Saturday, June 28, 2008

Font appreciation

Thanks to a pointer from the New York Times, here is a fun kids activity: font appreciation. Using new on-line (and free) software from FontStruct, anyone can try and make their own fonts. My 7 year old son took a break from his continual Spore creations (over 100 now) to design a font. His creation is here and is named as an amusing play on words from a Disney character and a more standard font. It is, to use his words, "not good" but it was a solid artistic activity nonetheless.

Measure of world wealth

Total number of Lego bricks in existence per head of population = 62
Total (estimated) number of Lego bricks in existence per head in Gans household = 10,000

I guess we are well into the top end of the world distribution of Lego. For so much more, read here.

Notes from the war

Recently people have asked me: "you write so much about your two eldest kids but Child No.3 rarely rates a mention? Is she a neglected third child?" Well, the answer is a definite "no," especially in terms of parenting attention and angst. When it comes down to it, this blog is a censored version of my parenting life. It is not and I do not claim it to be a full record. And when it comes to Child No.3, who is soon to turn 4, the terrible twos have seemed to lasted well beyond what one would have hoped. And in recent times, with a ton of work and other family issues going on: her tantrums became more frequent and harder to deal with. Without a resolution, I simply couldn't bring myself to write about it here.

You can take it from the fact that I am doing so now that, indeed, we think we are out of it now (hopefully). That is just as well. Another parent remarked when I was about to ask Child No.3 to do something she clearly didn't want to, "well, let's see how Professor Parentonomics handles this one." Fortunately, I did and helped the 'brand.'

But only a few short weeks ago, the best way of describing our relationship with Child No.3 was 'war.' Wars with young children are things that can grow slowly and escalate. When we realised where we were a couple of months ago, it was clear that we were dealing with greater and stronger tantrums than we wanted or had dealt with for the other children. But the cause was not at all clear. Child No.3 was going to pre-School now. That is more intense and she was not having her afternoon nap (the School wants this, but she doesn't need it at their scheduled time). So we just wasn't sure if she was just tired. We all throw tantrums when we are tired. And actually we were tired too and so we didn't enforce punishments to control tantrums with the same forced as we used to.

There is, however, another thing about Child No.3 that is relevant. Regular readers know of the strategic prowess of Child No.1. But Child No.1 is not our most strategic child. That honor easily rests with her younger sister. Child No.1 is easy to write about because she uses strategy to get what she wants and is calculating in understanding the incentives before her. And because what she wants is so transparent, it is easy to set things in place. You just have to program her the right way. What is more, she is upfront about her strategy, you know, much like an evil genius who just can't help explaining their evil plan to you. (By the way, if you want to read a good novel about that one, try this).

Child No.3 is very different. First of all, she is not transparent. When she wins, she knows it, but is savvy enough to keep it to herself. But you can see it in her movements. For instance, occasionally when we are running short of time I say, "look don't take you plates to the sink, just run upstairs and get undressed for bathtime." In response to this, Child No.1 would sing all the way, "I just gottaway with mur---DA, I just gottaway with mur---DA!" In contrast, Child No.3 would just go upstairs. No reaction but there is a small smirk on her face and a slight spring in her step. One suspects that on the inside, she is happier than any other child in this situation.

Which brings me to a second difference: this is all game to her. Child No.1 cares mostly about things (food and money) and fairness (no one gets more than her). Child No.3 like to win and she especially likes to win against her parents. Not having to do something is victory. That makes outcomes a zero-sum situation and Child No.3 is a master at picking her battles at a time of her opponent's greatest weakness.

Hence, the tantrums. Now you might think, what good would a tantrum do? Wouldn't you just punish them, be done with it and teach her that she can't win that way? That's the theory but implementation can have some issues. Let me tell you, with Child No.3, her strategic insight meant that a credible threat of a punishment and a clear demonstration that she had no choice but to comply did wonders. When she was 1 year old, we had a great party trick. Child No.3 would start crying and we would then tell her to stop including an authoritative finger. She would then cough and stop! Other parents would watch in awe. In reality, she had just been pre-programmed.

