Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Wii Game of Note

When Steven Spielberg hooked up with EA Games to produce a game for the Wii, one could imagine that it would turn out to be all hype. But Boom Blox lives up to all of the promise that the Wii could be. It is one of the best video games to come along for some time.

Basically, it is a series of puzzles that requires you to throw balls at various constructions or to carefully pull those constructions apart. Some are easy while others are quite tricky to solve. But you can come back to the game and progress in as short or as long steps as you like. Actually, during one long session my throwing arm hurt considerably afterwards. I call that 'exercise.'

You can play with the kids in a cooperative mode too but really, why let them have a go when they can just watch and shout at your poor choices?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Another data option

Hot off the heals of Trixie Tracker, I was told of another similar web offering, Baby Insights from Babblesoft. It offers a pretty similar set of data collection tools but the presentation of the data is somewhat different. As I noted last time, we are beyond actually using these sites so I can't really rate them -- but please feel free to do so in the comments.

On a quick glance, the Trixie Tracker graphical information is more technical -- something I like -- but that might not be for everyone. But the Baby Insights diaper option has an incredible array of classifications for the 'insults' you might find when you go to change your baby (you know, colour, clarity and consistency -- the same things you learn about diamonds when shopping for engagement rings).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Data-driven parenting

As an economist, I like to base as many decisions as possible on hard data. Obviously, most of the time, such data isn't available. But when it is, instinctively I want to latch right onto it.

For instance, take this short snippet from the 'book only' material in Chapter 2 of Parentonomics describing the contraction-measuring machine during labour:
... [t]hat machine – which I lovingly called the ‘contraction-meter’ – kept me amused and interested through the many hours of labour. I would sit next to it and watch the printed readout. Most of the time nothing much happened. Then suddenly a seismic event would register. I would remark, ‘Ooh, that was a big one. Did you feel that?’ A whimpered reply would follow. I may have not been feeling her pain, but I was at least on top of the statistics.
Every economist I know has similarly fond memories of that machine including women who would ask for a read-out after each contraction.

But following that there has been a dearth of data to assist in parenting. The children's mother is an engineer and a data-lover herself. Indeed, I think her job description is "doings things with Excel." She tried to rectify our lack of data by keeping records on height and weight in Excel. This allowed for some inter-sibling comparisons but little else.

So imagine my delight this morning when I received an email from Ben MacNeill. Ben was a stay-at-home dad who recognised that lack of data in parents' lives. So he build a web service, Trixie Tracker, that allows parents to record and revisit information on sleep, nappy changes, feeding (both breast-milk and solids), medicines and pumping. You can then go back and see how things have been going. Just check out the information in sleep tracking. And there are even stories of how this has helped parents:

Nico is my 4th son but the first one whose sleep was so out of whack. He slept 8hrs/night straight for the first 5 months but hardly napped and when he started napping, his night times went awful.

I started tracking him at 7 months using TT so I could see any patterns developing, see how much actual sleep he was getting, and have records to back up what I suspected. By 20 months, even my pedi had to agree that he was not getting an average amount of sleep and that it was time to start delving deeper into things and we were referred to a developmental pedi. After talking to him and a behaviorist pedi, we were finally referred to a sleep specialist neurologist. I was able to show him our records for months so he could see the patterns (or in our case, the lack of them) and how long it would take to put him down at night.

He was able to see what our problems were and see that we really had done everything behaviorally that we could do and recommended putting our son on melatonin. With that, his average sleep has gone from 9hrs/day to almost 10½hrs/day but none of that would have been nearly as easy to get done if I hadn’t had all the records right at my fingertips to show the doctors at every step of the way. My son is much happier now that he gets more sleep and we are as well.

