There seems to be a market failure in cultivating children's agency.

Watching this monkey eating a banana has me thinking about the market for nondestructive education:

Video 1

Video 2

My son is learning to orient in space by manipulating the banana. There's a natural reward involved in figuring out how to rotate the banana correctly, distinguishing between the sides in an internal model rather than gradient-descending towards one end (which may or may not yield the sweet flesh inside), figuring out the difference between bringing the peel to his mouth and bringing the inside.

The biggest thing that distinguishes this from how I mostly see people treating babies is patience - I had to sit through him getting confused and a little frustrated multiple times, and distinguish between challenges big enough for him to process, and the point where he was about to spiral into helpless sadness, and only intervene in the latter case. And of course I had to make other active choices as well, like giving him a banana, and not "baby food."

For some particular skills or fields that a child expresses an interest in, it may make sense to employ domain experts, but - especially at the beginning - it seems to me like what's most needed is someone to arrange an enriched environment in the first place, and give the child both the stimulation and the room to investigate freely the sorts of things that would be valuable for them to investigate.

More recently, he responded to me playing a few simple songs for him on the ukulele at first by bucking his hips in a simple "dance," but soon afterwards by deciding he'd rather figure out how to pluck the strings himself.

Another example - at early ages, the "language program" that would make most sense, would be to hire native speakers of the target languages, chosen on the basis of how valuable the target language is and the availability of suitable native speakers, just like my partner and I choose his foods and toys based on suitability. These native speakers wouldn't mainly have the job "language teacher," but "playmate" - around and willing to play with the children exclusively or primarily in their native language. Depending on the scale of the overall program, children could to some extent choose how much to engage with this, just like my son chooses to play with some objects more than others.

At present, I don't know how to pay for that kind of curation and facilitation oriented child care at any scale that would free up my time. I keep hearing good things in the abstract about things like Montessori schools, but in practice, it doesn't seem like the people I know have access to this sort of thing, no matter how much money they're willing to throw at the problem, no matter how well-connected they are - to the contrary, the success rate in having one's child accepted by any school as worthy of attention seems surprisingly low. People tend to talk around the problem, using language around developmental disability or autism - but they do so in cases where their child is very obviously not autistic, just very slightly rambunctious and uncowed. The majority of the families I'd have regarded as most promising seem to only barely have access to schooling at all.

Which would suggest offering to sell it instead - but my impression is that there's no market for it either at a price that would satisfy the Law of Iron Wages, i.e. be adequate to pay for the reproduction of my skilled labor.

Related but not the same thing:

6 thoughts on “There seems to be a market failure in cultivating children's agency.

  1. Nuño Sempere

    You leave out any discussion of specific prices you'd be willing to pay.

    If you were willing to relocate to countries where labour is cheaper e.g., Spain, it's possible that arrangements like what you discuss would be doable at prices you'd be willing to pay.

    1. Benquo Post author

      There are high fixed costs to actions like moving to Spain. If I thought it would be relatively easy somewhere there to find this kind of educational service, that would imply other upsides that might make the move worth it, but then I'd be pricing the whole deal, not just the pedagogy separately.

      On current margins, I think I would unambiguously buy high-quality pedagogy of the kind I described at $40/hr or sell at $400/hr. Somewhere in between, negotiation would be required. There are other nonfinancial factors, e.g. the marginal cost of minding another child in addition to mine is lower than the cost of a dedicated hour.

  2. Anonymous

    Aren’t they already offering to sell it? That’s what most private schools essentially do. They charge tuition.

    1. Benquo Post author

      No. Private schools are for the most part offering to sell a more elite hazing, not the sort of liberal pedagogy I described, and in the specific cases where I had some prior reason to believe the pedagogy was liberal in that way (e.g. Montessori), it looks like those services are mysteriously unavailable to the people I know, or don't live up to the hype.

  3. Logan

    I don't think "market failure" correctly describes this type of problem (the price you would be willing to pay for this service<the price you would be willing to sell this service at). Market failure would be if you were willing to pay $400 for this service and sell this service for $40 but the service does not exist for some 3rd reason (maybe you are unable to convince clients of your child-enlightening skills).

    This just sounds like a normal good where the marginal cost of production is greater than the marginal utility so the amount supplied is zero. For example, I would like to buy a flying car, but I am unwilling to pay $300k for one. This does not indicate a market failure, it indicates flying cars are too expensive. Presumably the solution is for technological advancement to lower the price, or economic growth to increase demand. Most likely this will happen via AI/robot nannies in the next decade or two.

    1. Benquo Post author

      In my experience the situation is more like one where people with vastly different levels of financial wealth are building their own flying cars, badly and at great cost in time and effort, when it would make much more sense for some of them to be paying others to help them.


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