Saturday, December 29, 2007

Navigating alternative realities

They say The Golden Compass is better movie viewing if you read the book by some other name. I didn't get a chance to find out when we saw that today but what I saw was not too bad and, I guess this is the acid test, will probably have myself and the 9 year old seeing the next one when it appears.

The movie is about an alternative reality where more efficient use of environmentally friendly technology has led to a cold Northern haven for polar bears who are sentient with their own monarchical, but warring, civilisation. I guess the main focus is not so much on that but on the humans who literally carry around their own demons with them for all to see and the difficulties that apparently creates for their own authoritarian regime to maintain order, etc. Suffice it to say their conspiracy of continuing evil is revealed in this movie with the main child heroine having enough trouble working out who her parents are and fulfilling some prophecy a la Harry Potter style. I guess this is where a reading of the book may have assisted in character and societal development.

Anyhow, there are worse things to do in 40 degree heat than see this one.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Enchanted Stuck in the Middle

We saw Enchanted yesterday (our only family Christmas Day tradition). This is the new movie from Disney that pokes fun at Disney. It starts out in a comically stereotypical Disney fairytale cartoon and then moves into the real world, New York city, where the characters remain in character but interact with other people. All this makes for some very funny scenes and one deep moment whereupon the lack of emotional range of cartoon characters are explored but beyond that is nothing special.

This movie is 'stuck in the middle' in that it tries to appeal to two audiences and falls short. For children, the irony is lost on them and the movie becomes boring. To placate them, Disney adds a gratuitous dragon at the end that is pretty much completely pointless. For adults, the irony is there but it is muted because the writers cannot steer too far away from kid friendly issues. And so while the girl ends up with a different guy, everyone still lives very happily ever after; in the barf worthy sense.

That said, you could do worse for a school holiday movie.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Conversation O' the Morning

Santa doesn't visit our house but that didn't stop the following conversation this morning ...

"Look at this website. It says Santa is currently over Niger."

"Dad, Santa isn't real."

"Yeah, he isn't real. It is just a man dressed up as Santa."

"What does he do?"

"Well, he goes around the world giving presents to Christian children."

"But he is not really Santa?"

"No, he is just dressed up as Santa. Get real Dad."

"Well, how does he get around?"

"By plane of course. In the books it is by slate but that is just made up, like Santa."

"So let me get this straight. Santa isn't real but every year some guy gets dressed up in a Santa suit and brings presents to Christian children using a plane. Where does the plane land?"

"At the airport silly and then Santa drives around to all the houses. What did you expect him to do, walk?"

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Yes Virginia, there is an incentive system

The biggest open question surrounding the economics of Christmas is this: is the creation of Santa Clause an effective incentive system?

So my understanding of the deal is this: if a child is good throughout the year, Santa Clause comes on Christmas Eve and leaves presents for them in the form of toys and candy. If not, Santa still visits and brings coal, sticks or clothes. To determine this, Santa keeps a list throughout the year to see who is 'watching out' or 'crying.'

If a child buys into this, this would seem to be a potentially powerful incentive system for keeping them well-behaved. What is more, it removes the critical 'subjective performance evaluation' issue from the hands of the parents to the hands of a Northern dwelling, large, usually jolly manager of elves dressed in warm red clothes. Unlike parents, Santa has an incentive to keep the system going whereas a parent's claim that some behaviour would ruin Christmas would not be nearly as credible (see Donald Cox's case study #3).

But what is the evidence that this works as an incentive system? For starters, children around the age of 8 discover the truth and so it must break down at that point even if they keep their parents wondering about what they really believe. But what about before then, does it work to keep children well-behaved?

Now an obvious path to compare this to would be to compare Santa cultures with Santa-free ones. But that is imperfect because they will substitute their own incentive systems into the mix. Although, when it comes down to it, the Jewish elevation of stature of Chanukah is surely a testament to the incentive power of Santa. Sadly, for Jews, the only holiday that occurred around December involved a minor miracle whereby an oil lamp a couple of thousand years ago lasted a little longer than expected. That said, by elevating the status of Chanukah one can safely say that the communication of its true meaning has only been enhanced beyond some ritual and rather unmiraculous candle burning.

What we really need is a random experiment? Some group of families needs to be assigned to miss out on Santa visiting and this has to be communicated at the beginning of the year. Then the behaviour of their children can be assessed and compared with those operating under the status quo.

My guess is that we may find out that the whole deal doesn't do much for incentives. For starters, you can just ask my children who are forced to stick with the true meaning of Chanukah and, if they are lucky, each get one little present each (worth less than $1) for the 8 nights. Total budget for us: $24 (not including the candles). They seem to do pretty well throughout the year. Then again, we are probably substituting other incentives into the mix.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Life's Big To Do List

No one really thinks it will last. But try telling that to two kids who have decided they will be spending their life together and the parents who also approve of the coupling. They are just too young and inexperienced to really have such high expectations. Maybe they should see whether the relationship survives some key events; for instance, birthdays.

Apparently, birthdays can make or break any relationship not anointed by destiny. And so it is with that in mind that my son and his fiance celebrated their 7th birthday this weekend. And I can happily say that their future plans appear to have survived that event without a hitch.

Now, I know what you are thinking, back up a minute, their 7th birthday? Yes, THEIR 7th birthday. Turns out that these two were both born on exactly the same day. How totally cool is that? What is more they both have a younger sister with exactly the same name (well, it sounds the same but turns out it is spelt differently). Then add to that they are in the same class, and so when, about a year ago, she suggested that they get married when they are older, my son decided that is a good criteria. After all, what other criteria would you use?

Not surprisingly, for this years' birthdays, the first of their long engagement, they decided to have a joint birthday party -- something that I am definitely in favour of. I also saw it as an opportunity to see how it would be to deal with the potential in-laws prior to the more stressful wedding arrangements.

For reasons that I can't quite understand, they decided on a bowling party. The reason I can't understand it is that they are both bad at it but for some reason decided it was a good compromise. When it comes down to it, however, bowling parties are themselves not on the low end of stress free kids parties. They are chaotic with the added element of children hurling lethal objects around. Indeed, we had our first blood injury (my future daughter in-law's brother) just five minutes into the party. That said, the kids had fun which is apparently all that counts.

Turns out also that dealing with the in-laws was very easy. The tasks were divided, got done and the finances split. I did have a conversation with them that perhaps we should not have the wedding in a bowling alley but that the price point was excellent. There were agreements all around.

You may ask: when is the wedding likely to take place? Here is where some conflict arises -- not between families but within my own. My view is that if these crazy kids still want to get married at age 16 then I will happily sign the release. My son's mother thinks otherwise and is of the view that while she has some legal say, he will never let go. This is a source of tension between us. She argues that 16 is still too young. I point out that usually those wanting to get married at that age are being impulsive but let's face it, 10 years of engagement is hardly that! I can see many more years of this argument.

My son is quite serious about all this. On a recent holiday, he spent considerable energy shopping for jewelry. I was worried about him spending too much money. Marriage I can deal with but wasting money on precious metals is another thing. Anyhow, he did eventually settle on a friendship bracelet, that I believe both of them have lost. But it is the thought that counts.

When I look back over this, I think I am happy about this for precisely the same reason as my son is. He views selecting a future partner as something he had to do and has now done; thereby crossing a potentially annoying task off his to do list.

I feel the same way. Getting this out of the way early avoids years of frustration and uncertainty. There is so much less to worry about if this works out. I am willing to buy into that. I can see the attraction of arranged marriages for parents. They cut through annoying details. It can work well for the children too. It did so for me, but that is a story for another day.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The right tax

In economics, taxing bad behaviour (so called sin taxes) can be set equal to the costs of that activity on others. The end result is sometimes the bad behaviour occurs, the price is paid but everyone is at least as well off as before.

In parenting that is rarely the logic of punishment. It is often set to deter the said activity. Here is a story of a situation where that didn't work out; although the child was stunningly economically rational.

Renny: Momma I haffa sit in time out.

DaMomma: Huh? Why, Love?

Renny: I ate a candle.

(DaMomma, looking over to table where a candle has distinctive mouse-like gnaw marks on it.)

