Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Disney movie extravaganza

In the last week, we have watched three Disney movies: two new releases and one a year or so old. By coincidence, in Slate today, Emily Bazelon decides to rail against the inadequacy of ratings for kids movies. She was reacting to a non-Disney movie, Tales of Despereaux, and pointed to a ratings site -- Kids-In-Mind -- that I have written about before. Her point is that a G-rating doesn't necessarily give parents all the information they need and they need to look beyond to fully pre-screen a movie to see if kids will be OK. All true but I must admit the experience of the past week has led me to wonder if 'protection' is really enough.

I'll explain that in a minute but let me first review this week's offerings. First up was Bedtime Stories that we saw on Christmas Day (part of a family tradition of seeing movies that day). This is basically a fairly standard Adam Sandler comedy that happens to be a Disney-kids flick. By standard I mean, Adam Sandler is a flawed but life-losing character who then meets someone (kids + girl), engages in heartbreaking conflict, develops an understanding of the way the world works, blocks the even more flawed but more life-successful bad guys, and lives happily ever after, content with the simple life. By Disney-kids, add a seemingly magical run of coincidences that are related to kid's bedtime stories and some computer generated animation. All in all, the movie worked. It was as funny as any Adam Sandler comedy but also funny to the kids as well. My son, who is my barometer for kid-funny, cacked himself throughout the movie while my youngest daughter, my barometer for plot coherence, kept up her usual running commentary of understanding. The movie also used foreboding in a good way -- how will those stories play out in the real world. Not something you see everyday. As Sandler's character thought there was magic in the air, it was he who had to deal with the nexus between fiction and reality.

Let's jump a week to New Years Day, today, when I took the kids to see Bolt. Bolt is a dog-star who doesn't realise life isn't a movie and he doesn't have super-powers. So he is delusional but less so the Buzz Lightyear and what is more, when thrust into the real world, he realises it pretty quickly; certainly more so than Buzz but with a similar existential angst. Because we adults had seen delusion before the movie was no Toy Story but the opening sequence, in particular, left my son in hysterics (those bad guys were cleverly goofy) but my youngest daughter with her head buried in my chest so there was a mixed reaction there. But the movie sustained itself even if the 4 year old was a tad scared. Again, the primary issue was the main character dealing with real vs fiction and their role in life.

One night, we watched with our eldest two kids, Bridge to Terabithia. This movie is based on a book about friendship between two kids who are both isolated from others for various reasons but share an imagination and build an imaginary world, Terabithia, to escape in. They have no delusions between reality versus fiction but others want them to be more grounded in reality. That conflict is brought to a head by a shocking event (I'll spare you in case you haven't seen it but if you want to know Emily Bazelon discussed it all here). Suffice it to say, the movie is a downer but on a classic level on a higher plane than other movies. But it is a movie aimed at kids -- maybe between 8 and 14 -- and is useful preparation for life's issues. It also has its entertaining moments. However, you could hardly describe it as light.

So how would one sort out which movie to see? All three movies are rated PG or below and so are deemed safe for kids. According to Kids-In-Mind, each rates 3 or 4 out of ten for violence. As I worry about that characteristic for safety more than others, they are all within acceptable parameters. But Bridge to Terabithia is the one I would agonise over on protection grounds more than the others. Why? Because it actually has hard substantive content. It is the most real and therefore, the most emotionally wrenching. Amazing. We talk so much of getting our kids into real art and literature but when confronted with a piece that gets them there, we hesitate.

This suggests to me that protection should be one criteria but should not hold a veto on our decisions. I am confident that we will face moments where we are grateful our kids saw Terabithia in ways in which I won't care about the others. It is disturbing and so you need time to deal with it but with that time, there is a good investment to be had.

But beyond a meaningful message, this week highlights to me the problem with rating systems and most reviews. Kids-In-Mind is useful input on the protection -- or cost -- side of taking kids to movies. But there is the benefit side too. I hardly know any reviewers (although I guess I and parent bloggers are an exception) where the reviewers attended movies with kids. How can you possibly give a kids movie 2, 3 or 5 stars without having seen it with a kid? We want to know whether it actually held attention, what type of kids it might scare, whether the plot was comprehendable to a child and, most critically, whether kids actually laughed. I can go to all manner of crappy kids movies but if my son sits besides me laughing all the way through, I just don't care. It is worth taking him and worth paying for the extra adult ticket to sit next to him. For a proper screen, we need a child whose eyes and ears to see the movie through.


I read about Twitter all of the time as something that is worth doing and getting into. I signed up a few weeks ago and am not quite there on its usefulness -- I think it is scale issue. Anyhow, I managed today to put my twitter feed on this blog (you can see it in the sidebar). If you want to follow me on twitter, click here but I won't promise great insights or much volume.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Turbulent activities

You know I have always wondered how I might react when flying with kids and the plane hit serious turbulence. Well today on a Qantas flight from Melbourne to Sydney I got a chance to find out.

It appears we hit an unexpected storm. Why it was unexpected I do not know. But we were buffeted during the morning tea service. The plane appeared to be blasted and went into what I swear was a downward dive. It was more than enough to send everyone back to seats except people on the bathroom who were told (and I am not making this up) to stay put and hang on. I guess the theory was if they had to go they might as well have convenience.

Anyhow the kids started to look concerned and I wondered what to do to take their minds off it all. Then I remembered a scene from Madagascar 2 last week. When the plane was crashing in that movie the lemurs put their hand in the air and said "it is more fun if you do it like this." So I did the same and the kids joined in.

Suffice it to say there were more dips to come and each one the kids treated like a roller coaster. It was both surreal and amusing at the same time. It also got us some strange looks from the other passengers. I guess though it was a distraction to them.

Now as I am writing this you have probably guessed we survived the experience although I did wonder what it would be like to update my Facebook status while all this was happening. Then again turning on my phone during a crisis is probably not a good idea. The flight staff seemed pretty freaked out when we saw them again so I guess they were pretty occupied during it all.

Alas the kids were quite sick by the end of it and had their paper bags at the ready during the landing and afterwards. There is only so much you can do in this situation but pretending it is a roller coaster will at least take the edge off.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not your Grandma's auction

From The Daily Telegraph: [HT: MR]

THE family fracas over who gets the best seat in the house this Christmas have finally been put an end, thanks to an enterprising nanna and a heavily contested online auction.

After years of petty arguments over who gets the prime position in front of the television, West Yorkshire grandmother Bev Stewart was so sick of the Boxing Day sibling squabbles and infighting among her 25 family members, that she auctioned the front-row seat on eBay.

She claimed on the ebay advert that the prime position in her Stockbridge home was “a very comfy and popular item” before opening the auction to all members of her fractious family.

Nanna Stewart gained a little solace from the usual musical chairs arguments last year because she “had a heavily pregnant daughter and daughter-in-law who both gave birth in January, so they got the seat most of the time.”

However, this year the coveted couch has been up for grabs – and much of the family has been bickering over who will take centre stage.

Making the already valuable piece of lounge room real estate even more attractive for the big auction, Nanna Stewart said she would even throw in a few cushions to the winner bidder.

Nanna Stewart’s daughter-in-law Alexis won the auction with her £13.50, outbidding the 17 other family rivals. Alexis is likely to share the coveted couch with her 11-month-old son Mark for the whole day the Boxing Day.

Nanna Stewart said: "There is always arguing over who gets it, it's the perfect seat. It is straight in front of the TV and has got the coffee table at the side for you to rest your drink on and the TV remote, so everybody wants to sit there.”

