent. No one likes fighting. If you want your kid to learn the violin so they’ll have fun right now, it may very well be worth it, but don’t do it because you think it will increase their future income or intelligence. If neither you nor your child likes doing an activity, consider whether you can stop doing it.

Adoption studies provide good evidence that most activities don’t have a much of a long term effect on your children, so you need good evidence to start thinking that an activity will be good for your kids future. The odds are against it.

Have more kids

Focusing more on making your and your children’s lives more fun means that overall, having kids should be more attractive. If having another kid no longer means fighting about finishing their broccoli every night, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. On the margin, you should consider having more kids. If you were planning to have zero kids, consider having one. If you were planning to have 3 kids, consider 4, etc.

Other Topics

In much of the rest of the book Caplan gives common sense advice for making parenting easier for the parents. A couple of these, such as the Ferber method for dealing with infant sleep problems, are empirically based.

Here are some other topics Caplan discusses in his book:

  • Happiness research on parenting. Caplan argues that although being a parent seems to make people less happy, the effect is small (Ch 1).
  • Child safety statistics. Children are many times safer than in decades past (Ch 4).
  • Many of the benefits of having children come later in life (e.g. having people who will come and visit you, etc.), which makes it psychologically easy to ignore these benefits (Ch 5).
  • The externalities of children. He argues that on net, extra people have large positive externalities (Ch 6), so you shouldn’t feel guilty for having more children.

What parts should I read?

We wholeheartedly recommend reading the first 5 chapters (121 pages) of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids as these have the most useful parts of the book; the rest of the book is less valuable. 

Criticisms of Selfish Reason To Have More Kids

There are a number of criticisms relevant to Caplan’s arugments. For example:

  • Nisbett claims that heredity is much less important for IQ than thought (see also counterclaims posted below).
  • Will Wilkinson claims (one, two) that the cost of parenting plays a small role in people's family size decisions, thus it's not a very strong reason to have more kids.
  • Jason Collins likes the book but would like it to discuss the research on non-shared environment (i.e. that not explained by genetic or parenting differences, such as peer effects) (link).  
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I haven't read the book, but I've been reading Caplan's blog for years, so I think I'm sufficiently familiar with his positions to comment.

It seems to me that the elephant in the room here are the peer effects. I don't think even the strongest hereditarian theories would imply that it doesn't matter for your kids' future outcomes if they socialize with peers who display low-class or antisocial habits and behaviors.

Now, if you live in North America, making sure your kids are isolated from low-class kids is extremely expensive. If nothing else, you must be able to afford a house in a nice neighborhood. Unless you are extravagantly wealthy, or perhaps enjoy some very unusual combination of an upper-middle class income and high job security, this means getting into an enormous debt, which you won't be able to pay off for decades, and living a stressful and anxious existence on the edge of solvency, in which a fit of bad luck can easily send you into ruin. And this latter possibility doesn't mean just falling back to a more frugal but still respectable lifestyle -- it means being thrown, together with your kids, right into the dreaded underclass in which all sorts of frightful social p... (read more)

"making sure your kids are isolated from low-class kids is extremely expensive" My personal experience on peer effect is, that it is not so extra important for the kid to avoid contact with "unsuitable" children. It might be important to have a CHOICE of both "suitable" and "unsuitable" peers - I am not sure about that, have no experience on living exclusively in low class environment. My story: I went to a regular elementary school, where low status kids from our neighborhood attended, as well as "middle class" kids. (It was in the diminishing communist era in Slovakia, the good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods were not so geographically separated as they are now). I naturally associated with those kids I felt comfortable with (who had hobbies, mostly but not 100% better grades) and dissociated from the kids I did not like (aggressive, bad grades, skipping lessons). Some of the aggressive kids are dead by now due to drug overdose, but I did not try a drug ever. My parents did not forbid me from contact from any of the kids I wanted. In the first two years, my best frend was from the "lower class" group - gypsy, bad grades - but NOT agressive, and my parents actually supported my choice even against the opposition of my teachers. I am now a research scientist and have a PhD in molecular biology, so I think seeing those little criminals everyday at the elementary school did not affect my success in life that much.
4David Scott Krueger (formerly: capybaralet)
By regressing on household identity, you capture how parents' efforts to control kids' peer groups influence outcomes. This was discussed (briefly) in the book, towards the beginning (~page30-40?)
That peer effects still seem like they would be important is a fair point. The question is: if peer effects are important, why don't they show up in adoption studies? Perhaps parents don't think peer effects are important, but that seems implausible to me. Perhaps, as you suggest, it's really expensive to affect your childrens' peers. But then that fits Caplan's argument pretty well; if if you have to spend millions of dollars to change your childrens' peers then maybe it's just not that cost effective, and you shouldn't worry about it too much. As a side note: I sometimes get a very "politics" vibe from your comments, and it gives me the impression that your thought quality isn't very good on those topics (other comments good quality). I don't know if others get the same feeling from your posts; maybe it's just me. For example, "enormous debt, which you won't be able to pay off for decades, and living a stressful and anxious existence on the edge of solvency, in which a fit of bad luck can easily send you into ruin. And this latter possibility doesn't mean just falling back to a more frugal but still respectable lifestyle -- it means being thrown, together with your kids, right into the dreaded underclass in which all sorts of frightful social pathologies are rampant. It's like precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles." reads a lot like standard political rants.

The question is: if peer effects are important, why don't they show up in adoption studies?

Generally speaking, when I search for literature on peer effects, the information is sparse and confusing. I'm not too surprised, since such effects are much more difficult to disentangle than heritability and shared environment.

My working hypothesis is that:

  1. Peer effects matter a lot, but only up to a certain threshold of peer quality, and this threshold is basically what people intuitively perceive as sufficiently respectable company for their kids. So, basically, underclass peers will ruin your kids, but upper-class or genius peers won't improve things relative to the company of ordinary middle-class kids. (Just like downright abuse will ruin them, but helicopter parenting won't improve them.)

  2. In order to quality for adoption, people must pass through sufficiently strict checks that they are highly unlikely to provide an environment below this threshold. So there aren't any good natural adoption experiments that expose kids to underclass peer groups.

I'd be curious to hear about any contrary evidence, though.

I sometimes get a very "politics" vibe from your comments

... (read more)
I think Caplan is correct that this is not the marginal analysis that parents do in considering whether to have another child; that the relevant margin is their time. More tangentially, I generally think your description is too prescriptive and not an accurate description of how people think, leading to predictions that don't match the world. In particular, I don't think we see a clean line between acceptable and unacceptable neighborhoods. People don't just seek out acceptable neighborhoods free of bad influences, but bid up ever more exclusive neighborhoods, sometimes in the name of good schools and sometimes not. People take on a lot of debt not just to get into acceptable schools, but to get into these exclusive neighborhoods. On the other hand, I think people are much less stressed than you describe, largely because they are irrationally optimistic about debt, employment stability, and real estate as an investment.
You're right that I oversimplified things in this regard. Besides the minimum acceptable neighborhood quality, there are also many expensive status games people play that they could in principle cut back on without any negative consequences for their kids. On the other hand, the difficult question is how much you can really cut back on status games without jeopardizing your social status in ways that could damage your career and make your life generally unpleasant. (It's a difficult topic, but it seems to me like it's hard to escape the effect where higher income comes with the requirements of more intense and expensive status signaling, thus significantly reducing the increase in one's truly discretionary spending power.) On the whole, I'm not quite sure what to think about all this. Could be. Except for your closest friends who will presumably speak their mind to you, it's hard to figure out what people really think behind the socially expected facade of radiating success and optimism. I strongly suspect that the events of recent years have shaken a great many people out of their optimism, though.
Yes, the exclusive neighborhoods could be a form of social signaling, but so too could the helicopter parenting. I think people feel the same kind of pressure towards the two.
Is leasing so uncommon, though? My mom always taught me that buying a house was retarded, admittedly contra what I took to be common wisdom. ETA: Actually, I think it might have been me always teaching my mom that buying a house was retarded. I think even at ten years old I was better than my mom at economic rationality.
Your mom seems to have instilled in you a politically incorrect and sometimes offensive word usage!
What is it about people with practical-worldly-knowledge that causes their speech to be littered with so many un-PC words and phrases?
The same thing as with people who don't have practical worldly knowledge that causes their speech to be littered with so many non PC words. But I would estimate to a lesser degree on average.
Well shucks; why didn't I think of that?
In the contemporary North America, buying a house definitely looks to me like a raw deal. On the other hand, the popular wisdom is indeed the opposite, i.e. that renting is a raw deal, suitable only for people whose tarnished reputation makes them unable to get credit. (The whole issue could be approached by asking some simple and obvious questions suggested by basic economics, but puzzlingly, nobody seems to be asking them.) On the whole, however, I definitely have the impression that among the great bulk of people who aspire to live a middle-class lifestyle, home ownership is considered as an essential goal for any serious person, let alone family. A contrarian on this issue is likely to face enormous pressures from friends, family, spouse, etc., and risk coming off as seriously weird. (Maybe I am overestimating this phenomenon in the wider society by extrapolating from my own social circles. But it certainly exists to a significant degree.)

In the contemporary North America, buying a house definitely looks to me like a raw deal.

So, perhaps this is a sign of how brainwashed by the status quo I am, but I don't see how this is obvious, nor indeed how it could be obvious, given that everyone who is renting a house is renting it from someone who bought it, who is presumably not losing money on the deal. (Or is that a false presumption? Do landlords typically spend more to purchase and maintain their property than they make in rental income? How could that possibly be true?)

So I would love some more explanation here. Is the idea here that buying a house N years ago was a good idea, but buying one in 2012 is not?

[E]veryone who is renting a house is renting it from someone who bought it, who is presumably not losing money on the deal. (Or is that a false presumption? Do landlords typically spend more to purchase and maintain their property than they make in rental income? How could that possibly be true?)

