Thursday, March 29, 2007

Views on day-care

In Slate, Emily Brazelon looks at the evidence on day-care and its impact on various developmental outcomes. She concludes that it is OK unless it is of poor quality.

The more interesting questions is why these studies -- regardless of how well conducted -- always receive prominent news attention. My theory is that day-care is a divisive issue because parents have made choices in this regard and will always seek to justify them. Let me, however, first declare my biases and actions. First, on the actions. All three of our children have been in day-care from very young ages (ranging from 2 to 6 months depending on the child). They were in for three, four or more days a week as they grew older. Second, on my beliefs regarding the impact of day-care, my view is that it has been wonderful. They are more social, engaged and happy than they would have been had one of us stayed at home full time.

Now for my theory: your beliefs about how good or bad day-care is has a one to one correspondence with the decision you have taken. Now, on the one hand, so it should. One would expect nothing less than your decision has been based on your beliefs and so we should expect this. However, I also think that that causality can go back the other way. The fact that you have chosen one path or another shapes your beliefs.

The reason is this: either decision is actually quite hard on a day to day basis. If you stay at home, you have a constant struggle. To maintain your sanity and also justify forgoing career, etc., it really helps to believe in what you are doing at a moral level. If you leave your child at day-care, you have a different struggle. You miss your children and sometimes feel guilt about this. Again, to maintain your sanity, you justify this at a moral level. Staying at home would not be good for the child. You could not provide them with the same care, etc.

Thus, every day you choose one path over the other, you are investing in the moral righteousness of your decision. So when you encounter others who have made different choices, there is little common ground. Things get debated and offense is easily created. Not surprisingly, stratification and segmentation arises and the like hangs out with the like.

Which brings me to the media interest in the science or otherwise of day-care. One side or the other will consume a given piece of evidence voraciously and will dismiss the others. In either case, the science is a consumption rather than an information good.

Overwhelmingly, the science says there is little in the way of vast systematic differences in outcomes and that other things matter alot more. This means that the vast differences in day-care views are relating to other matters -- perhaps my theory of belief formation here. Chances are whatever you are doing in this choice is good for your child and what is more if others are doing something different that is no reflection on you. Time for a little common ground.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Walking with muppets

Well, actually, the farthest thing from muppets in the general puppet space; Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience. I took the 8 year old and the 6 year old to see the show this afternoon and, suffice it to say, these are the biggest, hulking, loudest puppets you are ever going to see. No wonder it had to be an arena spectacular.

I must admit that having watched the BBC TV show, I kinda knew how this was going to all turn out; so it was a little slow in places. The dinosaurs were also a bit slow moving for my part; being a child of Jurassic Park. It was also short on carnage. Basically, the dinosaurs themselves must be pretty darn expensive and also probably much more fragile than their real world inspiration. They would roar (or chirp) alot at each other rather than chow down. To be sure, a baby dinosaur was plucked live from its egg and later on some raptors feasted on a pre-killed dinosaur but I was left wondering how the carnivores survived for 165 million years.

The show stealer was the T-rex (both mother and child) and, for those of you who watched Jurassic Park and thought that it would have been a going proposition without carnivores, the crowd reaction I saw would be massive evidence to the contrary. But in the end, despite being accurately life size, they were smaller than my children imagined and so this all had a coming down to earth feel. They were also notably puppets and so there was no foolin' anyone. Nothing truely scary here. I believe the 2 year old would have enjoyed the experience to. Most kids will love it as mine did.

If you go to one of these shows, try and get seats closer to ground level. We were above the dinosaurs. I think looking up at them would have been the way to go. Also, if they could make these things more robust, it would be more fun to actually walk with the dinosaurs. The only person doing that was the narrator and I, for one, kept hoping one of the dinosaurs would grab him; just to liven things up.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Daylight saving and sleep

This weekend, although it was kept relatively secret for some reason, daylight saving time ended in most states in Australia and we started spending it again. We would do so until the daylight deficit grows to much and will in one sharp shock go back into surplus in October.

Regardless of whether it is the beginning or end of daylight saving time, that day and a week after, is generally good news for parents. We are no exception. The problem we face is that young children are particularly disrespectful of time standards. They are set in their old ways and many rise with the sun and also refuse to sleep until it has gone down. Now effective 'within room' light management can give you a measure of control but it is rarely perfect.

What this means is that, by the time the end of summer rolls around, your child is going to bed later than you want and it is also hard to get them up for school in the morning. So the end of daylight saving time is a blessing. For a good week, they will drop off nicely and also by easy to get up in the morning; in the Gans household that is something we value but I could see why others might not.

Of course, this can all go to far. By the springtime, we face the opposite problem. The sun is rising very early and with them the children. On the other hand, they are ratty by the end of the day. The start of daylight saving is also a blessing as it allows more sensible readjustment towards from what the angle of the Earth's axis is dictating.

