Serenity Parenting

I wasn’t surprised that Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids has the clearest explanation of the science of behavioral genetics that I have ever read (even clearer than the excellent discussions in Harris’s The Nurture Assumption or Pinker’s The Blank Slate.) Frankly, I was surprised that Bryan’s book is also the most useful parenting book that I have ever read. Selfish Reasons isn’t just clever, it is also wise.  Bryan’s views on parenting are often simplified down to “parents don’t matter.” But that’s wrong. Bryan knows that parents matter for all kinds of things, most of all for how parents and children enjoy childhood. Here is some of Bryan’s wisdom:

Once I became a dad, I noticed that parents around me had a different take on the power of nurture. I saw them turning parenthood into a chore—shuttling their kids to activities even the kids didn’t enjoy, forbidding television, desperately trying to make their babies eat another spoonful of vegetables. Parents’ main rationale is that their effort is an investment in their children’s future; they’re sacrificing now to turn their kids into healthy, smart, successful, well-adjusted adults.  But according to decades of twin research, their rationale is just, well, wrong.  High-strung parenting isn’t dangerous, but it does make being a parent a lot more work and less fun than it has to be.

The obvious lesson to draw is that parents should lighten up.  I call it “Serenity Parenting”: Parents need the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and (thank you twin research) the wisdom to know the difference.  Focus on enjoying your journey with your child, instead of trying to control his destination.


Do twin studies just say that different adoptive parents are all quite good at raising children. Are there studies on the different outcomes of children whose bad enough to have them taken away and adopted and those parents just good enough to keep them?

Adopting parents are probably more caring, less selfish etc than average people. If they make a difference not over other adopted parents but over bad parents that might be important.

This is my thought too ... that is, whether the twin studies identify the effect of adoption and adopting parents.

As someone else mentioned, there could be effects at the tails. My casual reading of various twin studies is that their sample size is relatively small to identify such effects.

Sounds to me like this is just more pseudo-intellectual window dressing to justify Boomer irresponsibility, narcissism, selfishness and solipsism.

Really now, "twin studies"? This is just psuedo-science. It is massaging statistics to match biases.It is little differnt that orcales reading goat etrails. It is in the end not empirical and not falsifiable. It is mere statistics in the support of "notions". It is worst than even the inept "Climate Science".we have lately seen and their bogus "models". If a Physicist stood up o a dias and tried this kind of nonsense they would be laughed of the stage. It just goes tho show that "Sociology" and "Psychology" are not sciences at all.

It really amount to abdication of responsibility to an old and primitive notion of "destiny" gussied up as "genetics"

As for "behavioral genetics": 1) Being is not an epiphenomenon of genes. This is confusing mechanism with meaning--rather, it is the other way around. and 2) It is betrays a rather superficial understanding of real genetics and an truly bizarre estimation of the current state of knowledge.

It really is a most arrogant instance of Scientism. It is a parody of Science and Rationality. No working geneticist in the medical realm, where real decisions place them on the line would make such assumptions about "nature" and "genes". We hardly kow the genetic roots of maor diseases or major human attributes, let alone "destiny".

And the arrogance permeates the whole set of assumptions: Mistaking trivialities and surface effect for deep meaning
(forbidding TV) ; projection ("desperately trying to make their babies eat another spoonful of vegetables."), and wholly unwarranted assumptions ("shuttling their kids to activities even the kids didn’t enjoy"--actually, this is an instance of all three). As "science" these are just absurd assertions even when critiqued with the simplest metaphysical analysis. It manages to be Sciemtism. bogus science and inept philosophy all at the same time. It is mistaking "impressions" and "opinions for phenomena. facts or rational assertions.

But the absolute arrogance is self important assertion that that somehow this person has "risen above" the
"prior superstitions" of "parenting" that have existed for hundred of years, if not millennia, and has done so via "Science" and "Rationalism". He has done no such thing.

It is all a bogus as "Scientific socialism", and, like it, it is ideology and egoism parading around as science and rationality. this is one of the central vices of our modern Cultural Marxist in Academia and the Media. It is no wonder our civilization is floundering when we take this feeble stuff seriously.