You can also ask a different question. If you borrow money to buy a house, you must find a lender willing to lend you at some interest rate. The interest rate is nothing but the price of renting money. So if it costs less to borrow (i.e. rent) the money to buy a house than to just rent the house directly, then how can the lender possibly be willing to lend you the money instead of investing it into a house himself and earning a rent higher than your interest?

When I make this argument, people usually try to argue that somehow you profit from buying by building equity with time. But if the money rent, i.e. interest, is equal to the house rent, then to build equity, you must make payments to the lender above this basic rent/interest rate -- otherwise you'll just keep renting the same amount of money indefinitely. And if you rent the house instead of making these higher payments, you can sa... (read more)


Here are some complicating factors:

The renter is paying the landlord to assume the risk of tenant mobility. That is, if the renter needs to move, they can do so and the landlord could be stuck with a vacant unit. On the other hand, someone who owns a home and needs to move, needs to find a buyer for the old place, and incurs material (~7%) transaction costs. People who want to stick around for a long time have no reason to pay a premium for an option they won't use, so longer-term residents tend to buy and not rent.

On the other hand, as long as they can make mortgage payments, homeowners almost never get kicked out of their homes. If you want to bring up kids and build memories/accumulate sentimental value in one place over your whole life, a rental is probably not for you. If you want to customize your home and/or make capital improvements, a rental is also probably not for you.

There's a kind of pooling equilibrium, and very little incentive to live in the "wrong" arrangement.

It's also a mistake to compare nominal rent with nominal mortgage payments, as you also have to consider tax deductibility, maintenance costs (which people often underestimate), heating/cooling/electricity/water bills, real estate taxes, and mortgage amortization.

Before I bought my house I ran the numbers and came to the same conclusion, that home ownership would not maximize my net worth and would increase certain types of risk. As a result I see home ownership as a luxury, not as an investment. I bought my house because I wanted it as a luxury and believed I could manage the risk.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
If mortgage interest is tax-deductible but rent isn't, then you have to pay higher rent in order for it to be converted into an interest payment that would come out of pretax income. I think this is how Michael Vassar said the market got so messed up, though I don't know if I'm correctly attributing it to him, or if the notion is unique to him (I expect not).
There are two puzzling observations here, though: 1. In booming real estate markets, rent may in fact be cheaper than the interest on the equivalent house price even considering the tax break. I suppose this is because people count on appreciation, but we know how good that assumption is. 2. The lack of mortgage interest tax breaks in Canada doesn't make people's attitudes towards renting vs. buying any different than in the U.S. The only observable effect, as far as I know, is that Canadians on average struggle to pay off their mortgages more quickly.
This is a common notion among econobloggers.
I'm not sure I understand what "conversion" you're talking about, but it sounds like you might be saying that the landlord has no mortgage interest deduction, so they need to receive a larger rent payment to break even, than it would cost the renter to own the same property. If that's not your point, then disregard the rest of this comment. To the landlord the mortgage interest is a business expense and can typically be deducted. So there's (ceteris paribus) no difference between the net cost of the mortgage to the landlord, and to a homeowner.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky
What I'm saying is that you can either pay $2000 of rent using post-tax income or $2000 of mortgage using pretax income. This might work out to the difference between a $3300 mortgage payment (pretax income) or a $2000 rent payment (after the $3300 has been taxed at an e.g. 39% marginal rate by state and feds).
OK, that's what I thought you meant, thanks for clarifying.
Actually, to a business all of the mortgage is a business expense (as well as property taxes, upkeep costs etc.), and all of the rent is a revenue. Then you have to account for amortization, depreciation and what not. So, there is a lot of difference between a business and an individual homeowner, and no ceterus paribus to speak of.
OK. Thanks for clarifying.
Owning a house has the advantage that, even in extreme contingencies, you will still have your Maslovian need for shelter under control. Same reason someone would eagerly trade gold for an equal weight of grain in a sufficiently severe famine.
This is true if you actually completely own your house. However, many "homeowners" don't; they have mortgages which they are not yet in a position to pay off completely. Given sufficiently extreme contingencies (which needn't, actually, be all that extreme) they could find themselves without shelter as easily as their renting peers.
Paying the mortgage involves a marginal step toward that desirable condition of true homeownership in a way that rent does not. Essentially, a mortage is rent + a commitment to investing part of your income every month, which many people would not otherwise have the willpower to do.
Yes, the structure of a home mortgage loan helps someone save when they might not have otherwise. But your original comment was that home ownership was helpful because it increased your security that you would have shelter - which is a different point. If you lose your job and the mortgage has not been completely paid off, you are not in an appreciably better situation re: shelter if you own vs. rent. I suspect that the foreclosure process is more time consuming for the party trying to evict you than the landlord eviction procedures - but 1-3 months vs. 9-12 months* is probably not that useful a difference in the grand scheme of your life. *These numbers are a guess, but I think the relative difference in time is roughly accurate.
Having three or four or twelve times as long to search for alternative sources of income can make an enormous difference in the grand scheme of your life. Let's say it's 3 months for eviction, 9 months for foreclosure, and it takes six months of searching to obtain a new job. Someone who was renting would have to complete the second half of that search while homeless, a condition which brings with it many unpleasant, life-altering complications. Social capital must be burnt on preserving life and limb when it could have been spent to aid the search itself, or hoarded against future calamities.
How important the difference between 1-3 months and 9-12 months is in that scenario depends a lot on how long it takes me to find another job.
Comparing monthly costs is a bit misleading. There are a whole bunch of less-direct costs and benefits to ownership. A bunch of these depend on your estimation of future economic conditions and of your future desires. 1) If you own a house, you're incurring the risk that you have to move for personal or professional reasons, and then can't easily sell. Landlords typically don't have to sell on short notice -- it's perfectly possible to be an absentee landlord. Not an absentee resident. 2) As a landlord, you can potentially hold the house as one asset in a portfolio. As a homeowner, you've locked up a lot of your potential capital in that high-risk illiquid asset; you're much more exposed if property values go down. On the flip side: 1) Residents with a mortgage get a tax break that landlords don't. 2) Being an owner means you don't have the risk of future rent increases, and can profit if property values go up. 3) Being an owner entitles you to make structural or other changes -- repainting, say -- that a tenant can't easily.
That is true, but as far as I can tell, rent increases don't follow soaring house prices during real estate booms. Rather, the price to rent ratio tends to go out of whack. (Check out these graphs -- I can't vouch for the accuracy of their numbers, but they are consistent with what I observe on the ground. Since I've been renting my current house, my rent hasn't gone up by a single cent, not even to compensate for inflation, while the house prices where I live have gone up by something like 40%.) Moreover, the standard ways in which mortgages are done leave one exposed to the risk of future interest rates increasing, and they can go up much faster and higher than rent. (And as far as I can tell, one must pay a huge premium to get a permanent fixed rate and avoid playing this financial equivalent of Russian roulette.)
In the US, the large majority of mortgages are fixed rate. Until about 10 years ago, virtually all were. I think mortgages are a lot more popular in the US than in Europe. I'm a bit surprised that fixed rate mortgages haven't spread into Canada simply by proximity. Maybe they're propped up by Fannie Mae.
I have no idea what the ultimate reasons for it are, but in Canada, I don't think it's even possible to fix the rate for more than ten years. When Canadians speak of "fixed rate," they typically mean fixing it for only five years or so.
Wow. Yeah, signing up for a mortgage I expected to pay off over thirty years would frighten me with that arrangement.
All Canadian banks offer up to 10-year fixed rate terms, none do longer. "A typical mortgage in Canada has a 5-year term with a 25-year amortization period." Not sure what is so scary about that...
Regarding 1... can't a resident of a home, should the need arise to move on short notice, become an absentee landlord on the same property? If the monthly costs of renting equal or exceed the monthly costs of owning, presumably the rental income covers the cost of owning the property, and the former resident can go rent property wherever they happen to need to be. I would add to your second list: 4) Owning the property means I get more upside if property values go up. 5) Renting the property means I am subject to the owner's whims in addition to my own.
No, that sounds about right.
It's interesting to see that the common-sense view is now that buying a house is a bad idea. Just a few short years ago anyone questioning the wisdom of buying a house was seen as mentally deficient, if not downright evil. This just as prices have reverted close to fair value and buying is starting to make a lot of sense compared to renting. [As long as you have the capacity to pay the loan and you are not likely to move soon.] This I take to be a sign we are close to the bottom in housing.
Absent some very extraordinary insider information, there's never any good reason to believe that. At any moment, prices are where they are because they could go either way.
In US, a 3000-dollar-per-month mortgage lowers your taxable income by 36000 dollars. The standard deduction for a married couple (perhaps renting a house for 3000/mo) is 12000. Can't this go a longer way toward explaining it than peer pressure? Of course, property taxes are high in good school districts.

Honestly, I think that for the overwhelming majority of people, these tax issues are way over their heads. (I have no confidence that I understand them myself. In finance, reliable and accessible information is very hard to find.) So I think that such considerations, while not completely irrelevant, are easily trumped by the combination of peer pressure, deeply ingrained but obsolete folk wisdom, the sheer emotional appeal of home ownership, the intuitively appealing but fallacious view that renting means giving away money while paying a mortgage means saving it, and the irrational optimism about future trends in house prices (which has abated in recent years in the U.S. but is still rampant in Canada).

On the other hand, the counterargument about asset diversification seems to me unassailable. Putting all your eggs into one basket is correctly considered as a crazy financial strategy, and a fortiori, putting a bunch of borrowed eggs along with them is crazier still. Yet houses are somehow considered an exception.

[Edit to add: Looking at this a bit more, I realize I didn't even know there was such a straightforward tax deduction for mortgage interest in the U.S. However, this only strengthens my point, since no such thing exists in Canada, but people still think and act the same way.]

