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.