He might at least wait until he has some grandchildren before he start pontificating like this. I pity his poor offspring for having such a smug and irresponsible parent.

That is one of the most ignorant comments I've ever read here. Statistical measurements are not empirical? And as for falsifiability, in Bryan's talk at the Kauffman blogger event he explained just what measurements would have falsified his theory. You criticize Boomers, but then portray their actually atypical parenting approach as centuries-old. Finally a tip on presentation: when critiquing research you think is of substandard quality, try to avoid loading your criticism with spelling errors.

I agree with you, hattip's comment is rather breathtaking in its breadth. I like the statement that "genes being an epiphenomenon of being", as if it had some relevance. Yes, if nothing existed, then no genes would exist. Equally, if nothing existed, no environment would exist. So genes are an epiphenomenon of being and environment is an epiphenomenon of being, and Newton's laws are an epiphenomenon of being, and so is Hindu theology and J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series. I have no idea what hattip thinks this has to do with any critique of any scientific theory.

And then the way that hattip accuses Bryan Caplan of arrogance and pseudoscience and then blithely states that this is "one of the central vices of our modern Cultural Marxist in Academia and the Media. It is no wonder our civilization is floundering when we take this feeble stuff seriously."

"Focus on enjoying your journey with your child, instead of trying to control his destination."

Makes one wonder if Charles Manson's parents were big Caplan fans.

Are you blaming psychosis on bad parents?

Never mind... stupid comment. Manson's problems may well have been partially a result of the "parenting" he received. I think we can agree extreme bad parenting (selling your child for a pitcher of beer, etc.) can do a lot of harm. But letting your child watch some TV is not going to have an effect.

"(selling your child for a pitcher of beer, etc.)"

What kind of beer?

Serenity now, insanity later?

good one

Caplan assumes a "normal western household"

I never tried to control my son's destination, and now he's finishing an Econ degree at George Mason.

...thus disproving Bryan's theory

hattip, you have produced a classic rant! Using Tyler's post as a springboard, you have provided the whole internet with a window into a broad range of your alienated obsessions with modern politics and social science. I now appreciate that you reject much of the world around you with great fury and insistence. No doubt, the world would be very different if you were in a position to fundamentally alter attitudes and institutions.

Am I the only one who, reading this title, was imagining raising children onboard the Serenity?

It was the first thing that came to my mind. Followed by Frank Costanza.

"I never tried to control my son’s destination, and now he’s finishing an Econ degree at George Mason."

Is that an argument for or against serenity parenting?

"Am I the only one who, reading this title, was imagining raising children onboard the Serenity?"

And if you did, would they be independent-minded than if you raised them on one of the Central Planets, or is that something you can't control?

There are about 30,000 genes. Thir...T...Thousan.

>>“I never tried to control my son’s destination, and now he’s finishing an Econ degree at George Mason.”
>Is that an argument for or against serenity parenting?

Probably. As to whether "for" or "against"....
The other career choices he was considering were "attack pilot" or "president-for-life of a Central Asian republic." The latter might still be an option.

On the limited nature of studies and drawing unwarranted conclusions...

From Psychology Today: Straight Talk about Twin Studies, Genes, and Parenting: What Makes Us Who We Are

None of the twins in Bouchard's study were reared in real poverty, raised by illiterate parents, or were mentally retarded. There is reason to believe that under more dire circumstances, the heritability of IQ would be significantly lower than that reported by Bouchard. After all, if everyone was raised in an identical environment, variations in their psychological characteristics couldn't possibly be accounted for by anything other than variations in their genes (since there would be no variations in their developmental environments); the more variation in environments that twins in twin studies are exposed to, the lower the heritabilities we should expect to find.

