David R. Henderson  

Brick's Insight on Childhood

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I watched a rerun of one of my favorite TV shows, "The Middle," last night and one segment was so good that I DVRed it and then transcribed the dialogue. (See here for some of the highlights.) In case you don't know the show, it's a middle-income family--they're actually middle-income, not upper middle or upper, the way most shows purporting to be about middle-income families are--in Indiana. The youngest kid, Brick, is very smart and bookish. He lives for the library, hates Phys. Ed., and is very happy with his own life.

But that's not enough. The school officials are worried about him because, in their minds, he doesn't have friends. So they send him to the student counsellor, who tries various methods, all of which fail hilariously, to get him to make friends with other kids. After a few of these attempts, here is the dialogue between Brick and the student counsellor:

Brick: Can I ask you a question? Why do I need to make friends with kids anyway? I mean what's the point. They're not interested in what I have to say and I'm certainly not interested in their conversations. You've seen them in the halls. They shove, they kick, they take delight in screaming for no reason. If somebody f**ts, that's a highlight of their day. They chase each other around so that way they may in turn be chased themselves. I still don't understand that one.

Therapist: Yeah, Brick, but everyone needs friends.

Brick: Well I do have friends: the librarian, the crossing guard, you.

Therapist: Oh. Oh, well thank you, Brick. That gets me right here (putting his hand over his heart.) But I really mean friends your own age.

Brick: But if you look at the entirety of my life, won't I actually be spending more time with adults than kids anyway?

Therapist: Sure, but . . .

Brick: Think about it. If the whole point of this is to prepare me to make connections with adults later in my life, aren't I actually ahead of the other kids in that regard?

Therapist: In theory.

Brick: So why is it so important for me to make friends with kids?

Therapist is stumped.


Then, in a later scene:
Therapist: Brick, you asked me why you have to be friends with other kids. And I ran it through the old think tank (pointing to his head) and here's what I came up with. I have no idea. But I'm going to be applying for a job cutting keys down at the hardware store if you don't show some signs of improvement, so I'm just asking you as a friend. Can you help me out? Can you do me a solid?

Brick (pensive): Can we move our sessions so that I don't miss library time but I do miss gym?

Therapist: Done.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Nicholas Weininger writes:

I was a kid like Brick, and I think I'd have a better answer in the therapist's place. I think that kids interacting with each other develop an ease with unspoken social cues that allows them to interact more smoothly with each other as adult peers. Those of us who miss(ed) out on that tend to find some kinds of adult situations unusually awkward: we stand on the sidelines at parties for lack of an excuse to break into the conversation; we find it hard to read people's emotional intentions toward us when we do converse. Kids interacting with adults don't develop the skills to navigate these situations because a kid in a group of adults is almost always enough of an object of attention and indulgence not to need peer cues, and rarely has reason to worry or even wonder about the adults' emotional intentions toward her/him.

Now as disadvantages go this is subtle, and there are compensating advantages to having been at ease in the adult world from an early age. So I'd never be as prescriptive as that therapist. But I do think I'd caution him.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nicholas Weininger,
Well put.

Kevin Dick writes:

@Nicholas Weininger. Perhaps there's reverse causation. A la Bryan Caplan, one's ability to distinguish subtle social cues may be mostly genetic. So, given you modest genetic deficiency in this area (one I share, BTW), you preferred the company of adults for whom it mattered less.

RPLong writes:

I, too, sympathize with Brick, but my experience was much different from Mr. Weininger's. My social life started to improve significantly after high school, and really took off after college.

The very things that make kids outcasts are the things that make adults interesting. When I was a kid, the fact that I loved long-distance running (instead of e.g. football) caused other kids to tease me. Now, getting involved in the local running community is a great way for me to meet new friends and connect with people who would otherwise have nothing in common with me. People meet their spouses through those kinds of running clubs.

I think the most important thing to teach young people is that if they continue to persevere with who they are and what they value while they're young, then the rest of their peers will figure it out as soon as they enter stages of life in which football and dance parties aren't the most interesting thing that happened that week.

rapscallion writes:

Do kids who only have adult friends on average grow up to be well-adjusted adults with lots of friends? I think not. I think the adults humor the children precisely because they're children. The librarian will be happy to indulge the young boy's precocious questions, but would she treat a 40 year old man with similar forbearance?

