A Bronx Nudge

“We feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts”
    Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”

My father took me to my first R-rated movie, “The Jerk”, in 1979 when I was just 9-years-old. By today’s standards, the movie really didn’t have anything we’d consider R-rated. I don’t remember it having any nudity, violence or foul language (except for the name of the dog). But perhaps because the movie was released a year after National Lampoon’s Animal House, which very much deserved its R rating, I think the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences was a little overly sensitive.

For those of you who knew him or are frequent readers of my blog, you know that my father was a larger-than-life personality who worked hard, played hard, was fiercely loyal to his friends and loved my sister and me unconditionally. At the same time, he had a unique way of child-rearing that is best described as “anything goes”. Taking me to an R-rated movie at the tender age of 9 was the tip of the iceberg.

My father was a man of principle who, for example, switched his preference for Stolichnaya vodka to Finlandia in protest of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. He also charted new territory in uses of the “f” word. The rabbit hole went deep. He did, however, have at least one notable limit to his tolerance: He told me in perfectly reasonable “Bronx” logic (where he grew up) that if I ever even thought about using drugs, he would put me through a wall.

My introduction to the real world wasn’t limited to my father. My grandfather Harry was a cosmetics salesman who often took me on sales calls beginning in 1979. I enjoyed watching him negotiate with pharmacy managers about the placement of his products. “Where did you put our stuff, in heaven?” he’d often ask when his Almay or Nat Robbins products weren’t prominently displayed. What really amused me on these trips was his form of road rage that intermixed English and Yiddish profanities. This otherwise mild-mannered traveling salesman, who I only knew as a “yes-dear” husband by night, was a Hebrew road warrior by day, and he was remarkably well armed. My grandfather, also a product of the Bronx, had a similar parenting style to my dad. It combined no filters on what he said in front of me with hard limits on what I could say in front of him. I distinctly remember the time when I made a crack about my grandmother’s driving ability and he not to subtly excused me from the dinner table.

This all came back to me this past weekend when I took my 12- and 13-year-old sons to see the R-rated movie Blade Runner 2049. My permissiveness comes from the two wellsprings of much of my decision-making as a parent: guilt and experience. The guilt comes from the demands of my work, which keeps me on the road up to five days a week. I hope that by providing my sons with a little more freedom—by being “cool” in their eyes—that I can stack the “absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder” deck in my favor. As for experience, that obviously comes from my father and grandfather.

Maybe I was wrong to take my kids to see Blade Runner 2049. My intentions were good. The original Blade Runner was the greatest sci-fi movie of all time for crying out loud!  The only real problem I had with taking my kids to this movie was that they thought it sucked, and therefore it ruined some of my “dad credibility”.

Despite my allowing my kids to watch R-rated movies, I too, like my father and grandfather, draw the line. The one-and-only basic rule I have for my kids is to “never lie to me about anything.  Ever.” While I expect they will make mistakes like I did, I am always there for them and won’t get angry so long as they tell me the truth.

My kids don’t seem any worse for wear by getting their eyes and ears burned during their formative years. I discovered there is a method to this madness this week following the announcement that Behavioral Economist Richard H. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. This led me to read his 2007 book “Nudge”. Professor Thaler’s “libertarian paternalism” philosophy stresses that while people need to have maximum choice, they require nudges along the way to both guide them and, more importantly, protect them from their most self-destructive impulses.

My father’s and grandfather’s parenting style did exactly that by giving me maximum freedom, while nudging me away from completely screwing up. It is what I am trying to do with my own kids.

To use Professor Thaler’s terminology, my father and grandfather were “choice architects” par excellence by tempering the “unrealistic optimism” that drives innovation and self-discovery in children, but that can also be self-destructive if not kept in check.

Thanks to my dad and grandfather for a few nudges in 1979. And congratulations to Professor Thaler for his Nobel Prize in “Bronx economics”.

By Spencer Levy, Americas Head of @CBREResearch | Senior Economic Advisor.