In one study, Eric Turkheimer and colleagues studied 320 pairs of 7-year-old twins who were raised in extreme poverty. Among the poorest, the shared environment accounted for most of the differences in IQ (60%), and the genes accounted for very little; consequently, in this study, the heritability of IQ was reported to be close to zero! Among the richest, however, the heritability of IQ approached what Bouchard found: variations in the genes accounted for most of the differences in IQ scores, and the shared environment accounted for very little of the variance. This study points to the fact that estimates of heritability depend on the sample that is studied, and the environment of that sample.

Excellent post by Alex.

Yes. And because over the West is becoming ever more egalitarian - try to find a group of undernourished children in the US - genetics will be explaining more and more variance between citizens which will
a) require the left to start to deal with innate differences between people in a rational way
b) lead to lowering social mobility
c) lead to a more racially stratified society
c) hopefully lead people like Tabarrok and Cowen to see the great stagnation in health care improvement that is coming, because the primary assumption of most past achievements in medicine, that people respond similarly to causes of disease and treatments (vaccinations, public health etc), will be invalidated

c' - if you give everyone the same treatment, and the poor responders exit the gene pool, problem solved!

The limited variation in twin studies is what makes them more useful for Bryan Caplan's purposes. The sort of parents, or potential parents, who read his books, are the ones more likely to already know that you do feed your children regularly, and refrain from beating them, or locking them in the cellar for years. And of course, those parents who read his book are not going to be illiterate.
So what the twin research implies is that subtle differences in parenting don't matter for the adult outcomes of those kids. (There is reason to think, from other studies and our own observations, that parents can have a significant effect by influencing their children's peer group choices, eg if you want to raise French kids, move to France and send them to French schools). So, after you've got the vital basics in, such as sufficient food, social contact, not living in dire poverty, refraining from abuse, just relax and do things if they make you and the kids happier.

If the twin studies included a greater mix of socio-economic groups, we would have much more problem figuring out the influence of the subtle details of what parents do.

Another way of thinking about these twin studies: Variation that's within the ordinary range of variation for adoptive parents in the US doesn't seem to have much measurable long-term effect on the kids. So stuff like whether you let them watch TV or press them to read a book, whether you take them to museums or amusement parks for vacations, send them to public schools or commonly-available private schools, probably won't have a big long-term effect. (Thus, in those things, you should look for ways to make yourself, your spouse, and your kids happy.)

That doesn't tell you much about variation in parenting outside that range. Twin studies can't tell us how it would affect you to grow up in a commune, or to have two world-class scientists as parents, or to spend your year jetting between half a dozen different countries your parents like, immersing yourself in the language and culture of each--there aren't enough people in the studies that come anywhere close to any of those descriptions. We don't know whether the effect is noticable, and we also don't know its sign--perhaps for some weird reason, being raised by two world class scientists lowers your adult IQ a bit, though that doesn't seem like the way to bet.

If you want to try to have a positive effect on your kids in areas these studies measure, you have to get outside that envelope of common variation. Maybe you can ignite an interest in science or art or culture in your kids by your parenting, but it's not going to happen from doing things that hundreds of adoptive parents in these studies do--buying your kid a chemistry set, taking him to a museum once in awhile, or taking him to Shakespeare in the Park. You'll have to go a lot further out to have a chance of having the desired effect.

This doesn't say anything about stuff the studies don't measure, obviously. Your kids may have the same adult IQ and income over a large range of parenting styles, but might differ in other important ways because of the kind of upbringing you gave them.

This is a good comment.

Although there's an interesting question of whether, a priori, we should expect what normal parents do to have that much effect on kids.
Consider human evolution - for much of humanity's history, you couldn't count on having both parents around, one of them might have died young. Then, your parents might differ from the norm for your society in some way - say your mum married into your culture, or your Dad suffered from bad depression, or your Dad is the biggest in his age group, while when you are growing up your cousin Fred has just that much more weight and reach on him than you that he can beat you easily. In those cases, learning from your Dad about how to interact with others could well be counter-productive.
Furthermore, if you survive to adulthood, and we are only descended from those who managed at least to survive until sexual maturity, there's a decent chance that you'll outlive your parents. And humans are a social animal, which means that you'll be reliant on the rest of your band/village/etc. So it probably makes sense to learn how to get along well with the people who aren't your parents.
Of course small children are so reliant on their parents for everything that really bad parenting has unavoidable effects. But if your parents are competent enough that you survive to adulthood, why take the risk of relying on them for everything?

