Friday, July 8, 2011

Bryan Caplan, call your office.

I tag Bryan Caplan to write something about Lori Gottlieb's latest anti-helicopter parenting diatribe. Given Gottlieb's very public neurotic personal history, reading her take on how to lead a sane life briefly inspired me to pen a pitch to The Atlantic titled "Meditations on Becoming A Giantess."

It feels weird to be contrarian, since in some ways, I agree with a lot of what Gottlieb says here. A lot of the parent behavior that she is describing really does sound over-the-top and kind of crazy, and I agree with Gottlieb that the people doing this stuff should stop.

As someone who's followed recent coverage of Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I'm interested also in the tensions between Caplan's arguments and Gottlieb's. They both seem to agree that a lot of modern helicopter parenting is crazy over the top. But they are disagreeing on how much harm helicopter parenting can do in the long run. If I'm reading Caplan correctly, he predicts that the kids of the typical helicopter parent will grow up to be about as successful and well-adjusted as they would be if raised under a different parenting regime. Gottlieb, on the other hand, seems to think that helicopter parented children will be more neurotic than others over the long run because of how they were raised.

I note also that Caplan's thesis equally well predicts why more children of helicopter parents end up in therapy than others; helicopter parents are the kind of hyper-conscientious people who want to squeeze every last ounce of Good out of their kids. Their kids inherit this hyper-conscientiousness and thus turn to therapists to squeeze every last ounce of Meaning out of life. Maybe they'd have done the same even if they'd been raised by cavemen.

It is a little odd that Gottlieb views ending up in therapy as a badge of personal failure. Most of the psychologists that I've known are more positive about their profession. They say things like, "Oh, everyone needs some help from a professional sometimes to work through difficult times." The Dartmouth student counseling office used to proudly advertise that 50% of the student body saw a therapist at some point during their four years there. I'm a little skeptical of their confidence in therapy myself, but my views are somewhat uncommon in left-leaning upper-middle-class circles.

If more parents accept Gottlieb's thesis, when in fact Caplan's thesis more accurately explains helicopter kids' behavior, then some families could end up worse off. It was hard for parents to learn how to be adequately emotionally involved under the old parenting models. Now Gottlieb tells them that they have to worry about mastering a whole new set of ideas about parenting. This can be exhausting! But it might be unnecessary, if genetics really are more likely than parenting to determine a whole range of adult outcomes anyway.

It is true that some helicopter parenting behaviors make parents' life more difficult in the short run, and Caplan thus urges parents to avoid them for that reason. But Gottlieb really seems more concerned with adult outcomes here, rather than short-term utility to parents. Finally, Gottlieb encourages parents to keep doing some of the things that Caplan urges them to drop -- e.g. the throwaway line about letting kids drop guitar lessons if they decide they're not interested in them. As Caplan argues, though, the long-term payoff of taking guitar lessons are probably pretty low anyway.

Side note: Gottlieb's diatribe also kind of lacks focus. She describes a cluster of modern parenting behaviors that are all stereotypical of a certain kind of upper-middle-class family, but doesn't quite pull apart which she thinks are most harmful. Are parents supposed to introduce their kids to more competitive activities, i.e. avoid the soccer leagues where everyone gets a trophy and put them in tougher ones? Or are they supposed to quit taking them to soccer practices altogether and let them run around the neighborhood inventing their own games? But what if the neighborhood pick-up games are none too competitive? Are parents supposed to hire math tutors? Gottlieb hints at no. But if the math tutor can help a kid get better in math via dozens of drills, isn't that a lesson that hard work and persistence pays off, which is something of which Amy Chua (whom Gottlieb cites approvingly) would approve? One can be left with the impression that one is sure to land one's kid in therapy no matter what.

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