The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kids make it easier to steer

I’ve read several articles in the last week that have set my mind racing.  The first was the series of essays by Walter Russell Mead that served as the basis for my recent post “A new version of the American Dream.”  The second was an essay by a psychologist at Swarthmore named Barry Schwartz that appeared in The New York Times last Thursday.  Schwartz wrote about “friction” in the economy—forces that slow commerce and lead to inefficiency.  He argued that while capitalism pursues efficiency at all costs, as a society it helps sometimes to have some friction.

Over the weekend it occurred to me that Schwartz’s argument is relevant to family life, too–that his definition of friction is a nice way of explaining the real value of the constraints and commitments, boredom, frustration, and fatigue that come with raising kids.

Here, according to Schwartz, are two examples of friction in economic life: The first is a company with a bloated payroll; the second is a mortgage lender that takes longer than it should to process loan applications.  In both these cases business is not getting done as fast or as cheaply as it could be and the free market doesn’t let stragglers hang around; it blindly wrings inefficiency out of the economy.  If one company is bloated, a leaner one will take its business; if one bank is slow to process mortgage applications, prospective homebuyers will go somewhere else for a loan.

This is mostly a good thing, Schwartz says.  He argues, “It is important to understand that increased efficiency is the only way a society’s standard of living will improve.”  A good example of greater efficiency leading to a higher standard of living is the way agriculture has changed over the last 100 years.  In 1900, in the last years of era of the family farm, food costs accounted for 40 percent of the average family’s household budget; today, thanks to the efficiencies of agro-conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto that have replaced the family farm, food accounts for only eight percent of the average family’s budget.  This leaves a lot of money left over for luxury and leisure.

So less friction (and more efficiency) is good.  And if you believe, the men running for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s the only good.  But Schwartz agrues that while too much efficiency may never be bad for a company, it can create all sorts of problems for a society.

He gives several examples of the perils of too little friction.  They range from easy access to credit cards, which leads people to buy all sorts of stuff they don’t not really want, to the popularity of home equity loans which (until recently) allowed homeowners to live beyond their means.  Too much efficiency was at the root of the subprime collapse, too.  Banks made too many loans too fast; they thought they understood the risks they were assuming but in reality they didn’t have a clue; and our whole economic system was already out of control by the time most people realized something was wrong.

Schwartz uses the metaphor of a speeding car to dramatize why friction can be a good thing: “The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.”

So now to kids and friction.  Jay and Wally slow down just about everything I do in life.  It takes fifteen extra minutes to get out the door when I’m bringing them along; childcare responsibilities mean I have about half as much time to write as I did before Jay was born; and when a friend emailed recently proposing we meet in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, he might as well have been proposing we meet on the moon, so utterly infeasible was the whole idea.

A lot of the time I chafe against the friction that Jay and Wally create: I wish I could get out the door faster; I wish I had more time to write; I really wish I could climb that mountain. But at the same time, and as I’ve written in the past, I think there’s a lot of value in the friction kids provide.  Caroline and I can’t turn our lives on a dime, which means we have to think harder about where we want to go and proceed with more commitment once we get there.

Because I can’t quit working to travel the way I did when I was 25, I’ve had to be more thoughtful about the type of work I do and how it fits with the other things I value in life. And in a few years the boys will start school and we’ll be even more rooted in a place than we are now.  Sometimes it’s nice to have the option to move if you don’t like where you are; more often I find it’s useful to have pressure—friction—forcing me to make the best of it wherever I am.

The downside of kid-induced-friction, of course, is that it’s a lot harder to change course once you start down the wrong path.  It’s harder to extricate from a bad marriage when kids are involved and it’s a lot easier to change jobs when you don’t have to worry about the financial responsibility of taking care of a family.  But so far I’ve found that having kids has been more helpful in the sense of giving me a point in the distance to aim for than harmful in the sense of rolling towards a tree and being unable to turn.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom


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