Brilliant. I will have to try this at home. That said, eBay seems like overkill. Surely, a quick auction while the TV remained off would do. Also, one wonders whether this price might be enough for Nanna to consider reconfiguring her lounge room to earn more revenue.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Holiday cross-over

Lemony Snicket's, The Latke who couldn't stop streaming: A Christmas Story is one of the best cross-over holiday books ever. Actually, it is the best. Lemony Snicket's writing is 'read-out-load' friendly even the big words. I learnt a new one "arrondissement" but you will have to read the book to find out what it means.

The story is about a latke (which here means potato pancake) who, thanks to having been boiled in oil (symbolic or otherwise), runs around the neighbourhood screaming at Christmas decorations looking for the source of its existential angst. Children really get into the story but it also hits upon every single inadequacy that is part of the whole Hanukah thing. It was hilarious but also a great story at the same time. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Why Madagascar?

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a great movie but you really need to have seen the original. For starters, less than 60 seconds of the movie takes place in Madagascar although admittedly, it is a crucial plot piece. But the character development all took place in Madagascar and this movie is just gravy.

As everyone knows, this franchise's appeal rests with the minor characters -- mainly penguins and lemurs, although the moneys do feature. The major characters are there to keep a main plot-line going so we can enjoy the antics of the minor ones. And they do not disappoint in this movie. The penguins are as efficient as ever while the lemurs carry with them the untamed masses. No one is looking at their watch during this movie.

So I would rate it highly this holidays on the "volunteer to take your kids' friends to the movies so that they have to reciprocate by taking them to something less adult friendly." Get there first now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A fable?

From Tim Harford responding to the question of how to explain the credit crunch to a 5 year old:

Once upon a time, there was a blameless girl called Consumerella, who didn’t have enough money to buy all the lovely things she wanted. She went to her Fairy Godmother, who called a man called Rumpelstiltskin who lived on Wall Street and claimed to be able to spin straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskin sent the Fairy Godmother the recipe for this magic spell. It was written in tiny, tiny writing, so she did not read it but hoped the Sorcerers’ Exchange Commission had checked it.

The Fairy Godmother carried away armfuls of glistening straw-derivative at a bargain price. Emboldened by the deal, she lent Consumerella – who had a big party to go to – 125 per cent of the money she needed. Consumerella bought a bling-bedizened gown, a palace and a Mercedes – and spent the rest on champagne. The first payment was due at midnight.

At midnight, Consumerella missed the first payment on her loan. (The result of overindulgence, although some blamed the pronouncements of the Toastmaster, a man called Peston.) Consumerella’s credit rating turned into a pumpkin and Rumpelstiltskin’s spell was broken. He and the Fairy Godmother discovered that their vaults were not full of gold, but ordinary straw.

All seemed lost until Santa Claus and his helpers, men with implausible fairy-tale names such as Darling and Bernanke, began handing out presents. It was only in January that Consumerella’s credit card statement arrived and she discovered that Santa Claus had paid for the gifts by taking out a loan in her name. They all lived miserably ever after. The End.

I think he has glossed it over!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Educational value

A group of students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University have done a game theory project looking at the Parent's Dilemma in punishing children. Their analysis is available here. It is very insightful and interesting. I expect that got a high grade. What is good about it is that it does not presume that all parents are alike and demonstrates that some parents will have to favour different strategies depending on how much they hate (or I guess like me, enjoy) implementing punishments.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Podcast on Parentonomics

I did an interview on BNet Australia about Parentonomics. You can download the podcast here or alternatively can listen to it online here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breakfast blues

Breakfast is a time-sensitive experience in our house as we try to get out by an early time. I missed the breakfast shift this morning but received the following email indicating that incentives had gone array:
The children were mucking about this morning during breakfast, singing to each other and chatting. I eventually told them that the only sound I want to hear is that of spoon against bowl and chewing. So you know what your daughter did? Started banging her spoon against her bowl and making exaggerated smacking noises with her mouth!
Emphasis, I believe, on the 'your.'

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Overcoming copyright

My son's 8th birthday party is coming up soon. What we usually do cake-wise is an ice cream cake using a technology that puts an image on edible rice paper as the cake's decoration. Previously, we have had photos of the kids but also images of their favourite things. However, the company that supplies these has wised up and realised that images grabbed from the web might be copy-protected and so we can't use them any more.

My son wanted a Ben-10 theme on his cake. Given copyright, this was not possible. He immediately realised that he could have what he wanted by doing it himself. The image to the left is what he came up with. It is a picture of an iPod touch where he has drawn his own Ben-10 picture.

I am sure some lawyer is going to comment that there might still be an issue here but I was thrilled with his ingenuity.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Take a hike!

This story got lots of publicity this week in Australia.
A NORTHERN TERRITORY man has been making his five-year-old son walk two-and-a-half hours to school every day, after he was kicked off the school bus.

When Jack Burt confessed that he'd been banned for five days for hitting the bus driver in the head with an apple core, dad Sam thought he should learn the hard way. He and Jack last week were getting up at 5.10am for the dusty 13km-hike from the Darwin rural area of Herbert, all the way to Humpty Doo.

Mr Burt also took the wheels off Jack's bike so he couldn't be tempted to ride to school.
While it is dangerous to pick up stories like this from the press, if we take it at face value, I gotta admire the nature of the punishment. It identifies the reason why bus travel is valuable and makes the child think about that for days. That said, while, in theory, that all looked good, the result wasn't too great:
But in the battle of wills between tall and short, the smart money's on Jack.

"Shame it didn't work," Mr Burt told the Northern Territory News.

"He got back on the bus Monday, and within three stops he was in trouble again. I couldn't believe it.

"I don't understand - he's good at school, he gets awards all the time."

However, a breakthrough might be in sight.

When Jack this week said he didn't mind walking - because it made him strong for fighting - he was told if he started fighting he might have to walk home in the afternoons too.

Jack's eyes got a little teary. He said he might not get home before dark.

Mr Burt told him not to worry - they'd leave the key out for him.
Jack is impressive for a 5 year old. This is an interesting contest.

Somehow I think they will work this out, eventually. Also, because it got all of this coverage, the message was sent to others about just what might happen if you didn't behave on the school bus.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clean Water

Here is something that might interest US readers out there. Virgin Money is donating money to Project Clean Water just for visiting their website. Cheap charity to get the kids clicking. For me, just by posting this here they donate another $50 -- so being cheap I figured why not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

More iPhone apps for parents

I have posted before on iPhone apps for parents. There are some newcomers that seem interesting [HT: TAUW].

This one is a baby monitor. Put your iPhone in the same room as your baby and it calls you when the baby cries. If you want to be irresponsible, you could even leave the house and go down the street. It is less than $1.

Another one allows nappy behaviour data collection if you are in to that sort of thing.

Then there is JirboMatch which is a simple matching game. My 4 year old loves this.

Here is a link to many others.

Are rewards good?

One of the big push-backs I get on some of the stuff in Parentonomics is the idea of rewarding kids for good behaviour. A set of objections are to materialistic stuff. One psychologist argued that it is better to reward kids with hugs and love than special treats or toys. I presume that he also means that we should withhold hugs and love if they don't behave. That implication sounds cruel to me but I am no psychologist.

