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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  • Parenting might become a lot easier if “we” could shake the idea of “the survival of the fittest” thinking.

  • Here it gets interesting:

    “We would worry a lot less about what other people thought about us if we knew how little they think about us at all.”

    There are plenty of counter-examples that show that status performances don’t need a literal audience.

    A very simple example: when you’re introduced to someone, you politely inquire into their health and ask “How are you?” Of course, you aren’t actually interested in their health, so doesn’t this mean you are managing the other person’s impression of you, trying to leave the impression that you are a compassionate person who is concerned for others’ well-being?

    But the other person is not fooled by your performance! What’s more, if for some reason the performance succeeded and they were fooled by your feigned interest, it would actually be understood as incredibly rude. They might reply “How dare you ask me about intimate details of my health! We barely know each other!”

    Another slightly distasteful example: you enter an elevator with a stranger. On the way up, you notice a bad smell and realize your companion has farted. We all know the proper etiquette: don’t embarrass them, just pretend nothing has happened. But here again, the other person is not fooled. They know they farted, and they know that you smell it and are pretending that you don’t. If you were to try to reassure them — “Don’t worry, I understand, it happens to everyone” — there’s a similar reversal: not only would they not be reassured by your sincere attempt at kindness, they would be mortified even more.

    In this case, the elevator farter is concerned about creating the false appearance of not having broken a social norm, but who are they trying to convince? You already know.

    One explanation: our relation to the social world is structured through a third, virtual other who is assumed to exist in the elevator, or assumed to judge us or assign status while on the playground, even when we might know perfectly well that no other parents are actually judging us. This is the “other people” in “I’m afraid of what other people might think of me”, or the one who knows that my black logoless Prada t-shirt is very expensive.

    This way of looking at it opens up a new interesting possibility: what do we believe today about what this virtual other demands of us? In some circles, what is most embarrassing is to be exposed as someone who cares about what others think. Perversely, the social convention here is to give the appearance of not caring about appearances, of being free and independent of social conventions.

    • anon

      The examples you mention have very little to do with status: they are social scripts which have been experimentally found to smooth out interaction. None of the parties are “fooled”; they just go along with the script because that’s how it’s supposed to work.

      Also, IMO you’re not thinking beyond first-order effects. If you don’t think that anyone should be embarrassed by farting, why draw attention to the incident at all? By contrast, if the other guy looked visibly mortified, saying something might be the best choice.

      And yes, it’s well established that people perform for an internal observer; we usualy call it our conscience.

  • michael vassar

    “is not about” seems to me to be the central point. How about “actions are not about consequences”, in other words, People aren’t generally consequentialists. Parents aren’t trying to produce the best results for their children, they also not trying to convince people that they are good parents. They are trying to BE good parents. BEING a good parent IS ACTING OUT your cultural stereotype of good parenting. Parents explicitly believe this, in so far as they believe anything explicit and detailed about how they *should* behave.

  • Alex Flint

    Out of the “tired” parent activities, is it not possible that parents recognise that these are what “good parents” do, and then do them because they infer (rightly or wrongly) that they actually are good for their children? I do buy your signalling explanation, but in the case of e.g. forcing kids to eat healthy food, I question whether it is the sole motive in play.

  • Mike, yes we perform for an abstract distant observer.

    michael, yes we act out stereotypes, but what is the main function of those stereotypes, helping kids or looking good?

  • rob

    Reminds me of the Zen Buddhist teaching: “Behave around others as if alone. Alone, behave as if around others.”

    Wasn’t Buddhism an early attempt at overcoming bias?

  • Dave Hedengren

    I’m embarrassed to say I certainly seem to fit the signalling parent model.

    My wife and I alternate taking care of our 8 month old son and both have different ideas on how to best care for a baby this age. I think he should spend more time in independent play and she thinks he should have more interactive play with us. However, when I think she might be watching I try to mimic her parenting style so I can signal that I’m a good father. As a result, I’m not giving my son the optimal amount of independent play time (as I see it) in order to make my wife like me. Although this might harm my son at the margin I think I gain so much from the trade off that I’m still behaving in an efficient way.

    Of course, I can’t really get his opinion on this so I might just be selfish. Or my parenting style might just be lazy and signaling this way helps counter my bad idea.

    I suppose I can chose to feel guilty either way. Or I can just get another slice of pecan pie. Hmmm… I think I’m going to go with the pie.

  • Tom McCabe

    “michael, yes we act out stereotypes, but what is the main function of those stereotypes, helping kids or looking good?”

    I think the point is that things don’t necessarily have to have functions. Things usually have functions of some kind at some point (whether explicit or not), but people continue imitating the form even after the function is long gone all the time. Heck, I’m sure many of us have *chosen* to continue imitating the form even though we *know* the function is long gone. How many of us have dated someone without ever intending to have children with them?

    • michael vassar

      or more briefly, adaption executors, not fitness maximizers.