DaMomma (sigh): Okay, time to sit in time out then.

Renny: (Shrugging, trotting over to kitchen Naughty Corner.) O’tay.

Later, while making brownies:

Renny: Momma, I take the butter to show Daddy.

DaMomma: Okay, but don’t take it out of the wrapper, okay? I mean it.

Renny: O’tay!


Renny: Momma … can Sissy sit in time out with me?

DaMomma: Baby, you already did your … why do you need a time out?

Renny: I opened da butter.

(There, on the living room floor, nowhere near Daddy, an opened, mushed stick o’butter.)

Renny (hopeful): Sissy do time out wid me? Momma? (Getting carried up the stairs to her room.) MOMMA NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! (Down on the bedroom floor, knowing the door is about to shut, hands on hips looking at Momma.) I. DON’T. LIKE YOU MOMMA.

DaMomma (Long, thoughtful pause. Then, leaning over) I LIKE YOUUUUUUU!!!!!


Renny: And den I opened da butter and she took me to mah room and made me cry!

Daddy: That IS sad, Renny.

DaMomma: Ren, are you sorry you ate the candle?

Renny (very serious blue eyes): Yes, Momma.

DaMomma: Are you ever going to do it again?

Renny: Oh, yes, Momma! And den I sit in time out!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bee Property Rights

Jerry Seinfeld's long awaited Bee Movie doesn't disappoint. It is a kids' movie so the true Seinfeld magic was never going to be repeated but it is written with the comedian's flair and is peppered with truly amusing lines and Seinfeldesque moments and observations. You know, "what's the deal with all this honey?" This is one movie you want to be taking the kids too rather than foisting the task off on other adults.

But what interested me was the subtle message underlying the whole movie. If we believed that Jerry Seinfeld was the sort of person capable of sending a message to the whole Hollywood system (much as we believed was the case with, say, Shrek or Ratatoullie) it was this: the whole obsession with intellectual property rights and their enforcement (rightful or not) has repercussions that can destroy the economic system and social fabric. Of course, we don't really believe Seinfeld is capable of that but that doesn't mean the message didn't get there anyway.

The main issue in the movie comes when our resident 'bucking the system' bee, Barry, finds that humans are enslaving bees, consuming honey and no value is going back to the bees. Barry takes it on himself to use the humanic legal system to enforce what he sees as bees legitimate property rights and secure the honey back for bees. He succeeds and with more honey than they will ever need, bees stop working, pollinating and so the whole environmental system breaks down.

Now the Coasian solution would have been to pay the bees to work but there doesn't see to have been a gain from trade; that is, they didn't seem to want to despite having done so for 27 million years. Indeed, rescue comes later in a wholly uneconomic way; but I won't give away that one.

The message for the kiddies is you might have property rights but that enforcing them may cause others harm, so think about that one. Now think about that people who might be downloading Bee Movie rather than dragging everyone to the cinema.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Physics for children

Stephen Hawking and his daughter have written a children's book: George's Secret Key to the Universe. Let's face it, there was no chance that my children would not be subjected to it. And of the past few weeks, subject them to it, I did.

It didn't disappoint. It purported to have the latest thinking on black holes. Hang on a second, didn't I already read that 20 or so years ago with Hawking's A Brief History of Time? Well, I am pleased to tell you that the latest thinking on black holes is new. For starters, apparently, theoretically you can survive an encounter with one -- so it turns out the Disney movie of 25 years ago was actually more accurate than Hawking's pop science book of a few years later. Of course, I won't be giving much away when I tell you that theory becomes practice here.

Anyhow on to the book -- which is fiction -- and despite having the latest thinking is not hard science fiction. Basically, it is set in the present day an involves a piece of technology, a laptop computer named Cosmos, who can open up portals to anywhere in the universe. This seemed a stretch on the credibility front but what can you do.

The book is about George who is a bright young kid with an interest in science and technology stuck in a family of Luddites/Hippies with practices that would have been extreme for that group in the 60s. One suspects young Stephen had some issues in college back then. There is no technology in George's house, no preservatives in his food (something my kids can identify with) and weekends spent going to environmental protest rallies.

George's only joy is his pet pig that doesn't get much of a role other than allowing George to encounter his next door neighbours, a polar opposite, academic, science family who spend their weekend traveling to comets and the like.

Anyhow this sets the stage for several adventures that allows us to cover the material of physics in a moderately interesting way -- apparently, it is not enough to just have the story, there are inserts, pop outs and pictures explaining the real science. We skipped those on the first read. But the subtext is some debate against Luddites and scientist that George eventually helps reconcile. The debate didn't seem particularly relevant in today's world but the idea of an intellectual debate underpinning a children's book was pretty interesting nonetheless.

This is no major work of literary magic but it has offsetting benefits that make it a great read for children 6 years and above.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Avoiding bag eggs

A story today that babies can sort out the good sorts from the bad and potentially avoid trouble. Well, at least the research is suggestive of that.

It is consistent with our experience. Our eldest, before the age of 1, had worked out which other kids might take toys or otherwise annoy here. Her strategy was to scream loudly whenever they came within a metre of her. That proved quite effective in getting the attention of adults and scaring those children away.

Our son, on the other hand, would simply avoid them. If one of those children came towards him he would drop the toy and move away. This concerned me somewhat but then I noticed that the child usually lost interest in the toy about a minute later and my son would swoop back in and pick it up without the other child noticing. He worked completely under the radar and clearly had worked out that toys were not lost forever.

I didn't observe any such things with our third child. Going on chances, for all I know, she might be one of the troublesome ones. Although she is by far the most social of our children so it is hard to tell what this means.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pain acting

Children can fake being in pain or distress. Makes it hard to sort out the truth from the rest. In my experience, a bit of incentives goes a long way here. Steve Levitt thinks so too:
Apparently, they have figured out how to make needles thinner and sharper, so they slide in and out with minimal pain. At least, that’s what the nurse who gave me the shot told me. Nonetheless, my kids still cry when they get shots — at least, they do when it’s my wife’s turn to bring them to the doctor. When I’m there, I promise them a box of Nerds if they don’t cry. Lo and behold, there are never any tears. They are amazed to hear that Nerds (the candy version, that is) didn’t exist when I was a kid. Yet another example of the miracles of technology.
It is all just an application of mechanism design.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Baby bonus blues

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Minister for Family and Community Services, Mal Brough, thinks it’s a good thing that I am not an obstetrician. Actually, technically, I have delivered two babies (of my own) but there was a trained specialist at my side. That is, of course, another story.

But he has a point. If I were an obstetrician, it is unlikely that I would have spent the last week looking at ABS birth statistics. Instead, being an economist, my ANU colleague, Andrew Leigh and I seized upon them. The reason was to see whether the government had done it again. By poorly implementing the baby bonus had they caused potential disruption to maternity wards?

It turns out that the answer was, “yes and in a significant way.” Last year, we studied the introduction of the $3,000 baby bonus on the 1st July, 2004. That introduction made that day the biggest birthday in Australian history and the only day to have over 1,000 births. Indeed, statistically, 1167 births were shifted from June to July that year. It is also the case that the babies born were larger. Not surprisingly, we were concerned given that the bonus was to rise again on 1st July, 2006 by $834.

So Mal Brough may think it unseemly to think that parents would put the life of their unborn baby at risk. I think so too. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Moreover, it is not the delay of one birth I am worried about but the cumulative impact of this as maternity hospitals become unnecessarily congested. I happen to believe that the goal of health policy is to keep economics out as much as possible from health decisions. Certainly, governments shouldn’t put it there for no reason.

We raised concerns directly with the government in June last year and then, when we were ignored, released the paper publicly calling for a phased-in increment to the baby bonus. We weren’t the only ones. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists approached the government but were similarly ignored. And so, in 2006, the baby bonus increased.

There was always some hope that the smaller jump would mean less disruption. Perhaps parents wouldn’t care about $834? It turns out that hope is na├»ve. This is no small amount of money to parents just about to get an income shock. Statistically, just under 700 have shifted their births from the last week of June to the first week of July, 2006. (Here is a link to our research).

