Bryan Caplan  

Why Do Parents Forget What's It's Like to Be a Kid?

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Lately my twins and I have been enjoying the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Mr and Mrs. Heffley, the mom and dad in these stories, seem totally clueless.  My kids occasionally ask me if the Heffley parents are "bad."  My response: "They're not exactly bad.  They just don't remember what it's like to be a kid."

In the story, the result of this oddly familiar amnesia is twofold. 

First, the Heffley parents pointlessly alienate their kids by pushing them into activities that aggravate parent and child alike.  The dad forces his reluctant son to join the swim team.  The result: the son freezes, and the dad is humiliated before his fellow dads.  The mom forces her pleading son to join the school play.  The result: the son loathes the whole experience, pelts the star with an apple during the performance, and mortifies his mom.

Second, the Heffley parents largely ignore all sorts of kid-on-kid abuse, leaving their older sons in a brutal Hobbesian jungle.  When they do respond, it's awfully arbitrary - and not in a clever Beckerian way.

The power of the Wimpy Kid series is that it feels real.  Many parents really do forget what's it's like to be a kid.  (Another reason why I think responsible kidults make the best parents!)

I honestly don't know why.  I bet Robin Hanson would have a clever functionalist story.  Yet if you read the Wimpy Kid series - or just look around - it seems like it would be better for the whole family if parents thought more like kids.

Note: This doesn't mean that parents should let their kids do as they please.  What it means, rather, is that remembering your childhood is useful parental heuristic.  It helps you figure out when you should leave well enough alone - and when to lay down the law.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

So let's see, parents could better understand their kids, and better enjoy their kids' company, if only they would let themselves think more like kids do. Instead parents seem so eager to appear adultish that they alienate their kids. How could parents possibly care so much about what other adults think of them than they sacrifice their own kids happiness? It is almost as if parents cared more about being respected than having fun. How, how could this be?

agnostic writes:

This is much more general than parents forgetting about adolescence or childhood. It is people in relatively secure and prosperous circumstances forgetting what it was like when they were in unsafe and dire circumstances.

There's a transition from bad to good living, but you're talking about well after that shift is complete, like 10 years at least. Other examples of amnesia 10+ years after the fact:

- Soldiers who were fighting enemies face-to-face on all sides, but who are now back to civilian life. (War being my preferred metaphor for adolescence.)

- People who used to be homeless or unemployed (and at the bottom of that group), but who now have a decent job for someone with their human capital.

- Refugees who lived in dire poverty and now live pretty well, again given their human capital.

- Expatriates who were disgusted with and felt oppressed by their native society, but who now live in a place where they feel they fit in.

- Etc.

So, the answer must deal with all of these, and not be specific to parents forgetting about adolescence (they probably remember childhood better since that was pretty stress-free). Why, after an adjustment phase, do people forget what it was like during an earlier stage marked by incredibly less security and prosperity / welfare?

agnostic writes:

And of course it's even more general than that, because when you go the other way -- from the good life to the bad life -- you eventually forget how good you had it and believe that your lower station isn't so bad.

That's if I'm remembering *Stumbling on Happiness* correctly. For example, if you become paraplegic, you get used to it and manage to block out all the wonderful things you used to be able to do.

So, the general question is: why do people habituate?

Jack of all circumstances, and master of none.

If you enter a new environment, you have to adapt your beliefs, behavior, etc., to that or else get out-competed by those who do adapt. You have to get rid of vestigial beliefs to the extent possible. Otherwise you incur the cost of indecision -- beliefs suited to your new niche may conflict with those suited to your old one, so in order to make decisions effortlessly you junk the old ones. (Or stuff them in a box in the attic at least.)

That's why, long after animals left the sea, they are no longer able to thrive in the sea. It's not that amphibianism is impossible, but it doesn't look like that degree of flexibility pays off most of the time, given that most animals are more specialized than that.

But your practical point is correct about life-stage amphibians being better able to interact with young people. And not just because of what you mentioned -- they are also not naive about what hell-raisers and liars young people can be, so they aren't suckered so easily. (I was a tutor for awhile, so I know.)

One simple way to resolve the problem is for people to become parents when they are at a naturally amphibian stage of their lives -- like from 20 to 25. That's the norm for homo sapiens, except for Northern Europe since the Early Modern period, when it drifted into the late 20s.

Academics and smart people in general wait even longer to have kids these days. It's no surprise that they are so clueless about their kids, whereas someone who gave birth at 16 has more of an intuitive understanding of her kids, to whom she's more like a big sister.

Blackadder writes:

Part of the issue may be that, as kids, parents were different from their kids. For instance, maybe when Mr. Heffley was a boy he loved the swim team. If so, it might be hard for him to understand why his son doesn't feel the same way, particularly if the son doesn't speak up for himself.

steve writes:

Maybe it is because often the fears and concerns of many kids on a day to day basis are well ... childish.

No matter how well intentioned you are as a parent, it is hard to be overly concerned about your childs latest broken toy or fear of swimming.

Of course you want your children to be happy, but it often appears that the only road to acheiving that is for your kids to just get over it already. Hence, the pushing them into activities and such that the kids are positive they won't enjoy even though they have barely tried it.

