Bryan Caplan  

Just Try It; or, Nudge for Kids

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The media have run me ragged for the last two weeks.  But I'm not complaining; it's a great experience, and I'm learning as I go.  The single best point I've heard boils down to "nudge for kids."  It goes something like this:
Sure, repeatedly pushing a kid to do an activity he knows he hates is a bad idea.  But pushing kids to try activities is very different.  Even if a kid hates most of the things he tries, the cost of trying is low, and the upside - discovering an activity he loves - is large.  On the plausible assumption that kids underestimate the expected value of trying new things, parents can make their kids better off by making them try more things - even if they don't want to.
The main problem with this argument (like libertarian paternalism generally) is that it's easily abused.  Big issues:

1. How long does the experiment have to last before you'll accept your child's negative verdict?  Five minutes?  An hour?  A week?  It's all-too-easy for parents to keep telling themselves that "He'll come around" when it's never going to happen.  Parents have biases, too; they dwell on the rare, vivid times their nudges work.

2. As a child grows up, he gets better and better at forecasting his verdicts.  Consider food: You don't have to be an adult to accurately use its smell to predict its taste.  Forecasting your enjoyment of activities isn't quite as easy.  But when a kid says he won't enjoy a birthday party, he's probably right - even if it is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I often suggest books, games, movies, and t.v. shows to my kids.  But in my experience, mandatory experimentation is neither necessary nor fruitful.  My kids try a high enough fraction of their options that they never run out of novel experiences - and the best way to change their minds is to back off and let them mature.  Of course, that's N=3.  Does your experience - as a child and/or a parent - differ?



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Gaspard writes:

A friend has a theory about modelling a parental attitude that basically just ignores the idea that things are up for negotiation, but doesn't particularly push or lobby for them either. So for example, you say to your kid, "you're starting swimming lessons next month", but don't go into any details, maybe ask them what colour swimming cap they want. The idea is that you make the things you think are important a 'natural' part of the environment, so there's no feeling of persuasion or coercion at work. Maybe 1 out of 20 times kids might balk for some reason or other, but generally they are (eventually) interested in doing the things you model (like reading, cooking, etc.), if they perceive they may be useful in the outside world. Like the way acting or medicine runs in families, the parents just lead by example and that is sufficient.

MattW writes:

Sort of along these lines, and responding to the following tweet you posted back in January,

Making your kid learn an instrument because you love music is like making your kid become a stuntman because you love action movies.


Making your kid learn an instrument because you think it adds breadth to their education is like making them learn math because it adds breadth to their education.

If you kids don't like math will you make them do their math homework?
If they don't like P.E.?
If they don't like school?

I think there's a lot of wisdom in your parenting advise, but there's always a question of the margin. At what point will even you force your kids to do something that they don't like?

agnostic writes:

I'm an uncle rather than father, but in the experience with my 3 year-old nephew I've only tried to nudge him to try things that he otherwise wouldn't come across on his own.

For example, my brothers and I can't stand the super-wimpy cartoons and kids' shows that have taken over in the past 20 years, like Barney, Rugrats, Spongebob, Thomas and Friends, etc. So we tune the TV in to one of those Hub or Boomerang channels so he can watch Scooby Doo, Inspector Gadget, or something with a "good guys vs. bad guys" plot in every episode.

Little boys naturally crave this kind of storytelling, not trivial junk like Spongebob where nothing ever happens and where the jokes are all self-aware asides to the parents. He instantly got hooked on Inspector Gadget, began dancing to the theme song, and imitating Dr. Claw's menacing, growling voice. But he never would've found it on his own flipping through the channels.

Same goes for physical real-world activities like trekking through the woods, bashing open rotten wood to look at the bugs inside, playing a rough-housing game, etc. He's not going to get exposed to these in sheltered times, so it's my duty to initiate him. Luckily, like any self-respecting boy, he loves this stuff, so there hasn't been any conflict over whether to push him through it for his own good.

So, that's the take-home: in wimpy times, there are large areas of passive and active things that you can expose your kids to that will be good for them, that they wouldn't otherwise encounter, and crucially that they already have an instinctual desire for, which keeps elder-younger conflict low.

Evan writes:
I think there's a lot of wisdom in your parenting advise, but there's always a question of the margin. At what point will even you force your kids to do something that they don't like?
I think the difference is that schooling has important signaling purposes later, while most hobbies parents force on their kids don't. That being said, I hated PE and managed to rig it so that I stopped taking it after eighth grade. I hope I can help any kids I have in the future manage that as well, if that's what they want.
So, that's the take-home: in wimpy times, there are large areas of passive and active things that you can expose your kids to that will be good for them, that they wouldn't otherwise encounter, and crucially that they already have an instinctual desire for, which keeps elder-younger conflict low.
I have a lot of my old toys stored away that I hope my future kids will like, as well as DVDs of Duck Tales, Tiny Toons, Dragonball, etc. But I wonder if such advice is viable for people who aren't like us, and no longer maintain interest in activities that are considered "for kids." They might not have as fun as we would.
Mo writes:

What I can't get over is that for years I have wished my parents did "make" me do more stuff. They were good parents and I have turned out successful. Yet, I also think about all the time I was allowed to waste watching TV when they should have trained me to read more. I was/am fairly risk averse and so even when they put ideas in front of me (e.g. my dad suggested we try soapbox derby, or I do immersion French for a year, or I be an exchange student), I would just pass on them. I needed some one to just say that is what I was going to do and I would have been happy about it. They let me pass on too many things. In my immaturity I didn't know what was good for me.

Yancey Ward writes:

I don't know, schools in the US manage to persist for 13 years.

Jay Muchmaker writes:

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Ted Craig writes:

I never understand why other parents make a kid stay on team because "It would be unfair to the coach and the other kids if you quit." So, it's more fair if the coach wastes his time on a kid who doesn't want to be there instead of giving more time to the kids who want to be there? Unless the kid is the fifth player on a basketball team, it makes a lot more sense for him or her to bail early.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan:

Amy Chua argues in "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" that little that's worth doing is fun for kids until they become good at it, so parents must force kids to practice.

Rather than take sides in this argument, let me suggest that you should debate Amy Chua. This would be good publicity for both of you.

Steve

Sam writes:

I've noticed with my 3 kids that they require multiple tries at food until they are able to accurately decide whether they like it or not. So usually I require them to eat a very small spoonful of something each time it is served, until they have had about 5 tries at it, by which time they know quite well whether they like it or not.

This was necessary with foods like lentil curry, spicy Thai soup (Tom Yum), and mushrooms -- but also strawberries (!) and sweet bean paste (anko). So it's not just spicy/savory/extracultural foods that give them trouble.

Of course, now that they have had the experience of discovering new favorite foods that they did not at first like, we can point to that when justifying asking them to try something new.

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