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No Pressure
April 13th, 2011

You know what’s funny? Looking back and remembering how I thought that on Sunday I’d be able to make breakfast for my parents, teach my mom to use Skype, pack, drive 400 miles with a two-year-old, arrive home, unpack, eat dinner, catch up with GAP, and still have any of the mental prowess required to write a thought-provoking blog post. I’m really funny sometimes. At any rate, I apologize for being MIA on Monday and am happy to be back with you today.

I have yet to meet a parent whose approach to child rearing approximates this philosophy: “Eh, I’m not too worried. Whatever happens happens. I just want to have fun with my kid.” However, according to Bryan Caplan, economics professor at George Mason University, that’s exactly what we should be thinking.

His recent post on the Freakonomics blog, along with his article in the Wall Street Journal, examine new research on the net effect of all our parenting efforts. Citing a new study that examined forty years’ worth of parenting outcomes, he points out that, “Health, intelligence, happiness, success, character, values, appreciation – they all run in families. … 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.” Apparently our kids are who they are. If our genetics are solid and we turned out okay, we can expect roughly the same for them. Easy peasy.

Could this forever put to rest the nature vs. nurture debate? I doubt it.  (We seem to love that debate.) But it does bring to light some interesting questions about how and why we break our necks to raise perfect children. If our own genetic makeup sets our children on a particular course, then why do we fret over which preschool and which toddler tumbling class and how to shuttle our kids between slews of extra-curricular activities? Why do we stress ourselves out in power struggles over vegetables? Why do we worry about how much time our kids spend playing video games?

Perhaps it’s foolish of me (especially in the face of actual research), but I still contend that these things matter. We may not need to run ourselves ragged to the extent that we do, but we do need to set an example. Our kids learn from us. They learn how to eat a healthy diet, how to treat people, how to deal with anger and frustration, and how to cultivate themselves.

I suspect the research would tell me that my kids are going to pick up these things anyway, just by carrying my genes around in their DNA. Even people who give more credence to the nurture side of the equation would probably say that as long as I myself am eating a balanced diet, treating people fairly, dealing with anger and frustration appropriately, and engaging in personal development, then the kids will get it all anyway, and without a lot of extra meddling from me.  And apparently, whether or not they find their relationship with me happy and rewarding is the only longterm influence I have over their success.

This is why economics fascinates me. It forces us to confront our own irrationalities. (Confronting other people’s irrationalities is more fun, though.) Here I sit, reading two posts by someone who knows what he’s talking about and who is citing 40 years’ worth of conclusive research, and I still want to run myself into the ground as a parent even though I know at an academic level that it won’t make an iota of difference. Perhaps I am every bit as crazy as GAP has been telling me all these years.

Here’s the kicker for me, though: Caplan’s way sounds a lot more fun. It sounds much more enjoyable to just kick back with your kids and have a good time than to be on a nonstop mission to perfection. Granted I’m not of the persuasion to put my kid on the Ivy League track as a toddler (IEP is two and a half and hasn’t been enrolled in a single formal class). But I can sense that increased pressure is on the horizon. How will I handle it in preschool and kindergarten? How will I handle it in grade school and junior high? And how will I handle it in high school, when college and “the real world” are within view?

Obviously, I don’t know. But I will bookmark Caplan’s article to serve as a reference point, lest my own irrationalities get the better of me.

7 Responses to “No Pressure”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I wanna Caplanize my outlook! That would be such an incredible relief. But like you, I know I’m destined to fret. What a thought-provoking post, Gale. Welcome back!

  2. Laura H. Says:

    Whenever I start worrying too much about the net effect of my parenting efforts (love that phrasing Gale!), or I have a friend who does it and expresses this worry or guilt to me, I pull out Bryan Caplan’s WSJ article on this topic which was published for Father’s Day last year:
    I remind myself that the decisions I stress over are largely unimportant, as long as my children feel loved. I may never be sure that I made the right nanny decision for the summer (what a blessing that we had two equally awesome candidates!), or that whether allowing my daughter one more activity that she begged to do is actually over-scheduling her. But I am sure that my children feel loved, and that we have a lot of fun together too!
    So even though I too am destined to fret like you and TKW, a little relief now and then thanks to Bryan Caplan is nice.

