A review of Nate Hilger’s The Parent Trap

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I enjoyed this a lot. It’s in the tradition of economic imperialism, here into the domain of child development. But Hilger is the right kind of imperialist, sensitive to the natives’ ways of seeing and their history, whilst preserving the virtues of his own tribe — an obsessive hunt for good data, and a rigorous focus on causality.

The Parent Trap’s basic thesis is that poverty and inequality exist because poor parents are fundamentally unequal to the task of raising their children. Not that they don’t love their children and can’t care for them, but that they can’t navigate all the extra work the modern world requires: finding a good neighbourhood to live in, sorting out application forms for college grants, and so on. The book brings together a lot of evidence to back this story up. In particular, it goes even stronger than Oana and me on the idea that upbringing matters: Hilger argues that adoption studies actually underestimate the effects of upbringing.

This thesis is put very politely, thoughtfully and respectfully, but there is no avoiding that it has potentially authoritarian consequences. If you really think that poor kids are failing because their parents are fundamentally overburdened, then the obvious solution seems to be a massive transfer of parenting power away from them and into the hands of experts. Earlier, the book seems to be building up to this. The last chapter mostly ducks it and goes for broader alternatives, which are more like “spend more on kids across the board”: paid parental leave, free diapers, universal early education, college counselling, more apprenticeships. But the idea is still present. As Hilger puts it, rather vaguely: “As children spend more time in publicly subsidized, high-quality learning environments starting from younger ages, new opportunities will arise to shift the burden of skill building from individual, overloaded parents to paid, experienced professionals operating effective programs at scale.”

His example of this is revealing. It isn’t teaching children calculus. It’s feeding them. “Every day, millions of harried, working parents around the country independently cobble together meals and snacks for their children to bring with them to school. Under Familycare, this nonsense would no longer be required. Childcare centers, schools and colleges would offer high-quality meals in bright, pleasant environments….”

Clearly, we are talking about a big shift! Don’t think of anything in recent centuries. Think Sparta.

Spartans Exercising, Degas

Would it work? Hmm. Look, I live in Britain. I’m happy to admit that many parents are incapable of feeding their children nutritiously….

8 Ace is actually the name of our hero here, and also the title of the comic strip. The Parent Trap’s author would surely be horrified by Viz’s stereotype.

… but I’m not certain state bureaucracies will reliably do better.

The trade-off between parents and bureaucrats is that parents have the motivation to help their kids, but not (if you believe Hilger) the knowledge. On the other hand, bureaucrats may have the knowledge but lack the motivation, because they aren’t helping their own kids. So two points. First, do bureaucrats really have the knowledge? Second, shouldn’t it be easier to inform parents than to motivate bureaucrats?

The point about bureaucrats is like the public choice critique of behavioural economics. Sure, individuals can make bad choices for themselves and their kids. But experts and bureaucrats are not immune to making bad choices on behalf of others. The book’s history of “parenting science” is upbeat, not to say rose-tinted. Plenty of feminist pioneers are made visible, but there’s rather less about the fake experts whose “knowledge” was useless or worse. But the critique can be true even when some experts are really smart scientists. Nobel-prize-winning Professor James Heckman might develop your program to replace bad parents. But Heckman won’t be implementing it. To tweak a slogan of Virginia School public choice: parents fail. So use parents.

It’s notable that Hilger gives the two big, scaled-up US programs to help poor kids just half a mark out of two. Head Start helps kids, but it’s too “rigid” and “expansive” and is taken up by less than half of eligible parents. The Child Care Development Fund is a mess of “convoluted protocols” which if anything makes kids worse off. Given that, it’s weird that the end of the book has an unpersuasive “myth of government failure” section. It’s 2022, so guess where the myth of government failure comes from? White supremacy. I dunno, man! I think people believe in government failure out of very widespread experiences they have with government! Again, ironically, the book earlier gives several concrete historical examples of why black people might be especially mistrustful of government programs.

In fact, Hilger’s aware of the issues of large-scale public programs, and he counsels caution in rolling out his ideas slowly and learning as we go. I’d suggest a deal. Any new programs should only be funded by replacing the Child Care Development Fund. Doing that will reallocate money from bad to good uses, and imposing the condition will also help us learn whether, if and when a public program does go bad, it is politically easy to replace. Sceptical face.

What about the alternative of transferring the knowledge to parents? One of the book’s arguments is that helping parents with parenting skills just doesn’t work very well: they struggle to stay involved and to learn. So it’s better just to directly help the children. I didn’t think the evidence for this was that strong, and there is an alternative reason why parents might not engage with parenting programs: maybe they don’t find what’s being taught that useful?

Sure, parents may just be wrong and unwilling to try new stuff. But equally a good starting point for an economist is that agents are not dumb and may know more than the observer. Note, this doesn’t mean the techniques being taught aren’t useful in general. They may even have been proved to be. But parents are in different situations, and isn’t the “treatment effect” of any given parenting technique quite likely to vary by situations? If so, then maybe the parents who don’t engage with parenting programmes know that it doesn’t fit their specific setup.

The same treatment might work for some but not others because, for example, kids vary genetically. Hilger acknowledges this possibility as a potential confound for his studies of parental influence, but he never thinks about it in terms of parenting techniques. You don’t need to believe that premise, though; equally, the same treatment might work better for kids from certain environments than for others.

So, rather than blaming the parents for the failure of parenting programs, I’d consider blaming the program. Maybe we aren’t that expert yet.

Despite these criticisms I found the book really worthwhile. It brings together a lot of data in pursuit of a valuable and noble goal. Many kids in the US (and Europe) get a bum deal and their talent is not realized! I’m not convinced about the proposed solutions, but at least The Parent Trap has a clear diagnosis of the problem, and believes it is worth trying to fix it.

Available here.