Bryan Caplan  

It Wasn't Nurture - Trust Me!

Piling On... What Nordhaus Said in 2002...

My basic model of children is that they are extremely honest adults. They say what they think, not what they are supposed to think. So what am I to make of the following incident?

The scene: Sunday night at 8:10 in my home theater

The cast: Me and my 4-year-old sons

Me: It's time for a new Homer (that's what my kids call The Simpsons)!

Sons: Yay! Homer!

[I turn on the t.v. and go to the DVR menu. Horrors! Our favorite cartoon has been pre-empted by baseball.]

Me: Sorry, boys. There's no new Homer tonight. They're showing baseball instead.

Sons: What! They can't do that! Make them show Homer.

Me: Sorry, we're out of luck.

Sons: They're being bad! We should call the police and send them to jail!

True story. In case you're wondering, my kids don't go to pre-school. They don't watch news or commercials. We've told them about murderers and thieves going to jail, but that's it. So where did they get the idea that bad programming should be a criminal offense?

Evidently the roots of the statist "There ought to be a law" impulse go very deep. You can blame the media, but I'd say the media is just telling people what they've wanted to hear since they were toddlers. Alas.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
mgroves writes:

I didn't think Fox was showing any postseason games yet--I thought it was exclusively TBS at this point.

caveat bettor writes:

As a Red Sox fan, I was happy for the Fox programming preemption. But hearing your story, and having 2 kids (ages 2 & 7), my gut tells me this was not a Pareto-efficient programming move.

Capitalism doesn't work in the family--it's all about redistribution of wealth in the most healthy of those micro institutions (which we love more than government, hopefully even some of the high-strata statists).

Fabio Rojas writes:

Since I know your kids, I doubt they are mini-statists in training. However, there's a simpler explanation - punishment for deviance. Even in stateless societies, there's all sorts of mechanisms for punishing people who don't do what you want.

Jared writes:

I think we could extend Paul Graham's "Daddy Model" of wealth to resolution of grievances as well. Graham's theory is that when you're young, your parents provide some static pool of income for the family, and you get a share (in the form of allowance or other benefits) just for being a good little boy or girl. When you grow up, many still expect to be provided with benefits just for being a good little citizen.

You could apply the same to law. When you're young, someone with more authority that you (your parents) step in to make sure your brother doesn't steal your candy or whatever it is that upsets children. We grow up to think that some Paternal Unit must continue to right wrongs.

I think it's interesting that your boys first appealed to your authority to make The Simpsons appear. Failing that, and having been informed that there was a higher power, they made the appeal to that higher power next. At least they considered legislation the last (last of two, but still last) resort. I wouldn't be concerned unless they started suggesting that the State fix things before asking you too.

Scott W writes:

There are daily episodes in syndication. You should record those on your DVR...the old ones should be new to your kids. So, you can give them Homer, immune to baseball.

Ian Dunois writes:

I agree with Fabio on his point on non-state punishment, but I think it is a simpler model on children knowing that grown up punishment for being 'bad' is jail time. As most children do not recognize the world of having scarce resources they can never understand why they can not get what they want. When it is denied, they feel that truth has lost and therefore someone must be punished.
In some ways, allowing siblings or classmates to tell one another rather than work out the problem may be the cause of most citizens belief in the need of government intervention.

David writes:

To be fair, had you checked the TV listings yourself, you would have known that the Simpsons would not be on due to Major League Baseball, which is pretty standard in October anyway. So really, you provided your kids with false hope, and when they were let down, you let them blame FOX rather than take the blame yourself for blindly proceeding to the TV.

So the kids may have statist impulses, but you kind of acted like government does when it creates a mess and the elected officials sit by while everyone blames the seemingly obvious offender (kinda like ethanol).

Maniakes writes:

So the kids may have statist impulses, but you kind of acted like government does when it creates a mess and the elected officials sit by while everyone blames the seemingly obvious offender (kinda like ethanol).

Ah, ethanol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.

Rimfax writes:

I'd amend Fabio's conclusion and say that you've got good punishers there. As far as they know, dishonesty (airing a show other than what you promised) is already a crime (fraud?). It's a "bad act" for 4 year-olds, why not for adults?

