Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Scary Thing About Having Kids

For many couples considering parenthood, the most frightening risk is the possibility of a child with a serious birth defect. That is scary, but also unlikely, especially for couples willing to use amniocentesis to check for serious problems and if necessary abort. The risk that is both frightening and reasonably likely is the chance of having a child who does not like you.

I got along well with my parents, better than I did with most other people I knew, my wife got along well with her parents, and our children get along well with us. But my impression, largely from our children's accounts of people they know, is that a large fraction of teenagers and young adults, perhaps a majority, do not get along with their parents. That not only makes the process of bringing up children a lot harder and more unpleasant, it also eliminates one of the major long-term benefits—ending up with adults whom you love and trust and who love and trust you.

Which raises the question of whether we have just been lucky and if so in what way, or whether we, and our parents, did something right. Judith Harris' work, presented in her very interesting The Nurture Assumption, provides evidence that parental child rearing does not have a very large effect on the personality of the child when he becomes an adult, but it might have a large effect on the adult's relation with his parents. And even if child-rearing does not have a large effect, other environmental influences, especially, by her account, the peer group environment, do.

Harris mentions that in some families, although not many, the family is the peer group, creating an exception to her general rule. That, I think, describes my situation, my wife's situation, and the situation of our children. In each case, the child identified more strongly with the family culture than with the culture of his age peers. It might also describe a situation more common when population was much less dense, with the result that a smaller fraction of social interaction occurred outside the family. For an extreme version, consider the situation of the (fictional) Swiss Family Robinson. For a less extreme one, consider any family that is committed to a different view of the world than the surrounding culture—conservative Christians in a secular environment, atheists in a religious one, or immigrants from a very different society. It would be interesting to know whether such situations results in significantly less parent/child conflict.

Or maybe it is pure chance. There seems evidence that personality is to a significant degree genetic. There may be personality types that do not get along with each other, even types that do not get along with anyone. If that is the fundamental problem, we have been very lucky.


dWj said...

For what it's worth: I've always gotten along well with my parents, and they commented at one point (perhaps when I was in my late twenties) that perhaps I never rebelled against them because they and my siblings and I were rebelling together against the school so often.

Rebecca Friedman said...

The problem with families committed to different views of the world than the surrounding culture is that, if the child -does- acclimate to the culture, it can go very poorly indeed between the child and the parents. I know people like that. And if the child is mostly interacting outside the family, I would guess the child is fairly likely to do so.

You know perfectly well what I think you did right; you treated me like a little person, emphasis on -person-. I have definitely acclimated more to outside culture over the past five or six years, so if it was only being adjusted to the family environment, there should have been problems - yet I haven't noticed any strain. I'm pretty sure it's because if I disagree with you, your response is to listen calmly and rationally and respond calmly and rationally. That really does help with getting along. (Although perhaps only for people of my personality type, which would get us back to lucky. I have trouble imagining anyone, child or adult, who wouldn't appreciate being talked to like a rational equal rather than an irrational inferior, but... maybe my imagination is lacking)

Anonymous said...
Is this coincidental?

Tibor said...

Well, I have not read the book suggested by the article (though hopefuly I will get to, since it sounds quite interesting), but from what I gather from the article I think that a lot of children really might hate their parents (mostly for simple things like not letting them out too late when they're young, making them tidy up and such) but they get on well with them when they reach adulthood. There are probably children who are mature enough to be basically left on their own at an early age, but there are also children who take a long time to grow up. I think parents can have a good deal of bad influence if they treat their child not really even like an equal, but rather like a superior - granting every wish of the child, doing everything for the child and basically showing him/her that none of his actions will have any serious consequences for him/her. All in a desperate attempt to make their child like them. I think this kind of "child-rearing" can lead to very bad results (again - haven't read the book yet) good example seems to me to be Paris Hilton. Another, fictional one, but very illustrative (although perhaps it doesn't really work that way...but it looks very plausible) is Eric Cartman from South Park. That is a model example of a mother trying to make a friend out of her son so bad that she terribly spoils him (and he doesn't really like her anyway, he has no respect for her as she grants him everything and sees her rather like a servant of his).

I think you need to strive for balance - treating a child with respect, but also showing some boundaries if the child is not mature enough to realize them on its own...that may mean they don't like you as kids as much, but when they grow up, they can be your friends too.

Then again what the hell I know, I'm 24 and don't have any kids yet:)

Anonymous said...

