The Peculiar Economics of Children’s Entertainment

by on October 31, 2006 · 9 comments

As a single, childless adult I dimly realized some years ago that children’s entertainment had taken a disturbing turn a while back. It had come to incorporate a tremendous amount of “caring and sharing” and safety propaganda, communitarianism distilled into the purest saccharine. Helping and teamwork are well enough, but they are not the only virtues. Indeed, my childless self reasoned, leading the little barbarians to form the expectation that everything was to be shared potentially would lead to disrespect for others’ rights over their stuff. (Some psychology at work: As an only child, I was horrified by the spectacle of other children maltreating my toys).


Now, as the parent of a two-year-old who *likes* children’s entertainment, old, new, whatever, I’m trying to come to terms with the stuff. Here’s one theory: Toddlers are such little savages that only an extraordinary effort to drum “caring and sharing” into their little heads will make them tolerable company. The goal is not to turn them all into little Maoists after all, but merely to take the edge off their egoism, which otherwise would have them in a war of all small against all small.

Trouble is, that theory seems to be wrong. The Grub, for example, eats with his hands and occasionally lets out a horrid shriek. Oh, and he can be grabby. But basically he has a lot of empathy for other living creatures. When he was much younger, I asked him one day to leave our cat Gwennie in peace; she was not in a good mood because she had been to the “animal doctor” that day. He burst into tears, and when he could speak again, said, worriedly, “Gwennie medicine?” I don’t have the sense that he needs to be heavily propagandized to eventually grow into a considerate companion. But perhaps my sample size for this study is too small. So I’ll have to reserve judgement.

Hard to do, when, immersed daily in the stuff of Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, I find myself drowning in weird economics and politics. Just for example, does Bob the Builder get paid for the work he does? No money is ever seen to change hands. Do Bob’s sentient-if-childish machines get paid? Does he own them? Are they slaves? What would happen if they didn’t want to work? Same for the engines on the island of Sodor. And what is with the strange persistence of monarchy in children’s tales… kings, princes, princesses…?

The best justification I can come up with all this is that toddlers are readied first not for the larger world of the market, but the smaller world of the family. What is the relationship of parents and children? The children have to do as the grownups say, just like Bob and his machines. But we don’t own them, exactly. Nor do family members pay one another. Family members generally do things for one another without being paid. And families are not democracies any more than is the railroad on Sodor.

The problem is that as children go from being toddlers to teens to young adults, there never seems to be any stage in their education where they are readied to move from the family to the larger world of the market. We consciously teach them sharing, but only a few parents consciously or unconsciously teach trading. Even though trading is a pretty good strategy within families, too. So do we have young people going out into the world with the expectation that everyone owes them a share of wealth that they have not earned?

And I still hold off from teaching sharing. Sharing implies two people using a resource at the same time; unless you have an easily divisible resource, like a brownie, it is a recipe for conflict. The closest I will come is to urge the Grub to take turns with his little friends, a “turn” being a sort of ephemeral property right, like one’s place in queue in front of a Soviet shop. We’ll have to see if this gets him thrown out of preschool.

  • James Gattuso

    Solveig — I don’t know if Thomas or his friends get paid, but they were nationalized in 1947 (“We are nationalized now, but the same engines work the region,” Rev. Awdry wrote in a Sodor book that came out that year.) I’m not sure when they were privatized again (perhaps Thatcher had a children’s fictional privatization program), but Sir Topham Hatt seems to be safely making profits once again.

    I know way too much about this, I know. Can you tell I have a five-year old at home?

  • James Gattuso

    Solveig — I don’t know if Thomas or his friends get paid, but they were nationalized in 1947 (“We are nationalized now, but the same engines work the region,” Rev. Awdry wrote in a Sodor book that came out that year.) I’m not sure when they were privatized again (perhaps Thatcher had a children’s fictional privatization program), but Sir Topham Hatt seems to be safely making profits once again.

    I know way too much about this, I know. Can you tell I have a five-year old at home?

  • greglas

    Yes, I’d call “turns” a temporary usufruct — I think Lord Blackstone would approve.

    But more importantly, while I think I disagree with you about the benefits of not promoting sharing, I *really* have to take my hat off to you for doing a close reading of the socio-economic system represented in Bob the Builder — I too have been immersed in Bob’s world (though we’re moving on now). One of my constant questions was about his relationship to Wendy and their division of labor. I assumed Dizzy, Muck, and the others were “pets,” mature, part of the family, but essentially dependent beings. :-)

  • greglas

    Yes, I’d call “turns” a temporary usufruct — I think Lord Blackstone would approve.