But with age, her ability to draw power from the dark side became stronger. The chief method of tantrum punishment in our household was the tried and true, 'time out' or 'corner' as we called it. Throw a tantrum and that is where you will find yourself. But with three children and lots of stuff going on, the threat became, "I will count to three and if you don't stop, you will be put in the corner." We just couldn't impose punishment immediately and so needed a remotely instrumented escape clause.

Child No.3 tapped into this. She became an expert at stopping just before we got to 3. That would have been fine but she learned the entire situation. She became an expert at stopping just before we had completely had enough and would actually physically put her in the corner. Resistence to doing what she was told and the resulting tantrum could last many minutes and finally when I was able to credibly go and punish her, she would stop. I'd think, damm, she got me again. Having stopped or complied, she would be off the hook. The problem is that her tantrums had become longer and more frequent and using this strategy she was sometimes getting away with "murrrrrDA." I was not happy and very frustrated and it was affecting my relationship with her.

It was with upon that realisation that the notion that we were at war came to the fore. The question was how to win it. Withdrawl wasn't an option but the insurgency was targetted, continuous and relentless. It was clearly aimed at a long-term breakdown in rules and a transfer of power. And it wasn't the sort of thing that having a talk about it was going to work -- we tried diplomacy but a 3 year old with dimples can see right through that. 'Talking' made us feel like we were parenting but, in fact, the war continued.

And it was hard to explain all this beyond our family. Child No.3 is a consumate extravert (a trait she inherited from her mother not me). She will target and charm any adult entering her domain. She is all "pleases" and "thank yous" because she knows that works. Other people we explained all this to her would look at her perplexed: "This is your monster?" I would counter, "You haven't seen her angry. You do not want to see her angry."

What we needed to do was shake things up and try and get ourselves onto a more sustainable path. It was with that thought that a few weekends ago, we committed ourselves to a policy that can quite accurately be called 'The Surge.' The idea was simple. We would punish immediately and with no warnings or opportunity for negotiation. And we would do it for the entire weekend without exception and without regard to cost.

And we did so do it and it was as awful an experience as you can imagine. Even though we had told her it was coming, when it did, she was, not surprisingly, shocked. She would find herself immediately in the corner. And she was not at all happy. The tantrum would, of course, get worse and by worse I mean loud. It would also become animated with "I didn't do that! You didn't count!" During this moment, I listened to the older two children debate the ethics of all of this:
Child No.2: "She's right, he didn't count. She just doesn't understand."

Child No.1: "Well, she knew she shouldn't be throwing tantrums, didn't she? Dad just wants her to stop."

Child No.2: "But she is very upset and it doesn't look like it's working. She is really loud. This is really annoying. Maybe we should help?"

Child No.1: "True it is annoying. I wouldn't get involved if I were you. You might be the target of more punishment yourself. Just be extra well-behaved."
And with that Child No.1 switched off her hearing aid (making us all envious of that option) and got on with her business.

That wasn't the end of the matter. Child No.3 decided to resist. She would escape the corner and fight, usually with me, for her freedom. And Child No.3 is really strong. Much stronger than your average 3 year old. So it was really tough to contain her.

Now it is perhaps best here to pause the story and note that much of what we were doing with The Surge was not the best 'time out' practice. I was somewhat aware of this at the time but this Slate article today pretty much demonstrates that that was the case. Using its criteria (and I recommend you read that article if you engage in time-out punishments), I have evaluated my own performance here.

As you can see, it is far from a perfect score and the Surge didn't not necessarily involve an improvement on all dimensions.

We were well aware that a Surge wouldn't actually solve anything unless we could withdrawl from it at a more peaceful outcome than before. So right from the start we had plan. If the Surge started reducing tantrums we would need to replace it with something else. Indeed, as the Slate article points out, you need something other than a time-out to use to manage the intensity of punishments. For Child No.3, the neglected third child aspect was that she had very little of her own. All of her toys were pretty much shared. She got little in the way of activities. And in our austere household, there were hardly any special treats or TV. You need to give in order to be able to withdraw.