As phrased above, your position seems like a reasonable starting point for a discussion, and I probably would not have made my comment if you had first commented with something closer to that. I was trying to comment on the way you presented the argument before rather than argue that your object level point is mistaken, since I don't have strong views here. It's not a serious issue, just something I thought you might like to be aware of. The more I think about this, the less 'justifiable' it seems to bring this up. You used several adjectives with a normative tinge "enormous debt", "edge of solvency" and colorful imagery "precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles", which sound like they're designed to get the reaction "Oy My God! What has America (or pick your favorite country) come to?!", rather than the reaction "buying a house in an expensive area sounds risky". Does that make things clearer? On the object level topic, your argument seems very focused on debt, do you think renting a house in a similar area substantially lessens the burden?
I have no problem with your comment, and I'm glad to explain the reason why I made my original comment that way. The reason why I used such emotional imagery is that I wanted to depict the way people feel about their situation, which is the relevant thing in this context, even if the way they feel is unrealistic and biased. (Since the way they feel, and not some ideally objective evaluation of the situation, will ultimately determine their decisions about having kids.) (By the way, do you really think that "enormous debt" and "edge of solvency" are not perfectly realistic descriptions of how many, if not most people in their child-bearing years live these days?) I'm probably over-focusing on debt, since I myself consider any serious indebtedness with horror. I would guess that debt by itself is probably a much lesser source of worry to most people. Now, when it comes to the issue of renting vs. buying, this is one of those things where people, including otherwise smart and successful people, tend to have opinions that seem seriously crazy to me. As far as I can tell, among the North American middle classes, it seems to be near-universal belief that a basic prerequisite for serious family life is owning a house, so the idea of renting is a non-starter. There is also the near-universal belief that renting is somehow a raw deal compared to buying, so that renting sends a strong signal that you're either stupid or, more likely, can't be approved for credit because of some shameful history you're hiding (and all the bad qualities it likely implies). All this despite the fact that basic economics strongly suggests that renting should be a better deal for nearly everyone. (Unless perhaps the relevant markets are distorted to an enormous degree by subsidies, regulations, and perhaps also status signaling games, but in reality I see only the latter in sufficiently strong form.) However, this gets us to the more general issue of various other expensive status games that
So it seems we all agree that your crocodile-pit description does not necessarily reflect reality.
Except for certain child-bearing zoo employees.
It depends on the concrete place and people we're talking about. There are ways to escape falling into the underclass even with very little money, but that requires luck and talent that many (and I'd even say most) people don't have.
Well, in 15 years I'll let you know whether my decision to live and reproduce in a city that has poor people has turned my kids into underclass wrecks.

It would be mere anecdotal evidence. I kind of feel you are trying to tell or signal something other than offering to eventually share with us the results of a long term experiment.

7juliawise're right, I'm not making housing and childrearing decisions with the main goal of providing a useful data point to LW 15 years in the future. And I am trying to signal that I think poor people are not a crocodile pit. Enough so that I am choosing to share a neighborhood with them.
I don't think he was painting it as a crocodile pit, I read him as pointing out that negative effects on life outcomes are to be expected on average. It seems a highly probable hypothesis.
How do you interpret "it means being thrown, together with your kids, right into the dreaded underclass in which all sorts of frightful social pathologies are rampant. It's like precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles" ?

I think you are being unfair when you imply that I identify poor people (i.e. those who are merely not affluent) with the underclass (i.e. those social groups that display high levels of dysfunction). In a place where poor people are generally non-dysfunctional, so that a drastic fall in economic status means only that one will have to live frugally among others doing the same, clearly none of what I wrote applies. However, in a place with a large dysfunctional underclass, a similar fall in economic status is a much more dreadful prospect for someone who is used to the norms and customs of the middle class.

Now, I probably should have omitted the "above a pond full of crocodiles" part in the above quote. It came out when I was looking for a vivid metaphor for the situation of people who struggle to keep themselves above a certain level of economic status below which bad things will happen, with the crocodiles symbolizing a general feeling of fear and danger, rather than being a straightforward metaphor for underclass people. Now I realize that the way I wrote it, the latter reading is natural, but it wasn't my intention. (It also suggests incorrectly that the main problem with falling into the underclass is the physical danger of crime.)

Point taken.
To be fair, maybe this was part sarcasm towards the middle classes' secretly hypocritical and overly fearful social attitude, as Vladimir sees it.
As Julia said, people are offended by the suggestion to treat their own class position with extreme cynicism, and to believe that there's, like, a separate species of people in their country - their compatriots, mostly, not just illegal immigrants - who are dangerous animals to be avoided at all costs. While certainly such a position could increase personal safety, I'm adamantly against it. For fuck's sake, I grew up in Russia in the 90s - a time of danger, opportunity and rampant inequality/unfairness - and no-one back then had a "bubble" (well, except for the top 0,1% maybe), so I mixed with kids from rough neighbourhoods and not-so-good families, was even friends with one (after we fought for years and then grew up a bit). Our school was an ordinary one, but well-run, with good and savvy teachers, so there was no violence outside of the usual scuffles and playing at gangs; I think that every one of us would be offended were our parents to try and "bubble" us away from the "underclass".
Juliawise said she does not believe that she is throwing her kids into a pit of crocodiles. You seem to be saying that she has an obligation to throw her kids into a pit of crocodiles.
I'm saying that she has an obligation, whatever she does, not to think about her society as a pit of crocodiles (except hypothetically, for abstract arguments, etc - never in semi-conscious daily thinking, as a matter of "attitude"), because that'll only increase the class divide and its problems. Society is affected by its members' perception of it, and if everyone just wanted to maximize safety for themselves and their families... why, that society would be utterly helpless! What's the difference between civic responsibility in the face of war or natural disasters and civic responsibility in the face of social division and alienation? If the middle class just evacuates from everywhere where they have any contact with the "underclasses", so that the latter are left in utter and visible isolation, like the "Untouchable" castes in India... do you think that spells any hope of survival for the American nation, its culture, its spirit?

I'm saying that she has an obligation, whatever she does, not to think about her society as a pit of crocodiles

If my society is a pit of crocodiles, I want to believe my society is a pit of crocodiles! I'm sure German Jews in the 1930s, or Cambodians intellectuals (or short-sighted people) in the 1970s would agree with me.

Society is affected by its members' perception of it, and if everyone just wanted to maximize safety for themselves and their families... why, that society would be utterly helpless!

Nowadays the standard way of solving coordination/tragedy-of-the-commons problems is through the government; for example Singapore has quality public housings that house 85% of the population and have ethnic quotas to prevent self-segregation.

Singaporeans and Americans probably both want to maximize safety for themselves and their families, but the incentives in Singapore mean that sticking to "people like you" is not as attractive a strategy as it is in the US.

