Steven Horwitz ("Mendacious!" "A truly clueless idiot." - Brad DeLong)
I just finished reading Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids (subtitle: "Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry") and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Her basic argument is that many parents have totally misjudged the real dangers to their children and have chosen to focus on the most unlikely of danger scenarios, with the result that kids are more or less bubble-wrapped through childhood and adolescence, and do not learn self-reliance and how to navigate the world, and are not resilient in the face of failure. (The theme is different but parallel to Marano's A Nation of Wimps, which I've talked about here before.) You may remember Skenazy as "America's Worst Mom" for allowing her 9 year old son to take public transportation alone from Manhattan to their home in the NYC suburbs. I called her my "new hero."
Her argument is one I've been making myself for a number of years, though with not nearly the style, sarcasm, and humor she does in this book. I think that we run the risk of raising kids who cannot be entrepreneurial, both in the broad sense and the narrow sense, when we over-protect them in the ways she is criticizing. Moreover, the costs of this over-protection fall on three parties: 1) the kids themselves as they are denied much of the fun of childhood not to mention deprived of important skills (self-reliance etc.); 2) the parents, who as Bryan Caplan has rightly noted on many occasions, suffer the deadweight loss of the time and emotional energy/worry that they think parenting requires. Parenting should be easier and more fun than it is; 3) those of us in higher ed and elsewhere who have to deal with these kids when they emerge from their coops - I suffered these costs for six years as an associate dean of first year students.
There's a lot I could say about the book, but the one point I want to focus on is how much of her argument really is the application of the economic way of thinking to parenthood. One chapter is titled "Don't Think Like a Lawyer," in which she cautions parents against focusing on the very unlikely but awful outcomes. Call it "just in case" thinking. Even if the odds of something bad happening are millions to one, we better not even risk it. Instead, she counsels parents to understand the real risks of various outcomes and the benefits of the activities that might have some fractional danger to them. In addition, she reminds parents that such analyses are always comparative. If doing X is dangerous, what's the alternative and is it worse? The chapter should have been titled "Don't Think Like a Lawyer, Think Like an Economist."
For example, very few parents allow their kids to walk to school or even the bus stop anymore, for fear they will be abducted. She carefully goes through the statistics on abductions to demonstrate how rare it is (and how it's usually someone they know) and also points out the benefits of the independence that comes from doing these things themselves. But she also notes: kids are far more likely to get hit by a car getting out of your car at the bus stop or school than to get abducted if they walk.
Another way to put her argument is: Corner solutions are bad parenting strategies. Moreover, parents themselves don't really believe their own rhetoric about the corner solution of "take no chances." After all, if you never let your kids wander alone for the very small risk of an abduction, then you should never allow them in the car with you because they're 40 times more likely to die in a car accident than to be abducted. The problem, as Bryan pointed out in his recent post on the book, is that parents get seduced by worst-case scenarios, which paralyzes them and prevents them from both enjoying parenthood and, I would argue, raising more capable kids. (Bryan doesn't buy the second part as he puts more stock in the genetic basis for kids' temperaments and behavior. He also dismisses the claim, made by Marano and others, and observed by me in my time working with first-year students, that kids today are less self-reliant and more wimpy.)
Finally, as I've argued before here, I think raising children who are confident, self-reliant, willing to take reasonable risks, and able to respond effectively to failure is central to the survival of a liberal society. I am not willing to argue causality about this next point, but I do think it says something about the zeitgeist that many parents are cushioning their kids from failure at the same time we've entered the world of the Permanent Bailouts. Hayek didn't say much about the family, but when he did it was usually to point out the important role of the family in transmitting social rules and cultural norms and expectations. In reminding us of the importance of letting our kids take reasonable risks, learning coping strategies, and accepting and responding to failure, Skenazy's book is, indirectly, a contribution to the inculcation of those norms and values that are central, I believe, to a free society. Striving for a risk-free world means giving up on freedom, whether it's a question of political economy or parenting. Freedom has risks, but the rewards are greater and the costs over time are much lower. Free-range kids are much more likely to be freedom-appreciating and value-creating adults.