You should take a look at Bryan Caplan's book "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think"

David Friedman said...

Tibor: The book's central claim is that humans are good at realizing that different rules apply in different social environments, so the kid has, in effect, one personality at home, a different one among his peers, and the latter becomes the adult personality.

Anonymous: I'm pretty sure I read Bryan's book in manuscript, although not the published version. One of his selfish reasons is the benefit of having adult children, which doesn't work very well if they don't like you.

Anonymous said...

For a less extreme one, consider any family that is committed to a different view of the world than the surrounding culture—conservative Christians in a secular environment, atheists in a religious one, or immigrants from a very different society. It would be interesting to know whether such situations results in significantly less parent/child conflict.

As someone who grew up an an extremely conservative home, in a culture that was somewhat less conservative, I do not believe this is the case. My situation was perhaps closer to the isolated Swiss Family Robinson than many would guess.

I would suggest that certain personalities react more strongly towards parental behavior than others, and that I have such a personality. I found myself in conflict with my parents, even at a young age. I became more and more distant from them when I entered my adolescent years. Today we disagree on nearly everything, and conversations tend to turn into arguments. Returning home is often a painful experience.

I believe my experience has been the opposite of Rebecca (above). My parents were never the type to listen "calmly and rationally" to my opinions, and I never felt that they respected me as an equal human being. In some ways it seems they still don't. I think a person raised to be rational and thoughtful would be grateful towards his/her parents for such a childhood.

Rebecca: The problem with families committed to different views of the world than the surrounding culture is that, if the child -does- acclimate to the culture, it can go very poorly indeed between the child and the parents.

In many ways, I am such a person. I would simply note that I often find myself on the outside of culture as well, and have a fair number of unusual opinions. To become estranged from my parents I did not have to acclimate to society, but simply experience it. Interacting with a little outside culture, and being treated as a rational equal by others, exacerbated a conflict that was already present.

Dick White said...

Though perhaps not intended, David's remedial action for a scary, albeit unlikely, circumstance---"...if necessary abort"---was surprising and disappointing. Fortunately, Stephen Hawking's
ALS would not have been identified by the reach of amniocentesis of the early 1940's.fockes

jimbino said...

No, it is not "fortunate" tht Stephen Hawking's ALS wasn't diagnosed in utero.

If a series of eggs come down the conveyor, it would be dumb not to abort one that's clearly bad, and equally dumb not to abort one that a test shows is likely to turn out very bad. Unless, of course, it's determined that bad eggs are associated with great physics.

Tibor said...


I see. Well, that's interesting and seems very plausible to me - since that is kind of what I used to do as well. Though not too extensively, there was definitely some kind of behaviour I would suppress while with parents which I would not otherwise. For example when I was little there were those "space rangers" (or what it was called) on TV and my father did not like it because it was basically a 20 minute long action figuers commercial. Well, he did not really tell me not to watch it, but when I knew my parents were around I would not turn that show on (or turn it off if I heard one of them on the way to the living room). Oterwise I liked to watch the show.

A funny thing is that I see the same patterns in cats. Usually diferent people have different requirements on cats (where they can and cannot go) and from my experience they tend to obey the persons rules as long as the person is around. But if there is noone there or just some people who don't impose some restrictions, they behave the way they really want to. So you can change cat behaviour but only for the time you are around (or if it is traceable to the past, like a scratched leather sofa and you let them know afterwards). Not that it probably has any relation to kids...I just like cats :)


Well, the problem with this genetic defect is that in very most causes it leads to death very soon in life...Hawking was "lucky" that his own stopped before it was too late (before the muscles he uses to breathe became disfunctional). It is a very improbable outcome though. I don't have a strong opinion on abortion in general, but if you know that with almost certainty you are going to have a baby that is going to be in pain throughout most of its very short life, that seems quite cruel to me...and though abortion surely has to be emotionally horrible, I think it is still less horrible that watching your child slowly (well quite fast actually) die in front of you with nearly no chance of a recovery whatsoever and with nothing you can do to change that chance. A different situation of course would be if e.g. there is a breakthrough in stem cell research and ALS becomes curable. But before that happens, I think abortion is the best out of two bad options. And of course that holds also in similar cases of significant incurable deseases.

David Friedman said...


I wasn't actually taking a position on whether one ought to use amnio and selective abortion, merely pointing out that it was a real world option that some parents use. My guess is that, in that situation, I would use it, but fortunately I haven't had to actually face that decision.

