An economics professor has a plan for raising children: have lots of them, and don't stress about nurturing their potential. Bryan Caplan, author of the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, says that a child is helped the most if they are in a positive atmosphere.
And if they follow that step, Caplan says, parents can relax — and focus on having even more children. Caplan, who teaches at George Mason University, has three children himself — twin 8-year-olds and an infant.
With his stories of children who watch lots of TV and play video games — and parents who let them off the hook instead of forcing them to pursue hobbies they hate — Caplan has been labeled the "anti-Tiger Mom" — a reference to author Amy Chua, the Yale professor who famously banned her daughters from sleepovers, play-dates or TV.
As Caplan tells Morning Edition co-host Mary Louise Kelly, he feels that in some cases, being an attentive parent can make a child happy in the short-term — but that the long-term benefit of taking a more forceful approach is far from proven.
"Go and talk to a 7-year-old boy," he says. "To them, kissing is the most disgusting thing on earth. And if it were normal to spend the next 10 years telling your kids, 'No, no, no, kissing is great, it's beautiful, it's wonderful' — and then, when they're 17, suddenly they change their minds.
"We might think, 'Ah-ha! Finally got through to them,'" he says. "That's one story," Caplan says. "But a more reasonable story is, when you grow up you change — and parents wind up claiming credit for it."
There is a cheekily subversive tone in Caplan's book, but he makes a serious argument about nature versus nurture. He cites studies of identical twins who were adopted by different families — but then went on to live very similar lives — as proof that the influence a parent can have on their child is overstated.
And that goes for Chua, as well, Caplan says. Her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, horrified some parents with its strict approach to demanding perfection from her children.
"I don't think she is hurting them in the long-run," Caplan says. "But what I would say is that her parenting is not the reason for their success."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Have lots of kids and then let them watch lots of TV and play lots of video games and forget about schlepping them to activities that are good for them, but they hate. All right, I'm simplifying, but basically, that is the cheekily subversive argument of a new book by Bryan Caplan. It's called, appropriately enough, "Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think."
Well, we've invited Bryan Caplan in to tell us more. Welcome to the program.
Mr. BRYAN CAPLAN (Author): Thanks for having me.
KELLY: So I've got to start by asking: As I understand it, you have twin eight-year-olds?
Mr. CAPLAN: Twin eight-year-olds and new baby.
KELLY: And a new baby? Dare I ask if you're planning to follow your own advice and have more?
Mr. CAPLAN: It's not entirely up to me, but I would love to have more.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KELLY: Well, we'll wish you luck on that. And sell us on the book. I mean, you'll be able to describe it better than I can. In a few words, what is your basic message?
Mr. CAPLAN: My basic message is this: You might think that it's just a matter of opinion as to how much and in what ways parents are able to change their kids for life, but there's actually an excellent scientific literature on this that doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's really worth paying attention to. By studying kids who are adopted, you're able to find out how much do parents change you apart from changing your genes. And the punch line is, for most traits, there is little or no effect.
KELLY: Traits? What do you mean by that?
Mr. CAPLAN: By traits, I mean anything you care about, really. So I actually made a list. I call it the parental wish list of all the things I've ever heard parents say that they're trying to instill in their kids. So I've got, you know, health, happiness, educational success, financial occupational success, characters, values and appreciation. And out of all of these, that last one, appreciation, is not only one of the larger effects that parents have, but I'd say the most meaningful.
KELLY: But let me push you on this.
Mr. CAPLAN: Mm-hmm.
KELLY: You can look at all the scientific studies you want. Doesn't common sense just tell us that a more engaged parent spending more time with their kids, paying more attention to them, is going to have some sort of positive benefit?
Mr. CAPLAN: Well, I mean, it certainly has an immediate benefit where the kid actually enjoys something and learns something. So the question is: Does it change the kind of adult the child becomes? And here's the thing. There's actually a lot of good evidence that the effect of parenting is much larger in the short run than the long run.
One example that I like is go and talk to, like, a seven-year-old boy. To them, kissing is the most disgusting thing on earth. And if it were normal to spend the next 10 years telling your kids, no, no, no. Kissing is great. Kissing is great. It's beautiful. It's wonderful - and then, when they're 17, suddenly, they change their minds. We might think, ah-ha! Finally, I got through to them. That's one story. But a more reasonable story is, when you grow up, you change, and parents wind up claiming credit for it. That actually would have happened, anyway.
KELLY: OK. I have to say two words to you.
Mr. CAPLAN: Yes.
KELLY: Tiger Mother.
Mr. CAPLAN: Tiger Mother.
KELLY: Tiger Mother. And I'm talking about Amy Chua. This is the Yale professor who banned who daughters from sleepovers, play dates, TV, and then she wrote about it in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." You are, as I'm sure you know, being called the anti-Tiger Mother, the antidote to the Tiger Mother, because I know a lot of parents personally who are horrified by that strict approach. What do you think?
Mr. CAPLAN: I mean, I don't think that she is hurting them in the long-run. But what I would say is that her parenting is not the reason for their success. If you read the book, it's kind of interesting. She talks about how her husband was raised in a much more relaxed, progressive style. And whenever her mother-in-law would give her parenting advice, she would get very upset and say to herself: I knew that these methods are doomed to fail. Wait a second. What about your husband, who's a professor at Yale? It didn't fail for him. Maybe the parenting isn't nearly as important as you think.
KELLY: Have a lot of parents responded to your message, Bryan Caplan, with a big sigh of relief?
Mr. CAPLAN: Yeah. There are a lot of parents who have told me that it's a relief. You know, you don't have to stop doing any of these activities if you enjoy them, but it's saying that you've got an opportunity to stop doing them if you don't enjoy them without hurting your kids.
KELLY: Last question I want to ask you: It seems as though you're making two, perhaps, somewhat-separate arguments. One is relax and enjoy your kids more. The other one is have more kids. Why more kids? Why not just relax and enjoy the 1.5 kids you have?
Mr. CAPLAN: Well, that's fine, too. But what I'm saying is, you know, step one, you know, relax and enjoy your kids more. And then once you do that, a lot of people will have extra energy and say, you know what? Now that we are not stressed out and running around like chickens with our heads cut off, the idea of having another kid starts to sound a lot better.
KELLY: All right. Thanks so much.
Mr. CAPLAN: Sure thing.
KELLY: That's Bryan Caplan. He's a professor of economics at George Mason University, and his new book is called "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.