June 11, 2004

Pretzels and free will.

As I was grading bluebooks in the café at Borders today, two little girls sat down at the next table. Each had a glass of water and a package of pretzels.
GIRL A: Tell me a story.

GIRL B (the older child, in an adult tone of voice): When I was a baby, I loved to look at my mobile. And I slept a lot ...

The girls are both daintily dipping their pretzel sticks in their water before taking bites. They seem to be imitating an adult they have seen dipping a cookie in coffee. A woman sits down at their table and says to Girl B, "I told you about good pretzel manners." Girl A then proceeds to dip her pretzel in water and the woman takes Girl A's water and pretzels away, which the girl thinks is unfair. The girl had assumed that she had the advantage over Girl B for a moment and was free to dip until she was directly told not to.
WOMAN: You heard me tell [Girl B] and you made the decision to disobey.

Girl B still has her pretzels and water, which she now consumes, observing pretzel manners. After a few minutes, she says, "I love pretzels." Girl A immediately says, "I do too," and the subject of whether the woman has treated Girl A fairly continues--"You're being mean"--with the woman absolutely sticking to her decision to keep the pretzels and water from the girl who, after all, "made the decision to disobey," or, more accurately, decided to act on the theory that the general rule did not bind her and that a warning would precede any loss of privilege. The little girl is perhaps 5 years old, and the woman is clearly committed to teaching personal responsibility. As they get up to leave the girl puts her finger on a crumb on the table and pops it in her mouth. With the woman almost out of hearing range, she declares her small victory: "I ate the pretzel crumb!"

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