First published in 2005, Freakonomics was one of those things some of us in the finance industry liked to read because it was written by 2 brilliant yet entertaining economists. (As in, they exist?) It inspired the special kind of love we reserve for when those poor quants and analysts corralled to speak in early morning dealing room briefings before the caffeine kicks in actually manage to make a funny.
Towards the end of the book is a piece titled What Makes A Perfect Parent that I glossed over. One big fat ironic reason I now went looking for their writings on parenting was because somewhere at the back of my mind I suddenly remembered Levitt and Dubner (L&D) didn’t make their career on parenting or child safety (I’m neurotic enough without additional fear mongering – most innovations/ new research in child safety are affiliated to a new product being marketed btw – or say, politics, like in the case of gun accidents in the States? And then reading all the different, at times conflicting parenting material from experts who sound exceedingly sure of their own methods and then trying to also answer Rockstar’s daily why, Why, WHYs were just turning my brain to mush).
L&D were also an inspiration to apply other talents you might have (say, from work) to help you analyze parenting choices. Besides glitzy accolades like If Indiana Jones Had Been An Economist, they were parents of 6 children under the ages of 5 between them, including a little girl adopted from China, when they wrote the book. It was in a support group of grieving parents after Levitt lost a one year old to pneumococcal meningitis that Levitt had been struck by how many drownings were in the group and went on to research why parents fear certain things yet often it’s others that prove deadly (ie they are bad risk assessors) – it’s why a single case of mad cow in 2004 caused anti-beef frenzy whereas kitchen bacteria from raw meat and fish on counter surfaces (which can also kill and is a lot more common) doesn’t make headlines. Also why we have very few dish rags in our home, in place of kitchen paper towels… (Forgive me! I’ll… buy more recycled goods and make more donations to environmental causes! I just don’t trust helpers to easily follow sanitizing instructions)
Running regression analysis on data from the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) measuring the academic progress of kindergartners – 5th graders in the late 90s, L&D sought to find factors correlated with high test scores and factors that well, seem to have had no effect. (And I’m just blogging this to force myself to digest it so if this is boring then see you next post!)
High Correlation Factors (roughly, Stuff That Matters To High Academic Test Scores):
- Highly educated parents
- Parents with high socio-economic status
- Mum is 30 or older at time of first child (as opposed to say a teen mum, implying wish to further education /career before having a child)
- Child had low birthweight (of the sort that implies mum didn’t take care of herself during pregnancy, either by smoking or drinking etc)
- Parents speak English at home (probably not applicable in Asian context, this was a study of US kids and it was English vs say, Hispanic languages)
- Child is adopted (referring to hereditary IQ – L&D would however go on to quote The Nature and Nurture of Economic Outcomes’ use of US and British adoption studies to elaborate how by the time they reached adulthood however, adopted children would have veered sharply toward their adoptive parents’ influence)
- Parents involved in PTA (qualified as parents taking a strong interest in education rather than parents’ involvement somehow producing better test results)
- Child has many books at home
Low Correlation Factors:
- Child’s family intact
- Parents recently moved to better neighborhood
- Mum didn’t work from birth to Kindergarten
- Child attended Head Start
- Parents regularly take the child to museums
- Child is regularly spanked
- Child frequently watches tv (Finnish education system cited as example – one of the best in the world, yet beginning formal education relatively late at age 7. Except by then most children had taught themselves to read via subtitles while watching American tv)
- Child’s parents read to him almost every day
L&D observed that the factors that mattered were not what parents did, so much as who they were, and that technique in itself is overrated.
Affirmation: When the Chicago Public School System allowed students to apply to virtually any public school rather than the one in their own neighborhood, as predicted the schools with the best test scores were insanely oversubscribed. So they resorted to awarding places via lottery. Lottery implies random allotment to equally qualified candidates. (Kind of like when you have rabidly oversubscribed exclusive international schools in Hong Kong. I mean seriously, yes your child must be excellent to pass the screening but there are also many excellent children who might have a bad interview day or are simply missed because of the sheer massive oversubscription or might do better in a different system?)
Here’s why I think so – CPS students who won the lottery did no better than the ones who didn’t. The key was whether they applied for the lottery in the first place, ie whether they were the kinds of students who were serious about education to begin with. I like to think that and “PTA involvement” also implies whether you follow the instructions and learning suggestions in the weekly emails or notes etc they give you… (They give you notes, right?)
Schools are the “experts” at their various educational packages and offerings, you are the “expert” at which environment your child will thrive in. (And then if you find it a good fit you follow their instructions right?)
Conclusion: Stop freaking out about whether you are picking the “wrong” parenting method. If you were the kind of parent who bothered to research it and then start worrying about it, you probably fit the profile of the kind of parent whose child would have tested well anyway.
As in, rather than open-can-apply-this-or-that-conventional-wisdom you were probably tailoring your decisions to suit your child. It wasn’t any one decision to switch off the tv, read daily to your child. But then that was never what parenting was to begin with, was it?