In July 2008 it is all scheduled to happen again when the baby bonus jumps to $5,000. The policy response is clear. If you need to increase the baby bonus (and it is unclear why that would be the case), do it gradually. If the jump was over the course of a few weeks, the extra outlays for the government would be a couple of million dollars. That may seem like a lot but in the context of over a $1 billion in payments every year on the baby bonus alone, it is a drop in the ocean.

It is the role of an economist to look for potential problems even if we don’t like to think they are there. Parents avoid having babies on the 1st April and 29th February seemingly because they are worried about awkward birthdates for their children. That is statistical fact. Similarly, in June, 2004 and July, 2006, they delayed births if they could to get extra cash. The government dangled the carrot on that occasion and parents responded. Perhaps there were no adverse health outcomes but I don’t think it is worthwhile for governments to role that dice for no gain.

I have written about the 2004 and 2006 events on his blog. See also Andrew Leigh.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The hardest books to read

Here is my list of the three hardest books to read to your children:
  • Fox in Socks: Dr Seuss went crazy with the tongue twisters
  • Where did I come from?: Explicit, awkward, yet informative
  • Sadako: You'll know what I mean if you attempt to read it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Data driving

Stephen Dubner outlines ways of getting the kiddies interested in data.
First, the kids will vote on their favorite and least favorite playgrounds in the park. Then they will collect data on a variety of metrics: number of swings, amount of open space, shady vs. sunny areas, etc. Then they will try to figure out the factors that make a good playground good and a bad playground bad. They will also consider the safety of each playground, and other measures.
That reminds me of our next planned school holiday activity: "does the law of large numbers really work? Let's toss a coin a thousand times and see."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Playtime attention

In Slate, Emily Brazelon looks at playing and parental attention. In the olden days, kids either worked or during a period in the 1950s, played outside. According to some that was an era of boredom until television came along.
Kids won a burst of autonomy in the first half of the 20th century, when there were still woods and parks at hand to roam, yet fewer chores than on the farms of yore. But parental fear and suburban development slammed the door shut again. Chudacoff cites findings from a recent survey showing that after school and on the weekends, kids on average spend only one half-hour a week in unstructured play outside, compared to 14.5 hours playing inside, and 12 more hours watching television.
Apparently, that is the issue. Experts want kids outside more and getting more interactive time from parents. Parents are busy or have some other things they would like to do. A typical conversation in my household goes like this:

"Dad, what can I D-O?" (my son likes to spell)

"How about playing with some toys?"

"Can I play with some electronic toys?"

"No, how about some lego."

"Will you play with me?"

"Well, I am busy writing my blog."

"What's it about?"

"How parents don't have time to play with children."

In reading the Slate article, all this seems like just another source of guilt. I am sure there is such a thing as parental neglect but when it comes down to it, there is only so much playtime we can take. When I lie down on the couch, apparently, the lack of an indoor trampoline becomes apparent.

The real way around this is not to view it as a zero-sum game. It is possible to find activities both you and your children enjoy. Of course, there is the electronic stuff but that has its own issues. For us, it is Lego. We build Lego. And let me tell you once you break the barrier on parental enjoyment of this stuff, there is no limit to how much you can purchase. Our house is ruled by Lego and it is a good sign. (And this is our latest project).

[PS: here is a fun activity.]

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The importance of pause

I have come to appreciate that most important button in an airplane is 'pause.' This is especially the case for long-haul flights. Whatever you are using to watch a video requires this. Not only can this allow you to go to the bathroom or sort out any food thrown your way, it is the only way to deal with the constant interruptions of children. It is the key to sanity.

This means you need a laptop, video iPod or video on demand system on the plane. Nothing else will cut it. All of the value lies in the 'pause' feature.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Disneyland Standard

So it has been a while between posts on this blog. We have been traveling around the world -- the US, Japan and Hong Kong -- for the past few weeks. It has been free of real complications and hence, there was little in my dismal mind to blog about.

Today is our last day away and we are at Disneyland Hong Kong. Why? Because it is there.

Anyhow, having been to the Anaheim version, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. When you walk into the HK version, you are struck by the fact that everything is exactly the same. Main street is there, the castle, Tomorrowland (complete with Space Mountain and Autopia -- sponsored by Honda this time -- and not much emphasis on the 'vision of the motoring future' bit that was in LA), Fantasyland (complete with Dumbos, cups and Winnie the Pooh) and there is Adventureland too. All laid out much the same as in LA. The differences are minor at best.

The one differences is that HK is smaller (but give it time). It is also newer (give that time too). So it has a few attractions that make use of the latest IT. For instance, there was a Buzz Lightyear laser shooting ride that was great fun and a Stitch interactive show that was very cleverly done with an animated character clearly being controlled like a puppet.

The only other difference was the food. There was less of it and most of it was Chinese (which makes sense given where we are). But in a world that is otherwise so mainstream American, there is a Main Street for goodness sake, it was kind of surreal. On the other hand, it was a much cheaper day out than the US version. So no complaints there.

The kids wouldn't know the difference. Disneyland has a standard and they can go with it anywhere. I suspect we will see more of them around the world.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Online Sites for Kids

I have written before about the wonders of some on-line sites including Starfall and Club Penguin. In Slate, a couple of articles on a related theme. Emily Brazelon finds that 11 year olds are not so thrilled with Club Penguin but enjoy other sites. Interestingly, price is the big factor. If it's not all free, it's not all fun.

Michael Agger spends too much time in Club Penguin. It is a very comprehensive treatment for interested parents.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The contract state

Recently, my 8 year old daughter complained that her mother kept reneging on promises. She would promise one thing and then when the time came to keep the promise, she would change it or move it further away in time. It was, of course, all true.

So we had a discussion as to what to do about it. I suggested that perhaps she would like to get things in writing the next time Mummy made a promise.

"What good would that do?"

"Well you would have a record of what the promise is."

"So what? She will just change it again."

"In that case you could point out that it is a binding contract."

"What does binding contract mean?"

"It means that if Mummy doesn't keep her promise, the government will step in to enforce it."

"Really, how?"

"You could take Mummy to Court and a judge would order her to keep her promise."

With that she whipped up Microsoft Word and drew herself up a contract including her consideration not to complain about the broken promise unless it was broken. Her mother was surprised to get the contract, in duplicate, but signed it anyhow.

Tonight, I found myself being presented with my own contract terms. I had, over dinner, promised to let my daughter stay up late over the Spring break if she went to bed early before it. An hour later I was asked to sit down and sign a contract to that effect, including the standard 'no complaint' clause. I happily signed and our signatures were witness and the contract was filed away.

I am a little worried that I have opened a can of worms here. Everything has suddenly gone from informal to highly legalistic. I guess our daughter has a few trust issues. But at the moment I have no complaints.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The unformulaic Ratatoullie

As I wrote last year, Pixar seem to have a formula about their movies -- a good one -- and Cars exemplified that. Well, this year's installment, Ratatoullie, is anything but formulaic. There were no popular songs, no quick jokes intended to play on some bit of popular culture and a setting that was hardly wistful but instead a reminder of how rat infested Paris must be.

I went to see this movie with high expectations. This review in Slate will explain why. Clearly, the critics loved it. Now that review encompasses my impression too -- it did not disappoint. But more amusingly, if there was one big risk the movie took, it was to try and appeal to critics by, in part, being about them. It would have been so easy for critics to play on that with a snappy angle should the movie have failed in its goal. But it didn't and so instead the critics were humbled. When you see this movie you will see why that is so. The analogy will hit you over the head. And for those of us who consume the critics' output, it makes this movie and all the more satisfying dish.

Now, the children want some ratatoullie; anyone got any good recipes?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The key to compliance

This week we had the 8 year old's parent-teacher interview. As regular readers know, this is not something I look forward to. This is not because it represents bad news but more that I don't really know what to do with myself.

Anyhow, the interview began:
"I have to tell you that your child is a delight."


"Yes, she does everything she is told. She is always ready at the beginning of class with her diary on the table. She works hard all day at projects. And she always helps clean up."