Following up from the post the other day on paying kids for good behaviour, another psychologist appears to be disputing the whole idea of rewards and punishments, regardless of their form. Alfie Kohn writes:
Rewards and punishments are not opposites; they are two sides of the same coin and that coin doesn’t buy very much. The one thing you can get by dangling a goody in front of children if they do what you want is the same thing you can get by threatening to make them suffer if they don’t do what you want. What you get is temporary compliance, but it comes at a very steep cost.
Basically, he argues that you stuff things up for the long term by using rewards in the short-term. This strikes me as somewhat extreme although I have to agree that the goal isn't to rely on these things forever.

Apparently, the alternative is just to talk about it. But his prime example is this:

In “Unconditional Parenting,” I give an example about when my daughter, Abigail, was in preschool. It took her forever to get ready in the morning. I was nagging her, and I didn’t like that and she didn’t like that. My response wasn’t to threaten her with a consequence, nor did I offer her a reward for speeding up. I’m not house-training a puppy; I’m raising a child.

Instead I waited until we were both in good moods and not in the middle of rushing to get somewhere and I invited her to imitate what I sound like in the morning when I am nagging her to get ready. She turned out to be a devastatingly gifted impersonator. Then I asked her what she saw as the reason for the problem every morning and what she thought might be the solution. She said, “I take a lot of time getting dressed so maybe I should just wear my clothes to bed.” She did exactly that for several years.

Hold on a minute. She went to bed in clothes rather than avoid, I'm guessing a discussion. How is that a solution? That is precisely the sort of behaviour that clear and explicit rewards and punishments might get as an unintended consequence. My eldest daughter similarly had an issue of getting ready quickly. We gave her a reward for timely dressing and she, in fact, proposed sleeping in her clothes. We said no. The point is to get dressed quickly. Not to get dressed slowly the night before.

As usual all this depends on the child. If talking works, then good for you. But if not, then there are more tools in parent's arsenal.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting cooperation

From the NYC Mom's Blog: [HT: NYT's Motherlode] in reaction to her kids' constant bickering:
The next day I decided to try a new tactic. I told them that whichever one of them bugged me the least all day, didn't tattle and didn't bother the other one, would get fifty cents. But, if neither one of them bugged me or fought or tattled on each other, they would each get a dollar. I explained how they would have to work together to not bug each other, and to mediate disagreements by themselves. What followed was the most peaceful day I can remember in a long time! There was zero bickering, none! They each got their dollar and I told them the same deal would be on for the next day. And the next. And the next. Principles, schminciples. $14 a week is a cheap price to pay for peace and quiet.
Basically, this is the Prisoners' Dilemma in reverse; also known as the "moral hazard in teams" problem. The idea is that to get a team (in this case children) to do something, you reward the team. Of course, what is interesting is that as well as the collective bonus, there was a fall-back. The fall-back is the hard one to monitor but thanks to the broader incentive she didn't seem to get there.

The alternative to this is 'joint punishment.'

Home movies

David Pogue today wonders why we spend so much time keeping home movies.

But one e-mail response stopped me cold:

“What makes you think you’ll have any grandchildren with the time and inclination to sit through more than a few minutes of your home videos?

“The movies an uncle shot of me and my siblings a few decades ago were projected for about 30 minutes a decade ago, and have not been looked at again by anybody.

“Home movies require a captive audience, for long periods. How many hours could you bestow on your children right now? How many hours would you expect them to sit still for them? And unlike photographs, home movies can’t really be dipped into, flipped through.

“I’m not against home movies. I just question whether the people amassing them at great length have much idea of what they require of the people in them, or who inherit them.

Good point. For years I spent time collecting our movies and putting them on to DVD. Now they just stay uncatalogued on the computer.

Pogue lists lots of reasons for this behaviour but he misses one that for us has proved important: benchmarking. Whenever we want to understand the behaviour or milestones of one of our younger children, we go to the video of the older one at the same age. Then we can work out if they are behind or ahead. Of course, from that perspective, one might ask: "then what?" The answer: then nothing. But at least we have answered the question: "why keep the movies?"

Interestingly, it turns out that we often find out just how similar our three kids are. In particular, their voices at the same age are virtually identical. Accent, expression, everything. I guess that might change as they grow but if we close our eyes it would be hard to tell which child was speaking.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The coveted "meets expectations" criteria

I am not sure if it works this way in other academic institutions but at mine we have an annual performance review whereby we are assigned subjective statements that we either are below, exceed or meet expectations on various criteria. The system has settled down to a situation where 80-90 percent of faculty get "meets expectations" on any given criterion. Suffice to say, no one is really sure quite what their expectations are and, for the most part, don't really seem to worry about it.

Apparently, the issue happens in parenting. In this case, however, it is parents constantly expecting things of their children and then evaluating whether their children meet those expectations. Suffice it to say, there are lots of below expectations reviews coming in. In Slate, Alan Kazdin says that this is likely the fault of the expectations rather than the children.
Because parents love their children and want the best for them, they worry about them a lot, and one of the things that parents worry about most is whether their children are hitting age-appropriate targets for behavior. Shouldn't a child be toilet trained by the age of 4? Should a 10-year-old to be able to sit down and do an hour of homework? One reason why such questions produce so much conflict and woe in the home is that parents' expectations for their children's behavior tend to be too high. I'm not talking about permissiveness or strictness here; I'm talking about accurately estimating children's actual abilities. A reliable body of research shows that we expect our children to do things they're not yet able to do and that we judge and punish them according to that expectation.
This resonates with me precisely because we fell into this whole trap. Child No.1 was subject to issues associated with high expectations. We didn't know what to expect at various ages and so we decided to expect everything. Sadly, for Child No.1, on many initial stuff she meet those expectations, causing us to continue that pattern.

All this wasn't helped by the fact that when we looked at parenting books that had 'milestones' she appeared to be exceeding those. Being an economist, I decided that those books were likely wrong and that they were, on purpose, downgrading milestones to sell more books. I imagined parents browsing in the bookstore and saying, "look honey, according to this one our 3 month old has the gross motor skills of a 6 month old. Let's buy this one." Any respectable publisher looking to maximise sales would surely go for the low threshold milestones.

So, as I said, Child No.1 did quite well but much of that was also due to our selective milestoning. According to one of those books, at 8 months, "your child should be able to do pat-a-cake." I was concerned, I didn't think she could do pat-a-cake. We discussed it and worked out that this was likely because we didn't know how to do pat-a-cake. So we ignored that one.

But it was on reading that all of this caused us problems. Child No.1 learned her letters quickly and could draw them on command at Age 2. So we expected that reading was just around the corner. But that wasn't to be. She learned to read around ages 5 and 6 when most kids do. The problem is that caused us years of angst until at age 4 we decided we were the problem and abandoned all reading efforts. Turns out that wasn't such a good idea either and we should have been doing something. Then again, what we really found out is that we knew nothing and even if we did, it wouldn't have done much.

With Children Nos.2 and 3, we gave up all expectations. This has helped immensely. When it comes down to it, most kids do eventually do whatever it is they are supposed to. And if they don't some authority/teacher figure will tell you. That said, that I expect my near 8 year old son might someday actually get his wee into the toilet at something close to 100 percent efficiency rather than his current 70 percent is surely not that much to ask. And when he misses that he might do something about it rather than leave a puddle and smell is surely within the coveted "meets expectations" level? I guess I need to tie his pay to extra-toilet wee levels if those could be measured.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

No you can't

Conversation in our house this evening after watching Obama's speech:
"Dad, can we play Guitar Hero?"


"But Barak Obama says 'yes we can.' And he's the President."