I don't think your argument is a persuasive one, since decisions have to be made ex ante, not ex post, and I know of no reason to think that, ex ante, the fetus that became Hawking was more likely to do good things than the fetus that would have resulted if his parents had aborted him and tried again.

Dick White said...

My apologies to the readers of this blog especially Jimbino, Tibor and David. My gratuitous Stephen Hawking reference was motivated by more by snark than substance.

It does appear that the common feature of your respective objections is the presumed absence of the intrinsic worth of a fetus so that we are free to make judgments that would avoid Jimbino's clearly/likely bad scenario, Tibor's physical pain/emotional pain tradeoff and David's ex ante decision making.

I believe that the Human Genome Project work establishes that the fetus belongs to the kind of beings we ought not to kill, abuse or harm unnecessarily. I understand that should one allow that a fetus is merely a thing not possessing personhood, judgments springing from conditions you cite would be less constrained.

jimbino said...

The really scary thing is flr a non-breeder to pay lifelong for the support of kids who aren't educated, aren't even educable, end up criminals disrespecting their own parents, drive around drinking, doped and texting and not even available to mow my lawn anymore.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why we maintain such matrimania and breeding policies when there are plenty of potty-trained adults ready and willing to immigrate and actually work.

Even if I didn't have to pay through the nose to support the breeding, I think it should be outlawed because of it's theats to the citizenry of this country.

Anonymous said...

David,I live in Brazil and here parents go to jail if their kids don`t go to school. So here comes the issue, I don`t agree with enrolling my kids, however I have to do it and persuade them to get good grades, so that they can exit school the fastest. How about he has good arguments for sleeping late and taking naps during class. He might get pretty bad grades and suffer bad consequences later. Is this a situation plausible for using power? What situations have you had to be autoritharian with your kids? If ever...

jimbino said...

I live in Brazil, too, and have noticed that public elementary and secondary education here amounts to no more than bad babysitting.

I just quizzed a mixed group of schoolkids and none could answer simple questions on history or geography. They couldn't name neighboring countries or their capitals and couldn't name the discoverer of Brazil or where he landed and didn't know how many states Brazil has.

Having taught math and science, I know that they haven't a clue about STEM, and their Portuguese grammar skills are weak, too. Some spend years learning to speak bad English. They identify the capital of the US as Miami.

It's a shame they go to school at all, when they could learn more by carry roofing tiles, mixing concrete, caring for fruit trees, cleaning my swimming pool and mowing my lawn.

I used to send a kid to pick up a couple of beers for me around the corner, but now that that's prohibited, I've had to train a dog to do that, since here there is no law against selling beer to a minor dog.

Kids here are worth less than dogs, and are so treated when it comes to education.

Tibor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tibor said...

Ricardo: Is homeschooling prohibited in Brazil? I think the Czech republic, you would also go to jail if you don't send your kids to school at all, but homeschooling is allowed (although I imagine there is a lot of bureaucracy involved if you want the state to allow you to homeschool your kids and they still need to take some exams each year).

David Friedman said...


The closest I can remember to making the kids do anything was getting them to learn their multiplication tables, done by asking them for 4x5, 4x6, ... and saying we would leave them alone when they finished with the four times. Then repeat on another occasion--sometimes driving in the car or at dinner--with a different part of the table.

Rebecca Friedman said...


Yes, and it was a complete waste of time. Or almost-complete - some of my ways of figuring out multiplication quickly in my head may have come from that, I don't remember, and a few signposts definitely did, but at this point A) I've forgotten many of them (though I could recalculate them quite quickly from the ones I have left, and do if I need them), B) I can recalculate most of them quickly, and hence don't need them memorized, give that C) I almost never actually need to summon up 7 times 8 (is fif-ty six) in my actual life. Having to multiply larger numbers or fractions is at least as common, and I mostly do that based on an intuitive sense of how numbers "stack". So yes, I know you two meant well, but that particular use of authority was... well-meaning but silly. You could have gotten the same effect by finding me a slightly higher-level Fun Math-Teaching Computer Game - not as if I didn't play the ones I had a -lot-, and I think practice was what really mattered, not memorization. Having the skills was much more valuable than having the answers.