As I thought about this some more I came to the realisation that when it comes these sorts of problems with children sleeping, society is to blame. After all, we should not face these issues. If a child is getting up at what society claims is '4:30am,' that is only an issue for you because you have a meeting at '8:30am.' If your meeting was at '6:30am' there would be no difference between a child waking up then or two hours later. It is the meeting that needs to adjust for the sleep patterns which after all are biological and therefore not our fault.

True freedom would allow one to keep their own time and have others adjust accordingly. Would it be so bad if we all followed a schedule based on sunrises and sunsets rather than on artificial time? Time shifting using DVRs and VCRs on TV schedules has already allowed us to achieve this in small measure.

Now before you think that I am some sort of freak against daylight saving, what I am arguing for is continual daylight saving and spending. Not radical hourly shocks twice a year but continuous readjustment. If we could sync all clocks over the Internet then we could achieve this. The time keeper (I think at the moment that is the Vice President of the US) would dictate what time it was with minor adjustments taking place every night. For everyone, we would just find out the time the usual way but looking at our Internet synced clocks and watches. No one would know the difference, we wouldn't have to remember to adjust our clocks, all the benefits from daylight saving would be realised (both energy saving and lives), and we would be at one with nature so parents did not have to hold out for the clocks to change. A truly responsive society would give us that much.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Chickens and eggs

Breakfast discussion this morning ...

Me: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

Child No.1: "The chicken."

Me: "But how was the chicken born? Didn't it have to come from an egg?"

Child No.1: "No."

Me: "Why not?"

Child No.1: "Because dinosaurs made the chicken."

Me: "But don't dinosaurs have eggs."

Child No.1: "They don't have chicken eggs, they have dinosaur eggs and those are buried in the ground."

I withdrew at that point. This debate has clearly been resolved.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The electronic babysitter

If I had a dollar for how many times I have heard the following story ...
"I thought we should get one of those portable LCD DVD players for the kids on the flight but my partner was dead against it. I ended up buying it anyway and suffice it to say, we both now agree it is the best purchase we ever made."
There are times when electronic babysitters appear to be a must have. Flights are a good example. When you are traveling with a little baby, things are relatively easy. The baby is contained and your only issue is noise disturbing others. When they get older, the chief fear is restlessness. Put simply, they have to sit in a chair for what for them is a record-breaking long time and any parent is fooling themselves that they can sustain entertainment for them for any flight of longer duration than an hour.

There are dark ages for kids on flights -- I'd say from about 1 to 6 or 7. After that age, they can entertain themselves with a Nintendo DS or a book. But prior to that you are left with the following options: (a) reading to them (max 20 minutes); (b) little drawing kits (max 15 minutes) and (c) eating (max 20 minutes but fraught with danger). Let's add that up: 55 minutes. If you are "lucky" you can get another 10 minutes with the in-flight nappy change -- including the five minutes while you and your spouse negotiate incredible long-term concessions to get the other to do it.

The DVD player can fill the void. Even if your child can only be occupied for half hour spurts; put these in between other activities and you can extend your range to three or four hours. Long than that and you will need drugs to induce sleep.

What is more, a DVD player for a child on a flight is a positive externality. It is great for passengers around you. Indeed, if you don't have a child and are worried about this, you might carry a DVD player just in case as an option for misguided parents.

A similar but localised issue arises with regard to mechanical swings. These are things you can put a baby into and they are rocked gently and otherwise amused. We got one of these for our third child and could not believe that we had not got one before. It frees your hands and saves your mind. For the baby that does not understand that you have things to do in their interest (washing, preparing food, going to the bathroom), this will convince them.

Like all things, there is a time and a place for an electronic babysitter. Blanket policies never using them are unlikely to be the way to go. But handing your child over to the machine when the costs of not doing so are high, seems like a no brainer. Certainly, not worth an extended debate on each and every one.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Kid logic

Last week, This American Life dealt with kid logic. This is where kids look at the evidence, use logic and draw incorrect conclusions. Their initial example was of one kid who told another that their father was the tooth fairy. Then for years that kid thought their friend's father was the tooth fairy and evidently, her parents played along by signing his name to notes when she left a tooth out. You can listen to the full episode here.

So we have one of these stories. It is to do with Child No.1, when she was four. It was then that she revealed to me that her mother controlled traffic lights. I found this out while we were stopped at a light waiting for it to turn green and I uttered some complaint. She told me that if Mum were hear she could change the light and we could go.

I enquired more as to why this was the case.

"Well, her car has a stick that if you move it down and press that pedal, the light turns green. Your car doesn't have that."

Ah ha. So what had been happening was this. Her mother -- who likes sports car feel and drive -- had a supped up VW Golf. When the light turned green she would whip into gear right away and off they would go.

To my daughter these events were virtually simultaneous. So she formed the view on causality that it was the stick shift that caused the light change rather than the other way around.

I asked her today whether she still believes this (at 8) but she doesn't. She does remember that she did once think so but has re-written her memory to suggest that this was claimed by her mother rather than some false hypothesis.

