The Virtues of Innocence

by Russ Roberts on May 29, 2008

in Parenting

In my recent podcast with Robin Hanson, he mentioned a Paul Graham essay, "Lies We Tell Kids." I found it to be a fascinating read and recommend Graham’s essays. At Robin’s blog, Overcoming Bias, he quotes Graham’s argument for why we lie to our kids about the dangers of the world:

is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can
continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of
knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re
going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying
to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last.
Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent, and I don’t think
this is a coincidence. I think they’ve deliberately avoided learning
about certain things. Certainly I do. I used to think I wanted to know
everything. Now I know I don’t.

I don’t know if there’s any merit to this argument. Robin writes:

This has some
intuitive appeal, but it is puzzling – why exactly would learning that
the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more
about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality? 

Maybe. But knowing about brutality has other effects. I think Robin and Graham miss the real reason we lie to our kids about the brutality of the world, and about sex, and lots of other things. We believe, perhaps correctly or incorrectly, that experiencing brutality at an early age is scarring not liberating. It diminishes a person as an adult. So a child who watches R-rated films filled with sex and violence at eight years old is more worldly and knowledgeable than a sheltered child, but also more damaged, a child who upon adulthood is less able to cope with violence and sex. This could be a delusion we have about raising children and the real reason we protect them is to keep them cute or malleable or something else. And maybe the damaging effects of learning about brutality is what Graham is getting at when he talks about open-mindedness.

I remember a fellow 7th-grader, L., who knew much more than the rest of us about the mechanics of the birds and the bees and who patiently talked about those mechanics in a totally matter-of-fact manner to anyone who was interested. Most of us tried to appear as knowledgeable but I suspect our parents’ more guarded treatment of the topic made us see sex as some mysterious and powerful force. For L, it appeared to be akin to learning about how to eat wisely or dress appropriately. Did L’s parents do him a service or a disservice by treating sex so openly? I don’t know. It’s hard to know. Most of us follow the taboos and conventions around us. They have a long tradition behind them. That is some justification but not every taboo and tradition is healthy. Read the Graham essay. As always, he has much to say that is very thought-provoking.

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jb May 29, 2008 at 4:09 pm

It's well-established, I believe, that kids can develop a lifelong fear of something after an early traumatic experience. Whereas the same experience, were it to occur later in life, is much, much less traumatic.

So there's definitely some merit to shielding your kids from terrifying or traumatic experiences when they're too young to handle them.

I'm mixed on sex, drugs and the "World at Large". You have to give them enough knowledge early on to understand that these things have both good and bad aspects, and for each child, the timing of when to pass on those bits of knowledge is probably both hard to predict and different for each person.

The other Eric May 29, 2008 at 6:14 pm

I think JB's point is a good one. There is a difference between the experience of trauma and terror from a different type of experience with knowledge beyond the maturity to make sense of it (and I mean maturity, not just chronology).

I am reminded of parents who raised their children to be open-minded and inclusive of others only to find that, when those kids go off to college, they hang around and even date 'undesirable' people (however you want to define that). At a very late date they want their children to more critical, more suspect, and to be more judgmental of others… Sheltered, fair-minded, innocence can come back to haunt you.

I love the point in the article about how parents create "the Matrix" for their children. We don't just lie to our kids– we build alternate realities for them and then have to tear that up as they get older.

Steve13 May 29, 2008 at 6:48 pm

I think the nature of traumatic experiences are that the jump ahead of some type of slow ramp of knowledge. In other words, ideally we introduce knowledge like an on-ramp to the highway.

A lack of an on-ramp is a problem in one of two ways. Either it makes the highway inaccessible, or you get unceremoneously dumped into 70 mph traffic.

I think the artificial world we slowly introduce kids to is like an on-ramp. Designed to prepare them gradually for anything and any concept to be handled in time.

I'm reminded of the joke:
A vacationing man receives a phone call from a friend who is feeding his cat. The friend tells him that the cat went on the roof, wouldn't come down, the fire dept. was called, the cat got stuck way up in a tree and wouldn't come down to eat and is dead.

"Oh my god, you can't do that to me", says the vacationer. "You should call me on one day and say the cat is on the roof. Then the next that he is stuck further in a tree and not eating".

"I'm very sorry", says the friend, "you wanted me to break it to you slowly so you would be prepared".

"Yes, yes!" says the man.

A few days later the vacationer receives a call from his friend who says, "You're mother is up on the roof and won't come down."

raja_r May 29, 2008 at 8:08 pm

His articles are good -
from this:

…And God help you if you fire anyone.

