Thursday, September 28, 2006

Cot breakouts

There comes a time for most parents when their child breaks out of their cot. For stories I have heard this usually involves the parent hearing a loud, deadening 'clunk' followed by crying. Then it is time to put the side of the cot down and work on other means of child containment.

For my first two children, no break-outs occurred. I am not sure why but they didn't make the attempt. For child no.3, there was been no individual break out but she has got out with conspirators.

First, the 7 year old, who has the strength of an ox, can actually lift her out. So we often find them downstairs of a weekend morning. But, this morning, the 7 year old was at a sleep over and the 5 year old, who has little strength, and our previously cot bound 2 year old, were downstairs.

So how did they do it? Well we have one of those cots where it requires someone to simultaneously press two buttons on either side of the cot and then using a finger or something, get the side of the cot down. A child doesn't have the wingspan to achieve this feat alone.

So what did he do? He explained to our two year old about pushing the little button on one side and whilst she did that, he pushed down the other and used his free hand to lower the side of the cot. They were free!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Jetstar Black Market

As I write this I am sitting on a Jetstar flight; the only airline to travel direct from our holiday destination to Melbourne. Suffice it to say, this is an incredibly awful flight. Even more so than the absolutely zero dollars in savings we got because we pretty much had no choice but to take it.

I'll start with the obvious, the lack of assigned seating. Now I can imagine a world in which no assigned seating might make sense. If there is a commuter flight with mostly lone travelers, they will get on the plane and sit in the nearest available seat. It probably means that you can load people on to a plane quicker.

But for a holiday destination with mostly families traveling, the whole thing is a disaster. There is no appreciable saving in time because the large chunks of families scramble to get seats close to their children. Now I had fantasised about not doing this, going to the back of the queue and being separated from our children for the whole flight; leaving them as some other sap's problem. Sadly, the issue is that in musical chairs I would likely end up sitting next to someone else's children and that was a lottery I was not willing to play.

Anyhow, we had a 'prized' orange pass which meant that we would be first to board -- being with kids got us that. It was clearly better than the blue pass or worse something called the silver pass (I do not know who you would have had to offend to get stuck with one of those). But, if you had noticed my earlier foreboding, the 'prized' orange pass was only prized in the sense that there were a couple of people with the other passes. Actually, from a scarcity (but no value) perspective, the other passes were rarer.

I was not really aware of this and we had positioned ourselves well to get on the flight at the top of the queue. Unfortunately, 15 minutes before boarding, due to one of our adult party being in the bathroom, I watched the 'tipping point' occur. It occurred to someone that they could just stand in line right then and they did. Within seconds, as if someone shouted 'fire' in a cinema (or shotgun in this case), there was a rush to the queues. I thought the worst would happen would be that we were at the back of the prized orange queue. In dismay I saw that the orange queue had half the fracking plane! Nonetheless, we stood in it.

15 minutes into standing in this queue, my 7 year old asked, "why are we just standing here?" I told her that it was because of the "tragedy of the queue." Everyone wanted to be in the front of the queue and so we all moved to get there. "But we aren't in the front of the queue?" she said, pointing out the obvious. Well we aren't quite at the back either, which we weren't. So we are standing here so we won't be at the back. "And what is the problem with being at the back?" Well, we won't get as much choice in seats and I argued that this was something we wanted.

[Now we had become savvy enough to realise one thing, there was another opportunity to jump the queue, as we walked across the tarmac to the plane. We weren't going to do this but we were going to maintain our relative position against the blue passers nipping at our heals and unencumbered by children. One got through but we broadly succeeded.]

On the plane, the true inefficiency of this emerged. People who boarded at the front were going back. People who boarded at the back were going forward. They collided. It was chaos. We staked out our row and wanted to maintain a spare seat. (There were 8 on the flight). Fortunately, the 2 year old put on a wonderful screaming performance and repelled all challengers.