However, the arbitrary justice you describe is, in my opinion, nearly the worst thing a parent can do to their kids without committing a crime. It is no way to instill morals.

Justin Martyr writes:

That is why my children are never going to public school. Coleman talked about this with the large public schools that the progressive movement created. Children began to look to high status children for approval rather than adults.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Some parents haven't forgetten what it's like to be a kid; they simply never had an opportunity to be a kid in the first place.

It's not unusual for the oldest child living in a dysfunctional home, or a home where there is only one parent or where there is a parent who is seriously/chronically ill to become the one responsible for keeping the household operational. Their childhood experiences are not normal, and by the time they become adults, simply don't know how to relate to the ideas of being spontaneous and carefree.

Steve Z writes:

Au contraire. There are already too many "kidults" raising kids. They run around and play with their kids to the exclusion of setting rules and boundaries. Their kids have no respect for them. As a result, their kids are out of control in public, a nuisance which they inflict on everyone. Eventually, the kids turn out alright, but they are irritating to others and personally confused in the meantime.

Of course, in many instances, the kidult is preferable to his polar opposite, the parent who plays at being grown-up. This type issues edicts they don't understand, because it's "good for kids," and is unable or unwilling to ever play with their kids.

It should be clear that these are just two extreme exaggerations of roles all good parents should play. So, instead of potentially misleading terms like "responsible kidult" or "playtime disciplinarian," wouldn't it be better to just say "good parent"?

Mr. Hanson is right that parents want to be respected. I would argue that it's not only for the sake of saving face before the outside world, but also to fully enjoy your kids. You can do more with kids who respect you, sooner, because you don't have to stay at home with them. It seems that, if the goal is to get full enjoyment of your kids, it is necessary to find some optimum balance of fun and respect.

guthrie writes:

Keith Johnstone, a theater and improvisation theorist, writes about cultures who view children in an almost godlike fashion. As a result of his research and teaching experience he speaks of viewing adults as atrophied children rather than children as immature adults, and sites examples of children who easily learn games which 'sophisticated' adults find terribly complex. He also provides tricks to help somewhat regain the child's visual experience (such as pointing to objects in a room and shouting the wrong name for it, or focusing attention on something at the periphery of one's vision).

He also has an entire chapter discussing 'Status' and suggests that if we taught status as a game there might be a lot of good accomplished. It's also excellent instruction for actors.

His book is called 'Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre'.

caveat bettor writes:

Adults want to provide financial security for their children, and thus need to signal selected conformity to other adults with whom they work. Also, adults want their children to provide financial security for their grandchildren, and model and incentivize same signaling to said children.

All of I sudden, I realize I am dizzy from being on this merry go round.

My oldest is really into the Warriors series these days.

sourcreamus writes:

Parents are focused on their kids futures. Kids are focused on their present. The concerns of the past seem trivial in comparison to the concerns of the future because we know the outcome of the past but not the present. Thus a parent is thinking if they push the kid into a play maybe they will grow into a rich actor and have an easy adult life. Since Caplan does not believe that parenting has an effect on his kid's futures he is free to focus on the present along with his kids. For most parent the idea of being powerless to shape their kid's future is too frightening to entertain.

JH writes:

"Maybe it is because often the fears and concerns of many kids on a day to day basis are well ... childish.

No matter how well intentioned you are as a parent, it is hard to be overly concerned about your childs latest broken toy or fear of swimming."

You don't have to be overly concerned about the broken toy or fear of swimming. You just have to understand that they are overly concerned about them.

As a parent, I've made an effort to not say, "It's not a big deal" to my kids. The main reason I do this is because, to my kids, it is a big deal. If in their mind it's X and I'm telling them it's not X, that has to be a confusing message for them.

Dr. T writes:

I have a different take on this problem. Many of today's bad parents are too self-centered to consider the needs of their kids. The bad parents of today often were spoiled and poorly disciplined when they were children. They have no problems remembering their childhoods--they are still living them.

Joe Cushing writes:

There are features of kidultness in any libertarian. Libertarians still have the ability to get recognize and get angry at rules that make no practical sense. Non-libertarians have figured out that it is in their own self interest to just submit to authority or culture and do what they are told without questioning it.

Fewer kids means a less robust intuition as to the raising of the children. "Purpose " has changed to making ...... and so the continuity of generations is broken.

Bill Drissel writes:

My now-grown teenagers complained of the injustice they suffered because I hadn't forgotten what it was like to be a kid.

Bill Drissel

lemmy caution writes:

The increases in homework and organized activities, primarily sports, in the last 30 years has been very unfortunate. They make childhood unnecessarily regimented and stressful.

Upper middle class parents consider much of their success comes from going to a good college and do every thing they can to have their kids do things that those colleges will like. The rest of the middle class just copies the upper middle class.

Newbie parent writes:

Reflecting, I used to always say that I will never be my parents. I gave birth to Claire two months ago. Now, I say that I will never be a parent as good as my own.

However, there are certain things I want to change in my turn. I hope I will be a better listener, and be able to feed back constructively. But I fear realistically speaking.

Practical parents are more sensible to the near future. The globe is changing, so are its rules and laws. I am afraid I will act and react just like my parents knowing the above mentioned.

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