"Umm, we are the Gans family. Take another look at your sheet. Are we talking about the same child?"
Turns out that we were talking about the same child, physically at least. At home, 'compliant' is not the word I would use for Child No.1. Sure faced with the inevitable, she is very good and does most things without being reminded. But on anything extra, well, it is a struggle where she clearly believes that if she complies she might be doing whatever distasteful activity it is for the rest of life. Actually, she is probably right about that.

Nonetheless, let's face it, we can't complain. If we are going to have compliance somewhere best that it be at school. Indeed, we rewarded that by allowing her to have more of a free reign with her time at home.

But I was curious. Why was there such a difference? We asked her:
"Well, of course I am well-behaved. They pay me there."

"What do you mean?"

"We get money. Well, not real money but bonus money. I have the most in the class."
Ah ha, so once again she proves that she is her father's daughter. At school they get the price right which is clearly not the case at home. Nonetheless, I don't think we are going to change things here, lest we upset the current happy situation at school.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Giving yourself to the schedule

There was an interesting New York Times article this week about a family who had trouble of keeping track of their cars. To resolve the issue, the mother, writing the story, adopted Google Calendar to resolve the situation:
That’s all they would need to create personal calendars that they could share online with a master family calendar, which would display all appointments in color-coded text blocks. Another thing that set Google apart was a recently beefed-up spreadsheet tool that enables me to create a monthly budget chart that might trick my husband into confronting the truth about our finances. I also had big plans to use the documents tool to make a grocery list everyone could edit.
Turns out that she had mixed success.

For that family, giving themselves over to the need for a group schedule appears to have happened late. For us, it happened a few years ago. The parties escalated (and as regular readers know that is a big problem for us), the after school activities grew in number, there were events at school and just many amendments to a normal weekly schedule. Add into the mix that on certain evenings or on certain days one or both of us might have work commitments or travel and just keeping up became a nightmare.

Our initial pass was to agree to put all events on the calendar on our iMac in the kitchen. The idea being, if it is not there, it does not exist. That was a good solution but sometimes you find out about something at work and don't have access to the home machine. Also, you might need to commit to a work event but can't consult the schedule.

After much angst about whether we could rely on an internet-based means of scheduling, I moved us over to Google Calendar. What a marvel it is. It is so easy to consult, put schedules in, and even link to maps of where to go. We have separate calendars for all five of us and am teaching the two eldest to put parties and the like in the schedule themselves. That way we can train them early before it is seen as an imposition. Big Brother serves best when they are young.

Many people have reacted in horror to this outcome that we use IT to communicate rather than some personal touch. Well, those people do not understand the magnitude of the logistical problem we face. More often than not they have a single person responsible for where the children are. We can't rely on that and so we track them on Google. If we could get some GPS locators on them and tie that back in we will be set. It might seem impersonal but there is nothing less personal than a lost child. Can you imagine the conversation with police?
"So can you tell us where you last saw your child?"

"Well, this morning but her mother apparently dropped her off at a party at 10."

"It is 2 now, who picked her up?"

"It was supposed to be me but it turned out that I was taking another child to Taekwando."

"So the mother stepped in ..."

"Well, she had to take the youngest to another party."

"Have you checked at the 10am party?"

"Well, the invitation went with the child and we have no record at the moment of whose party it was or where it was held."

"Have you thought of putting this on Google? It's free."
I mean, we all want to avoid that.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Influences on children

Two new subversive influences on children. First, apparently, children are happy to eat pretty much anything if it is in a McDonald's wrapper. As I have said before, parents should rejoice at this since it will make their task of getting kids to eat healthy stuff alot easier.

More worrying is a Wash U. study that suggests that Baby Einstein can impair speech development. Hard to see what the mechanism is here but it is not good news for those products. From my perspective, Baby Einstein gave our children a whole sentence of vocabulary: "I want a DVD now."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Toilet riddle

My six year old son has come up with a riddle that I believe may be original.

Q: "What toy can you do wees and poos into?"

A: "A toylet!"

If anyone knows a source for this, please let me know. I couldn't find anything similar in an internet search. He claims he made it up, which is possible.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Give me Shrek

Moves to ban popular characters, such as Shrek, on junk food are misguided. They are, at best, a distraction from the real issues and, at worst, will actually make parents' lives harder in terms of getting their children to eat well.

First, it ignores the reality of what most parents try to do. Basically, we live in a meal to meal negotiation over the proportion of healthy and unhealthy food children eat. We use the prospect of a special treat to get children to more of the healthy stuff. However, to make that deal work in our favour, the more they like (or think they will like) the unhealthy stuff, the more vegetables we can get into them.

In that world, if advertising and promotional characters makes children think they will like the unhealthy stuff more, the greater is a parent's ability to get them to eat healthy stuff first. Give me pure puffy advertising and a Shrek label any day. If having a green character on a chocolate bar means that they will be as happy with a 30 gram treat than with a 60 gram one then so much the better. Shrek is my friend in my quest to market unhealthy goods to my children. Put simply, you want treats to have a good taste, good memory and yet not have much of it eaten. Banning this stuff will only make our job harder. [The same is true for toys in Happy Meals].

Second, Shrek doesn't come for free. Food makers have to pay for it. They expect greater sales but those sales are only valuable if they come at a reasonable price. What promotional characters and their expensive rights do is push up the costs to food makers. And what does that do, it pushes up prices. High price means fewer sales. Fewer sales means less junk food in children's mouths.

Ban this stuff and food makers have to compete on price. Prices plummet and sales go up. Straight into the mouths of babes. On this logic, the better place to look to ban cool characters is on the healthy foods just to keep them affordable for parents.

Put simply, Shrek isn't the problem but part of the solution. The problem is instead the lack of other stuff on food packaging; most notably, good nutritional information. We need a standard -- a single number -- that indicates how appropriate a food item is for children. Yes, it is imperfect, but it is the information parents need to ensure they feed their children the right stuff. Politicians concerned about childhood obesity need to empower parents rather than disarm food makers and advertisers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tough maths

A new study says that when it comes to daughters and their propensity for maths and science in later life, Dads are to blame. If Dads hold stereotypes, they hold their daughters back.

One a related note, I thought that it may be the 11th or 12th Grade before my daughter came home with a maths problem that stumped me. (The earlier that happened the better the reflect on our education system.) Usually, I look over her homework and try and work it out in my head. It never takes more than a minute and then I can at least check whether she gets it right or not. (By the way, we might talk about it, if she doesn't but I never give her the answer.) And some of those problems are tricky. Last term she had one where she had to take a clock face and draw two lines across it such that the numbers in each of the resulting three areas summed to the same number. Took her about 15 minutes and me about 2 (more than I wanted at the very least).

So this week's problem has me worried. Take the numbers 1 though 9 and keep them in that order. Then using any operator (+, -, x or /) and also parentheses make them into an expression that equals 100. Now I can see how to do that by trial and error but I can also see that is going to take sometime. My daughter is currently slogging through that. But I can't see how to do it simply. I ran out of my 5 minute limit so I thought I'd post it here for your amusement. Please feel free to leave, not the answer, but any short-cuts in the comments.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The 5th Harry Potter movie

There are two reactions to the newly released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. One set of people really enjoyed it. Another set think it lacked something. The difference between the two is whether they read the book in the past two years or not.

I fall into the latter book having re-read the last two books a couple of months ago in preparation for the final installment. The movie writers had a tough task. They decided to turn the longest book (800+ pages) into the shortest movie (just over 2 hours). Something had to go. What went were the characters. Only two characters get prime billing, Harry Potter and Delores Umbridge. Two other characters get a non-trivial, Luna and Sirius. But everyone else is pushed into the background. Hermione, Dumbledore, Cho, the Wesley twins, Ginny are there but not at the book's level. Sadly, Malfoy, Ron and Snape are pretty well left behind. This left a big hole; particularly, since it is Harry's relationship with Snape that was by far the most significant feature of the book.

The plot shortening took away the epic feel of previous movies. There was no sense of the school year and no build up. Dumbledore's Army was created but only named as it was disbanded. And the plot basics were twisted to make the story work. But it seemed to me that things went too quickly and the whole exercise seemed jumpy. Put simply, the movie seemed more filler than real development. The book made up for that with character development. This time around there was none to be seen.