"Still no."
Next they are going to want a puppy.

Obama's parenting style

From the victory speech:
Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House.
An incentive scheme straight out of Parentonomics. Now what is he going to promise them for 4 more years of good behaviour?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Politics and candy

Yale's Dean Karlin and a group of his students have taken Halloween activities to a whole new level. They decided to see how strong children's political allegiances were by having them choose between getting their candy from an Obama or a McCain stand-up. Here are their results (impressive given the day two turn-around) and here is Emily Bazelon's take in Slate (her children were subjects in the experiment). Apparently, Obama supporters are more likely to take candy hidden in a brown bag than McCain ones but not so much more if they have to switch tables. I wonder whether their candy demand would have been so inelastic had it not been in the midst of such a candy rich environment?

It is hard to tell if this had as much to do with politics or even parental politics than the measure of image as close to Disney ideal -- of which I am pretty sure Obama comes up trumps. In our household, Child No.1 is definitely for Obama but I am pretty sure that she would have gone for the extra candy from McCain.

Also, in the spirit of "you let our kid watch what?" our eldest two have been watching The Colbert Report with me. Despite its M rating it is very family friendly. What has surprised me is that they seem to get it. It took them some time, and I must admit I let it run without commentary or explanation, but they worked out that his extreme support for McCain and Palin was a put on. They seem to laugh at the appropriate bits. This is without any of the background in terms of history and media bias that really underpins the show. They find him funny and are just happy to watch. I guess they are so TV deprived that they will watch anything.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Economics education on the iPhone

Just released for the iPhone is Lemonade Stand. It is $0.99 (click here). It is the best economics teaching tool for school aged kids. Basically you run a Lemonade Stand. This involves looking at the weather, setting price, choosing quantity and also your level of advertising. To make a profit you need to get close to the demand curve in these choices and pay attention to costs.

Child No.1 is, not surprisingly, playing it intensively. Indeed, I think she is outplaying me in terms of earnings. Then again she cares about virtual money much more than I do.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What possessed us?

There is some collective wisdom in parenting. You know, there are some things you might choose to do that everyone who has had any experience in doing it will advise against it. Or at the very least they will give you a frank and brutal description of the costs. And the precision of their estimate is very high indeed.

One such activity is when your 9 year old daughter asks for her birthday party to be a slumber party. This is when your daughter and say 4 of her friends stay the night and engage in what can safely be termed, 'all night partying.' The collective wisdom suggests that this will be a shock to your household that could involve weeks, months or years of recovery. And you take that into account when you agree to said party. I guess there is something going on in your mind saying, "well, I had better see this for myself. That way I will have a story to tell."

But there is no story to tell. Others have told it time and time again. The misnomer of the term, 'slumber,' the predictable results from continual hours of eating sugar, the screams or worse, the actual conversation. We had got through a basketball game, a chocolate eating game (which involves throwing dice, changing clothes and taking turns in stabbing a 500g block of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate to death), a drawing game, an ice cream eating contest (necessitating another change of clothes), dinner out at a Chinese restaurant and a treasure hunt (that had previously involved months of planning and treasure in the form of sugar to fuel the festivities for the rest of the night). I looked at my watch after that and remarked "only 14 and a half hours to go!" All exactly the same story, regardless of era or locality.

Our, now 10 year old, daughter had engaged in an extreme amount of planning for this event. Every minute was accounted for. I couldn't see how she would get through it. But she did and what is more, all of her friends went along with it. She had even scheduled the times her younger brother would spend annoying or playing pranks on them. He had agreed to that schedule as it all made some sort of sense to him. And he kept to it and they had, much to my surprised actually been annoyed by it!

We had one activity that was claimed to have parental approval, that we did have to put a stop on in the middle of the night. We heard a giggling mob converge up the stairs before said younger brother's bedroom armed with an array of cosmetics products. The plan was to give him a make over during his sleep. We deferred that activity until the morning whereby they bribed him to sit still by giving him a portion of their remaining sugar supply. The result was apparently so bad that he volunteered to have them take a picture of his bare butt rather than his face. It now sits in iPhoto as a precious memory of the occasion.

It was one night but I feel as if it has taken some months off my life expectancy. And so I write this post not to you folk reading it as a word of caution. That word is already out. No I write it so I can read it before we agree to any more of these things. I am not sure that will work but it is worth a shot.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Down Under

When I was growing up we didn't have Halloween. We knew it existed (it was integral to the plots of both ET and It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown). But it was seen as an American thing, which it was.

That seems to have changed but only partially. On October 31st, packs of children roam the neighbourhood in search of Halloween. This started a few years back. I remember that some children came to our house asking for treats. We searched around and found some chocolate and gave it to them. Child No.1, who was probably 3 at the time, watched this with great interest.

"Why did we give them our chocolate?"

"I think it is Halloween. If children dress up and ask for chocolate, we have to give it to them."

"I'm going to dress up. Then can I have some."

"No you have to go other peoples' houses."

"Can we go?"

"No, we don't celebrate Halloween."

This, of course, was not an entirely satisfying conversation for her and for what must have been a year she quizzed us about it all. When it came down to it, we had an excellent reason for not wanting to do Halloween. Given how few people knew about it, it seemed like we would go around the neighbourhood begging for food. That wasn't a good look. Halloween just didn't have the scale. So we resisted for years.

But the crowds of children have grown and somehow it doesn't seem quite as strange any more. We let Child No.1 wander around dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow today (with a friend) and she seemed to do quite well. The other kids were left to handle the distribution of our own treats.

What was interesting is that a market for information seemed to evolve amongst the packs of kids. Just as a pack had scored something from us, I could see them engage other packs in an exchange of information -- usually with pointing -- of which houses seemed to understand the deal and which did not. I had to instruct the kids to quickly distribute stuff and get back inside so that we didn't draw too much attention to ourselves. We were in danger of running out.

The other thing I did to ration supply was insist that the kids were actually dressed up. Some were just coming by with a bag and a smile. That didn't cut it. Others were in their school uniform. That definitely didn't cut it. So the loot was distributed according to not only whether someone was dressed up but also the quality of it all. And if they didn't want to hear a lecture on incentives, then they could go without as far as I was concerned. Let's face it, with only one kid -- albeit an entrepreneurial one -- in the field, we were running a household deficit on treats.

Halloween, as a real social event, requires pretty much close to 100 percent neighbourhood buy-in. I think we are running at about 30 percent at the moment and at the slow rate of growth our kids will be long gone before it becomes something serious.

[Update: Some economics Halloween links]

Monday, October 27, 2008

Children's book titles that are hard to publish

An example:

10. The Little Sissy Who Snitched

11. Some Kittens Can Fly

12. That's It, I'm Putting You Up For Adoption

13. Grandpa Gets a Casket

14. The Magic World Inside the Abandoned Refrigerator

For more, click here. [HT: Orson Scott Card]

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Spore Report

The full computer game, Spore, was released back in September. But for various reasons, we have taken awhile to get to playing it. Well, when I say, we, I mean my 7 year old son. Back in June, I reported on how joyful he had found the Spore Creature Creator. He made more than 100 in all. Now, with the full game, he got a chance to try his creatures out.

I am not sure EA Games realised it when they developed this game but what they appear to have done is to delve into the mind of my son and designed a game uniquely defined to maximise his happiness. Indeed, it only lacks one thing -- it is shackled to a computer and therefore comes under the rubric of 'parental permission to play' required.