I can't tell you how much we would have loved this service had it been available when our kids were younger. The diaper activity information would have been really helpful for us when Child No.1 (between 3 and 4 months) would only go once every 5 days. Early in the cycle we could leave the house without nappies! The solids and sleep data could have been correlated for us to identify the fact that our son's digestive system was keeping him awake at 5 months and that we had been too loose with introducing new foods. Finally, for years our house was dedicated to the production and storage of breast-milk. To say that this inventory tracking system could not have been put to good use is an under-statement.

Now you might say, who has the time to keep this information? Well, it looks pretty easy. You can even do it from an iPhone so you don't have to be near a computer. To my mind, not keeping adequate records when you have a tool like this is criminal neglect! (Of course, you'll need to pony up a $4 per month fee for Trixie Tracker but that is money well spent). You can even benchmark your child's data against the averaged and anonymous data gathered from others using the service. What more could anyone want? It almost makes me want to have another child just to do it right this time.

Sadly, our opportunities for data-analysis bliss and super-crunching our parenting appear to have passed. The site doesn't deal with issues beyond the toddler stage. But imagine a school age upgrade that allowed you to track academic and other milestones ...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Parentonomics Pre-Order Discount

The Australian cover design for Parentonomics is out. If you are in Australia or New Zealand, you can pre-order the book for a 20 percent discount (just click here).

For the rest of the world, I hope to have news for you very, very soon.

Also, here is what some other economists have to say about the book:

"Dr. Spock meets Freakonomics. Parenting will never be the same. Forget about inflation and unemployment. Here Gans uses economics and game theory to tackle really important topics, such as toilet training and fussy eaters. Parentonomics lays bare what most sleep-deprived parents only dream about. Gans may not help you become a better parent, but it will help you stay one step ahead of your kids." [Professor Barry Nalebuff, Yale University, author of Thinking Strategically]"

"A delightful read that shows how being a parent changed one economist, and how being an economist provided insight on being a parent. Now if only I could get my two-year old to eat her peas." [Professor Susan Athey, Harvard University, winner for 2007 John Bates Clark Medal]

The circle is now complete

From Alice Bradley, a story of how she lost her son to the dark side with, you guessed it, the sinister help of his father.
In the living room, my husband and son are killing each other. "Zat!" cries Henry. "Zat zat zat! I got you with my lightsaber!" "But I am your faaather..." Scott gasps, clutching his stomach. It's too late. Henry, 5, has gone over to the dark side. There's a lot of killing going on in our house. Most of the carnage occurs on Saturday mornings, although occasionally there's time for a duel or two before school.
To say that the story of a child becoming deeply obsessed with Star Wars because of indoctrination from a parent rang true for our household is an understatement. Remove the frustrated mother, replace her with someone complicit and change son to daughter and you have our experience. Why just last weekend an army of children all ages were running around our house with lightsabres saying "prepare to die" and me revealing to three of them that "I am your father. You know it to be true." And yes, we had more than enough lightsabres to go around (adults included)!

I suspect the story is a very familiar one. Parents love Star Wars as children and can't wait to introduce their own to the whole thing. For us, we lucked out that the prequels rocked around so that our eldest could see the last two in the movies (and yes, she was like 4 for Attack of the Clones but she has terrific tolerance for violence and bad dialogue). That mean freely available Star Wars toys in the shops. There were light sabres (even plush ones for babies), action figures, ships, talking Yodas and interactive R2D2's, little Russian doll style toys, clothes and dress-ups galore (including one awesome Darth Vader mask -- and let me tell you, you ain't seen nothing until a 5 year old wearing one of those comes around a corner. Scary and funny at the same time), Mr Potato Head (you know Darth Tater), children's books (including a Pop-up one), video games, and, of course, the wonder that is Star Wars Lego. With parents for whom this was virtual religion, we could say goodbye to spare cash.