This sounds much like a tragedy of the commons. Remind me again what the rational response is if one has little hope of organizing measures to overcome it. Where is the evidence that living with the underclass benefits the underclass more than it hurts the middle class? In case you haven't notice the underclass has due to social changes nearly fully assimilated the wrecked working class that existed in the United States at one point and its cultural norms and dysfunction are spreading and becoming worse. I believe the non-blue collar middle class is next and nearly all social indicators seem to be moving in that direction. For a brief overview of just how far the cultural class divides have grown I suggest reading Charles Murray's "Coming Apart". Why group such different cultures under the marker "American culture" in a sense beyond geographical designation?
= "Remind me again what the rational response is in non-iterated PD when you're sure your partner is a stupid Defect-Bot." And my answer to that is, if you value something beyond one-turn success, you'll at least consider that the PD might be iterated after all, in the historic long run. But if no-one on the "reasonable" side acts like it's iterated, it wouldn't be, and the Defect-Bots will eventually tear apart everything you love. How much can society last in such a way before the abandoned and despised "underclass" finally boils over? I don't think that it's more than a few generations. Would you want a somewhat nicer and safer life for your children without a future for their children?
Indeed that was my intended message. I think it is unavoidable. As to saving "everything you love" or rather salvaging the things I value about our civilization. I have spent a lot of time on this problem. Let us say that my current best hope is FAI. Any effort towards which I consider nearly certain to fail horribly, yet still think should be attempted. What does this tell you? But let me try and put it another way, especially since you bring up the stupid always-defect-bot. Imagine you have a unfriendly self-improving AI. Now imagine it is built out of people's brains, brains that you care about. Those brains have dreams and values of their own, but they are not the dreams and values of the uFAI that is running on them. It will continue running and self-improving making their dreams and values matter less and less for how the universe is ordered and indeed it will edit and change those values arbitrarily and unpredictably. Imagine the only alternative to this is that it pretty much blows itself up together with all the brains it contains. This is the world I think I am living in.
But in that world, defecting to ensure your own short-term gain is best replaced with wireheading; nothing fragile survives anyway, so why rob and oppress other brains for a fleeting illusion of contentment? Therefore, we should find happiness in simple things, avoid increasing strife and competition for resources and, ideally, just stop being troubled by the whole mess. Oops, looks like I accidentally Buddhism.
I don't need gains to be "eternal" or "non-fragile" to count. Remember our debate about the "Hansonian hell word", where I pointed out that a few centuries of human minds living in plenty followed by aeons of alien minds isn't really a "hell world" to me? My conclusions about the world simply mean that I have centuries or decades instead of billions of years of minds I care about arranging matter. I don't find such a shortening a convincing reason to embrace counterfeit utility with wire-heading.
So you've no reinforcing reasons to give up your own fleeting well-being for anyone else's sake, especially that of far people? Well, at least that's honest. But I still want to aim for more than temporary gratification when deciding what to do - partly because I still feel very irresponsible and worried when trying not to care about what I see in society.
The set of minds I care about obviously includes my own but isn't limited to it!
Sure, of course you care. I meant, well, I'll think of how to explain it. But basically I'm talking about quasi-religious values again. I have this nagging feeling that we're hugely missing out on both satisfaction and morality for not understanding their true use.
Ok I hope you can write it out because it sounds interesting. But let me pose a query of my own. You seem to think that over a period a few billion years means that real utility optimization should occur rather than going for wire-heading. And think that if limited to a few centuries counterfeit utility is better. How would you feel about 10 000 years of the values you cherish followed by a alien or empty universe? What about 10 million years? If it makes you feel better if everything I cared was destined to disappear tomorrow I think I would go for some wire-heading, so I guess we are just on different spots on the same curve. Is this so?
I'm thinking. But keep in mind that I'm basically a would-be deontologist; I'm just not sure what my deontic ethics should be. If only I could get a consistent (?) and satisfying system, I'd be fine with missing out on direct utility. I know, for humans that's as impossible as becoming an utility maximizer, because we're the antithesis of "consistency".
Depends on my estimate of how little that hope is, and of how many other people like me there are.
How about an obligation to get good evidence about local groups, rather than listening to people who make a habit of scaring each other?
A lot of your posts leave me with the impression that you think the right wing has all the facts on its side, but it only means you need to oppose them that much more heroically. This is a terribly perverse point of view, all the moreso because there are some facts that support left wing opinions too. For instance, you'll note that Vladimir_M is perfectly open about the scarcity of scientific literature supporting his gut feeling about peer effects. A parent came along to say she wasn't worried about peer effects for her own children, not that it was her moral duty to throw their safety to the wind.
I'm not actually a parent yet, but I do plan to have kids and to raise them in a mixed-income neighborhood (somewhere in Cambridge MA). I do think peer effects exist. Having worked in a local school full of both "underclass" kids and professors' children, which is the mix you get in Cambridge, I do think the poorer kids have a somewhat negative effect on the richer kids. I expect there will be some negative effects to my kids from not living in a bubble. However, I love the area and I think that living there will be good for the family, better than going into the kind of debt Vladimir_M mentioned to afford all-rich neighborhoods or private schools. We like living in a city, we like not owning a car, we having no debt. Those things mean living near some poor people.
I accept the correction, but now I don't see a difference between your points of view. Certainly what you write above is more delicately phrased than "poor people are crocodiles", but VMs comment was also more delicately phrased than that.
Huh? Um, perhaps you have a point here, but why did you reply with that to my comment above specifically? I thought that, of all things, cross-class solidarity and opposition to the splintered modern society can be construed as just as much of a right-wing value as a left-wing one. Hell, fascists used rhetoric similar to mine.
"What is to be done?" I often scan answers to this question as left-wing, but perhaps that heuristic is a hundred years out of date. Whether or not "pro-crocodile" and "anti-crocodile" map to "left" and "right", there is something perverse about saying: the evil anti-crocodiles have it exactly right, so we pro-crocodiles have our work cut out for us!
Let's call it what it is, OK? IMO there are two related matters here: 1) What is the size of the groups you're willing to empathize with? and how much relative concern you feel obliged to show for each - your family? neighbours? ethnicity? social class? compatriots? culture? religion? species? 2) What's your attitude towards social alienation and various unsavoury processes that accompany it? Is it just an inevitable side of humanity, to be ignored if possible? Only to be ignored if you're sure it's not about to explode? A moderately tragic natural disaster? A concrete ethical evil, akin to not helping victims in an accident? A disease of the nation-organism, which ultimately concerns all its other parts? A profane/sinful Awful Thing that's an affront to your preferred Grand Design? I don't have a clear answer for myself, neither logically nor emotionally. (Great. You try to break shit down into more manageable bits - aligned with LW's mission, it is! - and there's an instant downvote.)
The parent does not seem to be a response to the grandparent.
I think this question is a bit misleading, as if size is the only important (or most important) information about any group. Let's ask instead: "What groups you are willing to cooperate with?" (Because the empathy should lead to cooperation, right?) Now the question is: Is the given group able and willing to cooperate with me? The answer does not depend directly on the size -- I can imagine an enlightened galactical society where everyone cares about the well-being of others; and I can also imagine a small group of people harming their neighbors to achieve short-term gains. It is not about the size of the group; it is about what those people do, what they think like. I'd rather not have it, but merely pretending that it does not exist is not enough. In a long term, if I am able to help people in bad situations, I will try. In a short term, I care about my survival, and survival of my children. I don't know. World changes; what was impossible yesterday, may be possible today; but sometimes what was possible yesterday is no longer possible today. Instead of asking whether it is inevitable or not, we should discuss specific strategies, their costs and probabilities of success. There is a difference between asking whether "there is a solution" or whether "a specific strategy X is a solution". (In this specific case, X being: "living and raising your children among people of lower classes".) Perhaps this deserves a specific top-level thread in "Open Thread". But we should start by trying to define what "social alienation" approximately is (maybe it is an unnatural category consisting of several different cases); then discuss relevant factors; and only then start suggesting solutions.
Here's a nice post to begin with, written by a local libertarian, Larks, in response to Eliezer's "Traditional Capitalist Values".
Giving one example -- a hugely mindkilling one -- is not the same as providing a definition. It can help me understand your feelings about "social alienation", but I still don't know what exactly it means -- where are the boundaries of this concept. Is "social alienation" any kind of situation when one group of people has problems imagining themselves as members of another group? Or is it necessary to have some asymetry, where almost everyone agrees that it is better to belong to group A than to group B? Is there a difference whether belonging to group A or B is caused by family one was born in, or by one's abilities, or by one's decisions? A too wide definition could lead to: "Any difference in anything (including opinions, hobbies, values) is morally wrong." For more specific definitions we could perhaps discuss the possible paradox of morally acceptable differences causing morally wrong differences later, and how could that paradox be solved. And then, later, we could discuss speficic strategies that could be used to solve specific problems.
Are you asking me? I'm willing, even eager, to empathize with every human being. But that includes Singaporeans, and Republican squares raising their kids in the suburbs. You seem to have a blind spot or worse when it comes to those folks. I can't think of a definition of "social alienation" where I would like to see more of it. But I don't know what you're asking me to sign on for when you ask me to help you thwart it. I don't like the sound of it.
Such values are pretty right wing for example.
I'm not even convinced this is a right-wing sentiment when it's held by an American.
Watching from the sidelines, and not being an American, it seems to me you (plural) are close to arguing about definitions (what is to be called right wing?) but that is probably not your intent. If you taboo "left and right" what is left of your discussion?
Your comment has some similar features to what I commented earlier in this discussion ( We both grew up in late communist era. Non-elitarianism was both an official moral value, and it also was enforced by mixing up people geographically. The good neighbourhoods and bad neighborhoods were not so strongly different from each other as they are now. I started wondering for a while, if my attitude is caused by the regime I grew in... Maybe in some countries or areas there is almost nothing in the middle between good and bad neighborhoods. But people describing schools in Cambridge, where profesors' kids mix up with the low class kids seem to have the similar experience as I have. To summarize my opinion: Creating the bubble is usually unnecessary and deforms the mental image of the world for the child. The child chooses his peers as long as there is some variety available. If the child instinctively wants to go out with little criminals and do wrong things together, it is time to sit together at the table and discuss it in the family. One day the child will grow up and will have to choose his peers on his own, as well as make his own moral decisions. Of course, if reasoning would not work, I would probably proceed to creating a bubble eventually, as a last and desperate measure. But in most cases this stage will never happen, and I would not ruin myself financially to do the bubble thing as the first step.
Nice thoughts, thanks.
The important thing is the neighborhood not the city. I think it also depends on the type of poor people.
Cambridge, MA. Lots of lefty professorial and computer types, also lots of Haitian and Cape Verdean immigrants in housing projects.
In different neighborhoods. Specifically, would your children be playing with the children in the projects?
Probably. They'll certainly be going to school with them. We haven't bought a house yet, but all the areas we're considering have projects nearby.
I'm willing to assign significant probability that when you actually have kids and see them experience first hand the actual quality of the school, you'll arrange for them to go to a charter and/or private school (or possibly even home-school).
Would you please share your own experience with American public schools, if you have any?
I went to an inner city public school for several years. The last year I attended (I was pulled out and homeschooled afterwards), one of my teachers made a cell out of bookshelves to put students who had misbehaved. They were all black. When called on it, she said she was 'getting them used to it.' There was also a lot of petty vandalism, bullying, and the educational quality was pretty miserable. If it makes you feel any better, I'm almost certain this experience was an outlying data point.
I wasn't in an "inner city" school.
I was. The experience was good. I learned to double-dutch jump rope, and play the dozens. I didn't learn to dance the Cabbage Patch, no matter how many times my classmates tried to demonstrate it for me, but that was my failing and not theirs. Then I took the SAT, got a good score, and on the strength of my high school and my zip code was offered a good scholarship to a private liberal arts college. What I'm trying to say is: the piece Eugine_Nier is missing is how drastically parental wealth, income, and educational attainment affect the kids' educational outcomes. If you look at the research, these factors drastically outweigh the quality of the school or the teacher. That's not to say that teachers have no effect; but, so far as these things have been quantified, the family background is more important by an order of magnitude. In other words -- if you are doing relatively well, and if you read a lot of books, it almost doesn't matter where you send your kids to school. In fact, sending them to a diverse "inner city" school could be very helpful from a social point of view. It was for me.
In other words your school was ok provided you are willing to do all your learning outside of it.
Wait -- that's not how everybody does their learning?
I learned a lot in school, especially once my parents got me out of the public school system. I would argue that sending child to a school where they're not going to learn anything is an example of a lost purpose.
At least in the US, there is a big subsidy for homeowning in that you can deduct the interest on you mortgage (I think this only applies to your first home ).
I wasn't aware that the tax breaks on mortgage interest were so straightforward in the U.S. Here in Canada nothing similar exists. There seems to be an interesting natural experiment here -- in Canada, even though there is no such deduction, people's attitudes and behavior with regards to renting vs. buying are still more or less the same as in the U.S. (In fact, the recent crash has probably left Americans less eager to buy on average.) So while the tax break changes the math in favor of buying significantly for people in high tax brackets, it looks like this isn't the crucial factor motivating people to buy in practice.
This may be true in suburbs, but not everywhere. My mother grew up in a small college town in Kentucky. Her parents, and the parents of her friends, were mostly college educated but below national median income. They lived in small, inexpensive houses. Local kids had access neither to ballet and karate lessons nor drugs and gangs. Her social life focused around church and folk dancing. From what I understand, it was a high-quality, low-cost childhood.
I believe you, but places of the sort you describe are increasingly rare. For most people, I don't see any plausible way how they could move to some place like that and organize their lives there.
Well, you can live in an apartment, for one thing. (I don't know how the math works out nowadays, so I'm not really advocating it, just pointing it out.)
Perhaps another reason peer effects don't show up is that situations consisting of one kid of upper class background completely surrounded by lower class kids and having no other options but them as a peer group are relatively rare. In most cases there are a number of other middle classish kids in the same boat to form a peer group with. I base this conclusion on two pieces of evidence, the first is anecdotal, my own school background. My school had a variety of kids that included a large amount of lower class kids from a nearby trailer park and a large amount of respectable kids. For the most part nothing the trailer park kids did rubbed off on me or any of the other respectable kids because we rarely socialized with them, we naturally tended to interact with the kids we had something in common with (although most of the trailer park kids were friendly enough in class, I can't really say that most of them were unpleasant to be around). The only long-term impact they had on me was to help me realize that the underclass are usually trying to be nice people, even if they fail at it a lot. The second piece consist of articles (mostly by Thomas Sowell) I've read about various immigrant communities in poor neighborhoods and how kids from groups with middle-class values (i.e. Chinese, Jewish immigrants) tended to cluster together and interact with each other and not the poorer kids around them. So it seems plausible to me that the ability to form small clusters of like-minded peers might mitigate peer effects. Also, I second jsalvatier's points about some of your comments having a "political" feel. In particular it seems like you have a tendency to work in angry-seeming statements about how awful and unpleasant poor people are that can be rather off-putting, to say the least.
I didn't say anything about poor people as such. In fact, I would bet that I have more experience with actually being poor myself than most people here (and almost anyone here who is posting from a first-world country). Now, it certainly isn't a source of any pleasure to me when I observe that in North America, and especially in many parts of the U.S., the class system has been evolving for several decades in a direction where there is an increasingly wide and severe chasm between the growing underclass and the middle classes, with rampant social dysfunction among the underclass, and increasing correlation between being poor and belonging to the underclass. (Note that I distinguish merely being poor, i.e. non-affluent, and belonging to the underclass, which is dysfunctional by definition.) But that's what the actual situation seems to be. You characterize my statements as "off-putting," but you don't indicate what exactly you find inaccurate about them. Do you believe that I'm exaggerating the above described phenomenon? Or do you think only that I should be expressing myself more diplomatically about it?
Sorry to take so long getting back to you, I've had internet problems all week. I'm somewhat familiar with Charles Murray's research on this subject, I assume you are too. But he has argued that the middle-class' efforts to separate themselves from the underclass make the situation worse, not better, because they make it harder to middle class culture to spread to the underclass, and he has advocated attempting to close the chasm in various ways. By contrast in your original comment you seemed distressed that it was so financially difficult for the middle class to separate themselves from the underclass and I got the impression you wished it was easier. Do you disagree with Murray, or was I drawing an incorrect inference from your comment? Feel free not to answer if you think doing so would break the "no discussing politics" rule. What I find off-putting is primarily that they sound rather political and we aren't supposed to discuss politics at Less Wrong. If you were making the point at some politics forum I wouldn't necessarily find it off-putting. Admittedly this sort of discussion is something of a gray area since it's hard to discuss this type human social behavior without mentioning ideas that are parts of major political ideologies. I am reticent about voicing my personal opinion on the accuracy of your description is because I'm afraid I'm skirting the edge of political discussion already.