The game starts with you as a single celled life form. You need to eat enough to grow and you need to avoid predators. As you do this you get to evolve into more complex and larger lifeforms. Along the way, you get to choose how you evolve -- eating meat, devoting your body to attacking things (like claws) or defensive ones (like armour). It is those design stages that delighted my son who could employ his full creative talents as the game progressed.

At one of these stages you get to procreate with others of your species (that somehow appear despite the obvious fact that you designed the first one). Anyhow that is just as well because you need at least one of those, after that, to be around so you can procreate and evolve. This is dangerous and I would often hear, "oh dear that big fish ate my child." It is a harsh lesson in life.

Eventually, you evolve enough to make your way, with much fanfare, on to land. That is when things really take off. You initially have a nest. I would then hear, "where's my wife? I want to have children. Oh there she is. I'll call her." At that point, there is an exchange of love hearts and some happy dancing, after which, the 'wife' goes to the nest and lays an egg. This offers another opportunity for some evolutionary design changes. Watching this another adult remarked, "did he just call her to do what I think he did?" "Yep," I'd reply. "And you are fine with that?" "Sure." "Ookay," as they walked slowly away so as not to startle the crazy people. In my mind, it seemed to be a fairly sanitised educational experience.

The game continues on with less evolution and more technological change. Then you get to design temples, halls, houses and various kinds of military equipment. You need that so you can either impress or conquer other nations/species. My son did not spend his life in military pursuits and preferred doing dances to win others over. He is that kind of kid. But one time I saw that he was being attacked by a particularly aggressive tribe. I suggested as night was falling that he immediately fight back and wipe them off the face of the planet. He gathered his mob with flaming torches and went over to the other tribe's village. Weakened from their own unsuccessful attack on him, as his mob came over the hill, they literally fled it terror. This was one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a computer game. And we laughed and laughed as his mob burnt that village to the ground. Good times. Good times.

As of now he has a full fledged civilisation and engaged in a combination of religious subjugation and World War. I think if he gets through that he will take to space and move on to other worlds.

All in all, this game is a great combination of creativity, problem solving, social learning and comedic fun. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's all in their mind

A conversation with my 9 year old daughter:

(Me) "Oh no, there is a scratch on the car."

(C1) "It is just a little scratch. What is the big deal?"

(Me) "Well, scratches like that mean that when we come to sell the car it will be worth less."

(C1) "Why should it be worth less, it is just a little scratch?"

(Me) "True but people prefer cars that are scratch free so it can reduce value by more than you think."

(C1) "In that case, couldn't it be that no one actually cares about the scratch itself. They just think the next buyer will be."

(Me) "It is possible."

(C1) "And that means that they all decide the car is worth less even though no one really cares."

(Me) "I guess it is conceivable."

(C1) "People need to get a grip."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amazon: Pre-Order Parentonomics

I know that this is well ahead of time (it comes out in April, 2009), but I am happy to announce that Parentonomics with its new subtitle "An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting" is now available for pre-order from It is a hard cover version but this is also an opportunity to signal a desire to read it on Kindle and get things moving there.

You can also pre-order it from Amazon (UK) and direct from the publisher, MIT Press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Comic strip

I was just pointed to this relatively new comic strip called "Cul de Sac."

It is highly recommended. Here is a good example.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Incentives for letters

Last week, the magazines associated with two of the major Sunday papers published an extract from Parentonomics on toileting training. Just enough was published to provided an unbalanced view of my crazy economic ways.

This week that appears to have provoked 70 percent of the letters in the magazine responding to the article. Most were, not surprisingly, dead against using incentives for toilet training. One reader said that children are intrinsically motivated and "another step towards maturity -- celebrated by their loved ones -- is the greatest reward." Well, I for one am happy to celebrate steps towards maturity but sadly if that was their greatest reward then not many steps are actually taking place.

Another lamented reducing toilet-training to "a cold economic transaction" and missing out on the "opportunity to witness your child's ability to learn and evolve." Again, we tried to savour that opportunity but found that that ability was non-existent.

Then there was the reader who said that: "One would hope that Joshua Gans has the intelligence to realise that an ecalation from jelly beans to chocolate frogs at age two turns into a phone at age 10, a new car at 16 and a Ferrari at 21." Well I guess I didn't and I had better start saving for that Ferrari lest I have to change a 21 year old's nappies.

But the award for letter of the week had four children and employed "incentive contracts." He found, like we did, that incentives sometimes went array with older children (who received treats) trying to encourage the younger one to go whenever they wanted sugar and some reversion as their children drove a hard bargain when the rewards were scaled down.

Interestingly, that writer received -- and I am not making this up -- a touch-screen mobile phone (valued at $699) for his efforts as the best letter writer. Well done. I guess for everyone else writing their letter was its own reward so everyone went away happy.

The right video camera

It seems that the modern family commits much of its activities to video. Of course, the degree to which this occurs depends entirely on the camera. What we did first is research all of the options and then got convinced by the sales person that we needed one with features; you know, like making it an old-style grainy feel should the mood take us.

After a few years, we had a bunch of tapes (as they were called in those days) and had watched none of them. It was then that I embarked on a three month project of moving those tapes to DVD using the Mac's iMovie and iDVD which had just come out. This involved careful identification of scenes, dates and accompanying music as well as some artistic work on the DVD menu. This led to a bunch of DVDs covering most of the time period up until that point -- well, except for 3 months where I was too busy working on the DVDs to actually video the kids.

Now we do look back at the DVDs but doing that became a chore a couple of years ago. At the same time, Apple upgraded iMovie to a version that didn't work well with iDVD but did work well with a hard disk camera that we purchased. So we ended up importing lots of video to the computer, not editing them, not cataloging anything and not really watching anything. What was more, the whole exercise of having a video camera when you needed it was a big problem with bigger kids.

But at long last I think I have found the perfect compromise. It is the featureless Flip Video Camera. This is a little device that you can put in you pocket and literally whip out whenever you need it. It takes one hour of footage (which is more than enough) at a good (but not great) quality. You then plug it straight into the computer (with no additional cables!), it charges and you can download the footage straight to iPhoto or, if you want to edit or share, to anything else. The end result is that we are now actually using the camera and capturing those moments. To be sure, no one will be making a feature film on this but that is the lie of the video camera industry. You just want a memory and if it comes with automatic graininess in the future, so be it. Oh yeah, it is cheap (starting at US$150 on amazon).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


In Slate today, Emily Bazelon laments her childrens' tendency to lose everything. She thinks it is some failing of their moral fibre over respect for property. In the end, she ends up bailing out her children and replacing lost items. Then she resorts to heavy-handed intervention to try and get things on the right path.

I think that she doesn't quite have the problem sorted out. The goal is not to build a respect for property but to get good habits established. The problem is that, in a world where you constantly remind kids or inquire as to the location of items, you are not doing that. What the child needs to do is sort out how to achieve the goal -- not losing stuff -- on their own taking into account all of the machinations and distractions that might be part of that operation. You just can't know that.

To convince yourself, just watch a forgetful child in action. They start out with an object and have a mission to take it somewhere. All is fine for a few seconds and then something happens. You can observe distraction setting in, the object gets put down and the child moves on. That's it.

You need to have something to focus their attention so that they get past the distraction or if that isn't possible they work out that they have been distracted and get themselves back on the right path. The problem is that they have to work it out, you can't possibly plan out for all contingencies.

