We relistened to Kent’s favorite Freakonomics podcast last weekend. The basic contention is that for long-term outcomes, parents matter; parenting doesn’t. Piano lessons don’t matter, dance class doesn’t matter, reading to your kid doesn’t matter, organic baby food doesn’t matter, TV doesn’t matter, baby sign language doesn’t matter, and so forth. You may be able to produce short-term outcomes, but as far as lifetime educational achievement, eventual earnings, risk of teen pregnancy or incarceration and the like, the adoption studies show it’s almost all about who your biological parents were–not what your parents did with you.
Sure kids’ success if often correlated with having parents who read a bunch of parenting books and tiger their offspring into virtuosi, but that is because those kids inherited the genes of their bright, determined parents who are by their nature more likely to read a bunch of parenting books and tiger their offspring into virtuosi.
I’ve referenced this kind of research before and every time I come up against it, I breathe an inward sigh of relief because I’m never doing half the things I feel I should for my kids.
I breathe that sigh, but I never really give myself a pass. Why is that? Even many of the very economists doing the Parenting-Doesn’t-Matter studies still go home and overparent their toddlers with nonreckless unabandon. I don’t know why that is, but I have some theories.
We love our kids so much. Their future is uncertain, and we want to do everything we can to make sure it’s a happy and successful one. Classes and programs and lessons give us the false sense of control. Giving up any of that is tantamount to admitting a truth too horrible to contemplate: we can’t ensure their happiness or success.
2. Social Pressure
Even if you’ve read enough studies to know that ballet class isn’t the answer, you’re likely swimming in a sea of professional parents. They tell you all about the strengths and deficiencies of Greystone’s new oboe teacher at Back to School Night and ask whether you’ve got little Chesterfield in tennis or dressage this year. What are you going to say? “Oh, we’re experimenting on our child to see whether he can get into Harvard on genes alone.” Sure you are.
3. Additive Property
Okay, so no one parenting trick really shows a long-term effect, but what if you were able somehow to implement 200 of these tricks? Wouldn’t that all add up to some serious pediatric supercharging? What if you breastfed the baby while signing “Milk, milk, milk” to them and playing Mozart? Genius. This is the mindset which drives us to face-stabbing thinking “Everybody else is doing A through K with their kid, so for my kid to get into Princeton, all I have to do is A through L. Make it M for safety. Okay, Z.”
4. Proving Yourself to Yourself
Kids succeed because they inherit the genes of their bright, determined parents who are likely to read a bunch of parenting books and superintend endless violin lessons. Therefore, I must read a bunch of parenting books and superintend endless violin lessons to prove that I am a bright, determined parent who passed on success genes to my kid. Even if you see the logical flaw in that argument, when you’re turning on the fourth episode of Strawberry Shortcake in a row, you might just wonder, “Are my genes really strong enough to be totally phoning this in?”
5. Overachiever Syndrome
Parenting is not a competition. But it kinda is. And you’re a winner. So you better win at it. But it’s totally not a competition, and there are many right ways. You’re just trying to win a non-competitive event by figuring out the rightest way. Is it getting hot in here? Can we change the subject?
6. Parenting Science Changes
Man does it ever. First you tell us don’t pick our kids up or they’ll be too soft to make it in the cold, cruel world. Then it turns out we should be licking and grooming them. First you tell us if we instill in them a high enough self-esteem they will each become president of the United States. Then it turns out self-esteem and a dollar will get you a candy bar. Now you’re telling us parenting doesn’t matter all that much? Then just when I let them run feral in the basement for their entire childhood, you’ll tell me that if I’d just gone to one more Mommy-and-Me oil painting class, Florenza wouldn’t still be waiting tables and living in said basement at age 35.
Parenting science has a checkered past and a lot of explaining to do before I will believe one more word out of it’s mouth.
7. Just in Case
When it’s your kid you’re talking about, the stakes are just too high to risk it. It’s like the bar exam, i.e. a hole that’s three feet across and a thousand feet deep. You’re probably going to pass, and you don’t need to study that hard, but if you don’t pass you’re doomed in the worst possible way, and Obama will not appoint you to the Supreme Court, and snarks who took your Constitutional Law class at Stanford will laugh at you on their blogs from now until the day you diiiiiiie! Maybe the studies are right that Taikwondo is not going to make any difference in whether your kid goes down the Ivy-Ivy-Ibanking path or…whatever the alternative is, but what if they’re wrong? Can you afford to be wrong?
Notably absent from this list (and the explanations of the economists as to why they still overparent) are things like “Kids enjoy being overscheduled and overparented,” and “Overparenting is just so much fun!” Because they don’t, and it isn’t.
So why are you still overparenting?
Salty is saying “Superman, to the rescue!” And yes, I bobbypinned their hair to the side after their bath to try to train it out of their eyes for the day. They really need a haircut.