Next came the food issue. I blogged on our experiences on the way here but that was on Qantas where we had stopped off in Brisbane. (So yes we had a choice which was to take some crazy stop-over route back to Melbourne. So there is only a Jetstar monopoly on direct flights.)

On Jetstar you buy food and that is what we intended to do. Big mistake. We were in the middle of the plane and by the time the food cart got to us, there was, no food. Certainly, no healthy food like sandwiches and meat pies. We got some potato chips. Now you might think it was some funny time flight that would have led to this situation. But no, it was the prime time 12 - 3pm run. Lunchtime. Hence, the high demand for food but that didn't explain the low supply. I secured chips and a lolly bag.

Then I had an idea. I would try and procure a sandwich from the row ahead. I said, "I'll give you $15 for your sandwich." The women I was negotiating with pondered this and then said "how about $30?" I said, "$20?" She said, "no deal." I said "Are you really going to eat a sandwich that is now worth $20 in cold hard cash?"

Actually, none of that happened but pondering the potential for a black market got me to open up my laptop and starting writing. I also wanted to remember to bring more contra onto the next Jetstar flight I had the misfortune to travel on. I think one could make a nice killing.

[Update: my sister-in-law adds her own miserable food experience to the plot. Click here.]

Sunday, September 24, 2006

If doctors wont do it ...

This week's Freakonomics column in the New York Times (click here) reports on the difficulties in getting doctors to wash their hands and not spread bacteria.

It may seem a mystery why doctors, of all people, practice poor hand hygiene. But as Bender huddled with the hospital’s leadership, they identified a number of reasons. For starters, doctors are very busy. And a sink isn’t always handy — often it is situated far out of a doctor’s work flow or is barricaded by equipment. Many hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai, had already introduced alcohol-based disinfectants like Purell as an alternative to regular hand-washing. But even with Purell dispensers mounted on a wall, the Cedars-Sinai doctors didn’t always use them.

There also seem to be psychological reasons for noncompliance. The first is what might be called a perception deficit. In one Australian medical study, doctors self-reported their hand-washing rate at 73 percent, whereas when these same doctors were observed, their actual rate was a paltry 9 percent. The second psychological reason, according to one Cedars-Sinai doctor, is arrogance. “The ego can kick in after you have been in practice a while,” explains Paul Silka, an emergency-department physician who is also the hospital’s chief of staff. “You say: ‘Hey, I couldn’t be carrying the bad bugs. It’s the other hospital personnel.”’ Furthermore, most of the doctors at Cedars-Sinai are free agents who work for themselves, not for the hospital, and many of them saw the looming Joint Commission review as a nuisance. Their incentives, in other words, were not quite aligned with the hospital’s.

Now, as a parent you might be thinking: if they can't get doctors to wash their hands, how on earth will we get our children to do so?

In our household, hand washing is an activity of high importance; certainly more so than before we had children. Basically, before and after any child has any meal (defined here as bit of food) hand washing occurs. The before is for the bacteria. The after is for the furniture.

Basically, our system involves extensive monitoring -- especially for the 5 year old. He has the most need for washing and the least inclination. So we have to engage in a comprehensive system of auditing, i.e., hand smelling. Fortunately, the 7 year old has adopted this as a habit and so is compliant. The 2 year old has adopted hand washing as a regular part of life; so much so that she often assists us as the enforcer. She often reminds her parents (mostly me); again exhibiting her future dictatorial tendencies.

As the NYT article explains, for the doctors monitoring didn't work, direct application as they arrived to work didn't work, motivational posters didn't work, and coffee vouchers didn't work. What finally worked was a scan of the offending hand and how much crap was on it. Data was the key.

It occurred to me that this type of scanning machine would work well in our household. Imagine having to put your hands on some device and then you get a hand rating. While the child may not understand the consequences, they could be taught to understand the rating. Keep doing this at an earlier age and they will become nicely obsessively compulsive about not doing anything without a 'green' (or whatever) rating and habits will be formed.

