Note to parents: Stop trying so hard

Bryan Caplan, author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids"
Bryan Caplan, author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids"

Bryan Caplan, author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids"

In "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Yale Law professor Amy Chua declared her "Chinese mother" parenting skills superior to those of lax, touchy-feely "Western parents" because her methods turned children into high-achieving adults. When her oldest daughter was accepted into both Harvard and Yale last year, some felt she'd proved her point. But decades of research focusing on twins and adoptees shows that parents have far less long-term influence over their children than they think. And one author suggests that it's time we stop worrying about being perfect and just enjoy being parents.

"One of my friends says that parenting should be graded pass/fail," jokes Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, the father of three boys, and the author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think." That's because even though we want only the best for our kids, and despite all of the "me" time we sacrifice and money we spend, our influence over our kids is temporary—our kids' success depends more on our genes than our decisions. "Parents just don't seem to be one of the major reasons why children turn out the way they do," Caplan says.

"A lot of people take it pessimistically, but they should be optimistic," he adds. "It means that you can  make a lot of changes"—and cut yourself a lot more slack—"and your kid would probably turn out just as well."

Kids are less like lumps of clay that we get to mold and more like plastic that responds to our actions but snaps back to its original shape when we stop putting pressure on them, Caplan writes in his book. But that doesn't mean our kids' lives are predetermined, he says. Research suggests that it's more of a nature-vs.-nurture thing.

"Today's typical parents strive to mentally stimulate their children and struggle to protect their brains from being turned to mush by television and video games," Caplan writes. "Yet by adulthood, the fruit of parents' labor is practical invisible. Children who grew up in enriched homes are no smarter than they would have been if they'd grown up in average homes."

In other words, all of the piano lessons in the world won't turn Junior into a successful concert pianist if he's not genetically predisposed to perform.

So what can parents really expect to affect?

"Don't put up with bad behavior," Caplan says. "Parenting can make children behave better, you're just not changing the type of adults they become." Think "free-range parent," not "super-permissive parent."

"I'm not saying you can abandon your kid and he'll be OK," he points out. "I'm not saying you can let them be raised by wolves. But you can cut back on the activities that neither the parents or the kids enjoy. You can use  the Ferber method so you don't lose three years worth of sleep."

Once people realize that raising good kids takes less effort than they thought, they might discover that parenting is more of a joy than a chore. And they might decide to have more kids, even if only for what Caplan calls "selfish reasons"—the biggest one of which, he says, is that kids make people happy.

"Today's typical parents artificially inflate the price of kids, needlessly worry, and neglect the long-run benefits of larger families," he writes. Many of the biggest benefits of having kids come later in life, long after you've left the diaper days behind. "When you make parenting less work and more fun, consumerism and individualism become reasons to have more kids—not to stop, or stop before you start."