    But more importantly, while I think I disagree with you about the benefits of not promoting sharing, I *really* have to take my hat off to you for doing a close reading of the socio-economic system represented in Bob the Builder — I too have been immersed in Bob’s world (though we’re moving on now). One of my constant questions was about his relationship to Wendy and their division of labor. I assumed Dizzy, Muck, and the others were “pets,” mature, part of the family, but essentially dependent beings. :-)

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    Legos don’t share easily, since there are many different kinds, and you’re more likely to want all of a given kind (both long red plates and both single wheels for matching wings and landing gear on an airplane) than “your share” which includes one long red plate, one squarish blue plate, and several non-matching wheels.

    So when you tell kids to “share” Legos, you’re really telling them to invent a system for allocating Legos — picking, trading, taking turns, divide-and-choose — whatever works well enough for everyone that nobody will complain loud enough to draw an “if you can’t all be polite and share we’re going to put the Legos away.”

    The sum of toy allocation time and play time is fixed, so kids have an incentive to simplify the “sharing” system to a set of quick conventions, just as software development organizations have an incentive to cut transaction costs by using a few standard licenses.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    Legos don’t share easily, since there are many different kinds, and you’re more likely to want all of a given kind (both long red plates and both single wheels for matching wings and landing gear on an airplane) than “your share” which includes one long red plate, one squarish blue plate, and several non-matching wheels.

    So when you tell kids to “share” Legos, you’re really telling them to invent a system for allocating Legos — picking, trading, taking turns, divide-and-choose — whatever works well enough for everyone that nobody will complain loud enough to draw an “if you can’t all be polite and share we’re going to put the Legos away.”

    The sum of toy allocation time and play time is fixed, so kids have an incentive to simplify the “sharing” system to a set of quick conventions, just as software development organizations have an incentive to cut transaction costs by using a few standard licenses.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Well, my son is a bit older (8 years old) and I became quite familar with the island of sodor and also Bob the builder, but the commintariansim never grated on me because there was so much corporate propaganda in advertising, that breeds selfishness, that I never worried about ‘too much communitarianism” Of course, we watch very little TV, prefering to rent videos from the library, never having to pay for them or listen to commercials, outweighed the issue of limited selection.

    Now, an interesting phenomena was my son for a very long time insisted that Charles, the local librarian owned the library, and persisted in using the term ‘buy’ when he wanted a book, not fully getting it that this wasn’t borders, so we didn’t have to buy anything.

    Many of the Thomas stories do contain economic references, BTW, in particular one in which a school is being closed down, and a fair is organzed by Sir Topham Hat to save the school.

    Which brings up an item I’d noticed in Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom (an extremely good book by the way), in which he noted how Adam Smith backed public education.

    In the same book Sen discuss the distribution of income within a family, and discusses how that can be measured, in particular by the ‘missing women’ in certain cultures, for example China.

    Another interesting point Sen made was the very strong linkage between female literacy and the survival of children. There was a weaker link between male literacy and the survival of children, BTW.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ enigma_foundry

    Well, my son is a bit older (8 years old) and I became quite familar with the island of sodor and also Bob the builder, but the commintariansim never grated on me because there was so much corporate propaganda in advertising, that breeds selfishness, that I never worried about ‘too much communitarianism” Of course, we watch very little TV, prefering to rent videos from the library, never having to pay for them or listen to commercials, outweighed the issue of limited selection.

    Now, an interesting phenomena was my son for a very long time insisted that Charles, the local librarian owned the library, and persisted in using the term ‘buy’ when he wanted a book, not fully getting it that this wasn’t borders, so we didn’t have to buy anything.

    Many of the Thomas stories do contain economic references, BTW, in particular one in which a school is being closed down, and a fair is organzed by Sir Topham Hat to save the school.

    Which brings up an item I’d noticed in Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom (an extremely good book by the way), in which he noted how Adam Smith backed public education.

    In the same book Sen discuss the distribution of income within a family, and discusses how that can be measured, in particular by the ‘missing women’ in certain cultures, for example China.

    Another interesting point Sen made was the very strong linkage between female literacy and the survival of children. There was a weaker link between male literacy and the survival of children, BTW.

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