Ambitious Parenting

Things go by online about moms and kids that bother me. Here I will Be Like Pete and try to articulate a positive vision. We could talk more about parenting small children.

Ambitious people, both men and women, might want to be parents. Time spent on parenting takes away from other projects, so the earlier you start planning the better. Hearing about the experiences of other parents is both instructive and inspiring.

Parenting, like modern creative careers, is an unpredictable enterprise. Maybe one reason people are not encouraged more to plan is because the disappointments can be so devastating in this arena. There is a risk that I will sound insensitive if I am too positive. That said, I feel like discussions I see in public miss the point too often and fail to use the “billboard space” we have effectively. There is an ocean of thoughtful honest free content for How to Achieve Your Writing Goals, but there is very little on how to achieve your parenting goals that resonates with ambitious young people. The writing advice can be ignored by those who don’t want to write; parenting advice can be ignored by those who don’t want kids.

Economists talk a lot about parents and children, especially now that the US is near population decline. One particular point I have heard is: “Data shows that piano lessons do not have a causal impact on lifetime earnings, so your problems are solved. Everyone sit back and enjoy your kids.”

This message may be helpful to some people, but it seems like primarily a lie to me. “Enjoy your kids” assumes a lot. I’d prefer an honest approach about the sacrifice involved, or the “opportunity cost”. I think that the benefits of parenting outweigh the cost, but it’s not inspirational to say “selfish lazy people will enjoy parenting.” Raising kids who you enjoy being around is not easy, but there are tricks and proven methods to help.

The economist who gets it is Emily Oster. Her books go more like this: “You probably aspire to having family meals that you can enjoy. Sit down with your co-parent 6 months ahead of time and plan out how you are going to achieve such a wonderful ambitious goal while also being able to schedule other events and pursuits.”

Emily Oster books/newsletter is a great place to start. She’s not for everyone, but if you are reading an econ blog then she might be for you. The good news for ambitious parents is that many books have been written that explain how to achieve certain results. Ambitious smart people can figure out good techniques, although as I said earlier be prepared for things not to go as planned. It helps to start on the learning process before you have kid to care for. Once you become a primary caregiver, you will have less time to read, so read widely and often whenever you can.  We have a /Parenting category in this blog, to curate some of the good stuff.

This boy’s ambition was to dig a trench from a tidal pool all the way to the ocean.

Kids could come up in conversation about ambition more, as a possible complement not just as a substitute.

This Elon tweet has layers: “Being a Mom is just as important as any career” What do you think the subtext is? How would a college student would understand this?

Why use this hackneyed phrase when he could say something to actually inspire both his male and female Gen Z fans to become parents? If Elon is a good parent, then teach us how he combines it with an ambitious life. And if he’s a bad parent, he should say less about it. If he’s trying to elevate mothers, then retweet a mother.

Similarly, a male economist who writes books about how easy parenting is should explain how he got through the first 5 years. Either someone else raised his children or he worked hard to maintain a routine and boundaries. Did he create his own routine from scratch or did he borrow from someone else’s model? Were his children in daycare 40 hours a week?

It can be hard to write about these topics honestly, because of privacy issues. So, we are back to Emily Oster, because she has been willing to tell the world what really goes on in her own family. Elon should just tweet out her newsletter every week if he’s such an advocate for mothers.

Dr. Oster is not the only one. There are millions of mothers creating content who would value the exposure. What if Elon (or some other ambitious person with a large platform) retweeted a trick for getting children to try carrots. “Wow, genius technique. Follow this Mom for more…” Or, Elon could highlight a man who being a great parent.

Ambitious people just talking about their kids and their own honest personal experiences is a good way to achieve Elon’s stated goal of getting more people to have kids. If Elon wants to tell us that he loves his kids, then that’s inspirational, and I don’t think it’s a lie.

I will engage in some introspection here, not because I think I’m so interesting, but because I see pro-natalist men talking past everyone else on how to raise the birth rate. I had a parenting win this past week. I solved a behavioral problem in a creative way and I’d love to talk about it. I’d like to feel like I’m part of a community conversation. I’d like to be recognized for my expertise. That’s what most people want, right? More resources in the attention economy devoted to parents is a form of compensation that I have not heard discussed before.

I have heard advice to female professors to not put up pictures of their children at the office. If colleagues know you care about your children, then you might be ostracized from the intellectual community that you have spent your whole life trying to join. In my own small way, I have pushed back against this norm by occasionally talking about kids and babies, so that other people who want families can feel part of a bigger community online and in academia. My broader point in this post is that there is a kind of rhetoric about family life and parenting strategies that would make young ambitious people think that having kids will not prevent them from having a meaningful life.

It’s not bad to talk about a 14-hour workday or an organizational strategies for achieving professional goals. I wouldn’t want to censor anyone or stop them from sharing how they accomplished something valuable. On the margin, more conversations could also include a discussion of how life changes if you become a parent, so that ambitious young people can build mental categories for this.

The Freakonomics podcast provides examples:

Stephen Dubner brought the teen children of famous economists on his show to talk about what it was like to grow up with those weirdos. It’s funny. Listeners will not feel like they are being told what to do or judged. Dubner is simply lending his platform to parents and children. He’s using the billboard space. There is parenting content on the internet already, but if it’s all siloed over at parents.com then it may not make it to the young person who is trying to figure out what “the Good” is.

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