Now the way to story is supposed to go is one of grave disappointment. You know, the kids never really care and the parents are forlorn. But no. Just as in the Bradley household, our children took up the cause. For our eldest daughter, it took her away from the year that was the Wizard of Oz (let me tell you, you don't want to open that can or worms with a 3 year old) and into a full blown Star Wars obsession. Dueling was a continual activity and my daughter could recite Weird Al's "The Saga Begins" by heart. There was constant movie watching as she realised that like some Jedi-mind trick, we could never deny her Star Wars like we could normal television. Much to my surprise, the obsession actually became too much. But here is the dismay part -- almost completely focussed on the new movies. How much Jar Jar could we take? (And by the way, those were the cheapest toys of the bunch). But it passed and they moved on.

So this experience is a cautionary one. You can indoctrinate your children with your own childhood obsessions. But it can go too far. And it is, I guess, somewhat fleeting. A few years later you are left with a house full of Star Wars stuff, used and non-collectible and a child singing Hanna Montana songs. It really isn't the best of both worlds.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Another use for eBay

OK, so don't tell me that you have never been tempted to do what these German parents did; put their baby up for sale on eBay. The ad read:
"Offering my nearly new baby for sale, as it has gotten too loud. It is a male baby, nearly 28 inches (70 cm) long and can be used either in a baby carrier or a stroller".
The only mystery is why they restricted themselves to a positive reservation price. In my mind, the optimal arrangement would be renting. Just a little peace.

The ad was pulled and the police are now baby-sitting the 7th month old. As it is clearly a joke, I guess the parents really got the rental option. If the police had taken the child in temporary custody for show, they might find a queue of willing participants.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Combat activities

A couple of weeks ago I discussed by 9 year old's Taekwondo experiences. I noted that she (and it turns out I to some extent) enjoyed watching some actual fighting going on. But I also mentioned that my 7 year old son was also taking these classes. However, is motivation is somewhat different.

My son is not taking Taekwondo because he enjoys sport. He doesn't, unless of course it is on a computer or video game console. He is taking it because his mother thinks that he is small and that a boy's playground experience at school is full of fighting and that unless he can defend himself he will be clobbered. Now she formed this opinion not on observing boys' playground behaviour now or when she was at school. Instead, it appears to have come from popular culture -- probably, The Simpsons. When I, as a person who had experienced playground boy behaviour, queried this motivation, I was ignored. Apparently, I didn't know what I was talking about.

Now why did I query all of this. Well, I figured that arming our son would not be enough. He would have to want to actually use his skills. What is more, getting picked on can occur but it seemed to me unlikely that actually stepping up was going to deter would be bullies. Better to rely on strategic avoidance such as staying within eyesight of a supervising adult. I myself survived to adulthood and beyond based on this strategy.

The upshot of this is that he was enrolled in classes at age 5 and after a year of this, finally, was allowed to give it up. It just wasn't him. My son would be classed as the sort of person who "wouldn't hurt a fly." Actually, looking at him do his classes, I came to the opinion that he in fact, "couldn't hurt a fly" even if he would want to. That would require speed and force; two factors that were not apparent in his martial arts arsenal. While other kids enthusiastically kicked and punched bags. He would step up and just go through the motions. This eventually convinced his mother that it wasn't to be.

After my last post on this subject a concerned and knowledgeable person emailed me to make sure that I emphasised that the idea that you teach kids Taekwondo so they can actually defend themselves is not correct. Instead, there is a danger of too much confidence and more trouble. All that sounds plausible to me.

Nonetheless, my son had given up for a year and what do you know, some other kid took a swing at him in the playground. And what happened? He used his Taekwondo defensive moves to block the attack! Then he assumed some aggressive looking stance and the other boy ran off.

Well, you can guess what happened next. His mother seized upon this and asked him if he wanted to return to his classes. He said yes and he has been back ever since.

That said, I still think flies have little to fear. In his grading, he is a consistent C student and his in-class enthusiasm is as lacklustre as ever. But that is except for one area: defense. There he scores an A and is the top of his class.

