Thursday, April 14, 2011

Serenity Now

Bryan Caplan advises parents to Lighten up and Have More Kids:

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. Accept that your child’s future depends mostly on him, not your sacrifices. Realize that the point of discipline is to make your kid treat the people around him decently—not to mold him into a better adult. I can’t say that I completely convinced my wife on any of these points, but we made reasonable compromises—and we found that raising twins was a lot of fun.

I freely admit there are some sacrifices that parents can’t responsibly avoid. Someone had to feed our infant twins in the middle of the night, and that someone was me. The key point to keep in mind is that twin research focuses on vaguely normal families in the First World. It doesn’t claim that kids would do equally well if they were raised by wolves or abandoned in Haiti. But look on the bright side: If you are a vaguely normal family in the First World, the science of nature and nurture shows that you can lighten up a lot without hurting your kids.

Serenity Parenting changed our lives. We used the Ferber method—let the kid cry for 10 minutes, briefly comfort him, repeat—to get our twins to sleep through the night. We enrolled them in an activity or two, but they spent a lot more time watching cartoons while we relaxed. Our family specialized in activities that were literally “fun for the whole family”: reading books together, playing dodgeball in the basement, going to the pool for a swim. If “Lighten up” was the only practical lesson of twin research, my reading had more than paid for itself.

Yet eventually I noticed that twin research had another, far less obvious lesson for parents: Have more kids. When you ask high-effort parents if they want another child, the thought often frightens them. They’re already tired and stressed from the kids they’ve got; how could they endure the sacrifices required to raise one more? I reversed this argument. Others’ belief in the power of nurture made them reluctant to have more kids. My disbelief in the power of nurture, by the same logic, made me eager to have more kids.

This is a difficult concept for many parents to accept, especially these days when there is more emphasis (and pressure) on the power of parents to shape their children's future. And it's not as if parenting is not a factor at all in how children develop and eventually succeed or fail as adults (just look at the educational achievement gap between children raised in traditional two parent familes and those raised by single parents). But the reality is that a good deal of the critical factors that influence what someone looks like as an adult are determined at birth. You may want your kid to be a rocket scientist, but if he's got the gray matter to be a sanitation engineer all the work in the world you do ain't going to make it so. So instead of needlessly worrying about it, you might as well sit back, relax, and enjoy the parenting ride. And don't be afraid to live out the adage, "the more the merrier."