March 13, 2009

Forbidden Fruit

There's something about what we can't have that's particularly appealing. There are plenty of people who believe that their most successful strategy is playing 'hard to get.' Sometimes this is in the context of dating, but it could be multinational conglomerates negotiating a deal. It could be you, buying a car. As every parent knows who has brought their 1 or 2 year old in to see me, a simple stick or a wooden block can be just as fascinating as an electronic toy. So if the little ones will be happy with a stick, what compels them to play with the complicated toys of their older siblings?

Yesterday, a wonderful family came to the office. I've known all 3 kids since they were newborns, and they are very comfortable with me and my office. The two boys, 5 and 7, knew where all the toys are and ran around being creative. Their 16-month-old sister ran as fast as she could to follow them. She wanted to play with their toys, go where they went, do what they did, even if she couldn't put together a puzzle or work some of the toys. This is the normal role of the younger sibling.

From an empathic perspective, it's easy to see that this sweet girl could seem like a pest to the big boys playing with cars and trains and building things with blocks. My office is pretty well stocked with toys, and there's a lot for a kid her age to do and play with. But she really, really wanted whatever her brothers had. This is a deep truth of siblings. The younger ones always want what the older ones have--more stuff, more choices, more respect.

As an older child (when I was in my 20’s) I had the privilege of being invited to a Madonna concert in Madison Square Garden in New York. Incidentally, she was fabulous. But it was a revelation to me to see that a lot of her fans were preteen girls, whole throngs of them, dressed just like her. I kept wondering how their parents could let them out of the house in those outfits. And where, even in New York, can you buy a bustier (some with tassels) in 4th-grade size? I wasn’t a pediatrician then, but I knew I was seeing something remarkable.

This isn’t coveting what we can’t have. It’s different from desiring what we can’t afford or fantasizing about what just isn’t realistic.

For a child, it’s a hazy glimpse into the future and wanting a taste of it now.

In the latest issue of one of the medical journals I receive, Pediatrics, there was a fascinating study from some smart and creative researchers in The Netherlands. They pondered the question of forbidden fruit, at least in the context of video games. In Europe, just as in the United States, there’s a game rating system in which games are rated for content and for suggested age-appropriateness. So a game like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is rated E for Everyone. Grand Theft Auto IV, in which weapons are everywhere and ‘adult situations’ happen all the time (indeed, much more frequently than in actual adult life), is rated M for Mature, Age 17+. The European rating system has categories by age: 7+, 12+, 16+, 18+. The ratings are not meant to gauge how fun the game is. They’re designed for the guidance of an involved parent. But there might be a forbidden fruit factor here, which--just as the original forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden--beckons children to want to play games their parents probably would prefer they didn’t.

They took a group of 310 children, aged 7-17. They grouped the children into three basic age groups: 7-8, 12-13, 16-17. There were about equal numbers of boys and girls. Before doing their experiment, they used some rating scales to find out more about the participating kids. They rated their personalities in various ways. They also invented descriptions of the games in a careful way so that this wouldn't be influential. (How could they be sure? They smartly got 76 15-year-olds to rate the descriptions.)

The experiment itself was pretty straightforward. The scientists asked the kids to rate how much they’d like to play each game. While they never asked the question, I suspect this measure is closely correlated with how much nagging of their parents they would be willing to do to acquire a given game.

They found that in every age group of children, the higher the age rating of the game, the more attractive it was. Even in 7-8 year olds, the games rated for 17+ were more appealing than those rated for 12+ and these were more appealing than those rated 8+. This was true for girls, too. When they took off the age ratings, and just showed the kids the violence ratings, the relationship held up. There wasn't much difference between games with no rating and games with a 'no violent content' rating. But the games labeled as having violent content were rated about 50% higher in likeability by every age group, even the 7-8 year olds (in fact, they found the strongest effect on the youngest kids), even the girls. Yes, even for the girls. They found a substantial forbidden fruit effect.

Part of the purpose of the experiment, I suspect, was an ongoing need to validate and examine the effectiveness of these kind of ratings and rating systems. We need to know, do they work?

As an aside, this applies to a complex sociological question. Did Prohibition work? Do smoking bans work? How about speed limits on the freeway? Is it helpful to raise the drinking age? I’m no expert, but the answer to all of these is…kind of. When we forbid something fun or perceived as potentially fun, the activity acquires an enhanced value. That’s a forbidden fruit effect, when what we’re trying to make less attractive becomes more attractive precisely because of our efforts. But the barriers we’ve erected to the convenience of smoking and drinking seem generally acknowledged to have reduced at least some of the pervasiveness of these issues in our youth.

The experimenters in Amsterdam wanted to examine this unintended consequence of video game ratings. I think there's a larger and empathic lesson here for those who take care of children. Strict prohibitions and rigid dogmatism are dangerous and can backfire. Virginity Pledges are most likely the result of parental pressure and expectations. How well do they work? Five years later, those who pledged and those who did not pledge had similar rates of sexually-transmitted disease, age at first sex, and number of partners. The pledgers were less likely to use condoms or birth control.

Setting limits is an important job for every parent. Safety is non-negotiable, and though most kids will adhere to safety limits, there are some fearless thrill-seekers out there who can be hard to manage. But what about these non-safety issues?

The empathic approach has some insights for me. One of the tricks I use when examining a child was developed when I was in training and I observed a senior, and I would have thought experienced, physician examining a preschooler. When the doctor tried to listen to the child's heart, the kid naturally reached for the stethoscope. The doctor firmly held away the child's hand. When she tried to look in the child's ears, the child wanted to play with the flashlight. The doctor held down the child, now crying. I knew there was a better way. Before I place the stethoscope on the child's chest, I offer it to them to check out and touch. It's not very threatening after a little while, and not so interesting either. I usually will let the child hold and play with my light. It's fine with me if we take turns. It's only fair if they get to look in my ears, too. Why does this work? Because I'm trusting them with my stuff. My grown-up, insanely-expensive medical equipment stuff.