That said, we go into these things with high expectations. It was very enjoyable and the incorporation of humour was very well done. It was also far less scary than previous movies; perhaps the least scary of the lot. There may have been a darker movie, but around the theatre there were fewer instances that sent childrens' popcorn flying. There was no time to build up a sense of foreboding.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Penguin's Life

Massively multi-player games are all the rage. There is Everquest and World of Warcraft if you want to wage war. There is Second Life if you want to wage life. And for the kids, there is the torridly two dimensional world of Club Penguin. These school holidays, it has totally absorbed our family.

So what happens in the club? Basically, for free, your kid gets a penguin and can earn coins by playing games. They can then use the coins to buy some things including stuff to do up their very own igloo. They can also buy pets called puffles and spend some time trying to keep them healthy and happy. Finally, they can waddle around the world and see who else is there.

This teaches them about life. My 6 year old son, played enough games to earn himself some loot and then spent it on ten puffles. He learnt the lesson of over-population quickly and found himself unable to care for them. By the day's end, they were all gone; passed on to another virtual place. From then on, he kept his puffle herd down.

For my kids, we told them not to talk to strangers. So their activities are divided between saying in response to someone asking them to be their friend, "No!" and looking for each other. So in one room someone shouts out, "where are you?" and there is the response "in the Outback." Suffice it to say the Outback is a much colder place than you would expect.

To earn coins, the kids played games. I asked whether they killed anyone and apparently that wasn't allowed. Now how, may I ask, is this going to prepare them for other virtual games?

Typically, I would come home to this conversation:

"How long have you been playing that thing?"

"About three hours."

"Don't you think you should stop?"


"What are you doing?"

"I am playing this ice block game. Three more rounds and I'll have enough coins do get another puffle."

"What about bath time?"

"What about it?"

"Well, the kids seem to be waiting to go to bed and they haven't eaten since lunch. Well, except for some virtual fish."

You see, Club Penguin -- like other games before it -- has taken in my kids' mother. She too is obsessed with getting further in it. The entire family is now on ice.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Behind Starfall

I have raved about Starfall before; the site that teaches kids to read. Here is a link to an interesting article about its founders.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Toilet Training and Incentives: Child No.3

This week marks the end of an era for us. For the past eight and a half years we have been virtually non-stop in nappies. Now I am happy to report that Child No.3, who is just about to turn 3, is out of nappies (at least during the day). And what is more, it was all done with the efficient management style that befitting parents who have been through this twice before.

Regular readers may recall that we have dealt with the strategic behaviour of Child No.1 and the dis-interest and the well-meaning gaming of Child No.2. Those were quite a work-out. So when it came to Child No.3 we adopted a strategy, ruthless efficient in its application and very light in terms of taxing our own energy: we outsourced the whole deal.

Now, by outsourcing, I don't mean that we just sent our daughter away to some service and then they delivered her back ready to go. Those, apparently, exist for dogs and I won't pretend that we wouldn't have availed ourselves of a human service had it existed. But it does not. Instead, we relied on her carers at child care to handle the entire exercise. They initiated toilet training, encouraged our daughter and eventually succeeded well before we did much at all at home. All we were left to do was to set her straight at home which, suffice to say, is not too hard once she had revealed her abilities to the wider community.

Child care is the perfect place for all this. First of all, the carers there have as much, if not more, incentives as we do to get children trained. They change more nappies and also have to potentially deal with them for years to come. They have no desired for a 'slow to train' child. Of course, our son had to leave their capable hands before he was done and was to move to a pre-school that required a trained kid. Suffice it to say, that dampened incentives somewhat. But give child care a time horizon with another 1000 nappy changes and we have a tight alignment of interests.

Second, and this goes without saying, they have seen it all. They are simply more capable in terms of knowing the signs, assessing readiness and doing all of the other crap (literally) that first time parents think but cannot do.

Finally, the children have peers. Now the power of peer pressure is something that can lead to good and evil. The evil usually becomes apparently as your child follows others to leap off a several metre high structure or starts sucking noodles up their noses. But the good can be equally as powerful. With all the other kids successfully going to the toilet, there is intense pressure to join in and do so in a meaningful way. Your child wants to get the same cheers their friends are getting for demonstrated activity. And they don't want to have themselves tended for to clean a soiled nappy up.

Even wearing a nappy can be socially difficult. A friend's three year old son, who wasn't in lots of child care, shed himself of a nappy when he was made fun of by a random older kid in a playground. Of course, in that instance, that meant no night-time nappy and a few difficulties for his parents as a consequence of that.

For our daughter, she shed herself of a nappy at child care. Indeed, in the early part of it, she would convince some of the more part-time carers that she didn't wear a nappy; although apparently those earlier forays met with unfortunate results. But it continued later on too. I remember being informed, having collected her and driven her half the way home that, "I don't have a nappy on." Being on the freeway there was not much I could do. So I went with it and all was well.

I won't pretend that we were totally free of obligation. For a while, there was a distinct difference between her behaviours at home and elsewhere. But once we got on the program, deployed a few incentives, we were done in a matter of days.

So the moral of our story is pretty simple. When you have (virtually) once-off activities for which you have no competence to manage, you should outsource it to those who deal with it regularly and also have plenty of experience. The end result is pretty much the same but with less stress, lower pressure and cleaner carpets.

Real versus virtual danger

These days we read time and time again of how video games are dangerous. Shoot them up games encouraging them to think violent thoughts. Car racing games make them into reckless drivers. Police games encourage drug trafficking. Space shooting games fostering anti-alien prejudices. So this holidays I bought my 8 year old daughter, The Dangerous Book for Boys, for some good old-fashioned values.

Suffice it to say, in this iPod generation, that book was an incredible hit. She will not let it leave her possession. It goes everywhere and is read all of the time. She will happily recite the blurb on the back cover by memory to anyone who asks:
Recapture Sunday afternoons and long summer days. The perfect book for every boy from eight to eighty.
And so what does this book have in it that was so instantly engrossing? Well, to say it lacks a theme is an under-statement. It is just a random set of entrys (not even alphabetically ordered) with titles such as "Fossils," "The Laws of Football," "Dinosaurs," "How to play poker," "The Origin of Words" and "The Patron Saints of Britain." I mean how many 8 year olds do you know who aren't fascinated by St David of Wales and his heroic efforts to establish churches and monastries in the 500s?

But that is not all. It teaches you about life. For instance, in the entry "Girls" (which is a whole page), there is a list of 8 points of advice including the critical message to "be careful about humour" limiting yourself to one joke followed by silence. You just can't buy that kind of information.

So how does it stack up relative to those damned computer games? Pretty well. The entries with the biggest hits were those that compelled activity. Within minutes "the greatest paper airplane ever" whizzed by. But then came the pleas for the base equipment for larger projects. So there were calls to make a bow and arrow, slingshot, box car, crystals (literally drugs I think), battery (!), skin tanning (including hunting the game) and tripwires. Unlike those computer games where there is still debate about whether they lead to poor behaviour, there is no doubt with this stuff. In this book, there is direct and unequivocal linkage between the playtime activity and the potentially criminal behaviour. With computer games, you still need a gun to be violent. But this stuff tells you how to make a weapon. Things were just clearer in the olden days and when it comes down to it, the kids know when they are just getting virtual stuff as opposed to the real deal.

Anyhow, if you would like to order this book, click on the link below. I can't write anymore as I need to extract a poison dart from a younger brother before he collapses (again)! Good to be an involved parent again rather than rely on the electronic babysitter.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Holding back

My daughter had a swimming "race" night last night. This is a monthly event at her swimming school whereby the kids are timed and get a ribbon if they get their PB or personal best. This was my daughter's first (well second but last year they forgot to record her times) and so she would get a ribbon anyway.

She swam all of her strokes (at 25m and 50m) but surprisingly slowly. I thought she was just tired. But in the 25m races she would bound back up to the starting end of the pool. So something didn't add up.

When she came out, I asked her how she felt about it all.


"But didn't you think you were a little slower than usual."

"Oh that is true. I wanted a slow time."


