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.

The Tooth Rate of Exchange

I have written about Tooth Fairies and their economic role before. Today, comes a barometer of economic prosperity from DeCare Dental. They conduct a yearly survey of tooth fairy per tooth payments and apparently this year, it is down 15 percent. (Here is the a video of the news or here). Sadly, the data does not appear to be available on their site.

As I noted in my earlier post, there is an issue as to what a tooth ought to be worth and, in my opinion, it will be highly correlated with dental costs. The DeCare data might allow us to test that but that is something for another day.

The news provoked me into reporting our pricing policy. It is this: some proportion (perhaps 100 percent) of the change I happen to be carrying. On the very first tooth I saw through an issue: whatever we set this time might drive future payments. Moreover, they could only be inflationary. If I didn't have the correct change, I might be tempted to up the deal. We paid $1 for the first tooth and went on from there.

So on the second tooth, our daughter got less. On the third tooth she got more. In each case, it was explained that the tooth payment was set by the tooth fairy and there was no reason to expect that to be consistent.

The beauty of this is that every time some child looses a tooth we don't have to think. No worry about what the last payment was, what other children got, etc. And let me tell you, we need less of this type of thinking in our lives. We can just delve into our pockets and pull out an amount and go from there. This frees us of much of the mess associated with tooth financial management.

So I recommend a floating arrangement on tooth pricing as the 'customer' will come to expect it (something businesses often forget to take advantage of).

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Baby-sitting at the movies

In 2002, Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff wrote the following in Forbes:

* Baby-sitting at movie theaters--

If Ikea can make this idea work, why can't the local cineplex? For a fee parents could drop off their tots and go beeper-in-hand to that R-rated movie. The kids might watch videos in a day care room or, better yet, be chaperoned to watch a G-rated movie in the next theater.

Well, we have 'crying rooms and sessions' now but that doesn't really make the movie experience much better. But a chain Muvico in the US has gone the Ikea route. For $9 extra (a big saving on baby sitters) you can drop the kids in a playroom. They can play and you can go to the movies. Indeed, they will even show them movies. How much would you pay to not have to see Meet the Robinsons?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Leggo my lego

Over at Club Troppo, Don Arthur examines the controversy surrounding a Seattle school that banned Lego. Well, they didn't so much as ban Lego but put it aside for awhile while property rights rules could be established.

The teachers published an account of their decision in Rethinking Education:

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew — and space and raw materials became more precious — the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn’t play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. The other children didn’t complain much about this; when asked about Legos, they’d often comment vaguely that they just weren’t interested in playing with Legos anymore. As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how “cool pieces” would be distributed and protected. These negotiations gave rise to heated conflict and to insightful conversation.

It is worth a read. Legotown was accidentally destroyed and the older children refused to relinquish their ownership of the pieces. The teachers intervened and banned lego. They were worried about the power relationships and thought the children needed some education on authority, ownership and inequality.

Now the kids here were aged between 5 and 9. The teachers were worried that the older ones didn't appreciate the power they had over the others and the apparently arbitrary nature of all this. They turned the Lego experience into a later trading game stacked up against the older kids which, and this shouldn't be a shcok, the older kids didn't like one bit. It turns out they didn't like being arbitrarily put at the bottom of society. Funny that, they are like people that way.

Reading this well-meaning account and I wasn't there to appreciate the whole situation, so it is probably not appropriate to be judgmental, but were they out of their friggin minds? Let's be very clear about this. A group of 8 older children undertook an activity that involved the creation of an entire town out of Lego that took them two months to build. They were protective of it and excluded younger children who quite plausibly might have spent much of them time destroying the older kids' vision. You only have to observe this behaviour first hand for yourself to see it arise. It happens all of the time. It is an issue of control.

So quite understandably, when faced with the destruction they had tried so long to prevent, the older childrens' immediate reaction was to maintain control. They didn't see it as an opportunity to spread the wealth in a brave new world. They were mourning their lost creation and were not ready to move on. And the result of this; they lost everything and then were subjected to "lessons" in power and authority as the losers in society.

What disturbs me is that this was, as these things go, a very positive activity. There were eight kids who had formed a group to build Legotown. They had taken pride in it and had learned to work together and protect themselves from outside interference. Most of the time, one kids takes over and all is lost quickly. This activity sustained itself and was well above average for collective behaviour. The fact that it involved age segregation is just too bad. You can't have everything.

The teachers didn't see it that way and moved in a way that seems to the reader to punish the older children. Their explanations about what is going on are no less sophisticated than most adults on the topic. They hadn't devolved into Lord of the Flies or anything like it.

As I see it, the issue was not about Legotown; the children who built that owned it and that is surely fine. The issue was about the legos themselves. That was the scarce resource. If the older children were monopolising that, then that was the issue. The appropriate response would be surely to have rationed the lego and distributed that more fairly. If the older children wanted more lego, then they would have to do a deal with others. The idea that the thing they owned was gone if it was destroyed is surely too much. Would they have to give up their land if the house on it burned down? Was that the message?

