Parenting and external costs
Posted by Christine
When I studied environmental law, I learned about external costs. Part of the problem with pollution is that the cost of smog, fish kills, and flammable tap water are not inflicted on the polluting companies and their customers, but generally on the population. One idea in environmental protection is to internalize these costs. For instance, tradable permits for carbon emission internalize the climate change impact by charging companies for their emissions. This in turn should force the companies to consider their environmental impact as part of the bottom line, because pollution-heavy practices become more expensive.
So what does this have to do with parenting? It occurred to me that authoritative, empathetic parenting involves slowly internalizing the costs of our kids’ behavior as they mature. When they’re newborns, all their costs rest on our shoulders. Their messes, their pain, even their mental stress falls to us automatically, because they have no resources to deal with these negative side effects of being human. As kids grow and develop resources, parents can help their children internalize these “costs of living.”
Consider potty training.* My friend’s son has advanced remarkably, learning to use the toilet on his own initiative. Except it only works when he’s pantsless. Put pants on him, and those pants are going to wind up soaked in pee. I think most of us will experience some version of this: when you know your kids are capable of using the toilet, but they have accidents because it’s too much trouble to go, or they’re having too much fun playing and don’t want to stop, or they read Stephen King’s “The Moving Finger” and are terrified of the bathroom. (Wait, that last one is me.)
My friend wants to gently motivate her son to give some extra effort, but doesn’t want to use external rewards like stickers or M&Ms. So I suggested something that has worked for us – internalizing the cost of accidents. It’s very much in the realm of “natural consequences,” and isn’t judgmental. When my 5 year old pees in her pants, I say, “OK, it happens sometimes. Now take off your pants and I’ll get you a towel to clean up the floor.” You don’t have to yell and scream, you don’t have to inflict a punishment or dangle a reward. But making a child bear more of the cost can provide enough motivation to make pulling down their pants, pausing their video game, or excusing themselves from the party worth it. After all, wiping up a puddle of urine is much less pleasant and takes longer than just using the toilet in the first place.
Meanwhile, making sure that kids start handling the less wonderful aspects of living helps keep us parents energized. Because after a while, handling 100% of someone else’s costs will wear you out. (See my post about burning out on AP.) Some days I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the mountain of household duties before me, and I can’t tell you how rejuvenating it is to see my 9 year old put away her own laundry and take a shower with no intervention on my part! I feel much less resentful of the burdens I have to help them with when they start shouldering the jobs they can easily handle.
So maybe it’s worthwhile to stop thinking so much in terms of motivation and consequences, never mind manipulation and punishment, and look at parenting from a bit of an economics perspective. Just like they do in big business, externalities can distort the give and take between us and create a bad atmosphere. Internalize those costs, and you’re helping everyone in the equation.
*I use this term in the same sense as continuing education or vocational training, not teaching a dog to sit. If you’re more comfortable with “potty learning,” go for it.