Nothing shows more clearly that employment is not an ordinary economic relationship than companies being sued for firing people. In any purely economic relationship you're free to do what you want. If you want to stop buying steel pipe from one supplier and start buying it from another, you don't have to explain why. No one can accuse you of unjustly switching pipe suppliers. Justice implies some kind of paternal obligation that isn't there in transactions between equals.

Most of the legal restrictions on employers are intended to protect employees. But you can't have action without an equal and opposite reaction. You can't expect employers to have some kind of paternal responsibility toward employees without putting employees in the position of children. And that seems a bad road to go down.

Gil May 29, 2008 at 8:08 pm

That's not how the joke's told. It goes more like this:

Jim goes to Tim and tells him Tim's cat died when he was away on vacation. Jane hears what Jim said and informs him that he should've been more subtle – "Instead of saying 'you're cat's dead' how about saying something like 'your cat was stuck up a tree and won't come down, and was like that for a week so it had to be put down'. Doesn't that make more sense?"

"I suppose it does".

"There you go. By the way do you know how my mother's been doing since I away?"

"Well your mother's was stuck in a tree . . ."

Ray G May 29, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Very interesting.

Brutality and cruelty are not natural to an individual’s life, but they are endemic to the world at large.

For this reason, children are meant to be brought up in a healthy home where they learn respect for authority, respect for others in general, and a basic sense of order in life.

This gives a person their foundation for life and prepares them to deal with the unfortunate aspects of life.

When people are exposed to the darker side of life in their formative years, the brutality becomes part of their foundation, and is thus a kind of fissure in their inner-foundation.

I do not believe that very smart people avoid learning unfortunate things however. The more cerebral type of intellectual doesn’t so much as avoid learning certain things, they’re simply focused on their sphere of intelligence and just don’t learn other things out of a lack of capacity.

They’re out of balance in other words. The stereotypical professor who seems not to own a mirror or any sense of sartorial knowledge at all for that matter, but can do amazing things in their sphere of intelligence; their brilliance seems to come at a cost of being a little out of balance in the larger scheme of things.

This could still be considered innocence, but it is not voluntary.

The kind of intellect that truly blazes is that universal intellect that has the capacity for learning whatever is set before them, and they are able to balance life appropriately within their own thoughts.

ettubloge May 30, 2008 at 10:22 am

I just saw a Super-nanny episode where one of Brian Wilson's daughters could not figure out how to raise her 2 young boys. They would never go to sleep, acted improperly in restaurants or supermarkets, ate poorly and other problematic issues. She explained that in her up-bringing there were no rules and the parents were largely absent. The nanny had to teach Wilson (the goodlooking one) and her husband what the rules should be and how to implement them. After the lesson, with some transgressions, they had a more structured, happy home.

Kids need the romoval of clutter that comes with structure and clarity of world-view (I contend is largely assisted by some religion) in order to be able to focus on the building blocks of life. Place clutter like age inappropriate information in the way and the child cannot make sense or cope with the complications of life.

I coach baseball to 7-8 year olds. Shall I start with the GD infield fly rule or just getting them to throw to 1st base each time?

John Markley May 30, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Interesting subject. I think Graham is right to value children's innocence, but for the wrong reason.

Steve13's theory about gradually becoming accustomed to the harshness of reality makes sense to me. It's one thing to gradually go from idyllic innocence to "Sometimes people aren't as nice as they should be," and then gradually learn more about the dark side of the world as time passes. It's another thing to go directly from total innocence to knowing all the details about serial murderers, ebola, and Pol Pot.

Let's not leave out what strikes me as the most obvious reason to care about childhood innocence- innocent children are happier. I'm not sure I agree that early knowledge of sex and violence actually weakens your ability to handle them as an adult, but I think Russell Roberts is on the right track when he says that too much early knowledge is "scarring, not liberating." I knew from a a very early age that the world was a brutal and heartless place, and while I don't think it did my intellectual curiosity any harm, it just made life far less pleasant than it could have been. Kids have plenty of time to grow up and learn the often-unpleasant truth; making them learn it too early adds a source of unhappiness to their lives without any gains to show for it.

Floccina May 30, 2008 at 3:47 pm

An aspect of this that is interesting to me is that we seem to think that without Gov. life will quickly descend into violent thieving chaos but events like the after math of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and reporting on show use that it is not as bad as we expect. The reporting said the things where must worse than they really were.

I would go as far to say that in adult society the timid (people like me) gain from our anonymity by the fact that there are many who will stand up for themselves quite forcefully. We are also kept safer by the fact people seem to know that they need other people.

Republican Patriot May 30, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Children aren't adults. Some things — sex, violence, death — are not appropriate for children because [fill in the reasons; there are many time-tested good ones]. When we see adults treat children like little grown-ups, we are appalled. For good reason.