Now if you told them that dishonesty of that kind is not criminal and they still demanded jail time for them, maybe then you've got little statists.

lowtax writes:

Let me get this straight... You let your ***4-year olds*** watch The Simpsons???

Bryan Caplan writes:

lowtax asks:

Let me get this straight... You let your ***4-year olds*** watch The Simpsons???
Well, of course. I want them to be culturally literate. (If you think I'm kidding, I'm not!) And I'm still waiting for them to blame their bad behavior on Bart.

shamus writes:

Homer was stolen.

Mark Nau writes:

Analyzing kids' behaviour, it seems that "That's not fair!" really boils down to "I don't like that." But even kids seem to grasp that an appeal to a objective authority is stronger rhetorically than an appeal to one's own tastes.

"That's immoral" and "There oughtta be a law" just strike me as more sophisticated versions of "That's not fair!"

Dan in Euroland writes:


Just out of curiosity what is your approach to children and sex education? At what age do you think it appropriate for children to watch non-pornographic sexually laden media on par with something like Seinfeld?

Jason Malloy writes:

You let your ***4-year olds*** watch The Simpsons???


TGGP writes:

Your kids should be watching South Park. And Penn & Teller.

Pete writes:

I have the title of your next book: "The Myth of the Rational 4-year Old".

Actually, this is a head-scratcher, simply because you let them watch the Simpsons in order to be "culturally literate" (and presumably let them watch other shows for the same reason) and then don't recognize where they might come up with something like that.

They got it from Bart, or someone else, fictional or not, who got it from an adult. If they are watching the Disney Channel, I guarantee it.

Yes, it WAS nurture. Just not yours.

John writes:

From the kids' point of view, they killed Homer. They don't quite get the whole death thing, so they might not have understood that Homer would ever come back.

And the punishment for murder is jail.

Old Sharon B writes:

Being a mother, this is my explanation. Whether you realize it or not, you are raising your sons just like all parents whether conservative, liberal or libertarian. We want to protect our children so from the moment they are born we make the world as simple as we can so that we can protect them from anything that would hurt them. We divide everything into two groups--good and bad. The programmers did something that was bad. The next connection your boys made is that bad things or doing bad things should be punished so they knew thieves were bad and go to jail (according to what you told them) and so the programmers should go to jail too.

This is the simplistic and overprotective, black and white world we tend to create as parents. As the child gets older, good parents learn to introduce critical thinking skills so that children see that there is a whole spectrum of grey running between good and bad. Then comes the need to look for underlying causes and situations where bad could sometimes be good and vice versa.

Parenting is really not rocket science. It is hard wired into us to do this good/bad world thing. Mother Nature wanted to protect her creation (or genes or whatnot) and she knew that all parents don't have PhD's in early childhood education so she gives us these very simplistic instincts to pass on to young children. The problem comes as the child gets older in making the transition in parenting to take the children to adult thinking skills and not overprotecting them until they are 18. Good luck!

z writes:


Little kids are like sponges: they pick up everything you have ever said and done.

It's not too much of a stretch that you might have at some point in their lives said something like "bad people go to jail". How did you explain "murderers" and "thieves" to them? How did you explain "jail" to them? Do you know what your wife has said to them? Has she ever had friends over and had a discussion with them in front of your kids?

It's not statist to say that bad actions get punished, which in their mind is what the TV people were. Do you punish your kids for bad actions?

wcu1291 writes:

Granted I am only 19, and people probably still see me as a kid, but I do not think that 4-year-olds need to be watching The Simpsons, or becoming "culturally literate," at least that level. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that you should lie to your kids or keep them in a bubble, but there are some things that I don't think they need to learn at that age simply because they can't fully comprehend that issue. Take the jail comment for instance, I don't think that they believe not playing a show is a criminal offense, it just shows their immaturity and lack of understanding of the subject. They were told that bad people go to jail (I realize it was probably more in depth than this). When a show they liked wasn't on, they viewed the people that didn't play the show as being bad, thus they should go to jail. Bad=jail. That is how a 4-year-old's mind works. When I was four, I was watching Sesame Street, going to pre-school, and reading books with my Mom. That, the rest of my family, and a super-nintendo were about all I cared about – because that’s how big my world was. I didn’t need to worry about anything else, nor should I have. I do not think that kids are honest adults; I think that they speak their mind because they are too immature to fully grasp the consequences of their actions.

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