No, there were a few other principles of authority. We could buy anything with our own money except candy; for that we needed permission. (Not a terribly onerous rule, and I understood why.) We had to go to school unless we could talk you into homeschooling us, which took some doing because it was a quite significant expenditure of time and effort on your part (the latter part being quite reasonable, and the former part, while a major pain, being a rule imposed by the state, not you directly). We had to go to college unless we could come up with a good alternative plan.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Parents betray their children when they surrender them to abusive strangers (public school employees qualify). Homeschool and your kids will love you for it.

Tibor said...


Well, the whole school mathmematics curricullum is plain wrong and it's wrong and it's wrong. It doesn't really teach mathematics - which is more than anything a way of thinking, aparticularly helpful (and I believe fun for most who actually are lucky to encounter it) one for everyone. It only teaches algorithms or in your case - results. Which leads to people (cannot blame them) hating "mathematics" and never knowing they were never even introduced to actual mathematics. Great articles about that:

That is an article about what is wrong and why with some nice comparison (teaching "mathematics" today is like teaching art by making students draw copies of what the teacher draws). It is about schooling in the US, but is equally applicable almost anywhere I think...or at least in the Czech republic, the problems are identical.

An article about how it could be done (I would actually extend this to mathematicians as well, at least before they realize they want to do pure maths, which can take some time).

An article about how that approach went when tried for real (pretty good, although it was hardly an average classroom).

Rebecca Friedman said...


To be fair, my parents -did- teach me actual mathematics. The memorizing-the-multiplication-tables was the only actually silly one - and the only one I really found annoying.

I still remember the time I asked my mother "A 4-by-4 cookie sheet has 16 cookies, and a 3-by-5 has 15, which is 16-1. I tried some other numbers and got the same results. Why is that?" and she used algebra to tell me. First time I really understood algebra.

Tibor said...

Rebecca: I was not suggesting anything about your parents teaching you - I was commenting the school curriculum and the way mathematics is being taught at most schools. Maybe a little bit off topic, when I think about it, so my apologies for that:)

Rebecca Friedman said...

Tibor: Ah - sorry! I'm definitely not arguing about the high school math curriculum (still astonished how they can take most of high school for what my class covered in a year, and yet get people forgetting/not understanding it). I was just worried I'd given the wrong impression of my own education.

Tibor said...

No problem :) Yeah, I kind of share your impression (not only about maths though, but especially about it). Partially it is because there are 20-30 people instead of one, but mainly because they teach memorizing lists of facts instead of understanding ideas. That is not only useless, but also hard not to forget. It is especially ridiculous today, when internet is around. They sometimes like to look progressive and "teach how to find the information instead" but usually it ends up being the same kind of nonsense from what I've seen (my mother is an elementary school teacher).

I don't know if they still do it, but I spent a few weeks in my chemistry class memorizing the table of elements and being examined from it...literature class consists mostly of memorizing names of authors, lists of their work and short descriptions of the most important books (which I often disagreed with after having read the book and concluding the main point was entirely different) - another waste of time. History is the same - lists of names and dates with little background and almost no explaining why this or that happened or perhaps discussing the motives of the historical actors. And of course mathematics is probably mistreated the most, because some twisted accountant's dream is taught instead of it :)

But I should probably stop, as I could rant about it for a long while and it is not only off topic, but also not helpful on its own - especially when saying it to someone who probably already agrees with me :)

Rebecca Friedman said...

Oh, my class was... I was in a small experimental school before I was homeschooled. This was there. There were four of us in the class. If it had just been me, it would have been faster yet.

And I actually don't know enough to agree or disagree - I never got stuck with traditional schooling, and so never experienced it. By what you describe, it does sound less than ideal (memorizing inaccurate descriptions? Come on, -really-? I already don't understand why things like Cliffs Notes -exist-...) ... but again, that was probably -why- my parents made it a priority to not make me deal with it. Thankfully, university education has mostly been fine - then again, I'm at Chicago...

Tibor said...

Well, consider yourself lucky :) I am definitely not going to send my kids - when I have them - to a conventional (especially not a state owned) school and homeschool them at least in maths. It is good if kids meet and interact with other kids as well, but they can do that in scouts, collective sports, choir singing or whatever they enjoy doing with other people.

My university education is also a very different experience, but I am studying maths at what is often considered the best maths faculty in the country and from what I heard about other schools (mostly from people who study economics and social sciences) it might not be so great elsewhere. Probably still better than the lower levels of education though.

I don't know if my description holds in the US of A, but I suspect there is going to be very little difference in this respect.

laura said...

