Parenting Is Not About Kids

Bryan Caplan wondered why parents forget a kids view:

The mom and dad in these stories  … pointlessly alienate their kids by pushing them into activities that aggravate parent and child alike.  … [they] largely ignore all sorts of kid-on-kid abuse, leaving their older sons in a brutal Hobbesian jungle.  When they do respond, it’s awfully arbitrary. …  Many parents really do forget what’s it’s like to be a kid. … I honestly don’t know why.  I bet Robin Hanson would have a clever functionalist story.

I commented:

Parents seem so eager to appear adultish that they alienate their kids. How could parents possibly care so much about what other adults think of them than they sacrifice their own kids happiness?  It is almost as if parents cared more about being respected than having fun.

Bryan responded:

[This] assumes that other parents care about your parenting far more than they actually do.  In reality, most parents are too tired and preoccupied to worry if somebody else‘s parents aren’t “adultish” enough.

But Bryan presumes we care less about the judgments others make when they make snappier judgments.  Yet we all care about how our surface features appear to others, especially when those others make snap judgments – after all if they judged more carefully, our inner beauty might shine through.  And the busier are other parents, the snappier are their judgments.

Katja Grace was once similarly puzzled:

A cheap method of disinfecting water … its effects were not significant … [in] rural Bolivia. … [Researchers] suspect a big reason for this is that lining up water bottles on your roof shows your neighbors that you aren’t rich enough to have more expensive methods of disinfecting water. … Fascinating as signaling explanations are, this seems incredible. … Parents are known for obsessive interest in their children’s safety. What’s going on?

I responded:

The bottles … should reduce kids’s death rate by 1.5%.  … When are parents ever willing to make themselves appear poor or low status to reduce their kid’s chance of dying by 1.5%?

Now consider other “tired” parents activities:

  • Playing music to baby in womb, dragging them to concerts
  • Lots more “pushing [kids] into activities that aggravate”
  • Work hard for income to pay for track houses on cul de sacs
  • Insist anywhere kids visit eliminate all pointy objects
  • Carefully monitor men at playgrounds, even men with kids
  • Never let go of hand of kid at mall, to prevent kidnapping
  • Making kids sit at table until they eat “healthy” food
  • Drag kids to doc every time they get a cold
  • Making sure kids do all their homework
  • Obsessively overly clean kid environments

These are usually justified as helping kids, but most have questionable marginal value.  But they are what “good parents” are thought to do.   Ask yourself: how big would the marginal benefit to kids of an activity have to be for parents to do it if that activity made them look like a bad parent?

We all have illusions about love and romance, and are reluctant to accept signaling explanations of behavior where we feel so genuine and virtuous.   But romantic illusions pale compared to parenting illusions, making it all the harder to call a parenting spade a spade.

Bryan is writing a book trying to convince parents to have more kids, via convincing them to lighten up on parenting effort.  This is a noble cause, but I’m afraid it hangs on Bryan getting parents to see parenting-lite as higher status, such as via celebrating rich folks who send their kids off to boarding school, or our great grandparents who had ten kids each.

Added: Bryan responds here.

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