May 13, 2005
Posted by Gordon Smith

Freakonomics The pressure to give this book rave reviews is enormous. Everyone seems to love it (the Freakonomics website will lead you to plenty of positive reviews), and Steven Levitt is an undeniably brilliant economist -- my hat's off to anyone who wins the John Bates Clark Medal. But this is not a brilliant book. And not just because the title is stupid. For all of the talk about the dazzling insights, the book is glib. It reads like a journalist describing the work of a scholar ... which is exactly what it is.

The chapter entitled "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" will serve nicely to illustrate my complaint about the book, but the problems are not confined to this chapter. The authors begin the chapter by chiding parents who do not allow their children to play with friends whose homes have guns, while allowing the same children to play at homes with swimming pools. More children are killed in swimming pools than in gun accidents, so these parents are irrational. Fair enough, though criticizing people for being horrible at risk assessment is an old game and one not limited to parents.

The question the authors really want to answer, they claim, is this: "how much do parents really matter?" And they begin with this stage-setting thought:

Clearly, bad parenting matters a great deal. As the link between abortion and crime makes clear, unwanted children -- who are disproportionately subject to neglect and abuse -- have worse outcomes than children who were eagerly welcomed by their parents. But how much can those eager parents actually accomplish for their children's sake?

If neglect and abuse leads to bad results, then attentive, caring parents must matter a great deal. How much can such parents accomplish? I would think the answer should be: a tremendous amount. But this isn't the answer the authors are seeking. They want to find "the hidden side of everything," and such an obvious conclusion is not interesting. So, just after telling us that experts of all kinds exaggerate their claims because "an expert whose argument reeks of restraint and nuance often doesn't get much attention," the authors press on with the implausible claim that parenting really doesn't matter all that much.

How do they support this claim? Here they find the sledding a bit rough. They begin with a provocatice comparison between two boys, one from a model white family in the Chicago suburbs and the other from a dysfunctional and abusive black family in Daytona Beach, Florida. That last fact suggests that these are real people, but we don't find out until the epilogue that the black boy grew up to be Levitt's co-author (Roland G. Fryer, Jr.) while the white boy grew up to be Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. How ironic that a book claiming to be about data rests one of its main claims on anecdote.

Indeed, the authors frankly admit that "[c]ertain facets of a child's outcome -- personality, for instance, or creativity -- are not easily measured by data." Indeed, I would say that the most important outcomes that I hope for in my own children (integrity, honesty, charity, compassion, etc.) are not easily measured. What we can easily measure, however, is academic performance. Test scores. And the rest of the chapter is devoted to that.

A bit more than half of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of data gathered from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The analysis in the book is based on a paper by Levitt and Freyer, an abstract of which appears here. The paper is about the gap in test scores between black children and white children in kindergarten and after two years of school. When discussing factors that seem to be correlated (or not) with test scores, the book states:

[A] mother who stays home from work until her child goes to kindergarten does not seem to provide any advantage. Obsessive parents might find this lack of correlation bothersome -- what was the point of all those Mommy and Me classes? -- but that is what the data tell us.

I don't know a lot about Mommy & Me, but their website talks about making children feel "happy, healthy, and loved," not about acing standardized tests. This is just a hunch, but I don't think that most mothers who decide to stay home with their children think, "This will really give Johnny the edge on standardized tests."

And why use the demeaning term "obsessive parents"? Sprinkled throughout this chapter, the term is introduced with this unhelpful definition: "Obsessive parents know who they are and are generally proud of the fact; non-obsessive parents also know who the obsessive parents are and tend to snicker at them." Examples of things obsessive parents do: "trek to the local police station or firehouse" to have the car seat installed "just right"; take their children to museums even though such "culture cramming" does not improve test performance; and study parenting techniques. Now, these things may seem silly to someone who knows better -- or someone whose only metric for success is a test score --  but using a term like "obsessive parents" for well-intentioned acts like these is mean spirited.

The authors conclude the chapter by listing eight factors that seem to be correlated with higher test scores and eight factors that are not. In looking at the 16 factors, the authors write: "To overgeneralize a bit, the first list describes things that parents are, the second list describes things that parents do." (emphasis added) Let's take a closer look. Here are the eight factors that are correlated with higher test scores, with my strikethrough on those that do not seem to fit their description:

  • The child has highly educated parents
  • The child's parents have high socioeconomic status
  • The child's mother was thirty or older at the time of her first child's birth
  • The child had low birthweight
  • The child's parents speak English in the home
  • The child is adopted
  • The child's parents are involved in the PTA
  • The child has many books in his home

I think I am being quite generous here by counting education as something parents "are" rather than something parents "do" (and the same might be said for "high socioeconomic status," which is often dependent on effort rather than status), but even giving them that one, it seems pretty clear that their "overgeneralization" isn't much of a generalization at all, but a distortion. To be sure, the list of uncorrelated factors is all about things parents do, but that only tells us that many things we do are not likely to influence test scores. No big surprise there. The main point the authors are trying to make is that child-rearing "technique looks to be highly overrated." Perhaps that is true, at least when the only thing you measure is test scores.

Cross-posted at Times & Seasons.

UPDATE: It occurred to me last night that the three things parents "are" from my list really could be presented as three things parents "do." I noted that fact about education and socioeconomic status, but it is also true of waiting until the age of 30 to have your first child. If you add all of those things to the others that parents can "do" to improve test scores -- namely, speak English in the home, get involved in the PTA, and buy books for the home -- then you have a list of six things that parents can do to affect test scores positively. Had the authors wanted that to be their conclusion, it seems like it would have been pretty easy.

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