      The function of the adaptations is to be memetically successful. HOW they do that may differ, but helping kids and looking good are only two options out of many. Regardless, that is NOT a question parents ARE or think they SHOULD be asking.

    • To rephrase, what mixture of pressures brought those behaviors into commonality, and what mixture keeps them there?

      • michael vassar

        I would guess that for many memes the dynamics of the landscape’s evolution involves biases in salience that makes it easier to address and criticize some behavior than its absence or vice versa. Noise or fossilized noise are possible, as well as frequently dependent selection pressures.

  • Grant

    Isn’t it more likely that most parents simply don’t know much about parenting? Sure they read about it, but how many really read and believe scientific studies? I’d bet most read hip parenting magazines and popular books.

    Suppose a person’s peers believe activity X is good for their kids, and force their kids to do X. They then read a scientific study indicating X is bad and Y is good. Most people will still feel inclined to do X, even if alone and away from any chance to signal anything. I don’t think this is signaling as much as people just using the wrong heuristic.

    In other words, I think we partially pick behaviors that look good to others because we aren’t all smart enough to decide what is good and what is not on our own. Even if one spouse knows better they may be inclined to agree with the other for their own reasons.

  • Why is Prof. Caplan’s a noble cause? Is it because the type of people he’s convincing are going to create smarter kids (eugenics) and we need more of those?

    More power to him in attempting this, I suppose. I don’t see it happening for similar reasons that you’re discussing. Elite parents tend to want to send 2 kids to really great schools and after school programs, than to send 5 kids to public schools. And regression to the mean probably means most of your kids aren’t going to be as smart as you, if you’re positively deviant in intelligence.

    • anon

      Why is Prof. Caplan’s a noble cause?

      Assuming that he’s right about most parenting effort being wasteful, why wouldn’t it be a noble cause? His work could be picked up by others and these useless actvities would then become less popular. This woud help kids across the general population, not just the smartest ones.

      • I folded in the part about him telling his audience to have more kids. I’m trying to get a concrete sense of why that’s noble.

        I get that it’s a good idea to tell people to engage in less wasteful effort on kids and more time making existential risk minimizing widgets,.

    • Hanson is a total-utility utilitarian. He regards the creation of more entities which view their own lives as worth living as a noble act. Personally, I would prefer to drop all talk of “nobility”. We’re not in the middle ages any more! On the other hand, feudalism gets a bad rap.

  • Thomas M. Hermann

    You place too much emphasis on signaling. Your worldview is skewed by poor metrics. Without personally knowing you, it’s hard to tell whether this is projection of your own signaling insecurities or just obsession with the concept. Here’s an idea, though, is it possible that signaling seems more prevalent than it really is because by definition we aren’t observing the multitudes of people that aren’t basing actions on the signals sent to others?

  • Greg Lee

    Ignoring the intervention could be perfectly rational:

    “Mausezahl and colleagues found that children in families that used the SODIS method had on average 3.6 episodes of diarrhea per year, compared with 4.3 annual episodes in the control group.

    The result is not statistically significant enough to show that the small reduction was due to the SODIS method, the authors say. ”

    If someone were to ask you to do something with obvious costs, but couldn’t demonstrate the benefit by either his rules of evidence or by yours, what would you do?

  • So the basic question is how much of the hyper-parenting is due to genuine efforts at making their children better overall, and how much of it is mere signaling to the outside world of what great parents they are.

    My first thought was that the percentage of parents guilty of this behavior is relatively small in the population. Hot-housing kids is preferable to Johnny not being able to read at the appropriate grade level which is the far more common problem today.

    So perhaps the hyper-parenting has more to do with concerned parents trying to offset the larger problem in the population of a spiraling down of intellectual abilities? Signaling or otherwise.

  • Jackson

    I read something recently about an anxious mother, anxious about her daughter self harming. What came across to me, to my bias, was that she was angry at her daughter because she was feeling like a failure as a parent. Well, she may have done her best as a mother but my suspicion is that most probably she failed as a mother mainly in the years before her marriage. For instance, she said something about her daughter’s boyfriend being trouble – the relationship went sour and was apparently a major catalyst of her self harming.

    My guess is that the mother being of the sixties (or post sixties) generation, she was probably quite promiscuous and that sort of behaviour, in spite of the ideological libertinism of people in power doing all they can to buffer their electorate against the consequences, will always have destructive repercussions. For the few that do seemingly get through it okay i.e. marry into wealth – if they’ve failed to truly regret past behaviour then they likewise well have failed to developed and therefore instil healthy self respect, moral discrimination in their off-spring. Unfortunately so bad have things become that having such a moral compass can single you out for spiteful attacks from people who don’t like having their failings exposed by contrast.

  • Julian Morrison

    Exactly such a health win that makes you look like a bad parent exists: teaching your kids safe sex pre-puberty and providing them with no-questions-asked contraception. You could easily save their life, but to society it looks you’re encouraging them to get laid.