Freakonomics Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5


Chapter 5 asks the question, "What makes a perfect parent?" Every parent and "expert" has their own notions on the best way to parent a child, and these notions often contradict one another. Experts will always sit to the extreme of one side of a parenting issue, because experts who are not firm in this way rarely get any attention. This kind of expert must also engage people's emotions and appeal to fear. Parents are especially susceptible to this kind of fear-mongering, with another human's life in their hands.

But Levitt argues that parents are afraid of the wrong things. He uses data to show this: a parent who keeps their child away from a friend's house because her parents keep a gun, but instead allows her child to spend a lot of time at another friend's house with a swimming pool, is misguided, because the child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident than because of a gun. There is a difference between the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people.

Additionally, risks that we have some control over are less scary than those that are completely out of our control, which explains why people are more afraid to fly in airplanes than to drive in cars. We are also more afraid of immediate risk: the prospect of dying of a terrorist attack scares us more than eventual death by heart disease, which is long and drawn out. Peter Sandeman, an expert on fear and risk, proposes the following equation: Risk = hazard + outrage. When hazard is high and outrage is low, people underreact. When hazard is low but outrage is high, people overreact.

While things like swimming pool precautions might save hundreds of children's lives per year, parents have instead been focusing their attention on things that save far fewer lives, like expensive car seats, child-resistant packaging, or flame-retardant pajamas.

The main question of this chapter, though, comes when Levitt asks how much parents actually matter. After examining the link between abortion and crime and seeing the effects of an unwanted child subject to neglect and abuse being born, it is clear that bad parenting matters. But the nature-nurture debate instead asks how much a good parent ultimately determines how their child will turn out. A woman named Judith Rich Harris argued in her 1998 book called The Nurture Assumption that parents mattered less, and peers had a much larger effect on a child's personality.

To examine how much parents matter, Levitt examines the cases of two boys. The first is a white boy raised in a Chicago suburb with attentive parents who are involved in his school and read to him. He performs well in school and manages to skip a grade. The black boy is born in Daytona Beach, Florida, and his mother abandons him at age two. His father is a heavy drinker who beats him. He does poorly in school and eventually begins selling drugs. Most would assume that the second boy does not stand a chance, while the first boy will go far in life.

Levitt examines educational data concerning school choice, which allows parents to opt to send their children to the best school possible. Critics of school choice worry that it will leave the worst students behind in the worst schools. Chicago Public Schools used a lottery in its school choice system. The data revealed that in a student's academic achievement, school choice barely mattered at all. Students who won the lottery and went to a "better" school did no better than equivalent students who lost the lottery and stayed at their neighborhood school. Yes, the students who opted out of their neighborhood school were more likely to graduate overall, but all this says is that the students and parents who used the school choice system tend to be smarter and more academic to begin with.

Next, Levitt talks about the Early Child Longitudinal Study (ECLS) run by the U.S. Department of Education in the late 1990s. It measured the academic progress of more than twenty thousand students from kindergarten through fifth grade. This data was analyzed through regression analysis to show correlation. This data shows that the test gap between black and white children disappears after controlling for variables like the income and education level of the child's parents. However, this gap reappears within two years after entering school, despite these variables being controlled for, and continues to grow. This may be a result of school segregation, and the fact that black children typically attend schools with a bad learning environment.

Levitt presents sixteen variables tested by the ECLS. Eight of these are strongly correlated with success in school, either positive or negative, and eight have little relationship with academic success at all. The factors that matter are the parents' education level, socioeconomic status, age, language spoken at home, involvement in the PTA, the child's birthweight, whether or not the child was adopted, and whether or not there are many books in the home. Conversely, the makeup of the child's family, a move to a better neighborhood, whether or not the mother stayed home from work, whether or not the child attended Head Start, whether or not the child is spanked or watches television, and whether or not the parents read to the child all had little-to-no effect.

All of this suggests that most of the things that matter in parenting are determined even before the child is born. It is more about the circumstances that a child is born into, rather than anything specific the parents do. Parents who are well educated, successful, and healthy tend to have children who test well in school. Parents matter a great deal—but not in the ways that most people think.


The beginning of this chapter once again discusses the incentives that experts have to act a certain way, just like in Chapter 1. In all cases, experts must present an extreme view if they want to get noticed, and this is especially true for proclaimed parenting experts. An expert is incentivized by the prospect of fame and notoriety to use tactics that elicit fear in his or her listeners so that they will heed their advice and take their approach.

This fear-mongering by experts is successful precisely because of the reaction to risk that Levitt discusses in the next part of the chapter. There are certain kinds of risks that we respond to more strongly than others, even if this response is misguided—immediate risks, for instance, seem more frightening, as do risks that we have no control over. Sandeman's risk equation equates risk to the combination of outrage and hazard. Parenting experts have incentive to focus on those risks that are high in the outrage factor; this outrage prompts frightened parents to buy a certain product, thereby creating success for the expert. Risk and fear illustrate some of the many ways in which psychology interacts with economics.

Parenting is a particularly difficult job because as consumers, parents are relying on the kind of imperfect information that creates the kind of information asymmetry discussed in Chapter 2. Parents are uncertain exactly what tactics will produce the healthy, successful child they hope to raise, so they are extremely susceptible to being misled by the advice of many voices claiming to know better than them. Levitt attempts to use various data about parenting's correlation with academic success in order to break this information imbalance and reveal that what a parent does does not matter as much as everyone thinks.

A regression analysis is one of an economist's most important tactics for determining correlations between certain variables. With a regression analysis, an economist is able to isolate a pair of variables in order to see how they are related. The analysis does this by matching up all of the variables except the ones in question—for instance, Levitt analyzed two children who were alike in every way except for race and academic achievement—to ensure that any confounding variables do not come into play. Although a regression does not prove causation, it allows an economist to come as close as possible to pinpointing the relationship between two factors.

The important takeaway from this chapter is what Levitt sums up at the very end: what matters in parenting is who the parents are, not what they do, and most of this is determined before their child's birth. This can be both comforting and frightening to a parent: comforting because they can take solace in the fact that minute decisions they make will likely have no effect on their child's upbringing, but frightening because it means so much of the way their children turn out is beyond their control. Like Levitt mentioned early in the chapter, we fear the things we cannot control most of all.