Regular readers will recall that our response to this situation with our son was to get seemingly cruel and unusual in threatened punishments. For his lost lunchbox, the threat to replace it with an 'easy to remember' Disney Princess one. It worked a charm despite a later appeal that it was unfair on his friends (who were tempted to tease him and would get in trouble for it). What is more, his lunchbox returns and it is no longer an issue. The point here is that you have to focus them on the goal and to have a plan by which they have to invest more in the activity of 'not losing things' than whatever else happens to be around.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chocolate frogs and all that

Robert Merkel, who is not a parent, reviewed Parentonomics and found it fun to read anyway. His post engendered plenty of discussion with one of the commentators pointing to this method of using chocolate frogs to drive (literally) good behaviour.

Before you start the car trip, buy a packet of chocolate frogs.

As you all get into the car, children in the back seat, adults in the front, the adult(s) should open the packet of chocolate frogs. The packet of chocolate frogs should be left in full view of the children.

Then, start driving.

Sooner or later, the bickering, the shoving, the kerfuffle, the noise, the complaints from the back seat will get to be too much for the grown-ups to bear.

At that stage, the adult(s) should reach for a chocolate frog. They should wind the window down, and throw the frog out.

At the end of the journey, the children may eat any frogs that are left.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fair grades

[HT: Mark Richards] A Pittsburgh school district has set 50% as a student's minimum grade.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say they want to give struggling children a chance, but the district is raising eyebrows with a policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score a student can receive for assignments, tests and other work. ...

"A failing grade is a failing grade," district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

At the same time, they said, the 50 percent minimum gives children a chance to catch up and a reason to keep trying. If a student gets a 20 percent in a class for the first marking period, Ms. Pugh said, he or she would need a 100 percent during the second marking period just to squeak through the semester.

It gets better ...

Superintendent James Lombardo said he's in favor of implementing the idea, partly as a fairness issue. He noted that a failing grade carries far more mathematical weight than any other grade if the "E" or "F" has a range of zero to 59 percent.

"I guess I laud the Pittsburgh district for recognizing some of the foibles of our numerical system," he said, adding low percentage scores sometimes are given to students because of their attitude or work ethic, rather than their level of accomplishment.

I guess if one were to be kind, this would be considered a nudge as opposed to a scheme that weighed early assessment lower as a means of providing a catch-up opportunity or for allowing a low assessment grade to be discontinued. That said, it doesn't say much about the numeracy component of the education program.

Science and parenting

In Slate, Alan Kazdin looks at the evidence on corporal punishment. His lament is that lots of parents still hit their kids despite the scientific evidence that it likely does harm. But the discussion is more about why parents do not pay attention to scientific research.
Part of the problem is that most of us pay, at best, selective attention to science—and scientists, for their part, have not done a good job of publicizing what they know about corporal punishment. Studies of parents have demonstrated that if they are predisposed not to see a problem in the way they rear their children, then they tend to dismiss any scientific finding suggesting that this presumed nonproblem is, in fact, a problem. In other words, if parents believe that hitting is an effective way to control children's behavior, and especially if that conviction is backed up by a strong moral, religious, or other cultural rationale for corporal punishment, they will confidently throw out any scientific findings that don't comport with their sense of their own experience.
The issue is that a parenting behaviour can appear to work right away (and so be affirmed) but actually do more harm later on or be otherwise ineffective. Scientific research can inform about the latter. And it is not just corporal punishment. Consider sleeping, eating and all sorts of other things where it is difficult to weigh the present and future.

The argument in the article is that governments need to ban violence against children and Kazdin again laments the lack of political traction in the US on that. But come on, is he really surprised. The same parents are the voters and if they see corporal punishment as effective and morally OK, why would they vote to ban it.

This suggests that the way to get parental behavioural change is not the public equivalent of corporal punishment -- bans and penalties for infractions. Instead, my guess is that social norms and changes will be more powerful. I have not looked into it, but my guess (hope) is that the degree of violence against children has fallen: e.g., less using of hard objects and more using of hands. Why has this occurred? Social pressure mainly.

The key to social pressure is exposure. And that is the issue with parenting. So much of it is within the confines of a household and not exposed socially. That is why pressures to breastfeed are stronger (as you leave the house sometimes) while punishment is another matter. Then again, how often are we seeing physical punishment performed outside the house? The point here is that we need to think far less from the hip and far more using science (this time on parenting behaviour) to actually produce changes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Parentonomics on TV

I just got word that Today Tonight (in Australia) is running a story on Parentonomics tonight (Channel 7 at 6:30pm). I gather it is a 'reality TV show' where some families are trying out Parentonomics in the home; whatever that means. If there is an on-line version, I'll post a link in the next few days.

Here is the link to the video (scroll down to 'Bribing Kids')

[Update: Well that wasn't quite what I was expecting. All about bribery where I came off as the academic who creates highly incentivised children while a psychologist (read: anti-economist) came off as saying it would be better to give children praise and hugs as rewards and time-outs and I am guessing no hugs as punishments. Call me crazy but I'd rather toy with material things than emotions.]

Friday, September 19, 2008

Punishment Capital

Tim Harford runs a 'Dear Economist' column in the Financial Times whereby readers write in their problems and Tim helps them out. This week's column involves the use of incentives for discipline children. And here is part of the answer:
The challenge, then, is to make sure that you have punishments available to you that you are willing to carry out. You may be able to rise to that challenge by building up what Joshua Gans calls “punishment capital” – not to be confused with capital punishment. Professor Gans, author of a new book called Parentonomics, points out that if you are the source of a steady stream of money or sweets, that gives you a negotiating position. Threatening to remove the carrot (or rather, the flow of chocolate coins) is more credible than threatening to wield the stick. What one parent sees as junk food, Professor Gans sees as an “incentive opportunity”.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Parentocomic: Font Size

I have done some of these before (here, here and here). Here is another one:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Father's Day (Australia)

Today is Father's Day in Australia. I had written up a piece for an Australian newspaper on this but I think it might have missed out. Anyhow, here it is. The basic message was not to buy things for Father's Day (you know, like my book) and to make them.

That is what my kids did. Child No.1 painted me a picture which you can see to the left. It is of an iPhone with a special message.

Child No.2 wrote me one of his stories. This one is called the "Evil Pirate." It is made with pictures (which he took using Mt Potato Head) which he uploaded and then edited with Pages to write the story. Here is a link to the pdf. I think it is one of his best (if I do say so myself).

Child No.3 baked me some chocolate chip cookies. I am told that is has a special secret ingredient which I am told will taste much better if I "do not know what it is." And they are good. Perhaps she can sell the recipe if they pass standard health tests on food products.

Incentives for study

Tim Harford counsels a father on how to incentivise his son's preparation for some 48 (!) tests he is about to take. If you have a limited pool of funds to use in bribery, Tim says go for incentives upfront to get good habits.

In my household, I suspect that this won't be an issue if the school gets the incentives right.

TV and kids

I have written about this before, but since the Wall Street Journal covered it again today, I thought I'd highlight this finding on the impact of TV on kids [HT: Greg Mankiw]:

The economists then looked at results of a survey of 800 U.S. schools that administered tests to 346,662 sixth-grade, ninth-grade and 12th-grade students in 1965. Their finding: Adjusting for differences in household income, parents' educational background and other factors, children who lived in cities that gave them more exposure to television in early childhood performed better on the tests than those with less exposure.

The economists found that television was especially positive for children in households where English wasn't the primary language and parents' education level was lower. "We don't exactly know why that is, but a plausible interpretation is that the effect of television on cognitive development depends on what other kinds of activity television is substituting for," says Mr. Shapiro, 28.