According to a study of Robert Plomin, the heritability of (verbal) intelligence is actually HIGHER in low-SES groups. I think the basic problem of many of these studies is that childhood IQ scores are not reliable enough.


A lot of the things parents do "for the good of the kids" aren't really for the good of the kids.

For example, things like forgoing TV, not eating "junk", attending certain specific activities, are forms of class signaling.

For example, why are yuppie parents "soccer moms" and not basketball moms, given the relative unpopularity of soccer in the US? Because, in the US, soccer has a higher status being seen as a European sport, than basketball which is associated with urban blacks and poor rural farmboys.

Perhaps, but I believe that soccer is actually quite popular as a sport for kids to play. No one's ever figured out why so many American kids have loved playing soccer for so many years (going back to the 70s at least) but no one ever wants to watch highly-paid professionals do it.

Because soccer sucks.

While we are on the subject, you assholes need to fix academia so your women can have kids before their DNA is all jacked up.

Some people told me not to have kids while in grad school The way I figure it, you people who didn't have kids while getting your PhD didn't really earn it.

Soccer is boring to watch and fun to play.

Exactly. I played on a youth team that won its age group va championship, and had several players recruited by a british professional team. I'm pretty sure I understand the game well enough to qualify as a sophisticated viewer, and I agree with Careless that's it's way down the list of great spectator sports.

I prefer playing soccer and watching football or basketball.

I'll say one thing for soccer... it's not expensive to outfit your kid. Try equipping a growing kid in new hockey gear every year. My favorite mini-van bumper sicker is: "Driver Carries No Cash - Child Plays Ice Hockey"

Soccer is played on an open mown field and requires relatively little investment by players. It is fairly simple to set up a workable junior soccer field temporarily in many suburban parks, since the field markings are relatively simple and not too important. My brother, for example, played soccer on an improvised field in one of my hometown's many huge parks. (Frequent flooding prevented these spaces from being used for anything else.) Since it can be easily set up, the potential supply of soccer games becomes enormous. As it often does not compete with any other use when a game is not in progress, there's little resistance to it from other users of a commons.

Lots of supply-side advantages and I imagine that's how it spread. I'd almost bet that you could find early articles on how to set up a soccer club pointing out these exact features as a reason to do so.

I would change two things about soccer and it would be very popular in the US. First, get rid of the rule that makes defenders run away from the net so they can cheese an offensive player into being behind the last defender. Second, the goalie can punch any offensive player in the little box there.

Not eating "junk" may be signalling, but also good for the child. Sugar, a major ingredient in a lot of "junk" (and soda), is of course a major explanation of obesity. Being obese is generally not good for your health, income or employment opportunities.

I think the argument by Caplan (haven't read the book though, yet) is missing the difference between marginal changes and completely letting go as a parent. Of course, forcing the kid to "eat that last vegetable" won't make any difference that will come up in statistical studies. However, not setting any boundaries and allowing junk food, sugar frenzies and tv for hourse each day...well, that would make a difference.

Further arguments for being cautious in interpreting twin studies:

No one’s ever figured out why so many American kids have loved playing soccer for so many years (going back to the 70s at least) but no one ever wants to watch highly-paid professionals do it.

What? It's obvious. Soccer is boring to watch and fun to play, at least on the smaller fields that children play on

[i]What? It’s obvious. Soccer is boring to watch and fun to play... [/i]

I've long found the same thing. And now that I have a kid myself, I'm afraid of the obvious corollary - that I'll be found asleep at a game my kid's playing at.... ;-).

I suspect soccer is popular elsewhere for the same reason many popular things suck, the network effect. Maybe we need to build out local club infrastructure rather than pining over professional soccer.