But more critically, Child No.3 needed to feel she was 'winning.' So we enacted a chart system that hadn't worked for other two but might just work for her. We decided to give her a 'star' for each day she did not throw a tantrum. Make it through a week and she would 'win' a reward -- in our case, a toy of her own. So now if she was on the very of a tantrum, we could say, "do it and you will miss out on today's star." It required no immediate action on our part and so Child No.3 knew it was credible. Prior to the Surge, the tantrums and been so fierce, frequent and emotional that we couldn't have explained or transitioned fairly to this system. Afterwards, we could and did.

And it came with bonuses. For instance, at the same time, she developed a sore on her fingers that she sucked. We knew we would have to deal with this at some stage but the sore gave us the opportunity we needed to get her on-board. We used the chart to track behaviour and now she is 'finger sucking free.'

The war has ended but it took its toll. Our physical battles during the Surge left me with a crippling back injury that I am still recovering from. But the price was worth it. Indeed, there was some irony in the outcome. When I was having trouble getting my socks and shoes on to go to work, Child No.3 noticed and said, "Daddy, I can do that. I can help. I put my shoes and socks on without being told now." And with that she put my socks and shoes on. It was many years earlier than I expected to have this role reversal. I know that our battles are really not over, but it was a fitting reminder of a restored relationship.

Some previous posts on punishment are here, here and here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Buy Parentonomics Right Now

I have, in my hands, the very first printed copy of Parentonomics. My kids are currently doing the MS Readathon (indeed, Child No.1 read books for it while manning her other charity store). So I have decided to help them out by placing that first printed copy for sale on eBay. Click here to see the listing and bid if you want to.

The book will be available in Australia in 6 weeks and elsewhere in the world in 2009. I will ship a personally signed copy to the auction winner. Shipping to anywhere in the world is free. Moreover, all proceeds will go to the MS Society and I will personally match the winning bid with a donation.

So this is a great opportunity to help out a good cause and maybe get some kudos from getting to read the book first up. My mother hasn't even read it!

In celebration of this, let me link to two older posts. First, here is a great 30 year old story about one child's view of the MS Readathon. Second, here is what happened when my children had their first eBay experience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The fine line on motivation

So it was a recent Saturday night and the following conversation took place with Child No.1:
"Come on. Would you like to watch some TV?"

"Are you kidding? I have work to do."

"But perhaps a rest is in order ..."

"Look if I don't get this homework done now I will only have to do it tomorrow. Be real!"
Ahh, I thought to myself. A chip off the old block. My daughter at home on a Saturday night working on a school project. A colleague listening in on this conversation in disbelief (and knowing my own history on this) exclaimed: "what is wrong with you people??? Are you all crazy?"

Let's face it, this isn't the most common of 9 year old problems but, as I guess so many who read this blog already know, I don't have a common 9 year old. Not only is she the epitome of the 'rational agent' in economics with clearly defined motives (food and money) and a dramatic responsiveness to incentives, she is also somewhat driven. When it comes to assigned tasks, she does them and she does them until they are done.

But it goes deeper than that. In terms of school-led authority -- in contrast, to parent-led authority -- she obeys with a literal meaning. School and teacher rules are rules meant to be followed. Not just in spirit but to the letter.

Let me give you an example. Last year, her mother was waiting for 15 minutes after the end of school for my daughter to emerge from class. All the other children had come out but she was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, she went inside. My daughter was standing dutifully behind her desk. All of the chairs in the classroom were neatly staked on the desks (as they do for nighttime cleaning). There were no other children there and there was no teacher.
"Why didn't you come out?"

"We weren't dismissed."

"What do you mean? All of the other children have gone."

"But our teacher didn't have us for the last session and we had to come back from art. So we came back and no one was here. The rest left. But since we hadn't been dismissed I figured we had to stay."

"But wasn't the fact that all these chairs were up giving you some sort of clue?"

"Oh no. When we came back they weren't up. Everyone else left without doing it. So I put them up and waited."
Now one can be comforted that our child will obey the rules but there is also something sad and deeply worrying about this episode. "If the teacher had said jump off a cliff would you do it?" You actually want your child to be more flexible than that. Although she wasn't in danger at some point you'd hope that she would realise something was amiss and rules could be broken. I guess she wasn't hungry yet.

