Just Try It; or, Nudge for Kids
By Bryan Caplan
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?