[Murray] has argued that the middle-class' efforts to separate themselves from the underclass make the situation worse, not better, because they make it harder to middle class culture to spread to the underclass, and he has advocated attempting to close the chasm in various ways. By contrast in your original comment you seemed distressed that it was so financially difficult for the middle class to separate themselves from the underclass and I got the impression you wished it was easier. Do you disagree with Murray, or was I drawing an incorrect inference from your comment?

Well, even if we assume for the sake of the argument that it exacerbates the problem, this still doesn't mean that it's irrational for individual middle-class people to separate themselves from the underclass. All that this assumption would imply is that there is a tragedy-of-the-commons effect. But this doesn't change the perspective and the incentives faced by individuals at all.

I am reticent about voicing my personal opinion on the accuracy of your description is because I'm afraid I'm skirting the edge of political discussion already.

Don't worry. As long as your comments are polite, well-argued, and made in good faith, you won't break any social norms here. Especially if the discussion is about general and long-standing social issues, and not about the ongoing political controversies from the headlines.

Upvoted. Why was it downvoted before ? Perhaps the last paragraph irritated someone ? Apart from that, all the other statements I consider a sheer wisdom :-)
I agree with you about peer effects but I think you assume without cause that they are lasting. Twin studies, despite their flaws, would seem to be the best way to establish that, whatever their influence now, differing peer groups and adolescent environments will not lead to different adult characteristics. Any efforts that parents take NOW to improve children's peer groups, in order to improve current well-being, are valuable. But if the effect fades over time, then the harm is less than most parents think it is, and therefore on the margin children are less costly and Caplan's conclusion is warranted.

This seems to have been alluded to in some other comments, but I'm going to make it a bit more explicit and point out that observing the parenting of adopting families is likely to impose a rather strong filter on the parental environments under observation. Adopting families are not only very much in the minority, they're likely to have a systematic tendency to differ from the majority in specific ways.

This seems plausible to me. Can you think of specific ways in which they might be biased in an important way?

I suspect that families who adopt are likely to fall into a particular cluster of parenthood values, but I'd be hesitant to actually try to detail those values without reference to any actual study. I would speculate though, that they might be less invested in seeing their children grow up to be similar to themselves.


I'd further speculate that adoptive parents have on average more prior interest in raising children than biological parents.

That's a pretty plausible bias.
Also, what happened to the attitude that published studies are often wrong? Where did the skepticism go? Why do LWers suddenly think they understand how parenting works???
Even if published studies are often wrong they still constitute evidence in favor of the conclusion they present - just weaker. Got beat up by the arrogance and the phenomenon whereby some kinds of subject seem to be limited to the realm of experts or professional while others are considered fair game for everyone to have an opinion on. Most of us have seen it happen. We've probably at least got the basics down.
I have an additional problem with the studies. How do you determine how parenting style influenced the child? You cannot re-run the experiment. A correlation between the scores of parents and adopted children (in any test) implies an influence. However, it is not required. To give a simple example, take some test which has just two options: "Yes" and "No", both for parents and children. Assume that 50% of the parents have "yes" and 50 "no". There are two different parenting styles: One guarantees that the children will get "yes", and one will guarantee "no". Clearly this is a large impact of parenting! But what happens if all parents choose between those two styles with 50% probability? You won't see any correlation between the parents and the children. While this example is unrealistic, it is not so absurd to imagine some children which try to become different from their parents, while others try to become similar. The parents are important in that case, but a simple correlation will not show this. Twin studies are better to find influences of parenting.

It's a great book, thanks for typing this up. One thing I took from Caplan's book that I think gets missed a lot in the reviews, is that his main goal isn't to encourage people committed to childlessness to start having kids. The real goal is encouraging people to have more kids at the margins. The book is really talking to middle class (esp. upper-middle class) folks who have small families (1-2 kids) because they have an inflated notion of what normal, minimally responsible parenting requires.

You really do see this a lot: parents obsess about getting their kids into "elite preschools", worrying about trace amounts of chemicals in their environments, pushing them to take violin/foreign language/team sports, scheduling "play dates" with pre-approved kids who live on the other side of town, etc. Parents who don't manage to do all of this can expect to hear about it from their neighbors: "Oh, Timmy isn't learning any instruments? Isn't he almost 9? Susie has been taking piano lessons since she was 6! Aren't you worried about his mental development?"

The problem is that it is unclear how much of this amounts to status competition and how much of it is from genuine concern with the child's well-being. If it is mostly status-competition, there is no obvious reason the book will change parental behavior, because the social cost of dropping out of the rat-race is still very real.

I've commented more extensively on the scientific and logical basis for Caplan's ideas elsewhere, including my serious concern about his reliance on separated-at-birth twin studies, but I'll limit my comments here to something a little more subtle.

While some of his data about intelligence and physical health seemed pretty sound, I remember his conclusions about personality and happiness seeming a lot sketchier. Which makes sense since the psychological health of any given individual is extremely difficult to quantify (much less the effect of one person's psychological health on another's). But I think it's these aspects that good parents are most concerned with: Will my child live a life that is largely stress free? Will I pass on my bad habits? How can I teach my child to be able to form strong and healthy emotional connections to others?

When I (non-scientifically) observe the reasonably sane parents I know, my general fear is not that they're making their children stupid or that they're sabotaging their child's future health. My fear is that they're passing on a host of much more insidious problems - body image issues, co-dependency, repression of anger, etc. When adults go into ... (read more)

Damn straight. This common-sense observation really is needed to balance the (oh-so-contrarian) original post; techincal/quantitative concerns about overpopulation, heredity, etc all seem less much less important in contrast with the point above - at least to my limited psychosocial understanding.

Of course, twin and adoption studies only measure the effects of broadly mainstream parenting behaviors - should you read to your kids or not, for example. They tell us little about the effect of unusual parenting methods, or on the effect of parenting methods on unusual kids (like the ones on LW.)

Caution: this is a fully general argument.

Yup, see my comment about adoption studies. I do think they say something about unusual parenting, but I agree that it's not directly applicable. These studies make it clear that most parenting differences don't have long term effects even though it's intuitive to us that they should. Thus you should require good additional evidence to make you think that a given unusual parenting style will have long term effects.

Interpreting Adoption Studies

This is supplementary.

Understanding some key facts about twin and adoption studies helps make their results seem less counter intuitive.

