The Economics and Genetics of Parenting: A Guest Post by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a blogger for EconLog, is the author of a new book called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.”  In the guest post below, he explains one of the central theses of his book: modern parents are working too hard at parenting, for no good reason. You’ll  be hearing more from Caplan in these environs soon, as he’ll be one of the guests in an upcoming Freakonomics Radio show tentatively titled “An Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”

Economics, Genetics and Hippies
By Bryan Caplan

Non-economists often take offense if you tell them, “You’re wasting your time.”  But economists are more likely to respond, “Really?  Please explain.”  Effort is a scarce resource.  Relaxing when effort doesn’t pay isn’t “lazy”; it’s a wise decision to conserve valuable effort.  The catch is that the effect of effort is hard to measure.

Photo: iStockphoto

Every now and then, though, solid measurements fall into our laps.  A case in point: People have argued about the effect of parenting on kids for thousands of years.  But the “wisdom to know the difference” between genuine and counterfeit effects of parenting emerged only recently.  As I explain in my new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, adoption and twin researchers have spent the last forty years measuring the effect of parenting on every major outcome that parents care about.


Their findings surprise almost everyone.  Health, intelligence, happiness, success, character, values, appreciation – they all run in families.  But with a few exceptions, adoption and twin researchers find that nature overpowers nurture, especially in the long-run.  Kids aren’t like clay that parents mold for life; they’re more like flexible plastic that responds to pressure, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is released.

The most meaningful exception to this flexible plastic rule is appreciation – how your kids feel about and remember you.  One Swedish study asked middle-aged and elderly twins – some raised together, some raised apart – to describe how their parents raised and treated them.  Twins raised together painted much more similar portraits of their parents than twins raised apart.  If you raise your children with kindness and respect, they will probably remember it for as long as they live.

The upshot: Parents spend too much effort trying to mold their kids for the future, and not enough just enjoying life together.  Vainly struggling to change your kids isn’t fun for you or them.  And the struggle can easily hurt the main outcome where parenting really matters: the quality of the bond between parent and child.

Neither economics nor genetics are known as touchy-feely disciplines.  But when you put the two fields together and ask for parenting advice, they sound like a couple of hippies.  Parents need to love, encourage, and accept their kids.  Stop trying to change them.  Their future will take care of itself.


This article presents what appears to be a significant contrast to this post on Tiger parenting:


Presumably the sorts of people who want to and are allowed to adopt children are quite similar. in general they are probably more caring, kind and selfless than the average person. Do twin studies imply that various quite good parents do not alter childrens lives much. Rather then that there is a big difference between really bad and good parents?

What is the difference between children whose parents are just bad enough to have them taken into care and adopted out and those who are just good enough to keep them. If nearly bad enough to be adopted versus just bad enough to be adopted result in big changes to childrens outcome is that not a stronger measure of parenting effects?


Clearly at some point nurture must take over right? Speaking simply from a doctrine of free will, those of us reading these reports (and commenting on them), we aren't fully bound to our nature, yes? To flip the argument slightly, I can nurture myself away from natural inclinations. I can remold my thoughts, beliefs and actions at 30 or 50 or 80. And a full grown child's relationship with his/her parents? Is that relationship forever doomed (or blessed) by our natural selves?


This is a dangerous message and the research I've seen doesn't support it. This is the danger in picking out one or two research studies and applying the message globally, or as another commenter points out, the danger of applying a study beyond the population that was studied.


-Too general. I would like to read something more specific, like in whic way happiness is measured, and how it varies in the peopled that has been studied.

-¿Isn´t it proved that kids raised in a home of non-smokers, tend to be non-smokers?


What he is talking about is temperament. I have heard for years from psychologists that temperament is something you are born with. We are talking Type A, type B personalities etc. Most experts agree that it is genetic and biological. However, what a parent can do is guide the child in how to express that temperament.

Here is a video from the Philoctetes Center:


Did I miss a page or something, or is there effectively no evidence / real content in this post? Seems to be just a series of largely unjustified assertions... am I meant to purchase the book if I want to see something that is even slightly scholarly?

Enter your name

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "stop trying to change them." Sure, you're not going to make dramatic changes to basic personality traits. A child who is anxious (or angry, or aloof, or whatever) from birth is likely to be an adult who is at least somewhat anxious.

But "changing" kids, in the sense of educating, enlightening, and civilizing them, is a parent's most important job. If your kid reacts to frustration with temper tantrums or hitting people, then you really should "change" him by equipping him with more effective tools for coping. Far better to teach them these skills than to wait for them to figure it out through the school of hard knocks.


One way that nurture (or lack thereof) overrides nature is in trauma. Children who experience violence, severe neglect or witness abuse are deeply changed on many levels. Personality, intelligence, brain chemistry, and the ability to form relationships can all be impacted in the long-term.


I've read the following sentences over and over again and they still don't make sense: "One Swedish study asked middle-aged and elderly twins – some raised together, some raised apart – to describe how their parents raised and treated them. Twins raised together painted much more similar portraits of their parents than twins raised apart."

If the twins were raised apart, then presumably they had different parents. Thus, why would we expect them to have similar descriptions of their parents?


As a parent to both an adopted child and two twins, I don't agree that nature is the primary force in shaping a child. While the article claims that nature is the predominant force shaping the child, both nature and nurture play strong roles in their development. I have one twin that has traits that can only be explained by genetics as no one in her immediate family displays the same character traits, while all three of them, including the adopted daughter, share personality traits that are obviously learned behavior.


As a mom of five, I think Mr Caplan has a valid premise. I have always felt that a more laid back approach to parenting is extremely effective in helping my kids grow into themselves. While we hold our children to very high standards - higher than many people we know - we consider ourselves guides in assisting our children in finding their own strengths. We support them when necessary, and allow them to fail when necessary, too. The things we tend to be inflexible on involve character traits: following through on commitments, honesty, hard work, self-discipline, independence, and the idea that most limitations that exist are the ones they shackle themselves with, and that those shackles usually tend to be rooted in poor choices and laziness.

Ironically, our three oldest have each chosen paths that require a great deal of self discipline, although in very different ways: my 23 yr old has no interest in higher education but is busy trying to succeed in the music industry as a promoter of non-mainstream acts, my 20 yr old graduated from high school with 32 college credits and is close to getting her mechanical engineering degree a year early, and my 18 yr old spent several years in a highly demanding and competitive sport outside of school and is planning to join the military after graduation from high school this summer. The other two are still young yet, but I am excited to see what the future holds for them.

Yes, there are many aspects of adulthood that are achieved through nurture. I don't think Mr Caplan is denying this. I also don't get a sense that he is stating that basic parenting is useless. Rather, that much of the inherent personality traits of individuals are established through genetics and nature instead, and that nurture doesn't always override these inclinations. Aggressive, over-involved parenting doesn't make enough of a difference to justify it.


Cyrus Lesser

I understand the sentiment, but kids need direction and boundaries, and need to be taught manners and right and wrong. After that I agree they can have some freedom but the fundamentals aren't taken careof by nature!

Sue Patterson

I love this post! I just wrote something from a mom's perspective about "loving, encouraging, and accepting" kids. It really CAN work! My post sounds much more hippie-like than I really am, but I guess that just goes with the territory!
If you want to look at it: