Friday, February 29, 2008

It's funny 'cause it's true

"Creativity is just as important as literacy." Amen to that. Watch this video of Ken Robinson speak on what is wrong with our educational system.

A real nail-biter

In Slate, Emily Brazelon's son has taken to biting his nails. She goes through the potential cures and tries putting foul-tasting stuff on his hands but then relents. Suffice it to say, the problem hasn't been solved. Part of the issue, of course, is Brazelon's parents failed to cure her and she is still a nail-biter

For us, it wasn't nail biting but thumb (or in the case of Child No.3, two finger) sucking. What is more, it was a habit we actually encouraged. Rather than have to deal with a dummy (pacifier), we knew that if our babies could find their thumbs, it would be the key to them learning to settling themselves to sleep. This is something we achieved with all three of ours at 2 months and, generally, it helped stretch out the sleep intervals (by which I mean the length of time before they disturbed us).

But we knew we were setting ourselves up for issues -- social and dental -- later on. Our genetic experience was not good. I sucked my thumb until I was 11 years old. That left me with clearly visible (out of the lip) front teeth, my parents with a dental bill to cure it, and to this day my left thumb (the one sucked) is visibly narrower than my right. But I did give it up at 11 years old as the social pressure became obvious.

So what of our children that we deliberately hooked on to this habit? Well, in each case, thusfar, we have taken them at age 4 (just before we got adult teeth) and have intervened. At this age, it was enough that they realised it was a 'baby' thing to do and so there was some good amount of cooperation on becoming unhooked. The problem, of course, was the habit.

We considered fowl tasting applicants and tried it on Child No.1. This was abandoned the first night when we discovered her in the bathroom washing it off. So that was bad news. Although on the good news front, it is nice to see a 4 year old voluntarily using soap.

So I opted for another solution: about ten bandaids applied to them. It is hard to get off and also takes away the ease by which a thumb can get in the mouth. That did the trick. A few days later we were thumb free. So habits can be broken but cooperation and social pressure is a critical ingredient. On the economic side, I am sure our dentist will, however, find some other way to extract our money.

Parenting superpowers

Sometimes the mere application of statistical knowledge can give you abilities that seem super-normal to children. Let me take one example. I send my son upstairs to get dressed. Five minutes later I shout out "stop doing that and get dressed." My son comes downstairs dressed and asks, "how did you know I wasn't getting dressed?" I respond: "I see all, don't forget it."

In fact, I only see probabilities and let me tell you that there is no safer bet that my son has "got lost" before he has managed to get dressed. So an occasional shout out based on that bet and no observed evidence is a pretty safe one.

But this form of statistical superpowers doesn't always work: it may be a safe bet but it is still a bet. Let me take another example attempting to use a far more sophisticated super-power: statistics + game theory.

We came home the other night after going to our daughter's parent-teacher interview. Immediately, she bounded up to me and asked us how it was. Hmm, how unusual? I thought. Why is she so interested?

"So how did it go?"

"Well, you know?"

"I know what?"

"He told us about the ... incident."

"The incident?"

"Yes, would you like to tell me your side of the story?"

Sadly (for me at least), it transpired that there was no 'incident' (my supposition of poor behaviour or trouble) and that she was just interested in what the teacher had to say. There was no information to be extracted so freely. I maintain it was a good bet but the sad thing is that you can't play that card too often: statistics persists but a game theoretic advantage evaporates. I'll have to leave that one for a few more years.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

New technologies for baby handling

Nothing for the really messy stuff, but the New York Times reports on technologies for dealing with snot, dirty dummies (pacifiers) and monitoring devices just in case your new-born starts to walk prematurely. The most intringuing is the LENA system that records conversations you are having with your baby and analyses them for developmental content. Although in my mind you can now pay to monitor your guilt. Can't wait to try it.

Internet dangers and kids

There is lots of hysteria about the dangers of letting kids surf the net freely. That has caused many parents to restrict those activities. Well, it turns out that much of the concern really is hysteria. This New York Times article by David Pogue reviews the evidence. It turns out that predation over the Internet is no more likely than predation anywhere else and the big issues comes from children wanting to seek out 'stranger contact.' He also finds the evidence on other solicitations wanting.