I wonder, Professor, if you might someday write a book with your children regarding the unschooling experience?

We unschooled, and I find that my children are still a delight to me. Having said that, I need also add in that, philosophically, we're all quite different. I'm a Christian and both of my kids are ardent atheists. I'm inclined to think that in the families you've seen where there's a relationship break-down between parents and children, there probably wasn't a whole lot of respect for the children's right to self-determination. I've been clear since day one that I don't "own" my children, and that who they are is a reflection of their own choices. I wonder if some parents feel that who their children grow to be is a reflection on who they are, hence the friction.
Hmmm. Just my thoughts.

I do hope you'll seriously consider a book on the subject, though. Unschooling is so very misunderstood.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Laura: I think you're right. At least, of my friends who don't get on with their parents, most of them seem to complain primarily about a lack of respect - parents who won't accept that the kid is who the kid is, not who the parent wants the kid to be.

Anonymous said...

I had parents quite the opposite of David and Milton. They were repeated liars to this day (despite child-raising being a long-term game), and replaced rational debate with shouting loudly, perhaps breaking a few objects if necessary to be "right".

I am skeptical about David being "lucky" because it is difficult to imagine a child who prefers the alternative.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

David, you're writing from the angle that having a kid who doesn't like you is a thing that just happens. Perhaps the greater risk is finding out (or not figuring out) that your ability to be a parent is much worse than you thought it was.

My mother was a highly critical person, and I didn't want to cooperate with her or be around her. My siblings were more tolerant/dutiful/kinder, but they didn't like her either.

Our father was there financially but not emotionally.

She wasn't especially awful as bad parents go-- she took good physical care of us. There are quite a few parents who are physically neglectful and/or abusive.

Tibor, it wasn't a matter of the moderate rule enforcement, it was that being around them was painful.

Jehu said...

I've never personally known a homeschooled kid who had significant problems with their parents. I know they exist at the friend of a friend of a friend level, but from my own experience, I conclude the rate is pretty small.
When you send your kids to public school, you are MASSIVELY outgunned in terms of influence over your children. Remember that persuasion is mostly a function of status and repetition.

Rebecca Friedman said...


Has it occurred to you that you may be confusing cause and effect?

My parents would never have decided to homeschool me if we didn't already knew we got on quite well - and if it had turned out that, stuck in a house together all day, we had a lot of friction, they would probably have given up and found a new school for me. Homeschooling can be such a tremendous effort, and there are easy alternatives; why would anyone choose to do it if all it means is endless quarrels?

Jehu said...

Cause and effect might explain one of the homeschool families I know, although they'd planned to homeschool their child before he was even born. But most of the homeschool families I know are large. Mine is on the seriously small size with two children and a third due next month.
If most homeschool families were one, at most two children I could see your causality argument, but about 3.5 is the average size for such families presently (my numbers are from 2009 if I recall).

stellastruck said...

I went to a particularly low-quality public school growing up. An example: For my tenth-grade world history class, every few days a new number would be written on the board. This was the page number of a chapter in the textbook. We were to copy down the definitions of that chapter's vocabulary words from the back of the book, and answer the "Questions for Review" at the end. We turned this in, and if we'd done it at all we got a check mark and an A. That was the entire class--for an hour a day, every day for a year. The highpoint was when we got to watch Schindler's List. This what pretty typical for classes in that school system.

Interestingly, when I went to college I discovered that I was actually pretty well-informed compared to other students who'd gone to better schools. It turns out that reading a lot and having well-informed parents who talk to you about things makes more of a difference than the classes you sat through.

My brothers and sisters and I joke about how much time we could have saved if our parents homeschooled us. Our mother stayed at home until I was about ten, so they could have. Dad says the public school system taught us how to interact with people who are very different from us, which in fairness it did--though in some cases it taught us to fear them (my oldest brother and I were bullied quite a bit).

Regardless, I'm graduated from college now and my parents and brothers and sisters are still my closest friends. If anything, my public school experience made me closer to my parents, because I appreciate how similar they are to me compared to the rest of the world.

Joe said...

Treating children as little humans instead of talking pets is also a decision made by many fiction writers. Good examples are in Ender's Game, South Park, and A Song of Ice and Fire. I'd be surprised if any of those writers make bad parents.

TGGP said...

Immigrant children speaking like their peers rather than parents was one of the primary pieces of evidence in 'The Nurture Assumption".