  3. Laura Says:

    Gale – I think you have met a parent that thinks “Eh, I’m not too worried.” His name is Tim and I married him. This is the man that responded to my postpartum worries about not being good parents with this statement: “Even if we do everything wrong, we will still be AT LEAST mediocre parents.” And it made me feel a lot less pressure to be perfect, because we love and can provide for our children. And I do think that his laid-back attitude has/will impact my attitude about parenting down the line as well. Whenever I get a little preoccupied with milestones or something along those lines (“Tori Spelling’s daughter could count to 10 before she was 2, so our daughter needs to learn how to count!”), he has a way of making me realize that I am being ridiculous. Obviously we are in the same boat as you, in that we are new parents and haven’t ventured far into the realm of “molding” our children, but I have hopes that we won’t go overboard as parents. I will admit that on the surface, it might appear that we are “those kind” of parents – our daughter is not even 2 yet, but she is in daycare/preschool, has participated in toddler gymnastics/swim lessons, and we moved to “good” school district after she was born……but the reasons for these decisions are primarily based on our convenience, if you will. I went back to work, and daycare was the best option for us (our daycare has a preschool curriculum, not that I realized that or, truth be told, even really know what that means). Toddler gymnastics gives our daughter something physical to do in the winter and made it more likely for her to take a long nap on Saturdays, not to mention she loves it (evidenced by her claps and cheers whenever we pull into the parking lot). Our house is within 3 miles of our places of employment, and I do admit I like that it is a desirable school district – but not because I think it’s the only chance for our kids to get into a good college. I want them to have many options and challenges in school so that they can figure out what they like. I think it is refreshing that research has shown that if you turned out okay, then chances are your kids will too….and now I feel a lot less guilty about letting our daughter watch more TV than she probably should.

  4. Cathy Says:

    Wow this is a difficult concept to believe. I’m at the stage where how my kid performs in school actually matters – he’s a sophomore in high school. I find it hard to agree that everything would turn out just fine if my (mostly lazy) son was left to his own accord to do what he pleased. There has to be some amount of structure and discipline, right? However, I can see the point – my son is lazy and no amount of hassling him is going to change that about his personality so maybe just back off. I don’t know – this is hard.

  5. Gale Says:

    Cathy – I see just what you mean. At this age you feel the need to push your kid because good grades = good college opportunity, and good college = good job opportunities, and good job = happy, stable life. I guess what Caplan would say is that you can’t monitor your son like that forever. Eventually he’s going to be what he is. And if he’s someone who values his leisure time and is happy enough with less as a teen, then he’s probably not going to convert into an ambitious person as an adult. Nevertheless, we always want more for our kids, so it’s hard to sit back and accept that what they want for themselves might be different.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    With older kids (as you know) – the performance pressures are real versus imaginary, as Cathy points out.

    If you’ve had too much of an easy-peasy laissez-faire attitude, you don’t have a kid who understands what it is to push, and push hard. And that doesn’t come naturally for every kid, even if they have talents or skills that do.

    I will say that I believe in much more go with the flow when kids are little – ensuring respect and discipline, but not necessarily structured activities. (I prefer free play.) But as they get older, if we were to accept that “nature” will overrule nurture, then that is to potentially accept that parents can’t significantly teach/influence/persuade/shape their children, even taking cues from their children.

    Do you take a laissez faire attitude if they reach for drugs? I don’t think so. You work to educate (early), to discuss and even negotiate, to observe, to act when necessary.

    I think we are all products of nature, nurture, and experience. That pendulum may feel more comfortable to some parents on one extreme (the “perfect” appearance of “perfect” control), to others at the opposite end of the arc (what will be will be), and I suspect that somewhere in the mid-range is what works for most of us.

  7. Gale Says:

    This is why I love you, BLW. Your experience and grounded advice are always appreciated here. As always, thank you for weighing in with your own parenting experience, which vastly surpasses my own.