Some commentators have been ridiculously vitriolic in their critique of these teachers. Yes they wrote up their account but then again they were just trying to work out how to teach children about fairness and society. It isn't easy to do this. What worries me is not their views about that -- in my experience, many teachers share that -- it is that they might have chosen the wrong moment to have the lesson and so it may not have been effectively. It is also not clear even from their account that the children didn't understand the forces at work. They saw the inequality based on something real -- age -- something they suffered at the other end of -- rather than something random and clearly stacked against them -- something that the trading game gave.

So I also don't agree that this tells us something of the appropriate values of capitalism or what have you. There is no real basis for this as a commentary on how we should organise society. This didn't really reflect that.

Instead, it tells us more about how children view and respond to ownership. In my experience, different individuals respond in different ways. Let me go to my own experience. My eldest, 8 year old, sees ownership as an 'option value.' She likes to own things just in case she needs them later on. So she will hoard and acquire anything. Nothing is immune to that and her room is a monument to that. The sheer waste in resources to me is distressing but that is just how she is.

My 6 six year old son, on the other hand, sees ownership as the ability to deny others access. He couldn't care less about owning stuff and won't try and take ownership from others. But give him ownership of something and he just loves it. He uses the toy and thing and takes care of it. It is exactly what we want ownership to mean.

The two extremes here represent what is right and wrong about ownership but not perhaps in the way you think. My son's view emphasises the caring and use role of ownership -- it encourage things to be used efficiently and appropriately. My daughter's view emphasises the accumulation and creating role of ownership -- it encourages things to be made and acquired in the first place. Society requires both to function efficiently. Just having one leads to inefficiency -- through either waste or forgone opportunity.

The kids at Hilltop employed both. They owned enough material to create and they excluded enough others to maintain what they were doing. If only more adults could work out that compromise as effectively.

Mr Me, Continued

Following up from my earlier post, I am now at the end of my spouse free week. You will be pleased to know that my daughter at last discovered a scientific way out of her brother's diet. This morning (a Saturday) I got up to find all three of them sitting at breakfast. The usual idea is that if they get themselves up, they can choose what they want to eat. Sadly, due to the constraints of my son's 'preservative free' diet, that didn't leave a lot of good options. However, apparently, there was one thing they all knew was preservative free, melting cooking chocolate pieces. And so they simply substituted for the usual cereal and had pieces, milk all in a bowl. My daughter also put in 'preservative full' chocolate into her bowl and her younger sisters to test whether their behaviour would get worse. Suffice it to say, it was going to be a heroic effort if no one's behaviour was worse! As it turned out, they were all pretty well behaved even during a trip to the supermarket which is just asking for trouble.

So with the science over, I am optimistic we can free ourselves of the dietary explanations for the fact that my son sometimes doesn't listen to us and go back to the usual age-related reasons; that is, he is six and suffers from an older sister who is on the extreme of listening. (Hmm, perhaps she is preservative deficient?)

On to other matters. One thing that interests me about times like this -- and this has happened every time -- is the reaction of others. Put simply, most people treat me as if my spouse had suddenly passed away. I get lots of:
"Oh I heard about that, how are you coping?" in a tone that suggests that the funeral was yesterday.

"Do the kids understand what has happened?" Yes, their Mummy has gone to a better place; a spa resort!

"What are you doing for food?" Well at the moment I have dangled the two year old outside as bait to see if we can catch something, it is what their mother would have wanted.
And so on. Fortunately, I expect her to be resurrected tomorrow. Something that will apparently surprise everyone.

Now when I have to go away (always for work by the way and not for fun), my wife doesn't get that same reaction. It is more like "oh that bastard, he's abandoned you and the children for fun and games." Basically, as if I had walked out and left everyone to fend for themselves. Then she gets lots of "you'll be better off without him anyway" and "it is not like he really did anything useful." She gets the sympathy reserved for deliberately abandoned as opposed to the tragically taken away in her prime that I receive. Anger versus sorrow. It is unclear that either is helpful.

When it comes down to it, the appropriate reaction is: "oh dear, there goes the division of labour." I'd like to think that that would have been Adam Smith's reaction to these things. The problem is that tasks have to be done and there is no time for any emotion. Now, most tasks just take more time. Then again, there is time freed up from dealing with each other, so that it is not all bad.

It is the tasks and routine activities that really require both of us that are an issue. Driving children around to various activities was the main thing. If they occur at the same time, you are stuffed. If they occur during someone's sleep time, you are stuffed. If they occur too late in the day, you are stuffed. If they occur during school pick up time, you are stuffed. If they require memory (we had a tooth loss this week and a tooth fairy that needed remembering to come), you are most likely stuffed. You just need two or more adults for certain things.

So I miss her very much; I could use the extra pair of hands.