[PS: Any would be Taekwondo and martial arts experts who want to chime in on the comments about the merits of all this, please feel free. I am just relating the story not advocating such classes.]

Sunday, May 18, 2008

It is so unfair

[HT: Greg Mankiw] From P.J. O'Rourke a quote:
I have a 10 year old at home, and she is always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says that, I say, “Honey, you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off; that’s not fair. You were born in America; that’s not fair. Honey, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.”
Like Greg, I have had pretty similar conversations although except for the America bit. That said, it is so unfair that we can't buy an official iPhone here in Australia.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Something doesn't add up

In Slate, Emily Bazelon describes her attempts to keep her 5 year old son calm while teaching him self-reliance. Each Friday, after school, for logistical reasons, her son was not picked up but played a little soccer. He expected and was given a snack (Veggie Sticks) but repeatedly couldn't retrieve them from his own bag and became uncontrollably upset.

Now we have all seen over-reactions in young kids. Out of frustration they panic. But it is usually a once-off. For Bazelon it was repeated and, indeed, she had not resolved it by the time she came to write the article.

I was left with the impression that we only had half the story. First of all, it may be that other children were getting 'better' snacks. Would it really be the case that he would have so much trouble finding a snack if it were a treat rather than Veggie Sticks? If it was my kids, put a treat in their bag and it would likely never make it to the end of school.

Second, what were the supervising parents doing? It seems strange that each week they couldn't resolve the situation.

Finally, if my kids are anything to go by, by the end of the week they are quite ratty and tired. The last thing they would want is a lesson in self-reliance.

My thought is: it's Friday, lay off the life lessons and if you have to be late, put a treat or something special in his bag.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Poem for Mummy

On Mother's Day we have a rule: no one spends any money. Thus, the children spend time making things. This year, our 9 year old outdid herself by writing a poem. I thought I'd post it here. Suffice it to say, it says quite a bit about the author.


One day a mother dug in a book,
but then her head went up and looked.

"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Because I really need to do a poo."

The mother just looked up and said,

"Ok then I'll go do my poo,
but I really want to do something for you."

"Alright, alright go do your poo,
and then I'll give you something else to do."

"Ok, ok now I'm back,
but I really need to feed my cat."

"Please I'm really really waiting,
alright alright, I'll do some painting."

"Do you like my lovely picture?"
"It's great for the subject of literature."

"Be quiet! By quiet you're annoying me now!"

"Ok, ok I'm going down."

Yes, it is derivative of Dr Seuss but as the author says, she didn't have to make up any words. I think it has more in common with Madeline myself.

Pay Equivalents for Home

In celebration (re: exploitation) of Mother's Day, released a calculator of how much pay mothers would get it their home duties received market-level compensation. Try the calculator here. And just to be sure, there is a 'Dad' version too that gives rise to exactly the same results.

And where do such magical figures come from? Well according to the news report:
The eighth annual survey calculated a mom's market value by studying pay levels for 10 job titles with duties that a typical mom performs, ranging from housekeeper and day care center teacher to van driver, psychologist and chief executive officer.

... The biggest driver of a mom's theoretical salary is the amount of overtime pay she'd receive for working more than 40 hours a week. The 18,000 moms surveyed about their typical week reported working 94.4 hours — meaning they'd be spending more than half their working hours on overtime.

Working moms reported an average 54.6 hour "mom work week" besides the hours they spent at paying jobs.

So the methodology is seemingly sound. If you had to replicate the parent's work with outside paid labour, how much would it cost you? Notice that the calculation is the cost of complete outsourcing of parental tasks (save for playing with your children or really quality time). It even includes the overall management component with a CEO function. (I wonder if that includes stock options?). That said, it has all to do with averages and what is more, the average value of work in the house seems to exceed average outside the home earnings which, makes our definitions of national income really dubious.

