A Wonk Ponders Parenting

Hi Readers! I got this essay from Prof. Steven Horwitz, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY. (La di dah!) Thought it made a lot of sense, even if it’s a little academic. Enjoy! And if you want to drop him a note, his email is-sghorwitz@stlawu.edu. — Lenore

To Be A More Confident Parent, Think Like An Economist by Steven Horwitz

In Lenore’s book, she has a chapter urging parents, “Don’t Think Like A Lawyer: Some Risks are Worth It.” I’d like to propose its corollary: “DO Think Like an Economist.” (And not just because I am one.)

When economists make decisions they compare the costs of one choice versus the cost of another. That leads us to the idea of “trade-offs.”  Sometimes, reducing one kind of cost to zero — say, “zero chance of abduction” — means forgoing some other valuable benefit.  Say, “learning independence,” or, “becoming street-smart” or even, “walking to school every day and not getting fat.” The trick is to find the happy medium.

When economists show this idea visually, we can’t help ourselves. We draw a graph. The two axes represent the trade-off as a curve from one axis to another.  The point where one cost is reduced to zero while the cost of the other is maximized is called a “corner solution” because it appears at the corner of one of the axes.  Generally, economists see “corner solutions” as bad because they don’t recognize any trade-offs as worthwhile. They represent a consumer willing to forgo ANY and ALL benefits of budging, even a little bit.

For example, dwelling on worst-case scenarios about childhood risks puts parents in the corner.  Trying to protect our children from any and all forms of potential danger makes us willing to sacrifice other things that are valuable, such as the self-reliance that comes from exploring the woods, or the neighborhood.  When we focus only on the bad things that could happen on an overnight camping trip, for example, we keep the kids home. They don’t get to learn how to respond to the unexpected (like rain). They don’t get to hear ghost stories that they’ll tell THEIR kids. They don’t even get to roast a weiner.

Likewise, when we drive our kids to the bus stop, we put them at greater risk of a car accident in the name of preventing the very remote danger of abduction. At the same time, we’re  stifling their independence. So we’ve made them MORE likely to suffer a car accident and LESS self-confident. That’s a big trade-off, considering how remote the chance of abduction is to begin with.

If you think like an economist, you can get out of these “corners” by doing two things.  First: Try to make a truly accurate assessment of the risk involved in your choice (I recommend reading some solid statistics). Second: Ask yourself, “What are the benefits that go with taking this (often tiny) risk?”

Remember: Risk can never be reduced to zero. Moreover, the goal of parenting is not solely to “minimize risk,” but to help our kids grow up and embrace the world. Remember, too, that risk also means the possibility of failure – and that’s great! Failure is part of the learning process.  Let your kids be responsible for remembering their lunch and you run the risk that one day they’ll leave it at home and get really hungry. But that also carries the huge benefit of them learning, perhaps by forgetting, how to organize themselves for the school day.

Thinking like an economist beats thinking like a lawyer, hands down. But even thinking like a lawyer beats the very worst: Thinking like a politician — and continually bailing them out when they fail!

40 Responses

  1. I whole heartedly agree, although I’d say not everyone needs to think like an economist. Just thinking at all would be a big step for some..

  2. This is a very nice essay, but I do find myself wondering why lawyers, economists AND politicians aren’t urged to think more like parents. The world would be a better place, I think.

  3. This is brilliant

    And so is Teacher Tom’s comment.

    *applause all around*

  4. Excellent!

  5. I believe thinking too much is what caused the problem in the first place. Parenting shouldn’t be an intellectual challenge. If people would just do what comes naturally instead of buying in to all the psychobabble, there’d be a lot less stress in the world! But I do agree about the trade-off thing. Life’s about balance.

  6. Well said! I am all about economic parenting! My very first forage into it was when my 4 kids were younger and I was trying to teach them to fold their own laundry. It was an emotionally and intellectually expensive investment, but oh the dividends now are such a fantastical pleasure.

    Likewise, it took some effort to let the kids walk to music lessons, but when we realized the corner store is the same distance away and they can do a last minute run for milk, simultaneously feeling independent and saving me a trip, the original twinge of letting go sure paid off!

