Why Good Parenting is Less Work Than You Think

Here’s a case where being a Mean Mom works in your favor: When you have a big family. It’s obvious, right? You can’t coddle and hover over 14 kids; no one’s arms are that big. Even with four or five kids helicoptering and over-parenting is a stretch. (And four or five is, by today’s standards big, though it’s not by the standards of past generations, especially past generations of Catholic families I grew up around. Take the Canedos, who were on my Catholic-school bus. Every year for the whole six years I was on that bus, Mrs. Canedo shooed another uniformed, hair-slicked or be-ribboned Canedo kid out to the bus. Great family, but I digress).

I don’t have a big family; for better or worse, my two kids are enough for me. But one of the arguments people make against breeding beyond two (or maybe three) offspring is that your time, attention, and resources will be stretched thin. And I’m not (well, the naysayers on larger families are not) saying that it’s all about the cash, thought that’s a big part of it. It’s about the focus you supposedly can’t muster for more than a couple of managable children.

If you have a big, noisy brood (more than me, less than Michelle Duggar, say), you…

  • Can’t possibly have them all take piano lessons
  • Can’t possibly do homework with each of them, one on one, every day
  • Can’t possibly turn them into soccer/lacrosse/ballet stars
  • Can’t transmit your values, hopes, dreams, or tell your stories, or mold them into the people you wish them to be.

Which is all a way of demonstrating that, for many of today’s parents, parenting is a project, and who wants to do a poor job on a project as important as growing a small human into a big one? No one does. Listen, I can’t look too far down my nose at parents like that; my kids play both soccer and piano, and when I empty their school backpacks every day, I tear my hair out with all the notices and art pieces and tests and homework pages that I have to sort and organize. How could I possibly deal with more than two of this?

But that’s just the extracurricular stuff and school. The latter you have to do, the former you have a choice about, and my choice has been to keep activities to a minimum, so that there are at least two fallow after-school weekdays. It works for us. If one of them wanted to play baseball, he’d have to drop soccer for that season. Can’t do more. (This stance was cemented this weekend, when I had a chat with a mom from my little guy’s soccer team. These are kindergarteners. She was trying to figure out how she could handle signing up her daughter next year, since in first grade in this league there’s a weekday practice in addition to one weekend game, and the times are fluid, not fixed. She simply could not juggle any more time on any more days. For a six year old. I bit my tongue rather than say, “well, if L wants the soccer, why not have her give up, I don’t know, dance? Mandarin lessons?” She doesn’t take Mandarin; that’s just an example).

But it’s not just the activities. It’s the idea, which has grown into a kind of free-floating anxiety among parents in my general generational group, that nurture is stronger than nature (or maybe it’s that nurture is, by definition, the one we can control); and that if we can do something to change, mold, or shape our child’s life, we have to do it. Have to.

An interesting article appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week, timed for Father’s Day. The writer, Bryan Caplan, is an economics professor at George Mason University, and he cites a whole bunch of research that shows, if you believe it’s true, that what we can do for our kids, in terms of how they ultimately turn out, is actually pretty minimal, and ultimately, in the final analysis, ineffective. All that homework help, pffffft. All those stern admonitions to eat broccoli, pfffft.

Turns out, again according to this research (which involved those darlings of behavioral genetics research, twins and adopted children), that nature is far more powerful. We do have an effect, because how can we not, but it may well be that our influence gradually wears off, like the measles vaccine, and there are no parental boosters, not really. They eat the broccoli while they’re with us, but when they grow up, they either eat it or they don’t, essentially.

A lot of the research results Caplan includes in the piece made my eyes glaze over (too many twin cohorts in Sweden and adoptees in Australia I guess; I don’t have the brain for academic-ese). But his conclusion rings true to me:

If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”—and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break. If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family.

Rock on, Professor Caplan. He goes on to suggest that this may be an excellent argument for having more children; sure it costs more (in time and money and sleep) in the short run, but in the long run? The fact that you can’t do it all may be the best gift you can give your brood. (Ah, if I were younger, if I were younger…)

Another thing Caplan points out, research-wise, is that the one thing we do that does stick with our little dears is how happy they felt. In short, kids don’t grow into adulthood better equipped because you signed them up for SAT classes, dragged their asses to riding lessons, taught them French, or did their model-of-the-solar-system diorama for them. But they are better off when they remember a safe, reasonably happy, reasonably harmonious home. I can do that!