Extreme Parenting

In October I reviewed explanations for the clearly-maladaptive demographic transition, whereby societies consistently have fewer kids as they get rich.  I leaned toward:

Lower … acceptance of childbearing and motherhood as measures of the status of women.

Mothering can be time consuming, but, relative to career success, succeeding at mothering isn’t seen to signal good abilities much besides a kind heart and willingness to work hard.  Very successful career women are far more respected than than very successful mothers.  So women who want to look good focus on a career, and hope to have kids later once they’ve succeeded there.   Apparently once-adaptive status cues now induce a maladaptive obsession with status markers that only careers can bring.

Bryan Caplan wants to encourage more folks to have kids, via convincing them that parenting needn’t be as hard as we think:

When parents falsely believe that they have to break their backs to raise decent human beings, though, the private cost is quite high.

Alas I fear this may have the opposite affect, lowering even further the status to be gained for a successful parent.  Maybe what we instead need is some form of extreme parenting, i.e., a parenting style that, when done successfully, says great things about parent abilities.  A parenting style that requires not just time or cash, but also great intelligence, social savvy, artistic taste, and so on.  One where a successful mom could look as good or better than a successful author, actor, or businesswoman.

Home-schooling seems a step in the right direction; is this why home-schooling is so popular?  Could we at least start by more visibly celebrating moms who have done a fantastic job, such as via a better funded and higher profile greatest mom of the year award?

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  • curious

    um, yeah, i’m sure savvy, intelligent women around the world will be busting their uteruses gunning for that mom of the year award.

    or (gasp!) we could support policies that would encourage the costs of child-bearing to be shared more equitably between the sexes, so that women could be mothers and regular cool people with professional identities at the very same time (and ditto for fathers)! but that would just be too radical, right?

    i love how this post reads as if men don’t even exist in the reproductive and parenting equations…

    • I suspect a more equal share of parenting would just shift the low-status burden around – stay at home fathers are perhaps even less respected than stay at home mothers.

    • Chris

      I suspect that would be counterproductive. I’ve got no solid statistics, but here is a quick comparison:

      Fertility Rates:
      Sweden 1.85
      US 2.1
      India 2.68
      Saudi Arabia 3.85

      Which of these countries do you believe is the most egalitarian and supportive of motherhood/work balance?

      • Benquo

        We’ve already established that richer countries generally have fewer children. How about a more like-for-like comparison among developed western countries?

        France 1.96
        Sweden 1.85
        Germany 1.39
        Italy 1.34

        Do you see an obvious pattern? I sure don’t. Egalitarian Sweden seems to be breeding quite a bit faster than sexist Italy.

    • PeterW

      I suspect that this line of argument has less to do with encouraging childbearing per se, and more to do with “Who? Whom?”-type questions of redistribution of resources and status between groups.

    • curious

      update on inspiring high birthrates:

      “High birthrates and female employment rates tend to move together,” said Ms. Hagemann, an expert on the German care system. “Child care and a school system that covers the working day is key.”

      In Europe, Nordic countries have the biggest share of women in the labor market and also, with France, high birthrates. All offer a continuum of support for parents with young children from subsidized care and paid parental leave to all-day schools with off-hour programs, Willem Adema of the O.E.C.D. said.


  • A dude

    I think there are cultures where parents base a lot of self-esteem on how successful their kids are (Jewish parents come to mind, but I could be off). Seeing them boast about their little geniuses is not a pretty sight.

  • bcg

    Not homeschooling but “helicopter moms” seem the best current approximation of this, moms who run bake sales and chair PTA meetings and whose kids always manage to sell the most trinkets for fundraisers with high-profile awards. Homeschooling seems to signal social inability, not social superability.

    I don’t think this is viable; here are my arguments:

    1) Women want to signal status to attract the best mates for creating offspring; extreme parenting seems to encourage a lot of single moms whose first kids are nothing but vessels for advertising future childrearing opportunities.

    2) “Parenting ability” is ability to create competitive offspring, so I think it would be hard to find a balance between “my kid will rule the world” and “my kid will be a contributing, well-behaved member of society” where it both strongly signals good traits and the cattiness between moms doesn’t break into open war.

