Bryan Caplan  

I'll Never Ever Ever Do It Again

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One of my pet theories is that children reveal the true nature of man.  They have the same emotions as adults; they're just terrible at hiding them.  Even when their emotions are monstrous, kids either just blurt out whatever they're thinking, or bend the truth so blatantly that you know exactly what they have in mind.

A classic case: A kid does something bad.  He gets caught.  He wants to avoid punishment.  So what does he say?  "I'll never ever ever do it again."  Kids pass out this extreme promise like candy, even when the compliance cost would be astronomical.  The kid will "Never complain again"?  "Never get mad again"?  "Never ask for anything ever again"?  I've heard all these promises, and more.

What's going on?  The charitable theory is that at the moment they're speaking, the kids are sincere.  Why don't they keep their promises?  Self-control problems; though they want to stay good, it's just too hard in practice.  But the charitable theory conflicts with two ugly facts.

First, kids casually leap to their extreme promises when they sense they're in danger of punishment.  They're not forming a long-run plan to be better kids; they implementing a short-run plan to get off the hook.

Second, once the danger of punishment recedes, the kids don't struggle, then fail, to live up to their promises.  Instead, they forget their promises as casually as they made them.

But don't kids often plead lack of self-control?  Sure: "I just couldn't help myself."  But the real story isn't lack of self-control, but Social Desirability Bias: Kids say stuff that sounds good to avoid negative consequences.  In other words, they're acting just like adults, minus the subtlety.  As I've explained before:
Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they "want to change" is that that's what they're supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he's a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won't admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentant. The drunk who says "I was such a fool!" gets some pity; the drunk who says "I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids" gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

Fortunately, there's a lot more to human beings of all ages than weaseling.  Kids' love and excitement are just as transparent as their pettiness and anger.  Which makes me hopeful about the inner lives of adults as well.




COMMENTS (10 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

I'm curious as to whether you've ever smoked cigarettes for any length of time, or used any addictive drugs. or, perhaps somewhat analagously, have you ever gained a lot of weight and then tried to lose it?

Scott Sumner writes:

Kids are better than adults in many different ways. For instance, when they fight with each other they get over it quickly and start playing together a day later. Professors fight and then don't speak to each other for 20 years.

Of course, kids are also worse in lots of ways . . .

Brian W writes:

Good comment. +1 Hazel Meade

Being a human and controlling this organism is genuinely hard. People are also deeply different from one another. Introspection will not reveal and explain all the problems and feelings other people are having in their own lives.

Diversity is real and very little of it has to do with hot buttons like race and IQ. Living in a bubble can blind you to that reality and make you fond of foolish conclusions like open borders and victim blaming.

austrartsua writes:

This article chimes well with Pinker's central argument in the better angels of our nature that the civilizing process is mainly a process of building self control. In that light people of the middle ages had less self control than those of today and children are barbarians.

@Scott Sumner seems like a poor analogy. The kind of fights that lead to two professors disowning each other for decades are usually over deeply important issues to the combatants. For instance, a decision not to give somebody tenure which will likely set back the person's entire career. In contrast, kid's are fighting over who get's to ride the swings. Even though that might seem as important as tenure to a kid, come tomorrow they aren't even into the swings anymore.

Kid's are worse in every way. We romanticize them but in reality they are little barbarians.

Johan writes:

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Homer J Simpson writes:

The ability to weasel out of situations is what separates us from the animals. Except the weasel of course.

rtd writes:

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Jesse C writes:

@austrartsua - It's hard for me to believe you actually have children! Scott is 100% right about forgiveness. Out of anger, a kid can hit another because they haven't grown to control such impulses. You and I often get angry at others but we've learned to control it so well that we don't even recognize the little flare ups that we suppress, but as children we hadn't learned how yet. That is something that improves as an adult. OTOH, the kid who was hit will forgive very quickly - so quickly that parents can be taken aback sometimes.

@bryan - I force my kids to make wagers with me to improve their honesty when expressing contrition.

Example:

4-year-old: I'm sorry for throwing a fit because you asked me to pick up my toys. I'll never do it again.

Me: I'll bet you $500 to your $100 that you will do it again within a month, payable when you're an adult.

The best part is that I owe you all the credit for this awesome parenting tactic!

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

One of my kids once said "My brain made me do it!"

A. Reader writes:

It strikes me that children are just as capable of deception as adults. But looked at more charitably, children are perhaps more prone to self-deception as they tend to have a less full understanding of time and of themselves.

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