(2022-05-09) The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters

The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters. How much do parents matter?

A major challenge with learning about parental influence is that correlation doesn’t imply causation. For example, kids whose parents read a lot to them tend to achieve more academically. But parents don’t just give their kids books. They also give them DNA.

nature or nurture?

The only way to scientifically determine just how much parents affect their kids would be to randomly assign different kids to different parents and study how they turned out. In fact, this has been done.

Since the 1950s, the nonprofit Holt International has helped American families adopt tens of thousands of children from Korea and other countries

They could compare genetically unrelated children who were assigned to the same parents: The more the parents influenced the children, the more these adopted brothers and sisters would end up alike.

What the scientists found was that the family a kid was raised in had surprisingly little impact on how that kid ended up. Unrelated children adopted into the same home ended up only a little more similar than unrelated children who were raised separately. The effects of nature on a child’s future income were some 2.5 times larger than the effects of nurture.

As Bryan Caplan notes in his 2011 book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, parents have only small effects on their children’s health, life expectancy, education, and religiosity

If the overall effects of parenting are this limited, the effects of individual parenting decisions are likely to be small

Some examples: One of the largest randomized controlled trials on breastfeeding found that it had no significant long-term effect on a variety of outcomes. A careful study of television use among preschoolers found that TV had no long-term effects on child test scores. A randomized trial suggests that teaching kids cognitively demanding games, such as chess, doesn’t make them smarter in the long term. A meta-analysis of bilingualism found that it has only small effects on a child’s cognitive performance, and that even these may be due to a bias in favor of publishing positive study results.

However, there is evidence that one decision may be very important—and it’s a decision that parenting experts and advice books rarely even consider.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of the United States, published It Takes a Village

Bob Dole said, “I am here to tell you: It does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child

So who was right, Bob Dole or Hillary Clinton?

several years ago, the economist Raj Chetty (a former professor of mine) and others began looking at this question.

They had convinced the IRS to give their team of researchers de-identified and anonymous data on virtually an entire generation of American taxpayers

Chetty and his team focused on siblings who’d moved as kids.

Suppose that when Sarah was 13 and Emily was 8, the family moved from Los Angeles to Denver. Suppose that Denver is a better place to raise a kid than Los Angeles. If this is the case, we would expect grown-up Emily to do better than Sarah, because she had five more years in Denver’s good-for-children air.

The results showed that some large metropolitan areas give kids an edge. They get a better education. They earn more money: The best cities can increase a child’s future income by about 12 percent. They found that the five best metropolitan areas are: Seattle; Minneapolis; Salt Lake City; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Madison, Wisconsin.

However, parents don’t merely pick a metropolitan area to live in. They have to pick neighborhoods

They created a website, The Opportunity Atlas, that allows anyone to find out how beneficial any neighborhood is expected to be for kids of different income levels, genders, and races. https://www.opportunityatlas.org/

I have estimated that some 25 percent—and possibly more—of the overall effects of a parent are driven by where that parent raises their child. In other words, this one parenting decision has much more impact than many thousands of others.

Three of the biggest predictors that a neighborhood will increase a child’s success are the percent of households in which there are two parents (vs Single-parent Family), the percent of residents who are college degree graduates, and the percent of residents who return their census forms (social capital).

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