'Freakonomics': What Makes a Perfect Parent?

ByNed Potter

Feb. 17, 2006 — -- If you're like most parents, you would probably do almost anything to help your child get a good start, right?

You'd probably be a lot like Afsaneh Malaekeh, a woman we met in a Los Angeles playground with her 1½-year-old son.

"He actually gets no TV time," she said, chuckling. "And we read to him; we have since he was really small, like three months old. And we take him to the museum. And he gets to travel a lot."

Malaekeh is clearly a caring, conscientious parent. But if the numbers are to be believed, none of the things she listed will actually help her son, at least not on standardized tests.

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, co-authors of the best-selling "Freakonomics," pored through a massive government database called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Starting in the late 1990s, it followed 20,000 American children, collecting information on many aspects of their lives. Levitt and Dubner used the ECLS to see what helps young children do well on tests.

"Not only does it measure their scores," said Dubner. "It also conducts extensive interviews with the families of the kids, so we know a lot about each family and what they do in the family."

What were some of the results? Take a look, and try to guess which factors correlate to higher test scores.

Ready? Being a mother over 30 strongly correlated to stronger test scores in her child, but taking time off to raise her child did not.

Why? In "Freakonomics," Dubner and Levitt write that the older mother "tends to be a woman who wanted to get some advanced education or develop traction in her career. She is also likely to want a child more than a teenage mother wants a child."

That seems reasonable enough, but why didn't it matter if the mother was home for the formative years? Dubner and Levitt say they can't find a logical reason. "That is what the data tell us," they write.

Here's another pairing:

Sitting down? Reading a book to your kids every day did not seem to correlate to higher test scores. But owning books did.

If you're confused by that, think of the parents we interviewed in different parts of the country.

"Reading to kids every day?" asked Heather Pack of Los Angeles. "How can that ever be bad?

"I thought that was Parenting 101," said Catherine Gilmore of Glen Ridge, N.J. "Read to your children every day from when they were born."

And as for the effect of books on the shelves? "You think, well, are these books just magic somehow?" said Stephen Dubner. "Do these books just cause intelligence?

"Well, no," he continued. "Much more likely is that any family that has 100 children's books in the home is likely to be pretty highly educated to begin with, is starting out with a pretty high IQ, and values or treasures or rewards education to begin with."

Here are some more factors that are strongly correlated with higher test scores:

Here are some other factors that aren't:

If you're thoroughly flummoxed by now, Dubner said that the ECLS data only show correlations between different factors and children's test scores; they do not necessarily establish cause and effect. But there still are useful hints here about what matters in parenting.

"If you are smart, hard-working, well educated, well paid and married to someone equally fortunate, then your children are more likely to succeed," write Levitt and Dubner. "(Nor does it hurt, in all likelihood, to be honest, thoughtful, loving, and curious about the world.) But it isn't a matter of what you do as a parent; it's who you are."

There is more at www.freakonomics.com, and at Ned Potter's blog: http://abcnews.blogs.com/scienceandsociety/

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