The WSJ article goes on to document research on the impact of television on the independence of women (good) but on community social organisation (bad).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Risks and economics

It didn't take long but there was a letter to The Age newspaper in Australia from a medical researcher complaining about Parentonomics and the idea that an economist might have something useful to say about parenting. The letter writer had not read the book and so was taking it all way too seriously while also engaging in stereotypical jibes against economic rationalism. The basic point was that economists should stay away from such matters.

This was on my mind today as I read economist Justin Wolfers who was writing about a study by three economists into the advice given to pregnant women as to whether they should get an amnio or not. The point was that the medical advice neglected option value and so it is possible that too many women over 35 are getting the procedure. Anyhow, read Wolfers' post and then think about whether economists should, as a matter of principle, stay out of medical decision-making.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Swear code

On CNN today, an article about the swear (or curse) words invented in the original Battlestar Galactica series. One of these, "feldergarb" as in 'load of feldergarb' didn't make it to the new series but another one 'frack' or, apparently, now spelled 'frak,' did. This one is used appropriately thus: 'frak off.'

Our household was already up with all of this. We had come to an agreement with the children that they could use the word 'frak' in polite conversation rather than its illrupted but equally meaning cousin. Of course, we didn't adopt feldergarb but instead the Orkan (a la Mork & Mindy) phrase, "shazbot" to be used in the form 'load of shazbot.' This has worked quite well in both giving them (and I guess us) something to say and also in highlighting the paradoxes of swearing (you know, why the frack to people really care anyway?) and coming to no apparent resolution in explaining that.

This reminds me of a plan a friend of mine's parents undertook to deal with this. They made up their own swear words and told their children never to say them. That, of course, meant that they said them all of the time. But the genius of this was they never said the culturally recognised swear words and it was only years later that their children saw through it all.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


So Child No.1 is currently not well. We don't know what it is but she hasn't wanted to eat for two days which is a bit of worry. I'm sure it can't last too much longer.

Anyhow, that didn't stop her and her mother having the following conversation today:
"Our school's library is so small. It doesn't even have 1000 books in it."

"I'm sure it has more than that. Just ask the librarian."

"It doesn't. Why bother?"

"OK, how about this? I will give you a chocolate frog if the librarian tells you there are less than 1000 books."

"Well, OK. But how will you tell whether I am lying or not when I tell you there is less than a 1000 books?"

"I can get your brother to ask too. He never lies."

"He might if I offer him half the chocolate frog."
Actually, he wouldn't but it was an interesting thought on how to corrupt someone. When she returns to school perhaps we will find out the answer.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Looking for Meaning in Lego

Now this is different. Dan Ariely, Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec have run a set of experiments on 'meaningful work.' Their paper describes the experiment with the goal of seeing whether meaningful work makes you work harder. Why am I writing about it here? Because the experiment used Lego.

The subjects were male undergraduates at Harvard University, recruited via posters around the university. Each subject participated in the experiment alone, without the presence of other subjects. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions, Meaningful (N = 20) and Sisyphus (N = 20), and were unaware of the other condition. The procedure was similar to that used in Experiment 1. In each of the two conditions, subjects received payments for assembling Bionicle Lego models according to a declining unit wage schedule. Each Bionicle consisted of 40 separate pieces, with written instructions on how to assemble them into a figure. There was only one way to combine the pieces, and no subject had trouble following the assembly instructions. The mean time to build the first Bionicle was around 10 min. Before deciding whether to build each Bionicle, the subjects were told how much they had earned up to that point and how much they would earn for making another Bionicle. The subjects were paid $2.00 for the first Bionicle, $1.89 (11¢ less) for the second one, and so on linearly. For the 20th, as well as for any subsequent Bionicles, they received $0.02. The only decision the subjects made was when to stop making Bionicles. At that point, they were paid and the experimental session was over. During the experiment, we measured how long it took each subject to build each Bionicle. ...

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk.

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter. This was the only difference between the two conditions. Furthermore, all the Bionicles were identical, so the Meaningful condition did not provide more variety than the Sisyphus one.

And the results:

the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful condition, subjects built an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40, while those in the Sisyphus condition built an average of 7.2 Bionicles and earned an average of $11.52.

And there I thought that no matter what you did with Lego, it was meaningful. I guess that isn't the case.

Tough negotiations

Sometimes you just have to call on a 'bluff.' Read on.


I have mentioned before that, in many respects, our four year old is our most strategic child. And unlike our eldest her motives are far more sinister. Child No.3 likes to win and what is more it is simply for personal satisfaction.

An incident just the other day highlighted her powers. We have a consistent routine at dinner time. When you finish you take your plates to the sink, wash your hands and go upstairs for bathtime. Same routine. Every night.

Child No.3 has a mission: to skip the 'taking your plates to the sink' part. In the past, she would take advantage of distraction and slink her way upstairs. She would say nothing but something always told me later on that she was secretly pleased. She understood that to gloat would invite attention and she would lose. Usually, by the time we discovered the omission, it was too late. She was in bed or something.

But we were on to her. That, however, has only made her more crafty. The other night we had friends over for dinner. Child No.3 left the table and took one plate but not the others to the sink. She then returned and put on her most dimpled smile and asked her mother if she should wash her hands. Her mother, of course, said yes. Child No.3 then pranced off to the bathroom.

I remarked, "you know she just tricked you, don't you? Her plates are still here." And then I went on to explain to our friends what would happen. "She will emerge from the bathroom and make her way upstairs. However, I am going to call her back to do the rest of her plates. She will then immediately appeal on the basis that she had her mother's 'permission' to skip that step."

And sure enough, Child No.3 came out of the bathroom. Just as she was turning to go upstairs, I called her back to do her plates. Right on cue, without skipping a beat and pointing at her mother, "But but she said I should go and wash my hands." I insisted and she relented., "Awwwu." She wasn't upset but I could see she was already working on the next day's move.

My worry, of course, is that this is what she does at four. And this is just for the dishes! What are we going to do later on?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fantastic game

Fantastic Contraption is a challenging physics-based online gap. Doable for children of all ages as they say. You basically have build wheel-based vehicles to achieve certain goals. And if you don't like that you can just run them off cliffs which is equally fun. Good quality time.

Publication incentives

At the Parentonomics book launch, the publishers put out an offer to my children to write up and publish their version of the story (aka Cheaper by The Dozen). Following up from my conversation with Child No.1 last week on the benefits of becoming the next JK Rowling, the book's launcher, Catherine de Fontenay, put the following to Child No.1.
"So when you write your book and become famous will you use the money to buy special treats?"

"What difference would that make?" (with the expression, 'what planet you are from?') "I wouldn't be allowed to until I'm 18 and after that I can just use my allowance to buy all the special treats I want."
That explains her current extreme savings strategy. She is just holding out to be free of parental controls.

Want to try out Parentonomics on TV?

Today Tonight, a current affairs TV show in Australia, are doing a story on Parentonomics and are looking for families who would be bold enough to try out economic incentives in the home or talk about how they do it, and to air their experiences on TV. If you are interested, contact Elizabeth right away on 03 9697 7829 (time is short). There is a free copy of the book in it for you.