    • Single-moms are not noted for their “extreme parenting”. Rather, they are associated with extremely lax parenting, perhaps dumping their children on their own parents. A Chris Rock joke: “If a kid calls his grandmomma mommy and his momma Pam, that kid’s going to jail!”.

  • Greg Conen

    Maladaptive in what sense? From a genetic perspective, yes. I’m not sure that needs to fixed, though.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      VERY much agreed.
      A neutral description of saying that the demographic transition is
      technically maladaptive from a Darwinian perspective is one thing.
      A normative claim that the demographic transition is maladaptive
      from a policy perspective is quite another!
      Why would anyone in their right mind want us
      to overpopulate ourselves right back to Malthusian subsistence limits?
      If too much human life is cranked out, life becomes cheap again.
      This is not a desireable outcome!

      Prof Hanson, as you point out in your very next post, if living
      standards fall, so does civility. Do you want
      this to happen? Our best hope is to strengthen, stabilize, and extend
      the demographic transition, not to reverse it.

      • Roman Davis

        I feel that kids should be something people value, so that they are treated better, because kids are people, and I feel this would lead to more utility for all.

        Hanson seems to be suggesting a balance between “few kids because kids are low status” and “too many kids because kids are exist to support my status”, with “kids should be high investment so there aren’t too many of them, but their good treatment is associated with high status.”

  • Agree with curious that it’s strange you didn’t mention possibility of stay at home dad. See here:

    “In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated there were about 159,000 stay-at-home dads in the U.S., a 60 percent increase from 2004, and those numbers can be expected to rise even further as more families react to two trends — the tightening job market, and an increase in the number of couples in which the wife outearns her husband — currently between a quarter and a third of all marriages, according to various estimates.”

    Also I doubt the actual importance of the Idiocracy phenomenon. Flynn effect and eventually more acceptance of genetic engineering will trump it.

  • lemmy caution

    There has been a trend toward time consuming parenting practices by the upper and middle class. See this book:



    This just results in fewer kids because it becomes too difficult to raise a lot of kids this way.

  • You have an idea that points in the right direction. At the moment, parenting and especially motherhood is an institute stuck in a medieval ethos while the rest of society has moved forward. The paradigm that makes the rest of our society successful and accomplished is almost totally absent from motherhood. It is not democratic, not subject to transparency or oversight, not subject to market forces or an investment board or a research review board. There is no way of evaluating who is and isn’t a successful parent. Even looking at how children turn out isn’t a real indication because genetics plays such a big part in outcome. A person with great parenting skills but a poor mix of genetic traits in their child will likely produce a worse result than a mediocre parent with a genetic lottery child.

    I suggest that SAHDs become more popular if only because males have an innate tendancy to compete and form objective measures of evaluation so that the winner of the competition can be clearly known. More males as primary parents would inherently improve the quality of parenting amongst all primary parents because they would figure out how to improve parenting by ovjective standards.

  • Garrett Schmitt

    If you want to see a longstanding attempt at “Greatest Mom of the Year” award, there’s the Medal of the French Family.

    The level of the distinction (bronze, silver, gold) is based on the number of children. There’s a qualifying process to assess quality of effort to determine eligibility, and the oldest child must be at least 16.

    Admittedly this isn’t purely a medal for raising kids so much as it is a medal for raising French kids.

  • Maybe a law could be written where mom’s get a percentage of their children’s income above the average income for their age group. So if a person makes 45,000 bucks and the average for his age group is 40,000, maybe his mom gets 25 percent of the 5,000 dollars the kid makes that is above the average. If the mom has lots of successful kids, she gets lots of money.

    • magfrump

      How would this be handled in the case of adopted children? Or in the case of disowned children or those who weren’t supported? It doesn’t seem to adjust to the issue that genetics can play a large role. It also seems to create weird incentives for children to distance themselves from their mothers. Also why mothers and not fathers?

      It seems like it would be difficult for a party other than the child to assess who was the driving force in their lives (and iirc good teachers are more powerful driving forces than parents because they can cross class and genetic lines) and the child would have very little incentive to point this out, except as a favoritism contest.