Now if the hospitals wanted to invest in inventing this scanner, I am sure that as it is refined, it will find a decent home and school market too.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Kids 'eat free' so others eat 'free of kids'

One of the attractions of where we are on holiday is that kids 'stay free and eat free.' Now, 'stay free' is really a slogan in name only. It means they won't charge you for kids so long as you stuff them into your room. Suffice it to say, there is a considerable reason to not doing that and hence, you end up paying for larger accomodations and non-free stays.

But 'eat free' is another matter. Now our kids eat, I mean really eat. We hear howls of complaint if there isn't a third course provided with most meals. So from my perspective, this surely was going to an advantage to us?

Well, not quite. For starters, one might have assumed that if you went to a restaurant and the kids ate free, the portions for them might be small. Not so, they are on the larger side of meals I have seen for kids and usually include dessert. But here is the thing. If I thought that we would be receiving a massive cross subsidy from the families with average eating kids, I was gravely mistaken. This is because those families happily order the maximum amount of food for their kids even if their kids do not eat it. Yes, there is a social loss from this, but there is no implicit subsidy coming our way either.

So who is paying for the kids' meals? You would like to think it was the parents. Again, not quite. The restaurant may jack up prices for parent meals or drinks or somehow it would be built into the resort charges. Sadly, however, that can't be the case. For as we ate our meal, I noticed plenty of tables free of kids. Those people were paying the same as us for the meal and, even if they were getting a discount on the resort charges, the meal itself was a worse deal for them.

Now you might ask: what are those people doing there? The locality here has other restaurants that are not part of the kids 'eat free' deal. All they have to do is avoid us and they will get a better option. The problem is this: those restaurants cannot be cheaper in terms of price at least. If they were, then saavy parents may decide that it is worth while paying for the kids especially if they were not like us and could get away with feeding the kids very little.

What this means is that to confine the families with kids to the kid-designated restaurants, the prices for the 'free of kids' restaurants actually have to be at least that price, if not more, just to make sure. So, who is really paying for the kids 'eat free' deal? The adults without kids who don't want them around. Our kids eat free so that they can eat free of kids and they pay for it. I know this because this evening, we will be going out free of kids and paying for it.

One final little puzzle. As I have noted earlier this week, airlines do not appear to think enough about mess when giving children meals on planes. The same is true of the kids 'eat free' restaurants here. We went to a nice Chinese place the other night and our 2 year old appeared to happily eat through her fried rice. "Wow, she is doing well. This place is great." Well, it was only after the meal when she was removed from her high chair that we saw how well she had done. There was a nice layer of rice over her, the chair and the floor. Let me be clear, this was a mess that the restaurant had to deal with.

But there is a clear alternative for them and I do not understand why they don't exercise it. The alternative is 'take out.' Being a Chinese restaurant I observed this happening throughout the meal. I wondered whether we could still get the kids 'eat free' deal if we did them same. But apparently not. Now you might think they are just trying to sell the adults more drink. But no. Indeed, the whole operation is so efficient that you can be out of there in 45 minutes (not conducive for leisurely consumption of high margin items).

You might think that a take out option would be subject to abuse (you know buying too many meals or something). Again, not necessarily. It is not hard to imagine a voucher system that could deal with that.

So I am left with the thought that they must require the kids to 'eat free' on site because that will demonstrate to those adults who mistakenly happen upon these places one night that they should never do that again and should pay for the 'free of kids' places. It is like the crammed seats in economy directed precisely at those who should be crammed. And by the way, I am pretty sure that is why there is no competiton from McDonalds apparently allowed here despite having a population more than enough to support it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Child's meals on planes

By far the main activity for children on planes is eating. All the other things one might try from Game Boys to books do not have the sure fire attention grabbing hits that eating does. But there is a problem here. Airlines do not know what the heck they are doing.

