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What Is “Libertarian Parenting”? Laissez-Faire Is Wrong for Families by Steven Horwitz

One of the dangers of modern libertarianism is that some people want to apply the ethical rules and insights that make complete sense in the market to micro-orders such as the family and the firm. Because our day-to-day life is made up of these micro-orders, it would seem to many libertarians that any consistent philosophy should go all the way down.

But as Hayek argued in The Fatal Conceit, the macro order and its rules — which he called the “extended order” — are distinct from the norms and rules that make up these more localized levels of description. When we fail to make this distinction, we wrongly apply the ethics of the extended order to the intimate orders of families and firms, which risks crushing those micro-orders.

This problematic tendency is most pronounced in the ways some libertarians discuss parenting.

They often begin by asking what “libertarian parenting” would look like. Naturally, they then imagine parents being analogous to government and children being analogous to citizens. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that, on libertarian grounds, parents should interfere as little as possible in the lives of their children. Some even propose organizing the household on market principles.

For example, advocates of libertarian parenting might argue that children should always get paid for chores and that parents should never say, “Because I said so!” to their kids. With the best of intentions, they believe that what we might call “laissez-faire” parenting will create children who will be more likely to support a laissez-faire society.

I think they are deeply mistaken for several reasons.

First, there is the empirical evidence from psychology. Psychologists distinguish among a number of parenting styles, but the major ones fall on a spectrum from most involved to least:

  • authoritarian
  • authoritative
  • permissive
  • neglectful

The advocates of libertarian parenting clearly reject the “authoritarian” style and presumably would reject “neglectful.” What they seem to want is perhaps something like permissive parenting:

Permissive parents … allow children to make their own decisions, giving them advice as a friend would. This type of parenting is very lax, with few punishments or rules. Permissive parents also tend to give their children whatever they want and hope that they are appreciated for their accommodating style. Other permissive parents compensate for what they missed as children, and as a result give their children both the freedom and materials that they lacked in their childhood.

As it turns out, permissive parenting doesn’t work very well. The psychological research indicates that children of permissive parents suffer from a variety of problems as they mature.

By contrast, authoritative parenting provides the best results:

Authoritative parents encourage children to be independent but still place limits on their actions. Extensive verbal give-and-take is not refused, and parents try to be warm and nurturing toward the child. Authoritative parents are not usually as controlling as authoritarian parents, allowing the child to explore more freely, thus having them make their own decisions based upon their own reasoning. Often, authoritative parents produce children who are more independent and self-reliant. An authoritative parenting style mainly results when there is high parental responsiveness and high parental demands. Authoritative parents will set clear standards for their children, monitor the limits that they set, and also allow children to develop autonomy.

In other words, it’s perfectly appropriate to place limits on your children’s actions and to insist on only such freedom as is age appropriate. Authoritative parents have high expectations and are not hesitant to say no to their kids. The evidence is clear that this style produces the best psychological outcomes for children.

This style of parenting is not just the best for individual outcomes, but also for promoting a liberal social order.

Many things that might seem to be “anti-liberty” that happen within healthy families are, in fact, preparing children for life in a free society. What children need to become responsible adults is not freedom but structure. For example, they need to learn the importance of following rules, as a free society is a rule-governed society. Political and economic freedom are enhanced by rule-following, and parenting can model that.

It’s perfectly fine as a libertarian parent occasionally to say, “Because I said so.” Obedience to legitimate authority, which includes following rules, is not anti-libertarian. It’s a necessary skill in a world where some people and institutions actually do have authority. And small children in particular do not need everything explained to them. That’s how you end up putting them in the center of your familial universe, which is the mistake that permissive parents make. Parents should be leaders, and they should lead by example.

Encouraging and even forcing your kids to share their possessions is not socialism and it’s not bad parenting. It is not a bad thing to demonstrate to kids that sharing with other individuals they know, even when they might not wish to share, is often an effective way to prevent conflict and establish trust. You can also help them to understand the difference between the expectation to share with known others versus anonymous others. Sharing is what families do, after all. Would children rather their parents didn’t share the income they earn and the food they prepare?

And requiring chores without compensation is an excellent idea and it’s not anti-liberty. The institutions of civil society, such as families and religious organizations, are not bound together by the cash nexus. (There’s a reason that cash gifts among close friends are often considered tacky.) The world does not divide into either state or market. Outside state and market, we often do things out of obligation to others, whether it’s some form of expected sharing or providing help without monetary compensation. Learning that this is often the appropriate way to behave helps to ensure that the institutions of civil society survive and thrive. They are just as important to liberty as are the institutions of the market.