Ed French writes:

I do not have much to add with regard to effective socialization of young people. But, The Middle is my favorite television show. This family has problems and challenges that are either solved by them or with time. The writers of The Middle honor them by portraying the family as capable of managing their own lives.

Andrew writes:

There is also an economics lesson at the end of the episode. While Sue has spent 2 weeks putting together a project, Axel utilized this time enjoying himself and gathering time debts to be used later. When the time comes, he cashes in these debts, using those to delegate tasks to the debtors - showing a wonderful example of the division of labor to complete what ends up being a superior product.

A lesson in utility maximization if there ever was one. It is also an example of how the "one-size-fits-all" government education model fails to take advantage of the skills of the individual students.

Time, it's the most scarce resource of all.

john hare writes:

As a sixth grade drop out that went to work, I was not around kids my age from age 12-18 or so. The social skills I should have learned and mistakes made at 13-17 were instead acquired in my twenties at considerably higher cost. The education was the easiest part to remedy.

John S writes:

One of the many horrible aspects of our current schooling model is its complete focus on segregating students by age. Prior to modern schooling, this almost never occurred--children always dealt with people of mixed ages (including adults, of course).

David, have you heard of the Sudbury Valley School? It's a completely non-coercive, democratic school where children can do what they want. Surprisingly, the result isn't chaos, it's (no surprise) spontaneous order:

Great video introduction of the school:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxPnvJE0V2E

I hope more libertarians learn about voluntary education like this.

Shayne Cook writes:

As I recall, there were "clicks" in school, where "clicks" were associative, somewhat mutually exclusive and sometimes belligerent towards one another. They were as follows:

1.) "Hippies" (owing to the time epoch of my school days)
2.) "Cowboys" (owing to the geographical location of my school days)
3.) "Jocks" (those involved in school sports)
4.) "Others" (that broad category - of which I was a member - that didn't fit neatly into any of the other "Clicks")

Are there no "clicks" like this in schools anymore?

As an aside, where the character "Brick" here has his "Counselor" re-arrange his schedule to avoid PE, I re-arranged my school schedule such that I could get out at 1:00 pm to go to work at a truck repair shop.

And as a further aside, I've returned home of late, for class reunions and the like. Most of the former "Hippies" and "Others" have broadly dispersed to who-knows-where and doing who-knows-what. The former "Cowboys" are still basically cowboys, and the former "Jocks" mostly work for the Post Office.

Devil's Advocate writes:

Nice...By definition: A transaction occurs when BOTH parties are better off. Thanks for sharing Doc.

Tom West writes:

As a parent of a child with an Asperger's, I see both sides of this. Certainly the reason that socially awkward children often do fine with adults is that they often share common interests with adults, but also adults are willing to indulge children in not requiring equal time in conversations, compromise of interests (I'll be interested in your stuff if you are interested in mine), and the myriad of social negotiations that underlie any interaction lasting more than 10 seconds.

For ASD children, many will learn these skills much later than their peers, meaning that they're not at a stage yet where they *can* learn from these interactions, in which case it's just cruelty to force them to interact - they're destined to fail and they can't learn anything from their failures.

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to tell that stage from the stage where they're *can* learn valuable, necessary skills from these interactions, even if they're more painful and difficult for them.

Pave Low John writes:

I can relate to the Brick character...up to a point. I wasn't a loner by any stretch, I had two or three good friends in school, but that was because they were the only ones who had a similar worldview. All the other kids were just boring, in my opinion. I played football, wrestled, ran track, played in the band, did all the 'activity' type things that kids are encouraged to do, but I didn't get along with most kids because they were just too different. I didn't even "date" any of the girls in my school because none of them really seemed that interesting, I tended to date girls I met at summer programs or in other towns.


There have always been kids who prefer adult company, I think. I know that I really enjoyed talking to some of the more interesting people that I met while working in my father's pharmacy. Whether or not this is a "normal" thing is hard to judge. I would think that it would be seen as abnormal only if a child has no non-adult friend whatsoever. That would seem odd to me, since even I had those two or three good buddies that I kept up when even in college and later on.

Maybe with a true progidy, a child who is more intelligent than even most adults, this tendency would be normal, but I'd have to do more research to have an informed opinion.

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