What does it matter if soccer succeeds at the pro level? The kids are having fun. They're learning to cooperate and strategize in a team-oriented setting. They feel good about themselves. The local community and the parents don't have to layout much money to make it happen. Boys and girls play together well on the same team at a much higher percentage than other "popular" sports. Parents know where their kids are, and that they're getting exercise instead of hanging around at the mall. And as an added bonus: As in all the other sports, parents and coaches who are frustrated, failed, incompetent adult athletes themselves, can live vicariously through the kids.

"Parents’ main rationale is that their effort is an investment in their children’s future; they’re sacrificing now to turn their kids into healthy, smart, successful, well-adjusted adults. But according to decades of twin research, their rationale is just, well, wrong. "

But the stated rationale is different from the actual cause. Bryan is taking parents' rationalizations at their face value and assumes they are the actual causes of their behavior. But those are not causes and he has no evidence that they are. This is the major flaw of his book and why it will never have any effect.

The way people parent is much more influenced by their genetics (surprise!) than by whatever books they have read. Will Wilkinson got that exactly right. Even Bryan's account of his own experience as a parent shows that he first learned how to parent (so to speak) and only later saw the connection with the twin studies.

Another problem is Bryan's conception of what kind of parenting is enjoyable. He thinks it's hands off parenting. But many people - and many children - think differently. Many parents want to be "over-involved" and many children want their parents to be very involved, even if that makes everyone stressed out. Not everyone wants serenity. For some reason, Bryan can't fathom that. And because of it he comes across as judgmental in a pretty obnoxious way.

This is a pretty brilliant comment.

Given the your child's long-term success is probably a huge determinant of your long term happiness, the idea that you have little active influence over your child's fate (and thus your own) may well be to horrible to contemplate.

It's like knowing an envelope has been sealed with a letter saying whether you'll win a million dollars or be shot and you get to open it in 20 years. Then you're told that since you can't do anything about it, you might as well sit back and enjoy life. It may be good advice, but the number of people capable of taking it (especially if they're dealing with the envelope daily for 20 years) is going to be pretty darn small.

You have a huge influence over the success of your children. It's just mostly a genetic influence.

It's like you get to read the letter before you decide to have children, and you know there's little you can do within the bounds of normal parenting to screw it up. A car accident might get you, but failing to pay for SAT prep isn't going to matter.

I'd also make the side comment that if your happiness is that dependent on the achievements of your children, rather than say, their happiness, then maybe you aren't cut out for parenting.

But you can't ensure that your children are happy, either. Which might have been Tom West's definition of success.
(You could probably do a reasonably good job of ensuring that your kids are miserable, but then you could probably do a reasonably good job of ensuring that they're too mentally incompetent to hold down a well paying job either.)

Happiness, measured a variety of ways, also shows up as highly heritable in twin studies.

You're right that it wasn't clear what Tom really meant by success. I apologize for the snark in my last paragraph.

I defined success very loosely because for my argument, it only mattered how the parent defines success.

It’s like you get to read the letter before you decide to have children.

Sadly, no. You might know your odds before you start, but we all know families of "fine genetic material" where the children have not succeeded by anyone's measure of success (I think jail and suicide being pretty much universal in ensuring parental unhappiness).

I suspect Bryan is largely correct, although I suspect in implementation it can far too easily fall into a "genetic destiny" trap which is, oddly enough, probably poisonous for adult success. For me, for the sake of my happiness, I think I'll continue to delude myself that the extra effort I make may have some bearing on my children's future happiness

(Honestly, it's homework time because it will make you happier in 20 years, not because you beat me in chess 3 times in a row...)

It's interesting that all of the discussions here revolve around us as parents. What about us as children? Not from our traditional "childhoods", but after we started our "own lives".

The posters are so wrapped up in their own rewards from parenting, we forget that we wouldn't even have that opportunity if it weren't for our own parents. How much have we consciously tried to understand how they even wanted to be rewarded? Better yet, how many times has it occurred to us that it was even necessary?

Parents should agree on general rules of the house and make all members informed. If you disagree, resolving differences behind closed doors, away from the child, then come back with an answer. Never let children see this and still present a united front.

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