      However wanting to be a child’s favorite should lead to consuming parenting practices, see above, rather than having more children, which is what Robin has advocated in the past.

    • Robert Koslover

      A law??!! Mike, how about the grown kids, who decide for themselves that their mothers did a good job, choosing voluntarily to support their own mothers? Who is a better judge of a mother, the state or her own children? I know that some people want to trust almost everything to the state, but this? Were you serious about this, or are you just kidding around and/or hoping to see how people would respond to your suggestion? I really want to know. Thanks.

      • Magfrump, good question. I was thinking paying parents to have and raise children who are above average at least in money making would possibly increase more quality babies. So I guess adoptive and biological parents would both be a part of that process and maybe could split rewards somehow.

        A problem with letting a child decide who gets the payment is that it doesn’t necessarily encourage parents to make more babies if the kid can decide not to reward the parents for that behavior.

        Similarly, rewarding teachers wouldn’t encourage parents to have more kids, that I can see. Parents could cut a deal with teachers to split rewards, I suppose, to encourage teachers to teach kids stuff that will help kids be productive.

        Robert, kids can reward parents freely now. The idea is to increase fertility rates.

        I was serious about entertaining the idea, but not necessarily thinking it is ultimately a good idea. Thinking about this more, I think a big problem is that it punishes successful people by taking some of their income away. This probably should have been obvious to me but I just didn’t think of it. I also think moms would tend to hate this idea, the way I stated it anyway. Third, why should just parents who have kids who make above average income get rewarded? What if every parent whose kid made above subsistence got a percentage of the money they earned above subsistence, as a reward for making more people and the benefits of more people? Fourth, something about the amount of the reward and how it’s paid out doesn’t seem that enticing to me. I don’t know. If your kid makes 45,000 dollars, and that is 5,000 above his peers, you get 25% of that or 1250 bucks that year from your kid. Plus to get it, you have to raise the kid for about twenty years and hope he’s above average, which is not likely. Maybe it would make a little difference, I don’t know.

  • I really don’t think that a larger number of overbearing, competitive, control-obsessed “helicopter parents” is what society needs, but that’s what you seem to be promoting almost explicitly.

    There is already a strong trend towards this, and the results can be quite catastrophic for both children and parents.

  • Two thousands years ago the Romans were concerned with the same problem – falling fertility among the upper class women. Just like you they thought the answer may lie in helping mothers signal their high status. By today’s standards their methods were quite draconian. In particular, only mothers of at least three children were allowed using makeup. For some reason it did not work for them.

    • I’d like to read more about that; cite anyone?

      • From “Caesar and Christ” by WILL DURANT:

        “…Probably at the same time Augustus passed another law, usually named lex lulia de Tnaritandis ordinibus, from its chapter on marriage in the “orders” i.e., the two upper classes. Its purpose was threefold: to encourage and yet restrict marriage, to retard the dilution of Roman with alien blood, and to restore the old conception of marriage as a union for parentage. Marriage was to be obligatory upon all marriageable males under sixty and women under fifty. Widows and divorcees might inherit only if remarried within six months after the death or divorce of the husband. Spinsters and childless wives could not inherit after fifty, nor before if they possessed 50,000 sesterces ($7500).

        …The mother of three children acquired the ius trvum liberorumihe right to wear a special garment, and freedom from the power of her husband…Mothers of three children were freed from those limits which the lex Vocoma. ( 1 69 B.C.) had placed upon bequests
        to women.

        …These laws offended every class, even the puritans who complained that the “right of three children” dangerously emancipated the mother from male authority. Others excused their celibacy on the score that the “modern woman” was too independent, imperious, capricious, and extravagant. The exclusion of bachelors from public shows was considered too severe and
        impossible to enforce; Augustus had the clause rescinded in 12 B.C.