  7. @Kim — Parenting wouldn’t be such an intellectual challenge if we weren’t up against corporate think tanks, product designers, and advertisers plotting very openly to subvert all the good decision-making skills we’re working to develop in our kids. Doing what comes naturally seems to be a recipe for disaster when the odds are so heavily weighted on the side of the well-paid MBAs, child psychologists and “food” scientists working to create “customers for life” and pseudo foods they can’t get enough of.

  8. *applause* Bravo! and the first commenter, leah, said the rest for me. 🙂

  9. Hear hear!

    @leah: The problem for me, and many, is OVERthinking. I second-guess myself. But I think I know what you mean. If we just stopped for a second and consulted our common sense, a lot of unfortunately parenting would be avoided!

    @Sam: I think part of the problem is not just that corporations have our ear. It’s that we are also not getting wisdom passed down from generation to generation in the way that we used to. We often don’t live near our own parents, and are having children later and not around babies and children until we have our own. There’s a void that the companies are filling.

    In regards to Horwitz’s point, I learned this lesson very early on in motherhood, when I took our baby off of her feeding tube. Felt like jumping off a cliff. But the cost inherent in having her fed from a tube for years was far bigger than a temporary lack of weight gain as she was allowed to feel hunger again and hopefully learn to enjoy eating, and benefit from all the development that eating enables (hand-eye coordination, independence with self-feeding, etc). She had a severe feeding aversion, and it crushed my confidence. But at some point, after treating the cause of her aversion, it was time to let her take the reigns back.

    This must sound odd, so let me explain. More and more babies are being tube-fed for longer periods, as the technology gets more portable/easier and our understanding of tube feeding’s impact, and how to END tube feeding, lags far behind. Premature babies are on the rise and they often require feeding tubes, and some get “stuck” on them. Because some doctors and parents are so afraid of the risks involved in letting them eat on their own, and so fearful about “proper”/constant weight gain, the babies are never given a chance to eat on their own. The results are devastating. It’s an example of how unbridled anxiety and a lack of meaningful risk assessment can really cripple children and families.

    But hey, I minored in economics in college. So I had an edge in dealing with the situation.🙂

  10. Excellent article! Succinct wisdom. The only problem with this is that the intended audience often does not think rationally regarding childrearing, and cost benefit analysis is incomprehensible. It seems to many parents are ruled by emotion and mania. What is the economic term for that? I’d love to see a longitudinal study actually correlating these poor helicoptered kids to behavior health/obesity/job performance issues. Wouldn’t that be a great read! It’s so intuitive to me, but maybe some hard evidence would help some parents to chill-LAX and let their kids just be kids.

  11. amberhj – “I think part of the problem is…that we are also not getting wisdom passed down from generation to generation in the way that we used to.”

    I wonder about this. One of the things that strikes me again and again on this blog, and that I see in my own life, is that our parents generation seem to be shocked when we give our kids the freedoms our parents gave us. Which seems particularly weird.

    On topic – here here. That’s vaguely how I try to think of these things. Though as a real life approach it suffers from the fact we generally have very imperfect information.

  12. Wonderful essay. I guess if the world won’t listen to you, Lenore (“The World’s Worst Mother”), maybe they’ll try an economist? We can only hope.

    Great essay, thanks for putting it up!

  13. Great essay!

    Reminds me of a great work by another economist, Freakonomics.

    The author studied parenting from many angles and applied it all to statistical analysis and found that THINGS PARENTS DO in raising their children (reading to them, spanking them, taking them to museums) had little or no effect in how the children turned out. He found that WHO PARENTS ARE (education level, integrity) mattered much more.

    So, statistically speaking, in lieu of hyperparenting our children, we need to relax and work on being the best models of adults we can be!

  14. Amen & Amen. I surely do wish that people would stop swallowing every word that proceeds from reporters’ mouths as if they were the font of ALL wisdom & truth.

  15. Well, if there was something to add, leah and Teacher Tom did it for me. Kudos for them all.

  16. Love this article. It puts everything in perspective. It makes what should be obvious, obvious. I hope it changes peoples minds about the whole idea of absolute safety.

  17. I love it. Calculated risk taking is a much better approach than risk avoidance…. Here’s another way to assess risk: think of risk as the product of three things 1) severity of the bad outcome, 2) probability of the bad outcome, 3) things you have in place to prevent/control the bad outcome. When you break down a risk into these three elements, you often find that what seems like a risk isn’t really a risk at all because the probability of occurrence is low or that you have a backup plan in place.