"Well, then I wont have as much to beat next month and can get a PB."

So we can now add her to the list of the many who have discovered the ratchet effect. This is the issue of when incentives are created to hold back because people are worried about having to put too much effort in in the future. When you want a ribbon ever month, it is best not to fall in the trap of over-performance. One good month and you pay for it forever. My daughter realised that and so hardly felt that she came in last. Another reason for swimming races where it depends on where you come in the pack.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The child chauffeur's dilemma

A problem for you ...
Three missionaries and three cannibals stand on the bank of a river that they wish to cross. There is a boat available which can ferry up to two people across. The goal is to find a schedule for ferrying all the cannibals and all the missionaries safely across the river. The constraint is that, if at any point the cannibals outnumber the missionaries on either bank, the cannibals will eat the missionaries. Note that the boat cannot cross the river by itself with no people on board.
Sounds like my weekend! Substitute children for 'cannibals,' parents for 'missionaries,' car for 'boat' and across town for 'river' and you have my dilemma. Actually, it would be better to have this problem as we know there is an answer. That wasn't the case for the problems we faced.

There are lots of annoying things about kids' parties. One of the biggest is that they get invited to them. What is more, the potential number of parties one child might get invited to in a year is related to but not limited by the number of children that happen to be in their class. Indeed, my belief is that the biggest cost of increasing class sizes is the lost weekend time due to all the extra parties.

So this weekend a, fortunately rare, event occurred. Two of our children had two parties each on the same day at the same times. Child No.1 had a party at 10:30am (seeing Shrek again) that was due to end at 1:45pm and she had another party (this time bowling) due to begin at 1:15pm and end at 3 or so. Child No.2 had a party beginning at 10:30am and ending at 12:30pm (at a park) and then another from 1pm until 3pm (video gaming or something). Child No.3 had no party but really needed a nap from 1-3pm.

Think you can solve this: well, I am not done yet. This would all be well and good if we were at the same place for all this. But of course not. Without going into the details, Child No.2's first party was at location A which was 20km from Child No.1's first party at location B. Child No.2 then had a party at location B while Child No.1's second party was at Location B (sort of) in terms of parking but actually half a kilometer a way by foot.

But even that is complicated so to plan at least the location side of things out I did a mash-up in Google Maps (here is the link in case you are interested). Suffice it to say, there were real issues here. Our children's mother suggested the problem was "np-incomplete." I said, "you think!"

Nonetheless, there needed to be a plan and so one came. Clearly, I could not deposit both children at their desired Party 1's at 10:30am as they were 20km apart. We could use the other adult but instead tried to broker a deal with another parent who had a child going to both Child No.2's birthdays. The plan was this: I would take both children with me and head out from home at 9:45am. We would deposit Child No.2 at friend's house at 10am (also approximately marked on the map). Sadly, this was close to his party and 20km or so from Child No.1's first party. I would then drive Child No.1 to her first party and return home. So far so good.

Now you might think that next part of the plan would involve the other parent ferrying Child No.2 and friend to the next party. Sadly no. As I was going to have to be at the location for that party in order to transfer Child No.1 between parties there, it seemed better if I did that transfer.

So you might ask: why not find a parent to transfer Child No.1 between her two parties? That would have freed up the middle of the day. Well, it turned out that there was no overlap between the kids in Child No.1's two parties even though they were in the same class! Why? Because the first party was a girl's party and the second party was not. Now again, you might be puzzled as to how we became the only point of intersection. Well, you see Child No.1, while physically a girl, is, in fact, a boy. So she gets invited to both parties. The upshot of all this ridiculousness, is that I had to be on site for the transfer.

But then we had another intractable issue because Child No.1's first party ended half an hour after her second party began. Something had to by thrown out and it turned out to be Child No.1's lunch. I would deposit Child No.2 and friend at Party 2 at 1pm and then collect Child No.1 at 1:05pm and somehow get to her next party by 1:15pm. It was a bowling party so we couldn't really be late.

From then on, the plan would be that I would collect Child No.1 at 3pm while the other parent collects Child No.2 and friend at the same time and brings them back to our house. All the while, their mother stays with Child No.3 who gets her nap and so the day is solved.

I announced the plan. Then their mother piped up, "I was hoping to get a swim in today." Following that, one parent was wiped from existence.

OK but this post isn't done yet. How did the plan go? It all looks nice and clean on Google Maps but there are obstacles. First, there is the issue of presents. You see, not only do children have to be transported to various parties but their presents do too. What you don't want to do is have a child responsible for transferring a present between parties as it is likely to get lost. Again, the missionary/cannibal issue comes up but with a third set of things to be transported. So I needed to make contingency plans for the presents. This involved loading up the car with all said presents and also, and I was particularly proud of myself for anticipating this one, friend of Child No.2 needs to have his present loaded into my car right at the beginning so that I had both their presents during the crucial party 1 to 2 transfer at 12:30pm. What this did mean is that I transported that present around all day. The present failed to note the irony of that one during the part of the journey we were alone together.

Second, sometimes it is not clear what you are supposed to do with regards to parties. When I arrived at Child No.2's first party to pick him up, I found it was a gigantic park. Where were they supposed to be? I phoned home and the invitation at Packer Park (or Oval Reserve) said they were in the Packer Pavilion. It wasn't obvious where that was. On the phone I requested support. I was expecting a high level of support given my logistic circumstances; you know, like Jack Bauer would get in 24.

"Call up a schematic of the park and transfer it to my PDA."

"You don't have a PDA."

"Well, my Blackberry then."

"I am not sure I can do that."

"You know I have no room for error here."

"OK, look for a big blue building at the South end of the park, latitude 145.3188 degrees South, longitude 37.540614 degrees East.

"Got it. Thanks. Was that so hard?"

Anyhow, I went inside and found all of the children in their pyjamas; apparently, some person's bright idea of a theme! Well, except one, Child No.2. That was fine: it was winter and he had another party to go to. His friend was dressed like that and we negotiated another five minutes was to whether he had a change of clothes for his second party. Apparently not. But we were now late.

Third, there is traffic. Now you might think that on a Sunday traffic isn't a problem. Not so. Three parties were located in a traffic and a parking disaster. So to get the last mile to that location takes at least 20 minutes. During that time traffic moves at a crawl as people try to find parking. I had finally spied a parking space on my first run into that area when someone in front of me scooted into it. I immediately took my thumb and forefinger out to apply The Force choking trick to them.

Child No.1 commented, "Dad, you know that doesn't work outside of Star Wars."

I replied, "It works for me."

"Do they really deserve to die? They were there first."

"You know, I am not planning to kill them. Darth Vader just made them uncomfortable. Just let me have my fun."

Which brings me to the final obstacle, parking. On run one, I found a space pretty easily. Run two was a nightmare, traffic and parking wise. We arrived 10 minutes late for Child No.2's second party and then, because I didn't want to give up my spot, I gathered Child No.1 and raced to her second party; arriving late for that. During which time I was informed that there had been a change of plans and Child No.1 would now be collected by someone else, taken to their house and we would pick her up later. I took the long walk back to the car and got some lunch.

And here I am writing this post while Child No.3 has her nap and her mother, who it turns out did survive the planning stage, goes for a swim. I have done 50kms driving, a 1km run and have spent 3 hours in the car and I am not done yet as neither child has actually been brought safely home. Not that a failure to do so would be totally bad (at least with regards to future parties) but the cannibals are supposed to get to the other side of the river in the correct solution to the problem.

So to the moral of this story: "no child gets more than one party in a day" is a good rule. Let them choose who their friends really are. Otherwise not all the missionaries are going to make it to the other side.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Trading punishments

Yesterday, the 6 year old came back from swimming and his mother could not find his swimmers in his bag. Not only that his spare swimmers were missing too. This was not the first time this had happened but previously this had been worked out before everyone arrived home so the swimmers could be rescued.

Forgetfulness is not something we want to encourage and so he received a punishment. On Friday nights the family sits down to watch Survivor. This week he would miss out. He was upset and keep on claiming that he didn't know how this had happened. Those protests of innocence fell on deaf ears.

