Friday, May 05, 2006

Children Don’t Have Governors

When I was a teenager, I mowed lawns for a living. Like most teenage boys, I had an obsession to take apart internal combustion engines any time I was around them. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, but sometimes my Briggs and Stratton mower found itself in pieces in my back yard, just so I could figure out how to put it together again. Luckily for it (and for my career as a mower), I always managed to get it back in working shape without too many parts left over.

One of my discoveries was a nifty device that I later discovered was the engine’s governor. It was a spring loaded paddle attached to the throttle and located next to the cooling fan. As the engine turned, the fan blew air against the paddle and the throttle opened and closed appropriately.

If the engine speed slowed down, the fan blew less air, and the spring on the paddle moved it closer to the fan. This opened the throttle a little bit, giving more gas to the engine, which increased the air and moved the paddle back to its original position.

If the engine sped up a little bit, the paddle moved the other direction and the throttle delivered less fuel. You get the idea.

This delicate balancing act kept the engine at a somewhat constant speed. When mowing tall grass, the engine would slow down slightly, but the governor would deliver a little more fuel, preventing the engine from stalling. The governor also kept the engine speed in check by guaranteeing that no more fuel was being delivered than what could safely be burned.

It doesn’t take much technology to impress me. I’m always having those gee-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that experiences. I was struck by the fact that the governor didn’t actually measure the rotation of the engine. Rather, it measures the effect  of the rotation — the wind that was created. And the wind was actually just a by-product of the natural cooling of the engine by the fan. I was amazed at the simplicity and the economy of the unit.

As an adult, I discovered that children don’t have a governor. It’s not something that’s “built-in” to a kid when they are born. It’s something that comes from experience. It’s a sign of maturity.

Children don’t know how to “measure” their own activity. They live for the moment, indifferent to the consequences. I had a teacher in college that put it this way: Children only know two words — “Me” and “Now”.

The next time you’re at an amusement park, notice how many parents are carrying sleeping children on their shoulders at the end of the day. How can they possible sleep with all this excitement around them?

Lacking any built-in controlling mechanism, children spend all their energy as soon as there is an outlet for it. They ride every ride. They eat every hot dog. They gobble every cotton candy. They have no idea how tired they are or how sick they are becoming. They cannot measure it for themselves.

Finally, equilibrium kicks in and the body shuts down. Asleep on Dad’s shoulder, they ride home in the back seat, dreaming of the fun they’ve had.

The same thing happens with teenagers and video games. As they are consumed in the moment of the game, they have no idea of the effect it is having on them. They play and play and play until their brains are mush and their thumbs are as brittle as toothpicks.

It is our job as adults to be the governor for children. It would be nice if each of them had an energy meter in their forehead. Or a zombie meter in the case of teenagers. Or something that would let us measure the effect the activity is having on them.

But no such meters exist. Instead, we can measure them only indirectly. The lawn mower governor didn’t measure the engine, it measured the effects of cooling the engine on the atmosphere and made adjustments accordingly. In the same way, we need to search for clues in our children’s behavior and the effect they are having on the environment around them so we can let them know — in the most loving but parental way — that enough is enough.

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