High intensity interval parenting

Over Christmas break, I read a really entertaining and thought-provoking book, Selfish Resasons to have more kids by Bryan Caplan.  Caplan is an economist and approaches the issue from a straightforward cost/benefit data-driven perspective.  The core of the book is where he gives a tour-de-force look at the behavioral genetics studies of parenting via adoption studies and twin studies and shows that on almost every measure where’d you like to think you have an impact on your children as adults (intelligence, earnings, happiness, etc.) parents typically have only the most marginal, if any impact.  Now, I think we can all agree that the benefits of raising kids are indeed great.  The problem is the costs.  Caplan’s argument is that the typical middle-class parents are investing way too much into parenthood and dramatically– and more importantly  pointlessly– increasing their costs in the hopes of shaping their children in ways that the evidence powerfully suggests that they actually cannot do.  Now, you can quite obviously shape what your child is like at 5, 10, or 15, but presumably the point is to help determine what they are like when they are 30, 40, and 50, and whatever effect parenting has, has almost completely worn off by then.  So, stop sweating it so much.  Let you kids watch Spongebob while you play on the Ipad, instead of obsessing about their homework and carting them to yet another activity they don’t really like, but you think they need.  And, once you adopt that perspective, the conclusion is that you should have more kids, because the benefits are still high– especially when you factor in grandkids which are almost all benefit and no cost– but your costs are lower.  Furthermore, plenty of research shows that humans are notoriously short-term thinkers which means many people will place far too much emphasis on the sleepless nights of infancy and the tantrums of toddler-hood and under-emphasize the much less difficult job of raising kids as they age (not easy mind you, just less difficult).

Anyway, intriguing enough argument that it actually has me thinking about five kids.  Though not too hard.  I am almost 41.  But, I think part of the reason I have four and not the seemingly far more typical two of the highly-educated middle-class parent, is that Kim and I already implicitly have bought into this approach.  And, honestly, because I’d have to say we are probably above average in our benefits– i.e., we just really enjoy our kids, as absolutely crazy as they are.

A recent WP story about the difficulty of parents truly sharing child rearing perfectly captures the problem for so many parents:

“Look at this; my parents never did this,” he says, waving a hand in the direction of the homework. “We were told to ‘go outside.’ I never saw my parents.” In the kitchen, his partner checks the simmering lentils and calls out a reminder that dinner will be early because he has to make the evening school meeting.

“We are raising our kids differently [than our parents did]. That’s our decision. But it means we take on all the extra burdens,” Majors says. In other words, just as many are embracing equal responsibility for the family, the parenting part of the equation has grown into an oversize octopus.

Exactly.  They are making the choice to over-do it.  The person quoted here “never saw” his parents but grew into a successful professional.  Not that Caplan or I are advocating you never see your kids, but life as a parent doesn’t have to be an overgrown octopus (and you’re looking at somebody who hardly worked yesterday because I spent the morning at the pediatrician and the afternoon watching the kids while Kim attended an IEP meeting).

So, from whence the title of this post, you may be wondering?  Can’t say I’ve fully implemented it (nor will I) but influenced by the idea of High Intensity Interval Training for fitness (much less time, much higher intensity), I suspect that there’s really something to be gained from this approach in parenting.  Insofar as you want to create strong, positive memories and a strong positive bond (that, you can do, its the type of person they become where your influence is limited), it would seem there’s something to be said for short bursts of high-intensity parenting.  I’ve tried this in limited doses.  Evan and Sarah love rough-housing on the bed (and I’m a fan myself).  Sometimes I’ll just really go at it with them (also, piggyback rides) for about 10 minutes or so and spend the next twenty doing what I want (writing blog posts) guilt free, instead of just playing something lower intensity (obviously, not only in the physical sense, but in my commitment to it– I go all out when we rough house)  for 30 minutes.  I don’t expect anybody to do any research on this, but my naive hypothesis is that this approach is probably just as effective, if not more so, for strong parent-child bonds.   I feel confident that Evan and Sarah are going to have really fond memories of these fun, but very short, times.

Now, when my two 100 pound kids, David and Alex, get involved, wrestling on the bed is not the way to go.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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