Here’s a fascinating article in The New York Times about a well-meaning social experiment that evidently failed. Poor families who signed up for the citywide program were rewarded financially for what you might term ordinary, middle-class behavior: going to the dentist, keeping a job, doing well in school, etc. The idea was to encourage productive behavior and raise income levels among the poor.
The program was attacked by conservatives for being moronic and liberals for being patronizing — but beyond ideological arguments, just didn’t seem to have an impact. Oh, well, Bloomberg administration officials said, you’ve got to try innovative ideas, you have to fail before you succeed.
All of which rang a particularly loud bell with me. First of all, growing up, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes were two of my sister’s and my favorite books. We read and re-read the books till they fell apart, cackling and quoting from their true stories about 11 raucous, high-spirited kids being brought up by their two psychologist/motion-study expert parents. The father — a little overbearing, but loving and lovable — is determined to bring up a houseful of children efficiently, using his motion-study knowledge that had been helpful in streamlining the workplace. Children being children, they didn’t follow orders as well as factory workers, but the running conflict made for two very funny books and a few movies. (In memory, failed social experiments are a real scream.)
To this day, I can look back at these books and see how much they influenced me as a writer about telling a story and about what makes it funny. I can still begin a quote from the book knowing my sister will conclude it for me. (“‘Does anyone,’ Ernestine said loudly … “)
That was my childhood and my reading life — which I still tend to confuse. In so many ways, my reading life was far more vivid and real than my childhood. Thank God for a better adulthood, in which I had two kids, instead of 12, but nevertheless ended up married to a psychologist who often had decidedly avant-garde ideas about child-rearing.
I could tell you about the time our daughter exited the bathroom complaining about a snake on the floor. “Freud was right! She’s right on schedule!” my husband kept chortling, every time she mentioned the snake. In fact, he kept on chortling until he went in the bathroom himself and saw the little garter snake on the floor. I asked him about Freud’s omniscient schedule, but he didn’t answer me.
However, that was nothing compared to some of the other little experiments our kids got yanked into. We never paid them for grades, for example, because — the psychologist said — they would learn to value money over grades. Which was fine with me and seems to have worked.
Still, the real kicker occurred when our son was about five and liked watching TV too much. We controlled it, but didn’t want to forbid it and make it more attractive.
“I know!” my husband said one night. “I’ve got it! We’re going to pay him to watch TV!”
“We are?” I said. “Why?”
“Oversufficient justification,” he said, cryptically. “You pay someone to do something he enjoys — and after a while, he doesn’t want to do it any longer. He won’t enjoy it. Take away the money and the habit’s gone.”
I don’t know how long that experiment lasted, with our son happily slouched in front of the TV set, collecting change from us, telling disbelieving friends about it who could not believe anybody’s father was weird enough to pay him to watch TV.
All these years later, our son is a perfectly wonderful grown up who still likes to watch TV, even if nobody else has ever volunteered to pay him for it.
“Remember that failed experiment you did with paying the kids to watch TV?” I asked my husband just today.
“It wasn’t a total failure,” he said. “I think it succeeded in some ways.”
He left the apartment for a jog before I could ask him to elaborate, but I’m pretty sure his answer would be the same as the Bloomberg administration’s about omelets and broken eggs. Or maybe the problem was we only had two kids, instead of 11 or 12. It worked out well for us, but it’s no way to run a psychology experiment.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about being pregnant in the wrong era