The data discussed here is primarily on children and parents in first world countries who are non-poor. This data does not help answer questions about parenting effects that are very different from typical first world non-poor parenting styles. The data does not help address the effect of growing up in malnourished or without access to education. Indeed, twin and adoption studies with adopted kids in extremely poor households show that nutrition is an important predictor of life outcomes (link)

It also doesn't address extreme parenting styles. Not many people raise their kids in the woods cut off from the rest of society and this kind of variable is not included in the regressions, so the data has little to say about this kind of parenting.

If adopting parents treat their adopted children with “less intense” parenting than their biological children, then adoption studies will understimate the effect of parenting. In the extreme case, if all adopting parents treat their adopted children the same as other adopting parents... (read more)

Nitpick: Probably did not affect it differently.
Maybe I should know this, but what does it formally mean when a study claims "parenting does not affect outcome X"?
As I understand it, it means that they did a regression between some aggregate measure of family environment (like total family income) and the outcome of interest and it put a small regression coefficient on the aggregate measure and/or that the differences in outcomes between adopted children in the same home were not smaller than the differences between adopted children in different comes. In the later case, I think you can compare adopted children both to adopted and unadopted siblings. Have I explained that clearly? Here's an arbitrary adoption paper cited in the book: Sacerdote, B. (January 01, 2007). How Large Are the Effects from Changes in Family Environment? A Study of Korean American Adoptees *. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122, 1, 119-157.
Note that the Sacerdote is the only study I've been able to find on adult outcomes of adoptees. There's not much out there.
If you're interested, I posted the swedish study.
Thanks! It seems to say that how well you age is more determined by genetics than who raised you, which is unsurprising given that you've had decades of other environmental influences by that time.
I see at least two twin-adoption studies which deal with adult outcomes (in Ch 2. of Caplan's book), but I haven't searched very thoroughly: (I've requested this paper, but don't yet have it Edit: here it is ). Age differences in genetic and environmental influences for health from the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Agings this one has adult outcomes, but Jennifer Harris et al., "Age Differences in Genetic and Environmental Influences for Health from the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging," Journal of Geroontology 47 (3) (May 1992), pp. 213-220. I haven't gone though all the citations thoroughly though, so there might be more there. You're right that there doesn't seem to be that many. This one talks about adult outcomes, but I can't find out what ages they're actually talking about, so it may be that most of them are early in life. Thomas Bouchard et al., "sources of Human Psuchological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart," Science 250 (4978) (October 1990), p. 223.
I want to say "That can't be right", but I don't have Caplan's book with me to check his references. I'll check this evening.
That study pretty much changed my mind about adopting, so if you find anything else, I'd like to know.

Not directly related to the book, but a question I've been thinking about lately is: If I don't feel any desire to raise children and I believe it would have a strongly negative impact on my quality of life, are there any reasons why I should still consider doing so? Either moral reasons or self-interested ones (ie. the possibility that I'm wrong about the net utility to me). Another factor is that it's quite likely that I could end up in a long-term relationship with a (female) partner that does want children, and refusing could either result in the end of the relationship or a decrease in the partner's life satisfaction.

This is entirely anecdotal, however I once was entirely against the idea of having children. I had many justifications; personal, selfish, environmental, social, etc. Though, in hindsight, I probably just didn't want kids.

Right now all I want to do is go home and lay on the floor with my babbling, drooling, high maintenance alarm clock/poop machine. I can't say that meeting my wife made me instantly want kids because we knew each other for a few years before dating, but at some point in time I went from not wanting kids to wanting kids. The conscious choice to have children happened slightly more than 18 months ago, our daughter in now 9 months old. And I should emphasis it was a conscious choice.

I would strongly discourage having children unless you really want them, the negatives will be magnified and the positives will be reduced. For example, going to work after a week of only sleeping 2 hours a night is a lot easier if you can look forward to a happy, two-toothed smile when you get home. If the presence of said smile holds no intrinsic value, then you are in for a long day at work. Likewise, the shear enjoyment of seeing your baby crawl for the first time is soiled if it is accompanied by, "Oh great now we have to baby-proof the lower 3' of the house".

I will grant that I have an incredibly small about of data from a very narrow range of the existence that is parenthood.

I don't think you should consider doing it if you don't actually feel any over desire, but it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at that lack of desire. I feel the same way, actually, and I plan on never having children, but I often wonder if that ties into deeper, subconscious issues that might be doing me a disservice. Also keep in mind that agreeing to have a child out of a sense of obligation or a desire to please your partner could have a detrimental (if unintentional) impact on how you treat the child (especially if something went awry with the original relationship, which can happen).
I also think there must be some kind of psychological issue behind my lack of interest in children. For instance I have an infant nephew that I see regularly and people ask me if I want to hold him, play with him etc. The answer is no (although sometimes I do it anyway). The strange thing is if I was around a puppy I would want to hold it and play with it - this doesn't seem right. Shouldn't I be adapted to find the young of my own species more loveable than any other?
Puppies might be bred to be a supernormal stimulus for some people.

Nisbett claims that heredity is much less important for IQ than thought (see also counterclaims posted below).

Heredity, per se, is irrelevant to the argument.

The question is how much family environment and particularly effort matters. Nisbett's title ("schools and cultures") suggests that he is not arguing for parental input. The quote about parents' time suggests otherwise. Shea admits that Nibett admits that there are declining returns. The quote "smaller (but still potent) effects" is a substantive disagreement, but it's pretty w... (read more)

I like the summary given by one reviewer:

It says that REASONABLE parenting, with love, affection, attention, and fun times spent together is sufficient to let your child make the most of their potential. You do not have to be a SUPER parent, just a loving attentive normal parent, to achieve the same results.

What the book IS saying, is that in the LONG RUN, into their 30s and later, THAT is when your upbringing with begin to fade away. It doesn't matter how you bring up your kids, they're likely to end up with roughly the same earning power, roughly the s

... (read more)

You don't even have to be a "reasonable" parent. Parents in the 1960's were "bad" by today's standards*, and the kids turned out fine.

*The book talks about how parents spend far more time on childcare today than they did in the 1960's.

It is worth pointing out I think that the baby boomers were far more violent that the current generation and were dysfunctional in many other ways. They also produced the biggest bubble and the worst financial crash since the great depression, and a marked decline in many aspects of American life such as the economy (rampant deficits and declining living standards for average people). And look at the ethical standards of the politicians from the baby boomer generation. The fact that most people mostly recover from their childhood by their thirties does not mean that it did no damage. Your teens and 20s are supposed to be the best years of your life.
(blink) I assume you mean "supposed to be" here in the sense of conventionally understood to be, rather than some kind of obligation. Even so, though, it seems like a poor convention to endorse.
If not, anyone who had lousy teens and 20s but are going great in their 30s should be ashamed of themselves and start making self destructive decisions so as to rectify the situation!
Yeah, that seems to follow. Of course, the alternative reading simply means we should look forward to life getting worse and worse. Me, I only really started getting the hang of this life in my early 40s, and am looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Well, it takes a lot of hate and/or abuse and/or neglect to screw up a child royally. For example, simple spanking just doesn't do it. So probably the average difference from 1960s is not that large.

A 2010's dad spends more hours taking care of children than a 1960's mom.

Wow. This is counter-intuitive.
Is that true? That sounds surprising, but plausible - do you have a source for that?
It's in the book.
I'd be surprised if it wasn't true. In the 1960s, a mother could just send the kids out to play on their own, which kids normally did if they weren't at school. Such things are unthinkable these days, and it looks quite plausible that today's standard way of helicopter parenting has increased the total amount of parents' time spent doting on kids so much that even if fathers did only a minority of it, they'd still spend a larger amount of time that the total time normally spent back in the sixties.
'Unthinkable' seems like an exaggeration. I played outside by myself as a kid (though that's 20 years ago), and I have the distinct impression that my bosses' kids have a group of neighborhood kids they play with unsupervised.

Twenty years ago was still a very different time in this regard. (Anecdotally, I notice that people who are in their mid-twenties and older have childhood memories very different from what is considered acceptable nowadays, both informally and legally.) See the "Free Range Kids" blog for numerous stories illustrating the modern mentality and jurisprudence about leaving kids alone and unsupervised.

In any case, even if you can still find some occasional examples of people allowing unsupervised play in some situations, it's definitely unacceptable to simply send the kids out and tell them to be back for dinner, the way it was normally done some decades ago.