One area where the “libertarian parenting” advocates are correct is in the importance of allowing children to play on their own, without constant parental supervision. The psychological literature is clear about the benefits of unsupervised play for helping children develop the capacity to create, follow, and enforce rules; think about issues of fairness; and learn empathy. Most important, from a libertarian perspective, such play requires the continuing consent of the players. Behaving in ways that upset other children will bring play to an end. Unsupervised play teaches children how to negotiate and compromise to ensure that playing relationships are consensual. Consent is at the core of both markets and civil society, and parents who let their children play without parental supervision are helping those children to develop skills and abilities central to a free society.

When libertarians think about parenting, we should not be asking, “What sort of parenting appears to be implied by our ethical and political views?” Instead, we should be studying what psychologists know about child development and seeing how that aligns with the aptitudes and attitudes we know are necessary for a free society. We shouldn’t want parenting to be libertarian; we should want to parent in ways that produce children who have the skills they need to value and sustain liberty.

Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

REPORT: Child Obesity Caused by Single Parent Households

In 2010 Michele Obama made it her mission to address the “child obesity epidemic”. The goal of Mrs. Obama is to reduce child obesity from the current 20% of all children to 5% by 2030. WebMD reports, “To accomplish this, the plan makes 70 recommendations for early childhood, for parents and caregivers, for school meals and nutrition education, for access to healthy food, and for increasing physical activity.”

According to WebMD, “Obesity is an excess proportion of total body fat. A person is considered obese when his or her weight is 20% or more above normal weight. The most common measure of obesity is the body mass index or BMI.”

“U.S. kids haven’t always been obese. Only one in 20 children ages 2 to 19 was obese in the 1970s. But around 1980 child obesity began to rocket to today’s stratospheric level: Nearly one in three kids is overweight or obese, and nearly one in five is frankly obese,” notes WebMD.

What is the cause of this stratospheric increase in child obesity? ANSWER: Single parent households.

In July 2010 the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) reported, “Prevalence of childhood obesity and its complications have increased world-wide. Parental status may be associated with children’s health outcomes including their eating habits, body weight and blood cholesterol.” [My emphasis]

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for the years 1988–1994 provided a unique opportunity for matching parents to children enabling analyses of joint demographics, racial differences and health indicators. Specifically, the NHANES III data, 1988–1994, of 219 households with single-parents and 780 dual-parent households were analyzed as predictors for primary outcome variables of children’s Body Mass Index (BMI), dietary nutrient intakes and blood cholesterol.

The NHANES survey found:

  • Children of single-parent households were significantly more overweight than children of dual-parent households.
  • Total calorie and saturated fatty acid intakes were higher among children of single-parent households than dual-parent households.
  • On average, Black children were more overweight than children of other races.

The study results implied a strong relationship between single-parent status and excess weight in children. The NHANES survey states, “Parental involvement in the development of school- and community-based obesity prevention programs are suggested for effective health initiatives. Economic constraints and cultural preferences may be communicated directly by family involvement in these much needed public health programs.”

Mark Mather from the Population Reference Bureau reports, “In the United States, the number of children in single-mother families has risen dramatically over the past four decades, causing considerable concern among policymakers and the public. Researchers have identified the rise in single-parent families (especially mother-child families) as a major factor driving the long-term increase in child poverty in the United States.” To read the full report click here.

Data from the Sarasota County School Board shows that since President Obama took office the number of children who are classified as obese is Sarasota public schools has risen as the children progress from Grade 1 – to Grade 3 – to Grade 6. The cohort obesity numbers go down at Grade 9. For example, 15.7% of students in Grade 1 in the 2008/2009 school year were obese. In 2011/2012 school year 18.8% of students in Grade 3 were obese. An increase of 3.1% of students in grade during school year 2008/2009 18.8% were obese. In Grade 6 that cohort increased to 20.1%. The Grade 6 cohort in 2008/2009 data was 21.5% and in 2011/12 dropped to 17.6%.

Public schools do not keep data on obese children who live in single parent households. 

Many are questioning whether the First Lady is addressing the root cause of child obesity – single parent households. Some see this health initiative as expanding government control of parents and children. Setting caloric standards is the first step in setting eating limits. Limits lead to control of food sources, leading to the redistribution of calories. Should not we be focused on the rising number of single parent households?

Perhaps it would be better for the First Lady to focus on increasing the number of traditional two parent families? After all, she has a traditional family and her husband and children all have normal weights according to the BMI calculator.

JUST FOR FUN:

As an aside, Watchdog Wire looked at some well known public figures and calculated their BMI scores.

Using the BMI calculator we determined that New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow, who is 6′ 3″ tall and weights 236 pounds, is overweight. If Tebow gains 5 pounds he will be categorized as “Obese Class 1”. In fact the entire New York Jets offensive and defensive lines are obese.

Muscle Chemistry lists the height and weight of actors. Those in Hollywood who are overweight according to the BMI calculator include: Whoppi Goldberg, Al Pacino, Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Sylvester Stallone is rated as Obese Class 1.