Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Cost Benefit Analysis of a Four Year Old

In everything we do, we do a mental cost-benefit analysis. Most are very simple and don’t need much assessment, but the truth is, we all do it. For example, while sitting on the couch, watching the last two minutes of the game, your wife yells from the kitchen, “Matt (which would be weird, unless your name is Matt), come in here right now and look at this!” In this situation, I have several options; (a) Yell back, “No, you come here right now and tell me about it!”, (b) Get off the couch at the next commercial break and saunter out into the kitchen, (c) Jump off the couch and sprint to the kitchen.

Now, a quick cost-benefit analysis tells me that that in option (a), the “cost” associated with the above comment will far outweigh the benefit of seeing the last two minutes of the game. In fact, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t see the final two minutes of the game anyways because the TV would be tossed out the window. A similar analysis of option (b) would suggest that the penalties for my slow response might not result in a broken TV, but anger and frustration nonetheless. So while the consequences are less severe, the cost still outweighs the benefit (for you gentlemen that disagree with my analysis . . . your wife is either a saint, or she is plotting her revenge as we speak). Option (c) is obviously the best choice . . . at least for me in my household.

My son is learning to do a similar analysis of difficult situations. Recently, while riding through the yard on his motorized toy tractor, my son almost hit the dog. Seeing that our dog is a member of our family, I said, “Don’t hit the dog or I’ll take that tractor away from you for being irresponsible.” He stops the motor and looks up thoughtfully as if pondering this dilemma. As moments pass, I can almost hear his inner-voice, “If I hit the dog, it might be funny, but I’ll lose the tractor. How long is it worth losing the tractor to see the dog jump?”

In an effort to get the answer to that question, he asks me, “Forever?” Now, at four years old, these are terms he is utilizing on a regular basis – always, never, and forever. My guess is, at four, everything except immediate satisfaction feels like forever.

However, in this case, by looking at the expression on his face (and by being someone with great experience in this type of assessment), I recognize he is doing a cost-benefit analysis. I also know that he is probably thinking that “forever” is probably too high a cost to pay. So, like any responsible, caring, respectable parent, I respond by saying, “Yes, forever!” Alright, I might have exaggerated a bit, but as I watched his shoulders sag, and disappointment spread across his face, I knew that it probably saved the dogs life.

He disappointedly looked at the dog and said, “Alright Tucker, get out of the way.” And so, the cost-benefit training has begun for this little boy. In a couple decades, his wife can thank me as he jumps off the couch to help her in the kitchen.

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