Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Libertarian Families

I have just read an interesting piece on child-rearing by Gertrude Fremling, an economist (and mother) married to my friend and ex-student John Lott. What she describes is very different from the way we reared our children, although both families share similar views of economics and both methods seem to have worked.

A family necessarily involves some mix of communist and market institutions. Nobody expects a one-year old to either earn enough to support himself or be able to make a legally or morally binding agreement to repay his parents for the expense of rearing him. On the other hand, children, in my experience, have strong views on private property in toys hardwired into them; persuading them that everything is owned in common is not, I suspect, a very practical strategy. 

John and Gertrude went considerably farther in the market direction than we did. Their kids had no allowance, lots of opportunities to earn money by doing chores within their ability. Interactions between kids were carried out largely on a market basis, with one child sometimes renting the use of a game he had bought with his own money to another. If too many kids wanted to do the same chore, the parents would auction it off to the one willing to do it at the lowest price; if no kid wanted to do it, the auction might go up instead. Gertrude comments, whether with disappointment is not clear, on the "perhaps surprising..." failure of the kids to engage in bidding conspiracies against their parents.

We had almost none of that. The kids had an allowance, provided, as best I recall, by a great-uncle fond of kids. We often but not always bought them things they wanted. Our daughter eventually offered to volunteer to do a regular chore—unloading the dishwasher—but that was her choice and she was not paid for it. In those respects, our arrangements were more nearly communist than theirs.

On the other hand, their system was at least mildly paternalistic, since it included limits on TV watching and "silly video/computer games." We had no television—a more extreme version of her policy of having only a small screen one—but the kids had essentially unlimited use of computers, when available, and could play any games they liked as much as they liked. The one exception was when our very young son, running short of disk space on the computer he shared with his older sister, solved the problem by throwing out various things, including parts of the operating system, with the natural consequences. For some time thereafter, he was only allowed to use the computer with his sister monitoring—which she had no obligation to do.

We did have strong rules of private property, largely enforced by our daughter, who not only was older than her brother but was less dependent on his company for entertainment than he was on hers, giving her a substantial advantage in negotiations. She established early on that he was not permitted in her room without her permission. The sign to that effect is still on her door, although both of them are now away at college, and he still respects it.

Are there any obvious reasons for the differences in our child-rearing strategies? One is that we had two children, they had five; the advantages of decentralized market decision making are typically greater the larger the number of people being coordinated. Another is that they had their children younger than we did, and were probably under greater financial pressure as a result. While imposing market discipline on children should be doable under almost any circumstances, it's more convincing when money is tight—a policy of "I won't buy that for you even though you really want it; you have to earn the money yourself" feels artificial, to the parent and perhaps to the child, when it is obvious that the cost of everything the child wants is small enough to be entirely insignificant to the parent's economy. That is one reason I have suggested in the past that World of Warcraft may provide a better way of teaching the same lessons to the children of well off parents; the budget constraint within the game is real.

I am left wondering whether Gertrude, before or after developing her child-rearing policies, read Cheaper By the Dozen, an old description of a family even larger than hers which, like hers, put a lot of responsibility on the children, but seems to have coordinated by something closer to central direction.


Jonathan said...

I remember Cheaper by the dozen, though I have a feeling that I didn't read it in full: perhaps extracts or a condensed version, long ago. A part that stuck in my mind was the father demonstrating that he'd once been a bricklayer.

jimbino said...

Interesting post.

I wonder if parents would change their child-rearing philosophy if, as in the case of my parents, their child rearing weren't subsidized to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per year of taxpayer money, or, as in the case of my grandparents, weren't subsidized at all.

I look back on a childhood in which I went to work outside the home at 10 years of age, just like my father, on the Chicago Southside. That and hard farming in the summer in Ohio.

I don't regret a moment of it, and I wonder how I could begin to tolerate indolent kids playing video games.

David Friedman said...


Perhaps I would feel more the way you do if more of life had involved doing things I didn't enjoy because I needed the money. As it is, I've mostly managed to support myself doing things I mostly enjoy, so it doesn't seem odd to me that my children did what they needed doing, which mostly consists of educating themselves, mostly in ways they enjoy.

jimbino said...

Well David,

I'm a U of C physics classmate of yours who resents the implications. I also don't "need the money" but, unlike you, apparently, I am sensitive to the plight of those who do.

Great that your privileged kids got to enjoy their video games at the expense of so many others less privileged.

Gertrud Fremling said...

Hi, David! Glad you found my post interesting. Well, I think the reason why you might have gotten away with your kind of child rearing (of course my way is generally superior!) is that you simply happened to have atypical kids.

They might not have needed as much reining in and were so interested in intellectual pursuits that they wanted to study hard anyway.

Ours have been somewhat of risk takers and not always so consistent at choosing intellectual pursuits. They needed a bit more reining in and learning the tradeoffs to be faced in life. Who knows, they might have thought they could go hiking for a profession if they had not been steered into understanding the value of money.