  18. @helenquine: Good point. But my experience is a bit different. My parents have been telling me to “lighten up” when it comes to parenting since I was pregnant! I’m not saying that I want to go back to all-out oppression, but before women worked, I’m pretty sure moms had more support from their own moms. And extended families are now more likely to live much further apart (my parents are 3,000 miles away).

  19. This behavioral ecologist says, Bravo!

  20. What about the trade-off in publishing someone’s real email address on your website, between the risk of it being caught by harvesters and being used for spam and phishing, and the chance of someone getting to send a real email to the author?🙂

  21. amberhj – I don’t know. I think it’s true that in cultures where mothers don’t go out to work (I don’t think my grandmother would be at all happy with the idea that she didn’t work) and people tended not to move far from their own families there is more support.

    But US mothers have had it hard since the beginning. Pioneering tales are sometimes heartbreaking in what families went through (and the number of children who died) trying to learn what would work in a new environment. In lots of immigrant communities in cities (where generations were more likely to live together) women frequently worked outside the home because they couldn’t afford not to.

    After the war you had women staying at home, but there was the middle class exodus to the suburbs and the culture of career chasing for corporate employees which solidified the nuclear family trend and pulled new parents away from their roots.

    This all very off the cuff. But my reading of American history does not lead me to think there was ever a significant time in the States when the default experience for mothers generally was a situation with lots of family around who could provide good support.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is – this is nothing new!

  22. helenquine: Great and informative comment! I just read “In Defense of Food” and Pollan makes the point that we switched from cooking the way our moms did, to cooking the way corporations and marketing tell us to. Our moms switched to Crisco and hydrogenated oils because they were marketed to us as being more healthy, etc., even though they weren’t. It seems like a similar thing happened to parenting. A lot of the messages we hear–the ones that make us scared–are really off base.

    Did you read the book “Bowling Alone”? I am thinking of re-visiting it. The social disintegration of the 20th century was pronounced and not business as usual.

  23. This is fantastic.

  24. amberhj – This seems to be completely off topic but I’m caught! So I hope others forgive us. You said – “The social disintegration of the 20th century was pronounced and not business as usual.”

    I guess we see things very differently. I agree that lots of the messages we are getting as parents are off-base but I think that may always have been the case, they were just off base in different ways. Let’s face it, even the idea of a childhood as we think of it today is relatively new.

    I really don’t see a huge social disintegration. I see huge changes in the social bonds we have, but not some kind of unraveling. For the most part I think society has got better over time. I found Bowling Alone to be interesting but not convincing – and some of the more learned criticism of it echos the idea that Putman looked only at the loss of the old not the rise of the new. Which isn’t to say everything is fine, but that I think the problems we face as parents need many little solutions looking forward not some jump back to the past.

    I do think the decline in voting (one thing Putman covered) is a concern that democracies ignore (as they seem to) at their peril.

    On the cooking front – Pollen’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” line is basically what we try for (and completely fail at!). I do wonder about the idea that our problematic diet nowadays is down to the fact we look at nutrition rather than food – I can see a kernel of truth in that. I do note however that intelligence increases every generation and that is down largely to improvements in nutrition, so I am hesitant to agree with a whole hearted back to basics.

    I also don’t entirely buy the “blame the corporations” line. I think the change away from a more basic diet has as much to do with growing wealth as corporations. In most countries the diet of the wealthy in previous centuries was more likely to emphasize meat and more highly processed and refined food – because it could. It’s not surprising that as more people get more money they would want to emulate that, nor surprising that corporations would cater to them. The money corporations put into research does seem to skew our scientific understanding, and some marketing is disingenuous and questionable in its public benefit, and I think there’s cause to consider doing something about those.

  25. helenquine–You really think people were eating more meat to emulate wealthy people? Not because meat got cheaper?

    U.S. soldiers are getting shorter. The likely culprit is dismal nutrition.