Update: here is a site that collects these things.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Re-living the 80s

The other week I picked up the first season of Mork & Mindy on DVD. I fondly remembered it from my childhood; especially the performance of Robin Williams. My hunch was that my 8 and 6 year old might enjoy it in a wholesome sort of way.

Well that turned out to be definitely true. They loved the humour. "Oh he keeps sitting on his head!" and of course, "Nanoo nanoo" which has become a new greeting around the home.

But what was more interesting was that they liked the storylines. When it comes down to it, they identify with Mork. He doesn't understand how the world works and is working it out as he goes along. Much of what he doesn't understand are things kids also have trouble with. How money works? Why people date? Why people lie?

Mork amusingly stumbles through this and eventually ends up with a little life lesson to Orson at the end of the day. It is hockey but right at their level. I can highly recommend it as family viewing all round.

The Cat in the Anniversary Hat

The Cat in the Hat was first published 50 years ago today (12th March, 1957). Here is the history and here is the celebration site. It remains one of the ten best selling children's books of all time.

For us it was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (the 1958 sequel) that remains the favourite. It was read to our first born so many times that, at the age of 3, she was able to convince parents of other children that she could read. She would sit there and go through all 40 pages without error. Surely, only a reader could do that! But no, she had heard it so many times that she knew it by heart. And so, of course, did we.

What this meant is that by Child No.3, that book hadn't come back out. I noticed the other day when I looked for it that it was the 40th Anniversary Edition. How time flies ...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A little lesson on eBay

Our kids have an exciting couple of days watching us try to procure a computer game on eBay. The game in question is the now 'out of print' Pikmin 2 for the Nintendo GameCube/Wii. You may recall from an earlier post that Pikmin itself became a household obsession for us over the summer holiday. The Thirty-Six year old finally finished it yesterday. But the Six year old had been using his new found 'finder' (i.e., Google) on the computer to discover that there was a Pikmin 2. He also believed that it could be purchased from Target. Sadly, this appeared to be in the US and so out of our reach.

A hunt for Pikmin 2 ensued with the Thirty-Six year old favouring a new version but discovering that one we found would cost $100. I suggested eBay as an alternative where Pikmin 2 seemed to be selling for about $50.

This seemed like a good opportunity for some learning about how auctions and bidding worked for the kids. There was a mild budget constraint (the price of the new one) so that was an issue. Nonetheless, the notion of eBay as an alternative to bricks and mortar stores was a novelty.

The first auction closing was from someone who had some red flags in reputation. So we avoided that. The second, however, looked good (here is the link for as long as it lasts). You will notice that we were the highest bidder (at $37) until about an hour before the auction closed. The Eight year old was still up and so we deliberated over whether to up our bid above $50. I didn't want to as there was another auction closing the next day. It seemed to me that we could go for that with one fewer bidders and surely do better. That was the economist speaking.

The Eight year old was concerned we wouldn't get that one. So I decided to make a deal. I told her that we could bid on that auction. If we won, then we would look at the price tomorrow's auction closed at. My daughter would agree to pay the difference. I pointed out that there might not be any difference or tomorrow' might close for more. However, she didn't want to take the risk of forking out her own money and was now happy to wait a day. That auction closed at $55.

So today was a day spent in constant refreshing of the auction page. We had to go out so we put in a maximum bid of $60. For most of the day we were the highest bidder (at $41). We got home with 10 minutes to spare and were still winning. My daughter refreshed the page every five seconds as the tension built. Then, one minute before the end, the price started to rise. Someone was bidding against us. 30 seconds before the end we were trumped. The next bid was $61.

At that point I did something I probably shouldn't have. I decided not to let it go. I put in a bid at $65 (not enough) and then $66 (it was). That last bid was at one second. We had sniped the sniper. (You can see the bid history here for as long as the link is open).

To say there was much rejoicing is an understatement. The Eight year old has her own blog (it is open to family and friends only) but here is what she wrote:
Yay We Won Pikmin 2 !!!!!!!!!!!!
Yesterday there was an auction on ebay, we didn't win, because Dad didn't want us to.
But today there was another one, it was soooo...... close, but we just won!!!!
Me, my younger brother, and my younger sister were so excited!!!!!! Well my younger sister wasn't really excited she just pretended to. [Because we were].
You will notice that there was a little re-writing of history there (you just can't trust those bloggers!) but the sense of the day is conveyed well.

Actually, the rejoicing did not include me. Had we gone for it yesterday we may well have been $10 better off. (It has hard to tell what some more competition would have pushed the price to). Suffice it to say, I should have got it for a little less today but didn't. Economic theory failed me this time around.

Now, of course, came the news they would have to wait some days for the item to be shipped from Tasmania. A clear disadvantage to eBay.

But this all brought the realisation that we could sell stuff on eBay and get money. The Eight year old, however, is currently reluctant to part with any of her stuff.