Today, his mother found the swimmers -- both pairs -- in his bag exactly where they should have been. Oops. Indeed, this was the second such incident in as many weeks. Last week, he had been accused of misplacing his school pants at home; something that seemed to me a hard thing to do. Turns out someone had mistakenly put his pants away in his sister's closet. Oops.

Each time the lynching accuser was his mother. So what to do about this. Now sometimes we have falsely punished but to maintain our reputation we had stuck with it as the child, at least, had no direct evidence of their innocence. They were younger too and it was plausible to them they had done something wrong. Yes, I know, this isn't fair but there is a bigger picture of the system here and it doesn't happen that often. After all, think of all the things they should be punished for but we are missing. The system balances out on average.

This time around the evidence was irrefutable. What to do? First, up was to restore the unfair punishment. I offered him a 'free pass.' The next time he did something that was due a punishment, he would get off with just a warning. As that was likely to be in the near future, he was happy with the deal.

But what to do with the false accusation which had (a) had not been a once-off (b) did not involve me? I suggested that the 6 year old be able to think of a punishment for his mother. That created amusement all round; well, except for one person. But it was accepted.

He struggled with what type of punishment to give. He toyed with going to bed early but quickly realised that that wasn't a punishment at all; and if he hadn't realised it, I would have pointed it out. Then he naturally gravitated towards the 'eye for an eye' philosophy. "Next time on Survivor, you won't be watching, Mummy."

He started to speculate on whether that was enough and perhaps she should be forced to sit through The Wiggles while we all watched. I love his sense of irony but pointed out that that bit was really just for his amusement and that perhaps he didn't want us to start thinking that we could add things we would find amusing to punishments too. So he left it at reciprocity.

All in all a satisfying outcome and no doubt his mother will think twice before accusing him of crimes in the future. Of course, I suspect it is only a matter of time before his older sister, who is very risk averse, hits on the idea of pre-punishment: you know, can you punish me now so that if the next one falls at a time that might be inconvenient or uncertain, she would have one in the bank. It is an interesting idea but one suspects that there is a reason one cannot pay for parking tickets in advance. You want the punishment cost to be immediate and linked to the activity rather than sunk. It will be interesting to see if my son's next crime is committed in haste.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Formula Shrek

Sequels to animated movies have not had the best record. Disney have tried with virtually all of their offerings although I must admit that I found the Peter Pan follow-up quite good. Pixar had success with Toy Story 2 but others, even when successful in the box office, have not generally been worthwhile. Given that spate of poor third movies this summer, I wasn't going into Shrek The Third with high expectations.

I am pleased to report that it surpassed them easily. Indeed, I liked it just as much as the previous ones although the plot didn't have the majesty of the first. When it comes down to it, Shrek is a winning formula. Great characters, a solid setting and a raft of in-jokes that make the movie far more appealing to adults than children; although the latter have a good time regardless.

This time around, the throne of Far Far Away is vacated (in what has to be the funniest death scene ever in a childrens movie). Shrek is next in line for the throne -- although why it isn't Fiona I don't know (that is a values weakness that was absent from the first movie). Anyhow, it makes the plot work because the rest of the movie is about Shrek finding any way he can to not take on Kingly responsibility and indeed fatherly responsibilities too. His expedition is to find another relative, Arthur, who can take the throne. Arthur is an unpopular teenager and himself shows reluctance to take on the role. Meanwhile, Prince Charming (who lost out in the last movie) stages a coup with the help of fairy tale villains. All this leads to an inevitable final battle and a few songs.

This time around it is the minor characters that shine more. The raft of princesses (including a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty and an animal controlling Snow White) and villains (a piano playing Hook) add lots of colour and receive the most laughs (from adults). Although, be warned, this movie will provoke interesting discussions with children later on over what sort of offspring a donkey and dragon might be expected to have in reality. Well I guess fairy tales are supposed to be mind opening.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Kids and movies

Has The Age gone completely mad? It's opinion pieces are simply crazy. Last week we had private education, this week Jim Schembri wants to ban kids from movies: even Shrek!

CHILDREN should not be allowed in cinemas. Please don't take that the wrong way, especially if you are a kid. This is not an anti-kid tirade. Kids are wonderful and endearing and full of energy. Kids are our future and are also the best source of non-electronic entertainment we have.

But they also have their place and that place is at home watching new-release movies on DVD, not in the cinema sitting next to some hapless adult who is sitting through Shrek the Third because he has to.

Let me begin with his Top 10 list. I defy anyone to identify an item there that does not apply to some adult, somewhere who has attended a movie. Do you mean no adult has ever not followed a plot (perhaps all of them in Russian Ark), asked stupid questions (Jerry Seinfeld admitted that one), are loud (!), light up (well adults have big hair), don't understand furniture (have you ever fought over an arm rest), stare (that isn't movies, that's kids in public), make weird sounds (listen to anyone eat popcorn), kick (what happens when an adult wants to go to the bathroom in the middle of a movie?), have lousy parents (umm, adults don't have parents?), are violent (our prisons are apparently empty).

It turns out Jim that movie theatres have worried about this sort of thing. First, they schedule some movies late at night (if you want to see Shrek kid free try tonight's 9pm session) or on school days. Second, kids generally go to movies for kids.

Now I am willing to admit, some kids aren't well-behaved. But an outright, age discriminatory ban. Look, even with a grain of salt, the column wasn't even funny. If you want a funny take on kids at the movies; see here.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Starting kindergarten

There is an interesting New York Times article discussing research on kindergarten starting times and longer-term educational performance. The bottom line: starting too early can actually lead to lower academic performance later on. Why? We can only speculate. But as is often true here: averages can give you pause to think but ultimately, it will depend on the child what is appropriate.

What is interesting is that kindergarten is seen as a curriculum and way of learning and that parents are supposed to match their child's readiness to this. Mix into that the fact that children's social compatibility might differ from their academic readiness and you have a system that coordinates on the latter and might then mismatch the former. And what we don't know is if that former mismatch is creating the learning differentials rather than changing overall rates of learning. What I mean here is that pool kids of the same age together and they might learn to read on average by age 6.5 but separate them out and the older kids might learn to read by 6.5 while the younger ones might fall behind to 7.

Reading this article made me wonder that what we are trying to teach kids in kindergarten might be inappropriate. The big example of this is reading. Watching a child learn to read English is excruciating. It is a tough activity and what is more the case to them to be reading at 6 rather than 7 is not particularly strong. Sure kids who can read by age 4 (we have one) can do lots more things. But they are also reading by that age because those are the things they are interested in. Forcing others to fit that mold is not obvious. Factoring out natural ability I am not sure whether early reading will lead to better later improved academic performance; although I can imagine that numeracy might. One day when I get a moment I might read further into this.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The bowling ball

There is an old episode of The Simpsons (probably from 17 years ago) where Homer struggles to find a birthday gift for Marge and buys her a bowling ball even though she doesn't bowl. I was reminded of this, this year when I opened my birthday present from my six year old son to find a DVD of Happy Feet. He was convinced that I loved the movie; although had he read this blog post he might have seen my love as more fleeting. I remarked that this is "my favourite movie that he likes."

He did much better for his mother's birthday earlier this year. He was convinced that she wanted something to use in cooking and that it had to be purple. Suffice it to say, she ended up with not one but two sets of salad tongs that were various shades of purple. Come to think of it, she did quite well on other things he found that she might like. They at least had the quality that it was not obvious that they were things he wanted. Let's face it, he doesn't eat salad.

I also received the usual hand-made cards from the children. My 8 year old's will be particularly memorable as she wrote "Dad, we will never forget you." It was a nice send off.

The sleep externality

New research finds what we all knew was there: a child's sleep habits and parental health are related. And not just mental health, physical health too; although that part is less convincing. That all motivated Sydney Spiesel to consider how to assist parents in helping children sleep better. His solution was to remove the subsidy to waking up:
My advice to parents in my practice is based on my sense that children wake in the middle of the night seeking the reward of the warmth and affection they have come to expect. In 25 years practicing as a pediatrician, I've found that mothers in particular are often as reluctant as children to give up the nighttime cuddle. It is, after all, a time of pure and intense pleasure with a child, free of worries about hurting someone else's feelings or the need to put breakfast on the table or to answer the phone. The problem, of course, is that eventually the early-hours pleasure makes mothers miserable in the morning. When you get to that point—and if your baby is at least 4 months old—it may be time to decrease the child's reward for waking so as to make it not worth the trouble.

