Kids Learn by Copying

How kids learn fascinates me. They don’t do what you tell them to. Obeying orders is an abstract non-instinctual skill. Its simpler to just copy other people.

Plagiarism has advantages over obedience. First of all, it can be bootstrapped. Children are born without understanding language. Nobody can tell you how, in English, to speak English if you don’t already understand English. More importantly, copying others is robust against deception. If everyone says you should obey the government while actually subverting it you should probably be a criminal too.

There is a teenage girl in my family who likes hanging out at my house while I work from home. She takes the initiative to do chores wherever she can be useful. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. She says she learns more per hour hanging out with me than going to school. (She complains high school doesn’t teach how to do one’s taxes. I should have her do my taxes.) It’s more fun and useful too.

From what I know about primitive societies, they used little abstract verbal instruction. Most of the time spent learning to forage is spent foraging. Most of the time spent learning to cook is spent cooking. Elephants and chimpanzees spend no time on dialectic instructions at all.

What separates human pedagogy from other animals is our stories. Kids love stories, especially stories about people. Kids like stories about people so much the word “story” usually implies a story about people. I used to think the primary purpose of stories is to learn vicariously. But stories are often fantastical. I think the more important purpose is to provide examples of admirable behavior. It’s no coincidence the most popular stories are all revolve around sympathetic capable hero protagonists.

Another fascinating attribute of kids is how immutable their preferences are. The kids in my family are all girls. They have little interest in how machines work[1]. They have no interest in weapons or dominance. They care about animals, medicine and relationships. The teenage girl wants to be a marketer so much she took the initiative to volunteer to market my business for free. (A job all three of our male co-founders loathed.) I learned marketing reluctantly after I accepted it was mandatory to achieving my other ambitions.

Your interests reflect your values. I frequently modify others’ behavior by showing them how to manifest their desires better or easier. I have never successfully modified another person’s values. Kids love me because I never try to shape them into something they don’t want to be. My responsibility is to inspire, to lead and―occasionally―to explain.


  1. This isn’t for lack of ability. One of them recovered a Linux system with a broken window manager on her own with no supervision…so she could log into Discord. ↩︎