Let me explain. By far the seemingly most sensible option is to pre-order a child's meal for your child. Now, the rational person would think that, in so doing, the airline would carefully think about the needs of the child and the parent and structure an offering that, while certainly not lavish, covers all the bases and gets the job done.

Well, throw rationality out the window because here is what actually happens. Let's suppose that you actually end up getting a child's meal that you ordered -- and this is a big suppose because they might not come or worse, may come from one child but not the other. Then what do you get? Here is the offering on Qantas (morning flight from Melbourne to Brisbane):
  • One popper juice
  • One muffin
  • One roll-up
  • One corn flakes
  • One cup of milk
  • One fruit cup
  • Cutlery
  • One bowl
  • One paper napkin

Again, seems reasonable but that is 'ground level' thinking. Here is what happens to this meal at altitude: child tries to insert little straw into popper juice. If successful, child not understanding the subtlies of fluid dynamics, lightly squeezes box as they pick it up causing juice to, if you are lucky, squirt in their face and, if you not, squirt in over their heads into the row behind. It does so, quickly so that said child is without juice and remember this was the first thing they reached for.

They then ask for the roll-up for which you say, how about eating something healthier first. Why you say this at altitude is beyond me. But you do. Then child goes for the muffin. However, only 30 percent of muffin reaches their stomach. The rest forms a layer to crumbs over themselves and their seat.

Still hungry, they go for the corn flakes, and attempt to pull the lid off the milk cup with predictable consequences. Some milk ends up on the bowl. Other milk ends up again in the child's lap along with the muffin crumbs and corn flakes that flew all over the place as, in this case I tried to open that stupid little packet.

Ditto all this for the fruit cup but substitute pieces of fruit for corn flakes and juice for milk.

Finally, we get to the roll up which turns into a sticky treat which sticks to child's teeth and they complain. You then reach for the toothbrush you carry around for such emergencies ... ok you take you finger and attempt to scrape roll up off teeth but then get it all over your hands with little option but to turn into a five your old yourself and just wipe them on the seat.

Let us understand precisely what has happened here. There are no winners. The child has not got food. The parent has not been relieved of stress. And the airline, well they have a cleaning issue that will impact on turnaround time.

And all this could so easily have been avoided. First, you could be on an airline that does not provide meals. That forces you into your own solutions which would basically involve jelly babies (clean sugary fun). Second, you may not order the children's meal in which case an adult meal comes, they child refuses to eat. They are hungry (the same thing that occurs with the child's meal) but things are cleaner.

Finally, the airline may just give an ounce of thought and (a) use pop-up juice rather than popper; (b) provide a cookie that doesn't leave too many crumbs; and (c) provide some fresh fruit such as grapes. Then add a little toy like McDonalds has worked out and we are all happy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How a 4 year old plays the drum

[From Boing Boing] Here is a video of a 4 year old playing drums (click here). Not your average load noise.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Homework: It's the parents stupid

Before I had children of school age, I watched with interest the rising tide against homework. The idea was that children (especially those under 10) had too much homework at night. Well, the academic in me said "what rot? Work good." And I awaited when one of my own children would be assigned homework.

Well that happened when my eldest daughter was in Prep and it started with 'The Readers.' This was an endless parade of little books designed to encourage children to gain confidence in reading. Every night several of these would come home and every night we would struggle through them. And I would wonder: isn't this what they should be doing in school?

It took us two years and then we fought back. We simply said 'no.' If we are going to spend half an hour a night on educational activities, it is going to be on stuff I don't think she is getting at school and on stuff that she will do enthusiastically. So we switched to maths activity books with 'word problems.' This encouraged her to read and to solve problems; two hits for the price of one. And near as I could tell, she wasn't doing these types of things at school. That made our lives considerably easier.

A recent discussion by Emily Brazelon in Slate echoes similar feelings as she reviews the literature on homework.
When I shopped around the arguments against homework, I discovered that how you feel about it depends a lot on what you think kids will do if they don't have any. Eli's homework seems like an imposition when I measure it against running around the playground or playing card games or building with blocks or talking to his little brother.
Which was exactly our point in substituting reading for maths. And it turns out that homework has observable impacts on performance only when it is very targetted. That seems to be the logic behind the spelling homework we do every night. A list of eight words over the course of four days that we try to get learnt; usually successfully.

