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The Anti-Tiger Mother: Bryan Caplan's Relaxed Approach to Parenting

May 02, 2011

A few months ago, Yale law professor Amy Chua published 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,' a harsh condemnation of supposedly lax 'Western' parenting which drew ire from many for its draconian mothering advice. Now economist Bryan Caplan has struck back with a book at the opposite end of the parenting spectrum: 'Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.'

By Eric Garneau

The Battle over Raising Children

It hardly seems like adults are carrying on this debate, let alone respected professors at major institutions of higher learning. On the one hand you have Amy Chua, Tiger Mom extraordinaire and advocate of forcing grueling work on children until they achieve measurable success. On the other hand, there's George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan, whose advice to parents essentially boils down to 'relax, have fun and let your kids do what they want. They'll turn out fine.'

That's a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. Chua and Caplan have taken up the classic nature versus nurture debate in child-rearing, and each sits pretty firmly at one of those poles. Both authors, of course, have evidence to back up their assertions. Chua's seems mostly anecdotal, while Caplan bases his assertion on case studies of adoptions and twins.

What Caplan Thinks

In a nutshell, Caplan's research shows that over time adopted children tend to reflect the characteristics of their birth parents much more than their adopted parents. Similarly, identical twins raised separately end up fairly similar. His conclusion: parents with good genes tend to beget good children, regardless of how they're raised. Caplan therefore wants parents to relax a little. Don't make your kids do something they don't want to do. There's no harm in letting them watch TV or play video games - they'll be okay.

Caplan's treatise leads to another surprising conclusion - good parents should have more children. It's not uncommon for people to worry about overpopulation these days, but Caplan argues that parents tend to over-prime themselves for the child-rearing experience (probably due in part to the frantic harangues of people like Chua). He then employs a basic economic principle: if you have more than enough of something (energy for parenting) to manage a product (a child), get more product! Good parents can handle two kids as well as one, the thinking goes, and then they'll be bringing two well-raised individuals into the world.

Everyone's a Critic

Like Chua, Caplan has his share of detractors. A major criticism: his book's usefulness is predicated heavily on class. His somewhat laissez-faire methods work fine for those couples predisposed to be good parents due to affluence, but parents in more difficult situations can't really afford to be more lax. As an obvious example, Caplan advocates parents hiring babysitters so they can take time for themselves, but financially-strapped individuals may not have this luxury.

Another major complaint against Caplan: he ignores nuances in the child-rearing studies he cites. For instance, although identical twins raised apart are fairly similar, the differences that do arise can probably be accounted for by parenting. It's too easy to say that parenting has no effect on a child, just as it's seemingly too easy to say 'good parents raise good kids.'

The Real Use of Caplan and Chua

In the end, it's probably reasonable for parents not to take up either extreme represented by Chua and Caplan. Their books stand as ultimate statements of absolute ways of thinking, and in that they have value. Chua advocates complete control; Caplan says control doesn't matter. Those are two competing philosophies which most parents probably grapple with. Seeing them put in concrete terms might help concerned parents navigate their own path between those two poles.

After all, how often are extreme points of view actually correct? Life is made up of compromise, of having to synthesize competing viewpoints to find the one you think is most reasonable. Why should parenting be any different? You don't have to force your kids play piano for hours on end without food and water, nor do you have to feel powerless. Perhaps you can take solace in something Caplan himself admits: the parents most concerned about parenting philosophies are the ones who probably need to worry the least.

Read more about Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother.


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