One of my professors lives in a cul-de-sac where literally every house has ~2 kids of roughly the same age, and so most of the parents allow their children to just go outside and play with the gang until dinnertime. I believe at least one of the parents is typically watching, which is also a departure from the old days. Hearing him describe it to the grad students / other professors, though, it was clearly a "this is an abnormal neighborhood which is like where I grew up, which is fantastic," and he's the only person I know of with a neighborhood like that (though certainly similar neighborhoods must exist).
But why? I thought crime rates in America had actually declined significantly since 20-25 years ago. If so, then why would it be more unacceptable today to let children play free than it was twenty years ago; has irrational helicopter parenting grown for other reasons, e.g. status competitions, with no correlation to actual danger levels? (Or is there something subtle I am missing, for example has violence declined in ghettos/low-class areas but the middle and upper areas we are talking about are less safe?)
News media has improved. Once, abductions in small towns were news in that town (and nowhere else) - now it is possible for the abduction to be news everywhere. Without calibration for the change in availability of information, the obvious response is to believe that we are not safer. Additionally, there have been changes in societies attitudes towards certain crimes. Increasing beliefs that certain crimes were bad (DUI, domestic violence, various sex crimes) has led to increased reporting of those crimes and stronger reaction to those crimes when they are reported in the media. This exacerbates the availability bias discussed above.
That's... seriously counterintuitive to me. I'm certainly not deeply embedded in parenting culture, and my childhood memories date to the early 1990s as well as being unusual in some ways, but I'm skeptical of drawing strong conclusions from an advocacy site. What else are you basing this on? I would just ask my relatives about parenting standards, but unfortunately they're divided between having very young and adult children. And that's a pretty small and biased sample anyway.
Just common everyday observation of people's attitudes. (I'm not a partisan of the FRK approach; in fact, I have no kids as of yet, and I'm still not quite sure what to think about it.)
One piece of evidence in support: The local Children's Museum does not allow adults to enter if they are not with a child. The adult:child ratio is approximately 1:1.5. Further, I've never been more than ten feet from my son when visiting - and I estimate I'm within one standard deviation of the norm (it's hard to tell, in part because children from 2-8 are there, and the distance-to-child norm varies naturally by age) In short, there is no reasonable likelihood of stranger abduction. Yet the policy is in place - a response to fear mongering, as far as I can tell.
I've seen recently a kenote (french) on the effects of TV on people. While this sentence seems reasonable, I would say (if the keynote is as solid as it looks) that you should go real easy on TV. 1 hour a day is already much too much. During the very first years of development, this would be a catastrophe. (To name just one example, we have reasons to believe TV is almost entirely responsible for the recent 10% drop in SAT scores — from the 60s to the 80s. I don't know how many IQ points that would be.) (Now the effects of TV do not all come from the screen itself. There are priming effects (smoking, violence, food), there are attentional effects, there are sedentary effects… Those different effects can be addressed differently.) But if you're already a "good enough" parent, you probably cut TV for quality time anyway.
I heard a horror story (anecdote from a book, for what it's worth) of a child basically raised in front of a TV, who learned from it both language and a general rule that the world (and social interaction) is non-interactive. If you could get his attention, he'd cheerfully recite some memorized lines then zone out.
4Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Was the book "The boy who was raised as a dog?" Because I remember reading the same story in that book.
It certainly could be - I read the anecdote from a book I picked idly off a shelf in a bookstore, and I retained the vague impression that it was from a book about the importance of social factors and the effects of technology on our social/psychological development, but I could have been conflating it with another such book. After reading an excerpt from "The Boy who was Raised as a Dog", the style matches, so that probably was the one I read. Would you recommend it?
3Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Yes yes yes! An awesome book!
Well! I may have to take a more in-depth look at it sometime this summer.

Instead of "father", people around here say "father figure"

Out of curiosity, I did a search for "father" here and got about 1,030 results.
I did a search for "father figure" and got 3 results, one of which was a comment of yours.
I did a search for "father figures" and got 4 results, all of which were about fictional Heinlein characters.

That seems to suggest that people around here say "father" quite a bit more often than they say "father figure."

So, can you summarize your basis for t... (read more)

I'm currently reading "The Nurture Assumption", that goes into more details on the research showing the small effect of parenting styles, and the bigger effect of genetics and peers. There's still some stuff I'd want to research more (specifically, some parenting choices have effects on peer groups, like choosing where to live and where you send your kids to school; if Harris is right about the importance of peers I would expect that to show up as an effect of parenting style, but I haven't seen it discussed yet).

The lesson I get from all this is... (read more)

Absolutely! I'll take a look at your blog.

"On the margin, you should consider having more kids. If you were planning to have zero kids, consider having one. If you were planning to have 3 kids, consider 4, etc." Wait, I thought happiness research indicates that the step from zero to one is a decrease in happiness whereas the step from, say, 3 to 4 would be only a negligible decrease in happiness. So there's that asymmetry, if I remember one of Caplan's blog posts correctly.

I fail to see from this review how the idea that raising kids effectively is less difficult than commonly assumed (or at least that many of the stressful and time-consuming things parents do are less effective than assumed) necessarily leads to the conclusion that one should have more kids. Surely the conclusion ought to be 'you should have more kids if you want to have more kids'.

I haven't seen anyone mention the other issue with having large families. There are already more people than we can sustain at US living standards, Every extra child adds to the pressure on pollution, the environment, raw materials, land, water, and energy.

In my case we stopped at 1 child.

Partly because as one of four I felt I clearly missed out in ways that would have made a huge difference to my life. I did not want that to happen to my children.

Partly because I wanted to do other things with my life as well as raising children. Until you have children y... (read more)

I believe Caplan's reply is basically that choosing to have kids affects the margin very little because any abdication on your part will be picked up by developing countries, and that having a kid is a net benefit because the more people there are, the more innovations and whatnot are created (positive externalities).
Having trouble parsing, could you explain what that means, perhaps by example?
The demand for offspring is sufficiently inelastic that a Westerner refusing to have offspring is replaced by a developing country kid (or multiple kids, inasmuch as a Westerner kid consumes so many resources).
I'm having difficulty mapping that line of reasoning for some reason. How, in practice, might a Westerner couple not having a kid exert influence on a non-Western couple having a kid? By what mechanisms are non-Western births influenced by Western births?
Prices are the obvious mechanism that comes to mind - prices of things like food or top American universities.
Wouldn't lower prices for top American universities, e.g., lower the number of children born? I am under the impression that poverty is conducive to birthing more children.
That sounds like what he might say, but I agree with Waveman. For one thing, the overall economic and environmental impact of one child in the developing world far outweighs that of one child born in poorer countries. Furthermore, if there's any detrimental impact of the bloated world population, then we need as many people as possible encouraging self-restraint, even if any one group of citizens can afford to indulge themselves. Also, the claim that the percentage of innovators born to each generation is enough to offset the overall negative externalities is dubious at best. I'd say that our pace of innovation is still very obviously struggling to keep up with the pace our reproduction.

For one thing, the overall economic and environmental impact of one child in the developing world far outweighs that of one child born in poorer countries.

This also holds true for their positive impacts too. Not much good science is conducted by Africans in Africa.


I'd say that our pace of innovation is still very obviously struggling to keep up with the pace our reproduction.

That's not "very obvious" to me at all.

Downvoted- this is misleading. It might technically be true that we cannot sustain the population of Earth at US living standards currently, but the main reason is that a large portion of the population is nowhere near US levels of productivity. Even given this, we produce enough food for everyone on the planet with agriculture in Asia and Africa at productivity levels far below what could be achieved with common US technology. So if those people can generate enough prosperity to make houses and iPhones, which we did without the benefit of borrowing tech from more advanced societies, then the world can easily sustain many more people at US living standards. There are certainly environmental problems remaining, but a child born today in almost any region of the world has the highest expected standard of living so far in history. As Caplan points out in the book, new people have large positive externalities, and their contributions more than make up for any drain on resources. And of course environmental problems tend to become less severe as societies develop. A person enjoying life is an extreme good, overpopulation is really not an issue, so have more kids!
Caplan would point out how Malthusian predictions of disaster never seem to come to pass, whereas disasters and atrocities happen whenever Malthusians get a chance to influence policy.
I would hope he would not point that out; famines and similar overshoots happened all the time throughout history, and still do, even in the past few unusual non-equilibrium centuries.
Caplan would argue, and I largely agree with him, that modern famines are caused by bad economic policies rather that overpopulation.
Are the negative effects of these bad policies increased by overpopulation?

Adoption studies indicate that differences in parenting styles have mostly small impacts on long term life outcomes of children, such as happiness, income, intelligence, health, etc..

What exactly is "parenting style" understood to mean here? I have a feeling it's something seriously counterintuitive, as many of the findings cited, e.g. parenting having "a small effect on adult drinking, smoking and drug problems" diverge radically from every other source on the subject I've ever seen. The top results of my ten-second Googling were fa... (read more)

The idea is that those big differences are easily attributable to differences in heredity rather than differences family environment. See this comment and this comment for more on adoption studies.
Among other things, whether the child is subject to mild physical beatings (corporal punishment).

You put the phrase "say "father figure" in the context of discussing family structure" in quotes, but I don't see where that phrase appeared in the comment I replied to. Is that the phrase I supposedly deleted, or was it some other phrase? If it was, where did I supposedly delete it from? If it was some other phrase, what phrase was it?

Edit: Ah! I see... it appears later in the comment, nowhere near the line I quoted. I get it now.

In any case, if your point is that we use the phrase "father figure" and not "father" ... (read more)

"Father figure" seems to me to permit either position, "father" not so much. It's always troublesome when someone declares that you can only be properly impartial by agreeing with them.

What age were these people adopted at? If the basic personality of a child is strongly determined by anything that occurred before the adoption date, (not just genetics,) then you wouldn't expect subsequent parenting to have much effect.

Given that many developmental psychologists (John Bowlby 1969, Hazan and Shaver 1987, Grossman and Grossman 1991, Quinton Rutter and Liddle 1984... and so on) found evidence to support the ideas that, among other things, infant attachment styles predict later friendships, later happiness in love, and eventual parenting st... (read more)


Caplan is drastically overinterpretting evidence for heredity of features, and his main thesis relies on them far too much.