    I was a copywriter for an ad agency and you’d be surprised about the lack of research that goes into most products. Okay, I have to tend to my toddler and have to end my part of this debate here. Thanks for an engaging, though disconnected, conversation🙂

  26. Oh my gosh and it is such a slippery slope. I have ninth grade students whose parents bring them their homework that they’ve left behind on the kitchen table. Even a late homework is too much risk for them to bear. And “them” = the parents. The kids learn that somebody will always clean up after them and become terrified of taking any risks (perceived or real) at all.

    This should be required reading.

    I feel like copying it and leaving it anonymously in the mailboxes of a number of my friends.

  27. amberhj – I wouldn’t say people are “emulating” the wealthy. Rather more people have the choices that used to be restricted to the wealthy, and they make many of the same ones. So I’m not entirely clear what you’re driving at with the “meat got cheaper” rather than “people got wealthier” comment. Could you elaborate (when you have a moment!)?

    On the army height thing – I think you’re making a classic selection bias mistake. My understanding is that the swathe of society that the army draws from has narrowed considerably. They now take in a much greater percentage of folks from poorer backgrounds, whom you would expect to have poorer nutrition. According to the CDC the average height of the US male has increased since the 60s.

    Copywriter for an ad agency? I’m not surprised you’re cynical! Maybe you could tell us more about the ways in which we’re sold to. I would be really interested.

    And finally to add in something somewhat on topic! On the subject of improved nutrition I think it’s important to note that there may not be a “perfect” diet that optimizes every factor we want as much as we want. That is, the diet that improves intelligence may have a negative impact on, say, longevity, or height , or some other thing we might want. Isn’t that sort of trade off a classic economics problem?

  28. @helenquine–Great point about the soldier’s height. My mistake! But I think there are plenty of other pieces of solid evidence about Americans’ poor nutrition, like rising rates of diabetes.

    From Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” which I use almost every day: “In the 19th century, before mass production of meat and poultry, beans were a primary source of protein for many Americans.” Meat became much more affordable and available to the masses at that point.

    Back to the topic at hand… nutrition and parenting are examples of how we’ve handed over our own intuition and common sense to experts and companies. We no longer trust ourselves or our children. I’m just so thrilled that people like Lenore and Horwitz are helping swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

    As a copywriter I developed a sense that more research goes into figuring out how people feel and what they’re scared, rather than researching the actual product. But no, I’m still not cynical! Just aware and doing my best to not worry too much about my child because I don’t want my anxiety to limit her. It’s a battle. That’s why I love Lenore and this blog so much.

  29. […] A Wonk Ponders Parenting Hi Readers! I got this essay from Prof. Steven Horwitz, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence […] […]

  30. Great article – if it was without the last two lines.

    You are NOT taking any risks if you help your children out of their mistakes – they will still try be more careful next time. In addition, they will learn something else: that people are there for helping each other. And that they are loved.

  31. amberhj – I’m not trying to propose that we’re all eating great! I’m with you that there are significant problems with our diet in general. I just don’t think we can blame corporations in the sense of they are responsible and individuals were forced to eat more meat. Which may not be what you meant originally. I do agree they are a cog in the system that has us all eating things we would be better off avoiding (at least in such quantities).

    And I’m with you on liking the blog!

  32. I love this!

  33. Very interesting perspective. I have to chew on this more. I am intrigued by this site and have been pondering fear and how it influences how I raise my kids.
    Thank you

  34. Economists?
    Same people who brought us the ever-so-popular-and-fun world crisis?
    Shush everyone, let’s listen and learn!

  35. […] And: For better child safety, think like an economist, says Steven Horwitz: don’t let worst-case scenarios rule your thinking and recognize that every good comes with tradeoffs [Free-Range Kids] […]

  36. @IQ: it wasn’t the economists who screwed things up. It was financiers who didn’t understand probability and statistics (two subjects which economists understand pretty well) that screwed things up: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-03/wp_quant

  37. Excellent article. I’m new to the site, but look forward to reading more about FreeRangeKids. For those interested in another site with complementary ideas on raising kids, focusing on fostering self-responsibility, I suggest: http://www.loveandlogic.com

  38. I would point out that because the majority agree does not mean the author is correct. Make up your own mind. This website about the driving lesson might change your position

  39. Ccnrpb Glad I’ve finally found something I agree with!

  40. HiHo. this web-log is realy cool!!!! I am pretty sure I am coming back to look for interesting blogarticles!!

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