Friday, June 20, 2008

What my daughter teaches me about economics?

My two year old daughter drives me and my wife into exasperation and even anger with her tantrums. Though I must admit that without the tantrums, I would have been even more exasperated and unhappy!

Trying to reason out and analyse her tantrums, I am convinced that there is a major incentive problem with the way parents treat children, especially infants. Instead of taking cue and incentivizing them to follow our lead, parents try to force themselves upon their children, who in turn resist with tantrums. I am also convinced that children are the most ideal of economic agents, in that they exhibit great versatility in responding to incentives.

My wife carefully covers my daughter with a sheet when she gets ready to sleep, so that she does not feel cold. My daughter, who like me does not like using a sheet, promptly wriggles out and throws off the sheet. Only to snuggle back under the sheet, again like me, as she gets drowsy and cold. I have watched this sequence of events being played out every day. My wife still persists with the routine.

I suppose it is true with all mothers that they are bent on feeding their children as much as the child can possibly ingest. It is therefore nothing unusual for my wife to force down the rice porridge or chappati down a vociferously resisting daughter. I have tried explaining to her that the little one is resisting because she is just not hungry enough. Or may be she had enough with the sticky porridge and wants a change. Why not wait for her to get hungry and ask for food, and serve her different food items each day, and possibly repeat it with some periodicity?

Even a trivial thing like getting her to sleep or dissuading her from wandering out, can be reduced to one of incentives and disincentives. A Wee-willie-winkie or the bogo demon, who can frighten away my daughter is another example of incentives at work. Similarly, with a packet of popcorn or lolli-pop or crayons(yes, these are her favorites!).

It is not just incentives that children teach us. Consider this example. Parents in their anxiety to get their children to read and write as early as possible, forces the English alphabet and numerals on the resisting child. Instead, why not inculcate in the child the interest and inquisitiveness (and children are very curious and inquisitive indeed) to learn the alphabet and numeral. This produces interesting results.

Again exasperated with my daughter's initial stubborn refusal to learn the language of her world, we experimented with arousing her curiosity for the written word with some interesting children's play material. Now, as soon as I get back back everyday evening my daughter runs to me with her latest picture book acquisition, demanding that I explain it or tell the story.

What do we learn from this? Initially our misguided and ill-directed efforts at teaching our daughter was not yielding result, as the child was just not interested. Have we not seen this before in Eco 101? It is a classic case of the over enthusiastic parent's efforts crowding out any pretence of effort by the child. Now fast forward a few years, with the child is going to school and being given homework everyday. If the over zealous parent, instead of gently guiding the child starts sitting with the child and effectively shepharding the child through her regular homework, we have a major problem. The parental effort will obviously crowd out the child's initiative and interest, leaving her with little incentive to do her homework herself.

Children are extremely impressionable and responsive and hence a fertile ground for incentives and disincentives to play out. It is therefore necessary to inculcate the appropriate incentive and disincentive calculus in children from a very early age, so that it remains a strong foundation that underpins their character.

(PS: I have recently completed reading one of Steve Landsburg's older books, Fair Play, and this post has been inspired by that book)

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