Actually, even in the most wonderful of libertarian worlds, even if material possessions are plentiful, life is going to present itself with tradeoffs. So I think making kids used to optimize their decisions subject to constraints - monetary or otherwise in nature - simply prepares them for life.

Gertrud Fremling

David Friedman said...


I wouldn't describe it as wanting to study hard, but as enjoying doing things that were also educational--including computer games not designed to be educational. The obvious example is reading. I suspect a good deal of my ability to write came from reading a book or two a day during summer vacation--largely Agatha Christie and the like. When my daughter was applying to college, we were told by the admissions person at one school that what blew them away was the list she provided of four hundred books she had read.

For a less obvious example, they got game boys with Polemon cartridges at one point and spent a lot of time for the next year or so playing the game. In one sense it was a silly game--that world doesn't really exist. But learning how to find your way around a world you are dropped into and function in it is a useful skill--and they put far more time and energy into doing so for fun than kids normally put into classes they are assigned.

I don't know that our approach would work for all kids, but I think it might work better for more than you expect. Of course, your approach works too. I can't blame the fact that your kids are too tall--especially the one you named prophetically--on child rearing, since they were stuck with their parents' genes.

Don said...


Why do you resent someone who made their own way and had a good life? Just because Prof Friedman didn't do a few years in the coal mine doesn't make his choice of parenting styles an affront to decency.

"I also don't "need the money" but, unlike you, apparently, I am sensitive to the plight of those who do."

What do you want, a Nobel Peace Prize? Who cares what you are "sensitive" to (whatever that means)? I give money to Chinese orphans. That's my business. Other people go their whole lives without thinking about Chinese orphans. Let them direct their own lives.

And can he crap about his kids being "subsidized" at the "expense" of others. If Prof Friedman makes more than $60,000 a year (combined household income) he's paying for others, not vice versa.

gwern said...

> although both families share similar views of economics and both methods seem to have worked.

Interesting examples but given the research on heredity and non-shared environment, how could you know if it didn't work?

Unknown said...

There were times when I wished my family operated more communally. When the driveway and sidewalk would get covered in snow, my mother would offer each boy different wages based on his perceived physical strength. At its most extreme, one boy might earn $14 an hour and the other $8 an hour. I was somewhat offended by this, especially since I was willing to do it for free. My brothers and I had plenty of time on our hands, and our parents had already given us so many things in life. I felt that we were a family and that it was not too much to ask these strong boys to shovel snow without enticing them with money. The impression that my parents weren't necessarily swimming in money added to the sense of injustice. But there was no dignity in doing it for free when your brother was making $12 an hour.

On another note, I do remember you despite being about 4 years old at the time. I particularly remember the foam swords you made for my brothers and I. Also a large lego set. I have fond memories of both gifts. Though I most clearly remember talking to Bill and then hearing you tell Bill that you had to leave for California.

-Roger Lott (Gertrud's son)

Rebecca Friedman said...

While we are atypical, I'm not sure it was in anything close to those terms.* I can't remember, in my childhood, doing a lot of "studying hard" - studying wasn't hard, it was fun, which was why I did it. Math was a game, and when it stopped being a game I stopped doing it until I actually needed it (for the SAT, at which point I studied up because, well, I wanted to get into a good school. My real actions had real consequences.)

I think to some extent, having to optimize your decisions subject to constraints is just part of life, and I'm not sure how you can really avoid it. Even in the most peaceful, idyllic setting, you have a time constraint. I can't make marmalade with Mom and read books and play harp all at once, no matter how much I might like to. It's a much less harsh constraint than many real-world ones... but I still believe the concept of trade-offs is present.

As far as reining in goes, a lot of actions have real short-term consequences. In those cases, our parents would warn us we were making mistakes (if they noticed) - and if we insisted on doing it anyway (and no one else was harmed by the mistake), they let us, and we dealt with the consequences and figured out that hey, that really was a bad idea. (Or, occasionally, wasn't. I genuinely am fine without a coat in colder weather than the rest of my family, to pick a minor example.)

So... cool as your system sounds (at least the part with no allowance and chores instead - seriously, I would have liked that), I don't really feel as if I didn't have to make decisions... or, in most ways, as if I wasn't prepared for the real world. (Though to be fair, the closest I've gotten to the real world is college, and college is a step down in personal responsibility from home. I mean, you have to persuade them to let you cook your own meals! So we'll see if I still feel that way in a couple years, when I'm out.)

*I'm pretty sure we are atypical in the sense that we're unusually fond of logic, and we're rules-followers by nature; given a rule I don't like, my instinct is to try to change it rather than disobey, and given a good reason for that rule, my instinct is to accept it unless I can come up with a better. That probably did make my parents' lives a lot easier, but I don't think it's that wildly uncommon.

Oh, and I never did teenage rebellion. But I think that was a result of my parents' methods, rather than a lucky chance that helped them work.

John Fast said...

"You might be an economist if you refuse to sell your children . . . because they might be worth more later." -----Yoram Bauman

Laura said...

Thanks for this post, DDF. I've longed for sometime to see you and your wife write a book on unschooling. We came to it rather late in the game, and would have treasured such an account.