Two Libertarian Families
I have just read an interesting piece on child-rearing by Gertrude Fremling, an economist (and mother) married to my friend and ex-student John Lott. What she describes is very different from the way we reared our children, although both families share similar views of economics and both methods seem to have worked.
A family necessarily involves some mix of communist and market institutions. Nobody expects a one-year old to either earn enough to support himself or be able to make a legally or morally binding agreement to repay his parents for the expense of rearing him. On the other hand, children, in my experience, have strong views on private property in toys hardwired into them; persuading them that everything is owned in common is not, I suspect, a very practical strategy.
John and Gertrude went considerably farther in the market direction than we did. Their kids had no allowance, lots of opportunities to earn money by doing chores within their ability. Interactions between kids were carried out largely on a market basis, with one child sometimes renting the use of a game he had bought with his own money to another. If too many kids wanted to do the same chore, the parents would auction it off to the one willing to do it at the lowest price; if no kid wanted to do it, the auction might go up instead. Gertrude comments, whether with disappointment is not clear, on the "perhaps surprising..." failure of the kids to engage in bidding conspiracies against their parents.
We had almost none of that. The kids had an allowance, provided, as best I recall, by a great-uncle fond of kids. We often but not always bought them things they wanted. Our daughter eventually offered to volunteer to do a regular chore—unloading the dishwasher—but that was her choice and she was not paid for it. In those respects, our arrangements were more nearly communist than theirs.
On the other hand, their system was at least mildly paternalistic, since it included limits on TV watching and "silly video/computer games." We had no television—a more extreme version of her policy of having only a small screen one—but the kids had essentially unlimited use of computers, when available, and could play any games they liked as much as they liked. The one exception was when our very young son, running short of disk space on the computer he shared with his older sister, solved the problem by throwing out various things, including parts of the operating system, with the natural consequences. For some time thereafter, he was only allowed to use the computer with his sister monitoring—which she had no obligation to do.
We did have strong rules of private property, largely enforced by our daughter, who not only was older than her brother but was less dependent on his company for entertainment than he was on hers, giving her a substantial advantage in negotiations. She established early on that he was not permitted in her room without her permission. The sign to that effect is still on her door, although both of them are now away at college, and he still respects it.
Are there any obvious reasons for the differences in our child-rearing strategies? One is that we had two children, they had five; the advantages of decentralized market decision making are typically greater the larger the number of people being coordinated. Another is that they had their children younger than we did, and were probably under greater financial pressure as a result. While imposing market discipline on children should be doable under almost any circumstances, it's more convincing when money is tight—a policy of "I won't buy that for you even though you really want it; you have to earn the money yourself" feels artificial, to the parent and perhaps to the child, when it is obvious that the cost of everything the child wants is small enough to be entirely insignificant to the parent's economy. That is one reason I have suggested in the past that World of Warcraft may provide a better way of teaching the same lessons to the children of well off parents; the budget constraint within the game is real.
I am left wondering whether Gertrude, before or after developing her child-rearing policies, read Cheaper By the Dozen, an old description of a family even larger than hers which, like hers, put a lot of responsibility on the children, but seems to have coordinated by something closer to central direction.