RayG May 30, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Dennis Leary, in his early standup days, had a line or two about they never tell you the scary stuff when you're a kid; like the existence of aneurisms. Look it up, funny stuff.

More to the point; there's so much that children simply cannot understand, why do we place them in front of television screens and bombard them with so many adult situations?

vidyohs May 31, 2008 at 7:43 pm

The virtues of innocence?

Innocence comes in many different forms, for instance there is also political innocence; and, for that innocence we suffer a great deal of harm that could be overcome through study and knowledge.

Contemplate the truths in this below and tell me where your innocnce has gone when finished.

Subject: Fw: Article by Charlie Reese about our elected officials in the Federal Government…very good!

(You are either part of the solution, or part of the problem….doing nothing is a choice!)^..^

Who really is to blame? 545 PEOPLE

By Charlie Reese -

Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.

Have you ever wondered why, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have deficits?

Have you ever wondered why, if all the politicians are against inflation and high taxes, WHY do we have inflation and high taxes?

You and I don't propose a federal budget. The president does.

You and I don't have the Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations. The House of Representatives does.

You and I don't write the tax code, Congress does.

You and I don't set fiscal policy, Congress does.

You and I don't control monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Bank does.

One hundred senators, 435 congressmen, one president, and nine Supreme Court justices – 545 human beings out of the 300 million – are directly, legally, morally, and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country.

I excluded the members of the Federal Reserve Board because that problem was created by the Congress. In 1913, Congress delegated its Constitutional duty to provide a sound currency to a federally chartered, but private, central bank. (Actually though, fiat money only exacerbates this situation)

I excluded all the special interests and lobbyists for a sound reason.
They have no legal authority. They have no ability to coerce a senator, a congressman, or a president to do one cotton-picking thing. I don't care if they offer a politician $1 million dollars in cash. The politician has the power to accept or reject it. No matter what the lobbyist promises, it is the legislator's responsibility to determine how he votes.

Those 545 human beings spend much of their energy convincing you that what they did is not their fault. They cooperate in this common con regardless of party.

What separates a politician from a normal human being is an excessive amount of gall. No normal human being would have the gall of a Speaker, who stood up and criticized the President for creating deficits. The president can only propose a budget. He cannot force the Congress to accept it.

The Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, gives sole responsibility to the House of Representatives for originating and approving appropriations and taxes. Who is the speaker of the House? She is the leader of the majority party. She and fellow House members, not the president, can approve any budget they want. If the president vetoes it, they can pass it over his veto if they agree to.

It seems inconceivable to me that a nation of 300 million can not replace
545 people who stand convicted — by present facts — of incompetence and irresponsibility. I can't think of a single domestic problem that is not traceable directly to those 545 people. When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise the power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist.

If the tax code is unfair, it's because they want it unfair.

If the budget is in the red, it's because they want it in the red.

If the Army & Marines are in IRAQ, it's because they want them inIRAQ.

If they do not receive social security but are on an elite retirement plan not available to the people, it's because they want it that way.

There are no insoluble government problems.

Do not let these 545 people shift the blame to bureaucrats, whom they hire and whose jobs they can abolish; to lobbyists, whose gifts and advice they can reject; to regulators, to whom they give the power to regulate and from whom they can take this power. Above all, do not let them con you into the belief that there exists disembodied mystical forces like 'the economy,' 'inflation,' or 'politics' that prevent them from doing what they take an oath to do.

Those 545 people, and they alone, are responsible.

They, and they alone, have the power.

They, and they alone, should be held accountable by the people who are their bosses -

provided the voters have the gumption to manage their own employees.

We should vote all of them out of office and clean up their mess!

Charlie Reese is a former columnist of theOrlando Sentinel Newspaper.

Henri Hein June 4, 2008 at 1:51 am

As a European, I don't get American hysteria about exposing kids to the real world. True trauma comes from neurotic parents overprotecting their children.

I often meet American kids that read well and still believe in Santa Claus, who is shocked speechless at hearing a four-letter word, or who doesn't know what sex is well past fertility age.

The trauma theory is classic puritan PR. You can verify this by looking at cultures where children are taught about sex and allowed to drink at early ages. Children from these cultures start to drink and have sex about the same time, or later, than their American counterparts. So much for innocence.

American adults are to lose their freedoms to this grand plan as well. Adults can't swear, because a kid might hear it. Adults can't use a recreational drug, because a kid may learn about it. Adults can watch what they want on TV because of uptight parents elsewhere.

It's just the Mayflower gene rearing its ugly head, and Americans would do well to discard this baggage.

robi August 11, 2008 at 1:33 pm

Greate post. I especially found it useful where you stated.

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