This seems plausible on the face of it, but do you have some evidence or argument to back it up?
Start here.
Also, twins share their uterine environment. This wouldn't apply to IVF twins reared apart, but I doubt there's much of that in the studies.
As we know from natural experiment of Dutch famine of 1944 mother's health is extremely important. This brief event had significant effects on two generations.
I get the impression that multi-generational effects don't get into the popular press much. I'm guessing that people don't want to think about problems which would take a long time to get better. Do you know whether two generations was enough to undo all the effects of the famine?
It didn't.
Why's that relevant, when the question is what parents can change by how they treat their children? (It would be highly relevant if the question were "how much of these differences are genetic?", but on this occasion it isn't.)
I'm addressing the piece taw linked to, which was about flaws in studies of twins separated at birth. Some degree of topic drift is normal here. Have you been in venues where all comments are supposed to address the original topic?
No, I have no problem at all with topic drift. It just wasn't clear to me that that was what had happened. My apologies for any unnecessary confusion.
Caplan's arguments are totally wrong, it doesn't make his thesis wrong. I'd expect his thesis to be very likely to be at least mostly correct.
Looks (though I've barely skimmed it) like good evidence that twin studies say less than one might naively think. Doesn't say anything about Caplan. Care to say a thing or two about what Caplan thinks twin studies say and how it differs from what analysis like that reveals that they say? (Perhaps I'm just unduly lazy; I was hoping to find an easier way of assessing your claim versus Caplan's than by procuring a copy of Caplan's book, reading it carefully, reading a technical paper on twin studies, examining the particular studies on which Caplan's claims depend, and comparing his use of them with the analysis in the aforementioned technical paper. Of course that's the only way if I want to be really sure, but ... well, I'm lazy and was hoping there might be a shortcut :-).)
You're too lazy, no shortcuts this time. Caplan's claim doesn't depend on this line of argumentation, but if it was true (which it's not) it would make his point extremely strongly. Weaker claim that normal parenting styles don't affect outcomes much, because the rest of environment (and genes) together have much greater impact is perfectly defensible.
As I understand it, the strongest evidence for his thesis comes from adoption studies, do you disagree?
The way I see it all heredity studies (adoption, twins etc.) are pretty much universally worthless due to ridiculously wrong methodology (see this for details). It is trivially observable that populations change drastically in every conceivable way without any genetic change, including along every single behavioral axis claimed to be "highly hereditary" (and the same even applies to many physical features like height, but not others like skin or eye color). Heredity studies are entirely incompatible with this macro reality, regardless of their (universally awful) methodology. The best argument for Caplan's thesis is that even if we accept that environmental effects totally overwhelm genetic effects (which we should), there's still very little evidence that parental effort within range of typical first world middle class parenting make a big difference.
Do you just mean that if a feature is close to 100% heritable, then there shouldn't be big differences in that feature? Or do you have something else in mind?

If you want your kid to learn the violin so they’ll have fun right now, it may very well be worth it, but don’t do it because you think it will increase their future income or intelligence.

Maybe the standard good parenting advice is simply wrong. Having a kid who learns the violin is about status. It's not about intelligence.

If you want your kid to be more intelligent it might be more straight forward to get them to play dual-n-back regularly.

The same goes for helping a child to learn vocabulary for a foreign language. Testing them directly by reading ... (read more)


Maybe the standard good parenting advice is simply wrong. Having a kid who learns the violin is about status. It's not about intelligence.

On the other hand, maybe parents know that, and correctly expect that status will help their child more than intelligence.

Though you'd think that if that were the case, such effects would show up in income statistics. A better argument is that having a kid who does violin etc gives parents a status boost (this is how I originally interpreted Christian's statement).
I mostly agree; though there's also the aspect of having your kid associate with the kind of kids who get sent to violin lessons, which is probably a "better" peer group than what you'd get from many other activities.
Having a kid who plays violin is more about the parent's status than the kid's. This may help the kid learn to eventually jockey for status as adults. But I have to question how much that improves their quality of life, if that's what we care about.
I wouldn't say "Jockey for status" as much as "give him tastes and references that make it easier for him to come off as high status / associate with high-status people" (those might be ways of saying the same things, but "jockeying" calls to mind dominance and put-downs). I expect it would improve their quality of life, all else being equal, but I don't know if Violin lessons would be a good way to improve one's status (probably far from the best one). I agree it's probably mostly about the parent's status, and the kind of kids the peers wants their kid to associate with.

This is silly. Having kids is absurdly expensive*, and you STILL have to parent them somewhat. You can't just pop out a baby and have it be fine 30 years later if you don't touch it. Even if the impact of the outcome of each child on each other child is marginal, the impact on YOU is still large.


The argument is not that kids are costless, but that people overestimate the cost of having kids. If you don't get much utility from kids then this isn't going to sway you, but if you like kids enough to have one or two, this might make your life easier or convince you to have more kids than you otherwise would.


Unexpected data: I have a moderate desire to be a parent at some point but my vague impression of what parents should do required a significantly higher level of effort than this suggests. But honestly, if I spent less time fighting kids to do things which would not help them I would probably try to teach them calculus or programming just for kicks instead as long as they were willing to play along.(And martial arts, so they don't become the kid everyone picks on because they know calculus I guess...)

Sadly this book basically convinced me I cannot have children with my current partner. We would need to adopt and my partner is very smart (singnifigantly more inteelgent than myself and I have 1570/1600 SAT and a PHD in pure math). Even if you adopt from mainland China the IQ of an adopted child is unlikely to be unusually high.

I personally would not care about the IQ of my children. I personally have a very strong aversion to nudging or pushing anyone (unless they are a violent criminal). I am fairly certain a lack of educational success would not other... (read more)

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
It took me a moment to figure out what you're saying came from the book and what didn't; for the benefit of others (and also so you can correct me if I misunderstood) may I make what I think you said more explicit? * You and your partner would need to adopt in order to have children (not because of anything you read in the book; I guess both female, or one partner infertile, or something of the kind, but it's none of my business). * If you do, then because (at least according to the book) parental behaviour has negligible impact on success of children * (because that actually comes down to genetics and environmental things parents don't get to choose) * ... they likely will be substantially less successful than would be expected for people as clever as your partner. * Your partner would likely * be upset about this, and * (despite the lessons of this book) try to push these children to greater success than they're likely capable of. * This would make everyone miserable, so it's best for you not to have children. I have to say, looking at what you've written, that actually it seems like having children would be a whole lot of No Fun for you and your partner even if everything in this book is wrong -- because your partner would want to push them to succeed while you have a "very strong aversion" to even nudging them. It seems like such a major disagreement over how children should be raised would suggest not having any, regardless of whether your preferences or your partner's fit the evidence better. (I feel uncomfortable making such personal remarks about a couple I don't even know. My apologies if it makes you uncomfortable too.)
I would be very careful about being convinced by any one source to make a major life decision. This applies not only to books, but generalizes to single scientific studies, single "heroes" (see recent threads about sidekicks), etc. Science has peer review, and even ideas that are not strictly speaking science are stronger when they have survived questioning from opponents. I would ask myself if other books by other people argue the opposite and seem equally convincing. I would also ask myself if such ideas as are in the book have become widely accepted, and if not, why.
So, given that it's a parenting book that argues "heredity dominates, so don't worry too much about how you parent so long as you don't do any huge damage," I would expect it to undersell relative to parenting books that take the opposite tack- because it appeals to lazier parents who are less likely to buy books. (As far as I can tell, Caplan is reading the literature correctly.)

A basic question here, what underlies Caplan's belief that having more kids so important?


removed unnecessarily harsh comment, the basic message of which was supposed to be "the evidence you presented is imaginary", but which ended up being too much of a personal attack

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Maybe this is wholly refuted by the adoption study, but from its summary, Ferber method sounds like it would lead to anxious attachment style in adulthood

To clarify, evidence for the effectiveness of the Ferber method is completely separate from adoption studies. I suppose they do give some evidence that it's hard to make lasting changes to a person, by doing something in their childhood.

Adoption studies are biased toward the null of no parenting effect, because adoptive parents aren't randomly selected from the population of potential parents (they often are screened to be similar to biological parents).

Twin studies I think are particularly flawed when it comes to estimating heritability (a term that has an incoherent definition). Twins have a shared pre-natal environment. In some cases, they even share a placenta.

Plus, the whole gene vs. environment discussion is obsolete, in light of the findings of the past decade. Everything is gene-environment interaction.

So most of what you have written makes sense but there are some major issues with some parts. Can you expand on what you think about the definition is incoherent? This is a pretty standard term. The fact that many genes interact in a complicated way with the environment is not newly discovered. It doesn't change the fact that in some contexts genes or environment can matter more or less. For example, if one has a gene that codes for some form of mental retardation, in most cases, environment can't change that. (I say in most cases because there are a few exceptions especially related to issues related to trace nutrients or to bad reactions to specific compounds). Similarly, if someone has severe lead poisoning they are going to have pretty bad problems regardless of what the genes the person has. The first two points you made while roughly valid connect to a more general issue- yes these studies have flaws, but just because a technique has flaws doesn't mean we can't use it to learn (especially when in this context the issues you bring up are well known to the researchers).
The answer to the question "what proportion of phenotypic variability is due to genetic variability?" always has the same answer: "it depends!" What population of environments are you doing this calculation over? A trait can go from close to 0% heritable to close to 100% heritable, depending on the range of environments in the sample. That's a definition problem. Further, what should we count as 'genetic'? Gene expression can depend on the environment of the parents, for example (DNA methylation, etc). That's an environmental inheritance. I just think there is an old way of talking about these things that needs to go away in light of current knowledge. I agree with you that we still can learn a lot from these studies.
The definition of 'heritable' being underspecified (since you have to specify what population of environments you're considering) is not the same as being incoherent.
I agree. Good point.

Thanks for posting this, I am going to be a parent in a few months, so this type of thing is frequently on my mind.

I wrote a lot of words but deleted them and instead decided to simply say, without a concrete definition of what the author means by "parenting" I can't help but find the conclusions nearly meaningless. What is parenting? How is parenting measured?

The statement "differences in parenting have no effect on adult weight" is almost on face absurd. What if I make it my primary mission as a parent to enforce optimal nutritio... (read more)

What is parenting?

Reading to kids, driving them to soccer games, making their food, helping them with homework.

How is parenting measured?

Time use surveys.

What if I make it my primary mission as a parent to enforce optimal nutrition for my child, and to lecture the child for five hours a day on nutritional science, and to give the child phobias of all sugary foods and taste aversion to sucrose?

It might stick. Or your kid will forget about it once they get older. Or they'll rebel against your indoctrination and become even fatter than if you hadn't lectured them.

Exactly, one thing Caplan discusses in the book, which I didn't mention here is that the data is equally consistent with 'parenting has a small effect' and 'parenting has an equal chance of doing what you want it to and backfiring'.
Congratulations on your soon to be parenthood! See my comment on adoption studies. If you're interested in this, I do recommend the book. The kindle version is like $10.
Thanks for the addendum regarding twin studies, you've answered several of my confusions. I originally felt that Caplan was making an unjustifiably strong claim, but you explained that he isn't looking at "extreme" styles of parenting.