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.