Supply and reprimand; The economics of child-rearing

18th April, 2009

A review of Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting, by Joshua Gans

What happens when Mr Spock meets Dr Spock? The answer is Parentonomics , an autobiographical account of how an economist used his professional training in game theory to bring up his three children.

Joshua Gans describes his experiences in the labour wards, changing nappies and dealing with tantrums, spousal absences and sibling rivalry – all the while explaining what he did or did not do, the economic principles involved, and whether any of it worked as a parenting strategy.

The obvious question is whether this is supposed to be good advice or some kind of joke. There is no ambiguity in Parentonomics: Gans is not joking. Thankfully, he can be very funny. Although he is an academic – a professor at Melbourne Business School – his writing has a professional snap. While the advice is intended to be useful, readers will come to their own conclusions about that. It does at least tend to be thought-provoking.

The book may not strike a chord with those without children, but parents will wince with recognition. What distinguishes Gans’s approach is not just his regard for economics, but his disregard for social mores. Why do we frown on the idea of putting toddlers on leashes, he wonders? For parents wandering busy streets, they are brilliant; far safer than letting the child run free and far easier than incessantly holding hands. He points out that most parents end up tying their children into a pushchair instead – more restrictive than the leash, but socially more acceptable.

Another observation that brought me up short: when Gans plays his children at any game from chess to snap, he plays to win. “I see no need to coddle my children in game-playing,” he opines. “If they want that, they can go elsewhere, say, to their mother.” That seems wrong, somehow.

And yet, he observes, his children keep coming back for more, develop their own strategies to win (that is, they cheat) and get to play far more games with their father, because he is less likely to make excuses not to play.

There is much more in the same vein, from the logistical impossibilities of driving multiple children to multiple parties, to a deadpan account of how Gans got himself blacklisted at the local labour ward. He advised his wife, “I think you are broadly delusional. You need drugs and you need them now.”

At the heart of the book is the question of using and misusing incentives. Gans is unabashedly in the school of rational choice. Child No. 1 was toilet trained with the promise of jelly beans. Every member of the household received one jelly bean (or two – don’t ask). Child No. 1 would monitor the administration of rewards, standing outside the bathroom and asking whether Daddy had earned one jelly bean or two.

Sadly, jelly beans proved insufficiently motivating, so the reward was then ratcheted up to chocolate frogs. These were hugely motivating – so much so that the toddler spent literally hours on the lavatory waiting for something to emerge so that she could collect her reward. The entire system took some fine tuning.

Child No. 2 achieved a real coup when he earned a toy by emerging from his room with dry training pants every night for a week. Alas, he achieved this by changing his pants in the morning. When told this was against the rules, he simply removed his training pants and left them by the bed, wetting it but keeping the training pants bone dry, as the bonus scheme required. It’s a witty and instructive episode – and the lesson should be noted not just by parents but by anyone setting an investment banker’s bonus.

The Gans family solved the problem for Child No. 3 by outsourcing potty training to daycare. If only we could do the same for Wall Street and the City.

First published, Financial Times, Life and Arts, 18 April 2009

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