But even so I worry that the total volume of work time after school -- piano (15 minutes), spelling (10 minutes), project or maths (30 minutes) -- is still too much for a 7 year old. This especially given the case that they attend after-school care most days and on other days do piano or swimming. That leaves the weekend for any simple, do whatever you want, play time. Sure, that is what adults do all the time but that isn't much of an argument.

And so how did we get to this situation? Well, we do other activities because we choose to. And we could (superficially) blame the schools for the rest. But, actually, I suspect that we (or at least all other parents) are at fault. It is they that ask the teachers for more work and they who use homework to judge school performance. Not surprisingly, it is easy to send students home with more work just to shut them up.

For that reason, I am more inclined to ignore, at least, school directed homework and to choose our own time and activities. Hard to know how long we will be able to keep that up in today's competitive world.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

An Inscrutable Youth

FYI, I have posted a movie review of An Inconvenient Truth here. It tells of my experience bringing my 7 year old daughter to that movie: and yes, it was a good one.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Curious Kong

[Movie Review] We took the 2 year old to her first movie today, Curious George. Apart from having to play the usual game of seat movements so that children can see (click here for a description of this problem), all went well. Like our other two, she was genetically programmed to sit through a movie and eat popcorn without taking her eyes from the screen.

On the way to the movie, I tried to sell it to the older two. I claimed, without evidence, that George would grow very large and terrorise the city by climbing on buildings. I was told that that was King Kong and then was ignored for the rest of the way. Imagine my delight when half way through the movie, George grew to building size and terrorised the city; including going a top the Empire State Building. Yes, it was an illusion but the citizens of New York didn't know it. I felt vindicated. Hollywood is no more imaginative than I am.

That said, this movie was quite good. A good story, little bits for the parents (without trying in some formulaic way) and a great soundtrack. The basic story is that a museum gets in financial trouble and might be made into a more profitable parking lot (better land use in the city and all that). Dedicated employee with a strange (but explained) yellow fashion sense goes to Africa to save the museum with more interesting exhibits but comes back with a stow-away monkey instead. They eventually become friends and lots of "saving the day" ensues. There is even a bit of romance throughout.

While the moral of the story might seem to be that it is better to have museums than parking lots that isn't actually the case on closer examination. Instead, it was a story about knowing your customer and not expecting them to like something for its own sake but to be sold on its interest. It is a story of the wonders of good marketing and what it can do for not-for-profits. An unusual message to be sure but ultimately is what gave this movie some modern-day charm.

Sadly, the movie is almost out of the cinemas but here is a link to buy the DVD if you want or some of the original books. They have a good epic quality about them.

Card proliferation

Today is feathrs, farthers or Fathers Day depending upon the card. And I got lots of them. Approximately 8 by my count. No, I didn't discover that I had more children than I had thought but instead my known children are extremely productive; it the tune of 2.67 card per child. What is more they were all self-made.

We have a rule at home that Hallmark holidays should mean that no money should be spent that would go anywhere near Hallmark. That means everything is made. Not only did I get the cards but several paintings and a treasure hunt. The last one was imaginative but, ultimately fast, because Child No.2 who is 5 and organised the whole thing didn't have the patience to wait for me to decipher his clues and took me straight to the treasure. That is just as well because without some form of Da Vinci Code codex the mystery would have stood for a millennium.

Of course, as an economist I have to point out that this exercise saves neither expense nor stress; both of which are borne by the other parent in spades. It is much easier to pop out and buy something. Herding the children into doing something is much much harder. And when they get enthusiastic managing them down is virtually impossible. So there is no doubt whom I really have to thank for this extravaganza and I'll do that when she returns from convalescence.