I start by recommending that parents ignore fussing for at least five minutes every time a child wakes. Give the kids a chance to settle down on their own. (Though, contra Ferber, don't wait more than 10 minutes or they're likely to become so anxious that you'll never get them back to sleep.) If this step fails, go to the child but keep it very low-key and unrewarding. Talk as little as possible. Don't turn on the light. Don't look the child in the eye. Pick her up slightly awkwardly, so she's not sure you have a good grip. If it's a cold night, let her tush collect a few icicles. Above all, don't hug or kiss her or tell her how wonderful she is. Also, don't nurse or give formula. A bottle of plain water will reduce the return for waking (and encourage the development of a good pitching arm).

Not a bad strategy. We ended up doing something similar but with perhaps a harder line. But this gradual removal of the waking subsidy is not a bad place for some parents to start. The point is that in the end, if you want sleep, the subsidy has to be entirely removed.

Sometimes the problems persist beyond the toddler years. This hasn't (at least not yet) been an issue for us. Interestingly, the solution there appears to explicitly make the subsidy scarce.

Put children to bed with a card they can exchange for one "free pass" to leave the bedroom to get a drink or a parental hug. (Not on the list is permission to stay up later.) Once the child enjoys his free pass, he has to turn in it in for the night, and his parents must ignore all subsequent bids for attention.

Moore and Friman tracked 19 normally developing children between the ages of 3 and 6 who strongly resisted bedtime by crying, calling out, escaping from their bedrooms—as I like to think of it, the usual stuff. They divided the kids into two groups. About half of them got the "free pass." The parents of the children in the comparison group did nothing special.

Remarkably, to me at least, the free pass was quite successful. After just four days, the kids in the experimental group showed substantial improvement by crying and calling out less often, making fewer flight attempts, and quieting down much faster. Their parents reported that they were very satisfied with the results—only 7 percent said the strategy made them uncomfortable, and none thought that their child experienced discomfort. Follow-up studies after three months showed sustained gains.

Anyhow, there is some good basic economics to this. But you would have to keep strictly to the pass system. Relent and it will surely fall apart. It would be interesting to see how it worked for parents without researchers they had to report back to.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Leading questions

A conversation from today:
"Dad, what happens if something falls into the heat vent?"

"Why do you ask?"

"No reason. Just interested."

"Well, it depends on what it is."

"So if it is something bad, what might happen?"

"You mean the whole house explode or something?"


"Again, it depends. Is it likely to catch fire?"

"I don't think so but maybe."

"What was it?"

"Umm, it might have been a Lego."

"Do you mean one of the Star Wars legos?"


"Let me see."

"But is there going to be trouble?"


"What sort?"

"Like my anger if you have lost one of those legos."

Suffice it to say, the lego was lost and the house is still here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Living common sayings literally

This weekend we had more than a large dose of nit-picking in our household. We had to get down to the nitty gritty and go over everything with a fine tooth comb. It was a lousy situation and involved lots of activity that made us feel like nitwits.

Basically, we were at an event horizon where common sayings became literal. The previous paragraph was awash with 5 of these (can you pick them?), all referring to our war on lice, as they were originally intended. I noticed this connection as we dealt with the situation. It turns out it is no accident. From this authoritative site:
A number of common sayings actually refer to lice. Calling someone a "nitwit" is the same as saying they have the intelligence of a louse egg (nit). "Getting down to the nitty gritty" and "nit-picking" refer to the detailed work involved in removing nits. Describing someone as "lousy" implies that they have lice.
I can only suggest that, from our experience, these sayings deserve their common origin.

Now it is easy to blame someone -- in this case our 2 year old whose share of lice and lice eggs in our household was 99 percent -- and we did (!), but the problem for us is that it wasn't 100 percent. Her mother held the next highest position. That thought led to chaos because she was going to have to trust someone else -- namely, me -- to deal with that one. Head shaving was apparently a more viable option.

Now lice is one of those things that happen when children interact with other children. All the websites say it is just part of growing up and social interaction. Suffice it to say, it occurred to us more than once this weekend that social interaction was over-rated.

Lice can be treated within a day. It takes time and patience which, as you know, are in abundance in households with small children! You need first to kill the lice with some insecticide hair foam (two of us got that). Then you need to -- and this is the fine tooth comb bit -- carefully brush each hair individually -- applying liberal amounts of conditioner.

That led to conversations like this:
"Ow, you're pulling."

"I am just trying to get through these knots to the scalp. And if you would stop moving your head and look down that would help."

"But I can't see the TV."

"Well, I need to be able to see. Now just sit tight and behave yourself."

"I want to do something else. How much longer will it be?"

"It will be over when its over. Look we have to do this. Don't you want to go to work tomorrow? If I don't do it properly, we will be back here again. Do you really want that?"

"No, I guess not."
And what is true is that we have to do this again in a week's time just to be sure.

One good part of this is that we got to break out the kid's microscope. That proved surprisingly useful. For starters, lice and eggs can be small. This allowed us to identify them, their age, whether they hatched and whether they had not taken. The latter allowed us to rule out more aggressive treatment on one of us. It also meant we could date the treatment. I highly recommend your own lab work if you every encounter this. Turned the whole exercise into a scientific activity. And we needed it, this took most of the day but everyone is now clear.

Of course, all this made me wonder why there isn't some squad who can come in and take care of this for you. Let's face it, there are surely gains to be made from becoming expert here. I guess it probably has something to do with cross-contamination. But then again the same can be said of any medical service.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The right sign

So it happened this weekend -- as it does to all Australians at some point in their life (and perhaps elsewhere, who knows) -- the 6 year old noticed the sign to the left. He said "you know that When Wet sign." Yes "It's impossible. The tire marks can't go that way." Absolutely. Many of us have pondered that at some time in our lives.

I think when it comes down to it, it is not clear why the sign isn't like this.

Although, come to think of it, it isn't as dramatic. So the impossible catches attention whereas the possible doesn't.

Caves to be seen

This weekend I took the 8 year old and the 6 year old to the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. I can't believe I have never been there myself. It is simply wonderful and these days not given its due on 'must see' sites in Australia.

The caves are spectacular but very accessible (well apart from last 8kms of road which was a bit stressful -- but not seemingly dangerous -- with small cars being preferable). Formed out of limestone, as our guide said, "with theories plenty but no real scientific fact on their origins" there are many chambers; so much so that there are 10 tours you can take. The tours seemed pricey at $57 a family but where worth every cent. The tours were there, however, not so much for information -- although that was useful -- but for policing. Put simply, there are easy pathways through the caves and to let everyone just go would surely lead to ruin. So they are policed under the guise of a tour.

We went on the Chifley tour which took as through seven or eight chambers and after an hour we had traversed more than 400 stairs. Each chamber was more spectacular than the next.

The guide aspect is OK for children but the acoustics mean that no comment goes unnoticed. My 6 year old son let out the biggest yawn at the end of the very first lecture prompting some good humour from all, including the guide. Then at the end of the tour as we were guided to the final gate he let out a "Finally!" which went through at least three chambers. But despite these comments, this was a big hit of an activity.

We also learned some fun facts. For instance, one cave possessed an electric light that was installed one year after Edison invented the light globe. Getting it there was not an inconsiderable feat in the nineteenth century. But it just goes to show how speedy technology adoption can be if we really want it too.

We immediately moved on to the Nettle Cave. This was a 'self-guided' tour of one hour that you could take with an electronic audio guide. The children were having none of that. It was a more robust cave both outside and in and we traversed it and its 600 steps in a mere 25 minutes. Then again the 8 year old did whole The Louvre in Paris in 45 minutes when she was just 1. We like our sightseeing at a blur!

Anyhow, if you are one of our visitors to Australia -- especially those invited by me in the past -- and are wondering, why didn't you tell us about this before? Well, I didn't know. You will just have to come back.