Some of the most heavily-advertised products and movies are probably inappropriate for your children. But keep in mind that kids seem to grow up just fine in cultures where there's hunting, disease, and nudity. Well, maybe not all at the same time. I wonder how much of what we forbid our kids from experiencing is attractive to them because we forbid it. If there's a subtle mistake I see many parents making, it's not trusting their children enough.

One evening, I was invited for dinner by one of the families I take care of. When I saw their 5-year-old chopping a carrot on a cutting board, I was shocked. Gradually, my feelings changed to being really impressed. The girl is very smart and focused, but I was impressed with these parents. What could happen? Which of us hasn't cut ourselves in the kitchen? Another parent sent me the following link from Gever Tully, talking about 5 dangerous things you should let your children do . Rules and limits are made to keep kids in their place. Keep the 7-year olds playing with games that say they are for 7-year olds. Every child has an elemental need to reach beyond their years, whether putting on daddy's shoes or watching that scary movie. When they do these things, we have precious teachable moments about context and content. Letting them watch a movie by themselves cedes the teaching opportunity to the movie producer. (Have you ever met a movie producer? Do you really want them influencing your kid?) Watching a movie with the child and judgmentally pointing out character flaws is also unlikely to be helpful. But engaging the child in a discussion you assumed she couldn't have might be just the right empathic approach. Children respond when they are taken seriously and treated with respect, as a peer. Ask them what they think about how it would feel to be in the movie and get beat up by ninjas. Left on their own, they identify with the ninjas. Of course, you can’t do that unless you’re physically with the child, watching the same movie as they are, or playing a game with them.

Parents should resist the temptation to cede the world of their children completely over to them. By showing an interest in sharing their world, they see us as valuing our time with them and valuing their company. This is a keystone to establishing trust in the child/parent relationship. The converse is even more true. By giving the child responsibility to cut some vegetables we have invited her into our world. Think how deeply your child will know how much you trust him when you not only get him that 12+ rated game he wants, but you take the time and play it with him (yeah, we both know you'll lose by a humiliating margin to your 7-year-old). The experience he’ll remember from your helping him use real tools, not just play tools, isn’t some basic craft skill. He’ll remember when you opened the door into your world and invited him to join you in it.

I encourage parents to be very sparing about absolute rules. Children learn a lot about the world from their gradual exposure to it. But they learn most about how much their parents trust them by the confidence we show that we have in them. They learn much more viscerally and permanently about what they mean to us by our actions, not by our words. So let the kid chop carrots. Well, maybe when the doctor is already there.

Durer, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden 1510


  1. Dr. Wolffe - another great, and provocative, post. I'd like to second your points with a real life experience... (and pardon the long comment post)

    I grew up in the 70s in California in a college town with an entrepreneurial spirit - not unlike Berkeley, though more middle of the road politically. We were a run of the mill family - two parents doing the best they could, an older brother and a younger sister (that's me - and yes, always following and copying my brother), a dog and cat and various hamsters and fish.

    My parents did something I now understand to be radical, but at the time I saw as just another Tuesday-after-dinner-summertime activity. On a different night we might have been playing Monopoly or walking off Mom's meatloaf dinner strolling the neighborhood. On that Tuesday my folks invited us to stand around the ping pong table in the garage and smoke cigarettes with them. I think I was 13 and my brother 15.

    Neither of my parents smoked – indeed, both parents despise smoking's smell and general yuck factor. But they knew we were soon to encounter smoking among our peer groups, and they reasoned that we should know what we were getting into. They lit up first, and explained that they don’t like smoking, but ultimately it was our decision whether we will smoke or not once we are of age to buy our own cigarettes. They wanted us to know why they don’t smoke themselves, and what it tastes and feels like. My brother and I then lit up, and of course we coughed and exclaimed, “This is nasty!” But then we (all) had some fun with it – doing movie star poses, mysterious foreign accents, and being as cool as we could. As we did this, we all discussed why our lungs felt a burning sensation, why we coughed when we tried to inhale the smoke, and what was behind the “cool” factor. We talked about why our friends might want to smoke, and why so many adults carry on with it. We discussed nicotine and addiction. And half an hour later we shot some hoops and strolled the neighborhood to get the smoke out of our hair. That was that.

    That Tuesday evening had what I now know was the exact desired effect. Smoking never seemed cool to me. Ironically I did take up smoking in high school and college, but only socially. My cigarettes went stale before I finished a pack. My brother didn’t take it up at all. We both were on many sports teams, and it just didn’t mesh. The act of goofing around with our parents as we tried our first cigarettes completely removed the rebellion and coolness motivations to smoke. After those motivations, what’s left?

    I’ve told this story many times. It often gets horrified responses, and always engenders a lively discussion. In fact people were so shocked my parents would do this that I began to doubt the memory. So a month ago I was visiting my Dad’s house and asked if I remembered correctly, and why he would do something so radical as to introduce his (underage) kids to smoking. He said, “Yup, that’s exactly what happened. Nope, I don’t remember long discussions with your Mom about whether we should or shouldn’t do it. None of our friends did the same. We just thought it was logical, and we did it. I’ve never thought about it again.” I told him that since I’m a parent now, I understand what a big risk it was. I thanked him for trusting his logic and trusting us too. Then we strolled the neighborhood to walk off my step mom’s beef stew dinner.


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?