And so how might you use this information? For one, you could use it to work out whether a parent carrying out these functions should stop and themselves work outside of the the home. Suppose that the annual pay (after tax) from this is w, then you need to also figure out what the increment to your overall utility (re: happiness or satisfaction) would be working outside versus working at home (including all of the satisfaction you get from control in your parenting and the annoyance you get from lack of control in your career and so on). Call this v. Note that v may well be negative implying that all monetary considerations aside you actually prefer working at home to your best option outside of the home.

Then the calculation as to whether you should stay at home is if the figure exceeds v + w. If it does, stay at home. If not, outsource the home stuff and go out. (In principal, if you want to take some leisure time rather than do the home stuff you will need to work out the value of that and substitute it for w.)

What this wont tell you is which parent should do what task? That depends on individual expertise and satisfaction from each task. Good luck sorting that one out using numbers!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Parental Leave

In Australia, there is currently a debate about whether parental leave should receive a government subsidy. Over at Core Economics, I have been writing about this and thought it may be of some interest here. Here are links to my posts on the goals, market failures and policies.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Where's the technology?

From Slate, a discussion of the apparent absence of technology in picture books. Wait, the kid wasn't surfing the net in Where the Wild Things Are? (Of course, this book is shameless and a classic for us).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Birthday party wars

You think you have dilemmas over what type and how much to spend on a birthday party for your 7 year old. Well, check out this story from Australia.
TWO warring parents who can't even agree on the location of their little girl's birthday have asked the Family Court to rule on where her party should be held and who should be invited.

It took a judge, three barristers, three solicitors and a day in court at an estimated $30,000 to work out where the girl should celebrate her seventh birthday.

... Her dad wanted to celebrate at McDonald's with gifts, balloons, his relatives, his new partner - and their seven-month-old baby girl.

Her mum wanted it to be on familiar ground at her daughter's usual play centre, with no relatives.

Me thinks that this is probably not about fundamentally differing birthday party philosophies. I guess in 20 or so years, some barristers may need to get ready for the wedding.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Men in the Delivery Room

Blogger DaddyDaze talks today about being present in the delivery room.

We attended the classes at the hospital before delivering Grace. I was dreading "the movie" that we would eventually be shown, and when that night came, I don't mind tell you that I nearly went unconscious. I knew that the baby wasn't the only thing that would be delivered on that magical day, but I wasn't prepared for all the pain and groaning and, well...blood. It was rough.

Worst of all, I feared that I'd have the same reaction in the delivery room. I wanted to be a source of support for my wife, not a nauseated coward.

However, I did a much better job during the actual delivery. I was more upset at the helpless feeling of seeing my wife in so much pain, and not being able to do anything about it. Sure, it was the most blood I've ever seen in my life (the article makes a good point: Stand at your wife's shoulders, not her feet), but I was less bothered by that than the movie blood. Odd.

The blog refers to this Washington Post article from 2006 that describes in detail some of the issues involved with having 'daddy' present. When it comes down to it: if you are unprepared, you may do more harm than good. But the strategies involved tend to be one of shielding 'daddy' from certain things rather than working out what he really needs to be doing.

Now I haven't written about such matters on this blog before but I did fill the second chapter of Parentonomics on this subject (one of the few to have totally new 'material'). Suffice it to say, my reaction was precisely the opposite of the 'shield your eyes' view. I can't say that I am especially noted for my bravery but the video of a birth only provoked in me the reaction that I needed to do more than stand around at the shoulders and provide 'support.' How much support can you give if you don't know what is going on?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

2 for DS

For my 7 year old son, his Nintendo DS is his lifeblood during the boring waiting bits of life -- like airplane travel and waiting for his sisters' activities to finish. Our two most recent game purchases on this have been outstanding.

The first is Drawn to Life. This involves you first drawing your hero and then playing a game. The drawing opens up all sorts of fun possibilities and my son loved this. The game itself is fairly standard but you can draw lots of bits for it and this makes it much more innovative.