And then there is the whole issue of stumbling upon unsuitable materials. Here it is all about parenting styles:
One woman, for example, told me that she became hysterical when her eight-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. She told me that she literally dove for the computer, crashing over a chair, yanking out the power cord and then rushing her daughter outside.

You know what? I think that far more damage was done to that child by her mother’s reaction than by the dirty picture.

See, almost the same thing happened at our house. When my son was 7 years old, he was Googling “The Incredibles” on the computer that we keep in the kitchen. At some point, he pulled up a doctored picture of the Incredibles family, showing them naked.

“What…on… earth?” he said in surprise.

I walked over, saw what was going on, and closed the window. “Yeah, I know,” I told him. “Some people like pictures of naked people. The Internet is full of all kinds of things.” And life went on.
My view is much like David Pogue's. Instead of banning or restricting net use we monitor it closely. My guess is that we can deal with the consequences like we would anything else they might happen across. Better this occur under our guidance than later on somewhere else where there is no one to step in.

The benefits are enormous. The Internet offers so much for kids and so much more if they are able to explore it and seek out stuff that interests them. It is an enabling technology that doesn't require leaving the house. How convenient is that.

Monday, February 18, 2008

2 Year Old Birthday parties

Posted again this week, a classic from Dave Barry (click here). A teaser:

TODAY'S PARENTING TOPIC IS: Planning a birthday party for your two-year-old child.

The first thing you must decide, when planning a birthday party for a two-year-old, is: Should you invite the two-year-old? Because a child that age can put a real damper on a party. And probably your child doesn't really understand that he or she is turning two. One of the best things about small children is that they have no clue how time works. My two-year-old daughter believes that everything that has ever happened, including her birth and the formation of the solar system, occurred ``yesterday.''

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Great Lunchbox Challenge

"I believe that you should commit yourself to achieving the goal, before this week is out, of taking a lunchbox to school and returning it safely to the home."


"Because you have already failed to do that with two lunchboxes and it is the first week of school! They don't grow on trees you know."

"A paper bag does."
That pretty much sums up the first week of school for our 7 year old son. Something happened with respect to the lunchbox monitoring regime between Grade 1 and Grade 2. Suffice it to say, he took a lunchbox to school and then returned without it. We would then send him back the next day with another lunchbox and with a mission to find the first one. He would return with neither. It was like those 5 little ducks going out one day and not coming back.

By the time, we were down two lunchboxes, I knew we were going to need more than just promises. Some incentives were in order. But how to get the unfocused, focused?
"So what are we going to do with you? How can I get you to remember your lunchbox?"

"Well, I just keep forgetting that it is there and I guess I don't put it into my bag."

"So you would need it to be easier to see and not forget?"


"So how about this?"
I then produced a 'Disney Princesses' lunchbox -- in pink and ready to go.
"Do you think you would miss this?"
I then informed him that this would be the lunchbox he would be taking to school if he lost the third regular, lunchbox. However, even that lunchbox would be adorned with some pink star stickers arranged in the form of an 'F' for 'Find other lunchboxes." Hopefully, with a bit of effort, we would not have to roll out Ariel, Cinderella and Snow White.

I was very proud of this ironic punishment but I must admit, we thought it somewhat cruel to impose on a 7 year old during his first week in a new class. So I really hoped it wouldn't come to that.

And I would like to tell you that it didn't come to that but it did. The next day he found himself going to school with a new Disney princesses lunchbox and in search of its three missing cousins. And I would like to tell you that that did the trick. It didn't. He found two of the missing lunchboxes and they got as far as his locker but only the Disney Princesses one returned. (I suspect it never actually left his bag; although his lunch did. Either that or it really was a 'distinctiveness' issue all along).

In the end, his mother went to his locker and retrieved the two lunchboxes (a third seemingly lost forever). Indeed, what is more, they were both full; they never even made it to lunch before getting lost! No wonder he ate so well at dinner-time that week.

But, in the end, the lunchbox crisis did end and for the second week of school, a single lunchbox (not the Princess one), returned to and from school safely. Somehow the system worked. And our Princesses can stay in the cupboard dangling like an icicle over his head.