Parentonomics (US Version) have posted a pre-publication link for Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting to be published by MIT Press in April 2009. Click here to sign up for notification when it is actually available. Interestingly, it is different to Parentonomics: An Economist Dad's Parenting Experiences published by New South in both subtitle and also in language. The international version adopts a US style. So expect diapers rather than nappies and various other things like that.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Principles of Parentonomics

Recently, I recorded a lecture in which I tries to illustrate the 10 Lessons of Economics (from the Australian version of Mankiw's textbook) with parenting examples. It was a challenge but I made it. That said, in watching this I realised that I make typos as I speak. Hopefully no one will transcribe it. (YouTube below or full version here).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Teaching themselves

Can kids teach themselves? Apparently so. Parents and teachers now redundant.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Some things won't change

So Child No.1 and I were at the local bookstore where I signed a few copies of Parentonomics (Books-In-Print in Malvern if you want one). She pointed out to me that the pile was dwarfed by the Harry Potter display.
"Well, you are no JK Rowling."

"You wish I was JK Rowling. She is the richest author ever. I think if I became that, you would benefit."

"Really? What would that change? I guess we would have a bigger house but I wouldn't get a single extra special treat!"


"Hardly worth it."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Outsource the night

In the New York Times, an article about the increasing use of 'night nannies' to get up in the middle of the night for young babies. Apparently, they are better than you are at calming a baby and allow you to be a sane person during the day. Of course, it costs money.

If you have a dual career and lots of money this makes glaring sense to me. However, given that we did not do this for our three children, I will go through the standard rationalisations for why we wouldn't have made this choice even if we had thought of it wanted to spend the money.

First, consider this a generic expression of indignation and disgust based on no logical foundation.

Second, let me make some hand-wavy comment about how babies surely bond better with frustrated parents trying to get them back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Third, parents who don't do this won't 'learn' to understand their children's needs. Because we all know 2am is the best time to absorb subtle knowledge about a baby's emotional state.

Fourth, you could be spending that money on educational toys.

Fifth, by doing this you distance yourself from the community of shared experience of other parents. Actually, that one might make sense.

Finally, in the spirit of banging your head against the wall because it is so much better when you stop, you really appreciate it later on when they sleep through the night.

This all brings me back to 4 years ago with our third child. She was just a couple of months old and, guess what, at 2am in the morning we could turn on the television and watch the Olympics, live. We saw all manner of great events -- I can't tell you which ones but I can tell you they were great. What is more, we would put the baby back to bed and keep watching.

So the moral of this story is: time your baby's birth to make sure that during the first three months, it coincides with stuff on television that you would want to watch anyway. The television can be your night nanny.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Don't let your kids know about this

Following up on my review of The Clone Wars and also on some questions I was asked this week regarding whether your children could punish you, don't let them know about the existence of this. It can cause unspeakable suffering. Watch if you dare.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Clone Wars

If you loved The Ewok Adventures Caravan of Courage and the Battle of Endor or the Star Wars animated series (Ewoks and Droids), well then you would pretty much like anything. And if you managed to sit through the Star Wars Holiday Special, then that will pretty much explain those psychiatric bills. And if you have never heard of the Star Wars Holiday Special (which made Wookies look like cuter Ewoks!) it is because of the greatest information suppression strategy by George Lucas ever and you should thank him for it.

It was on that basis that I took the entire family to see The Clone Wars animated Star Wars movie. Of course, this was the more sophisticated cousin of the Clone Wars series that was released prior to Episode III but with the indulgence of a new dimension to Jabba the Hut as a loving father of a son who squirmed his way around with Ewok-like cuteness. Suffice it to say, expectations were so low it would be hard not to exceed them.

And exceed them marginally this movie did. Indeed, I would go as far to say that on some levels the movie exceeded elements of the prequel trilogy. For instance, the acting was much better, the directing made sense, and there was far more consistent and continual carnage and less foreboding character development than Episodes I-III. The plot, of course, was ridiculous but not by Star Wars standards. I never bought the premise that Jabba the Hut would have or care about a family. I also don't know what became of his son in later movies but feel confident that the Jedi helped save someone who ultimately came up to no good.

On the level of a good movie to take kids to see, The Clone Wars is worth the ticket price. And I am sure they haven't finished milking that avenue yet. It even gives Anakin a padawan learner who somehow is gone by Episode III and so we can look forward to a tragic end in a future movie. So on the metric 'how many bad Star Wars movies do there have to be before you don't see another one,' this one keeps that count constant. LucasFilm has more reputation capital in the bank left to blow yet. Now that is foreboding.

Conditioning toughness

From The Onion, "Johnson & Johnson introduces 'Nothing but Tears' Shampoo to Toughen Up Newborns."

After rigorous product testing at the company's research headquarters in New Jersey, the new "Nothing But Tears" shampoo was found to give newborns up to three times greater resilience than the leading competitor, as well as a stronger grasp on the crushing disappointment that is life. In addition, when combined with Johnson & Johnson's new line of bleach-based conditioners, the shampoo resulted in noticeably thicker skin after only six uses.

In recent years, a growing number of parents have begun looking for ways to raise more adequately jaded toddlers, and Johnson & Johnson is not the first company to respond to the rising demand. In 2003, Fisher-Price unveiled a new adventure play set containing 85 easy-to-choke-on pieces, and in 2006, the Walt Disney Company introduced an interactive DVD entitled Baby's First Brush With A Cruel And Unforgiving World.

Whether or not Johnson & Johnson's new move will ultimately pay off remains to be seen. However, reaction to the tantrum-provoking shampoo has thus far been positive.

"My 13-month-old used to be a total pushover," said new mother Catherine Smith. "But ever since I started washing her hair with 'Nothing But Tears' shampoo, not only does my little Debra kick and scream and wail, but yesterday she said her first words: 'No, Mommy, don't.'"

Related: Most Children Strongly Opposed to Children's Healthcare ...

Study: Most Children Strongly Opposed To Children�s Healthcare

Friday, August 15, 2008

iPhone Apps for Parents

A while ago I had an idea for a great iPhone application -- a one button locator of baby changing facilities that would take into account where you are and direct you to the nearest place -- by driving or walking. Sadly, that idea, and its more general toilet finder application, fell down for lack of data which was held in a non-useful form by the Australian government. Hopefully, someone else will work out how to cut through the bureaucracy and find us some relief.

But there are a few iPhone applications arising that are targetting parents or soon to be parents. For fun, as I no longer have to care about these issues myself, I thought I'd list the ones I know of here:
  • Baby Tracker: Nursing -- this application keeps track of a baby's feeds, whether it is right side or left and for how long. I guess you could integrate the data with Trixie Tracker and you would be all set. (There is also a version of this that is 10 times cheaper called BBuddy but I couldn't work out how to link to it).
  • Bishop's Score Calc: this one calculates the probability of an impending ability as well as various possible complications. I guess if you are sitting there pregnant with nothing better to do ...
  • Pregnancy Kick Counter: you can use this application to count how often your baby is kicking as if (a) you can't tell and (b) you need yet another thing to worry about. Thank goodness no one recommended to us to do that.
  • OB Counter: That said, if you are trying to time deliveries and plan ahead, this free app will calculate you due date. Of course, this thing has been around online forever but I guess if you are out and about and want to make sure you are not busy in 38 weeks time so as to assess risks, the iPhone app is for you.
  • Food Additives: If you are managing the stuff going into your child, this application is for you. Enter the food you are thinking of feeding your child and it tells you just how bad it is. In our preservative-free house, I won't be able to sneak stuff in even when we are out and about.
There is other stuff in terms of game and childrens' books but I will list them later.