  • Zack M. Davis

    Robin, I’m sorry if this sounds off-topic or snarky—of course we should all understand that you can’t address every point in every post—but I really am genuinely baffled. This post, among other things you’ve written, makes it sound like you genuinely care about individual evolutionary adaptiveness (“once-adaptive status cues now induce a maladaptive obsession […] Alas I fear this may have the opposite affect […] Home-schooling seems a step in the right direction”). But why? If you’re a total utilitarian who thinks people are benefited by being brought into existence, then it makes sense that you would want more population growth. But I can’t figure out what possible rationale you would have for caring about adaptiveness as such. If you cared about your own genes surely you should be applauding lower mean fertility—less competition for your lineage, right?

    • I have the same question as Zack. Also, Robin, earlier you had argued that population will once again approach the malthusian limit in the future and there’s not much we can do to prevent that. So why does it matter to you that some people have fewer kids now than they could? Given your beliefs and values, shouldn’t you be devoting all your energy to reducing existential risk, rather than figuring out how to get people to have more children?

  • MattW

    A couple of ideas on why parenting is low status:
    -Anyone can do it; for most people the only qualification is working sex organs.
    -It has a small scope; the average parent influences just a few kids. It’s like being a teacher, even the best ones have an impact on only a small number of people.

    I don’t see those changing ever (or at least not for a long, long time) so the other status signals have to rise enough to counter these low status signals.

  • Folks, I focused on female status effects because those effects seem to be the main cause of the fertility fall. I care mainly because it is good to have more people.

    • IC

      Well, different nations have different levels of fertility, be it “eugenic” or “dysgenic.” It just means that some nations or groups of people will eventually outbreed others, for better or worse, right?

      For example, religious groups (Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims) will outbreed secular people, as per the article “The Return of Patriarchy.” Unless technology intervenes.

      BTW, I would be interested on your views about the “Misandy Bubble” article by The Futurist. It’s long, but worth reading.

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  • Constant

    High fertility benefits the genes, i.e., the family. It doesn’t benefit rival genes (non-family). So if there is some social mechanism (such as status) that evolved to encourage high fertility (as opposed to merely accidentally encouraging it), it should be found within the family. If it is social status, then it should be status within the family. In that case, the way to damage that mechanism and reduce fertility is to make family ties matter less.

  • bigthinker

    The Anuta of the Pacific have it figured out. The youngsters have the kids when they’re most fertile & healthly. The 30 plussers raise the kids when they’re more mature & ready. Spend your 20’s figuring life out. Adopt kids when you get into your 30’s. Cut the genetic link to the kids you raise. Solves all sorts of problems. Integral part of the culture.

  • Violet

    A simple solution would be to just pay for people to have and raise children if all you care is the number of children.

  • Jim Vernon

    Why do I feel that you don’t try to overcome any of your own biases? Why is this all about motherhood, when the title explicitly says “parenting”?

    Ironically, though, I’ll quote my mother (who was not original in this sentiment): “virtue is its own reward”. If you’re looking for external rewards for parenting, I suggest you focus instead on your career and leave parenting to those of us foolish enough to want to do it. Period. We just want to do it.

    Best regards,

    • Because of the cited hypothesis that the low-status of mothers is (partly) responsible for the demographic transition – probably.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Benquo: Sweden’s higher fertility relative to Italy is almost certainly due to the substantially larger Moslem immigrant community there.

    • “Benquo: Sweden’s higher fertility relative to Italy is almost certainly due to the substantially larger Moslem immigrant community there.

      No, it’s not.


      The native Swedish birth rate is 1.82, considerably higher than the overall fertility rate in Italy.

  • I think the key is to take a more universal utilitarian approach to parenting and accept successful children, anybody’s children, are a benefit to society as a whole.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    License child bearing, and make the licenses hard to obtain. For your purposes you want them hard enough to get that they increase status, but not so hard that this reduces the birth rate.

    So the licenses can’t be expensive (execpt maybe on a sliding scale – to give conspicuous consumption opportunities to the rich); ideally, it must be something that anyone could get, so no IQ test or anything like that.

    Better would be that the licenses require the parents to be physically fit, and above average sexual performers. Possibly you’d need a vote from your local community for you to be granted the license; so only socially influential people could get them. Since one can exercice, practise sexual techniques, and move to communities where one would be higher status, this seems to suggest the right mix of barriers to encourage maximum high status and maximum reproduction.

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