The second is Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Basically, this involves traveling around a village, for reasons I haven't explored, and happening upon various puzzles that need to be solved. The puzzles are just great. For instance, one had 8 blocks and a set of scales. You are told one of the blocks is lighter than the others. You then have two opportunities to figure out which one it is. You don't need the game to work out what the right approach is but it is much more fun that way. My only problem is I kept hoping for my son to fail at working these out so I could have a go.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bending the rules

My two eldest are learning Taekwondo; the Korean martial art. In Australia, Taekwondo has the quality that it is a real activity where the instructors are actually trying to teach the children the art rather than fill in time and siphon off parents' cash. And, of course, as a result they can impose all sorts of conditions such as attendance requirements, twice weekly meetings and testing. To be sure, these are things that most parents would willingly pay more to not have but sadly, due to the immaturity of this particular industry, the supply of less for more has not yet taken off.

Today, my 9 year old daughter had a full contact class -- called Maniacs (presumably after the parents who permit this). This is a class where the kids gear up (checkbook please) and then beat each other up. Now I am a fairly non-violent person and do not watch violent sports (even archery). But I must say that I get quite a thrill watching my daughter kick some other kid in the chest. And on the same score, I am not too traumatised when she gets punched out. As far as I'm concerned, she had it coming.

After these sessions, we spend a little time debriefing.
"You looked good out there. That girl -- let's call her Gigantor -- was twice your size."

"Yep, and that is much harder too. I did very well."
Or ...
"You really got in some good shots with that boy. But he was quite a bit smaller than you."

"Yep, I was happy with that. The smaller ones are harder to hit."
Suffice it to say, she always comes through against the odds.

So today two things happened that seemed a bit different. The first was when the instructor was demonstrating -- using some small boy -- a series of moves for the class. During the altercation, he pushed the boy. The boy then pointed out that pushing wasn't allowed. The instructor then said, "it is allowed until the referee gives you a warning. Until then you can bend the rules as much as you like."

Well that got the attention of all the parents watching the going's on. It seemed a tad weak on the values front. Normally, these sporting activities are big on values and playing fair and, sensibly, because they are trying to get repeat business, down on things like winning. Let's face it, there just aren't enough winners in an average crowd of children. Indeed, the Taekwondo folks also usually are quite big on honor and restraint and are continually telling the children that they can never use their skills outside of the classroom. I guess during a competition, morals are a more flexible concept.

Anyhow, despite some initial glances, it took only a few seconds for the majority of us to decide that it was all just fine; indeed, better than fine given that at some point soon our children would be getting into a ring with another child (from perhaps an equally less moral club) and we would be hoping for them to survive with limited medical bills.

Medical bills brings me to the second thing that happened. One kid lost their mouth guard during the lesson (they take these things in and out depending on the activity). So the instructor got everyone to take out their mouth guards and hold them up to see if any one of them had the wrong one! Suffice it to say, they didn't but there was some nervousness amongst the parents that their child might have been caught with some other kid's mouth guard in their mouth.

So it transpired that the kid had forgotten his guard. That lead to a stern lecture from the instructor who asked the class if this kid gets his two front teeth kicked out, who will be blamed? Someone said, "you." He said, "exactly. And his parents will shout at me and then, you know what, I will shout at you because I keep telling you to bring your mouth guard."

To me, it seemed like the last bit was not a really credible threat. After all, if there is a kid standing there and bleeding, I suspect Mr Tough Instructor is going to be a whole lot less worried about chewing the kid out. Anyhow, it appears most of the children don't want their teeth kicked out and their parents are likely to be just as happy to chew them out as they bleed as they will face the big dentist bills.

All this aside, by her 10th birthday, my daughter may well be a black belt (yeah, really) and I will be bragging about it until the sun goes down. You should have seen me show off the wooden board she broke with her bare hands. Hopefully, she won't realise her physical power when we negotiate over doing chores.