Herein lies our current issue and that of her teacher. Child No.1 will do as she is told at school but will do it with robot-like intensity. That creates all manner of issues. For instance, this weekend she spent hours, colouring in her 'Yearbook.' Our daughter is driven but slow at tasks and so is behind in that one. She was still doing April. As I watched what she was doing I asked why she had to fill each page so completely with designs, words and colours. The reason: "our teacher says not to leave any white bits." I argued that that seemed ridiculous. "No he actually said that to the class." I then, trying to get her to question authority more, gave her a lecture about judgment and thoughtfulness on whether a task is worth doing. That would come back to bite me very quickly.

Today we did one of our rare things and inquired about this and some other rules laid down that I had put in the ridiculous category. Her teacher explained that most kids (you know, the rest of them) needed to put just a bit more effort into the Yearbooks and so he had asked the class to fill in as much as possible. But what my daughter heard was: "he doesn't like white spaces so I had better fill it all in." And it is not like she just fills for its own sake. Given other pronouncements, each bit is an intricate design without a hint of the initial page colour. Well no wonder it takes so much time. The problem was he was trying to move the mass but in the process sent my daughter to extremes.

Together her teacher and ourselves all agree she needs to do less, use judgment and prioritise more. Interestingly, many years ago, my own parents had heard complaints from a teacher of someone, who will remain nameless (but isn't my brother), that their son should really stop on the school project after Volume 2! The project did, in fact, end up in three volumes. So there is some familiarity with this problem in our family. But a good work ethic is not something we want to extinguish (it could prove quite useful in a few years). Nonetheless, that concern aside we discussed action plans to get the workload down.

One issue, of course, is that prioritisation is not a trait that I possess. As my spouse puts it, "you do everything so damn quickly you never need to worry about it." So I guess lessons in such techniques will not come from me and my "just do it" attitude.

That said, incentives can balance the situation. Saying to my daughter, get this finished in the next half hour or there is no dinner works. But it is a delicate balancing act. Get the set of prices slightly wrong and we can have an extreme response.

And there is one final piece to the puzzle. I didn't talk to the teacher today, Child No.1's mother did. She had to listen to a rant as to it being very unhelpful when a parent (I wonder who) says a particular practice is "ridiculous" when he is just trying to get some balance in the children's work habits. I guess I have to agree with that one but I did actually have a more nuanced approach that talked about what was happening at home rather than school. For school, you do what the teacher says.

Anyhow, I wondered: how did he find out about my particular opinions? Fortunately, it wasn't the case that Child No.1 had simply volunteered this information. Remember she is strategic so she knows that there is value in withholding certain things. But when asked by her teacher why her parents wanted to talk, she spilled the beans.

But that is part of the issue. Child No.1 knows that information is valuable for strategic reasons. The problem is that she is far from socially sophisticated enough to know which information should be withheld for which adult -- teacher or parents. And so she makes judgments that results in a very distorted flow of communication between ourselves and her teacher. Another difficult management issue for us.

This, however, I suspect is not an issue her mother faces. I wasn't part of the conversation but I'm pretty darn sure that all of the blame for communication difficulties and the genetic pre-dispositions of Child No.1 have been firmly laid in my lap! When I finally front up for her official parent-teacher interview next month, things could get a tad interesting.

Levitt on car seats

I have written before about Steve Levitt's research on car seats and whether we need them. See here and here. Below is his TED talk outlining that research. In terms of cost, I don't think it is worth throwing away a car seat you might have. But what this research is suggesting is that unless you are rigorous in making sure your child is put in exactly correctly when you drive, you might actually be putting them at more risk with a car seat than with a lap belt. Indeed, the lap belt with integrated booster may be the best solution overall as it maps real world behaviour and outcomes with design. And no one has looked at the impact of having a car seat on an older child sitting right next to them during a crash. Don't we owe it to our kids to find out much more about this before imposing standards and thinking that we are done.

How early can you voluntarily trade?

Daniel Hamermesh asks whether a two year old can really grasp the free market. My inclination is to say, 'yes,' but perhaps not in the way he might be thinking. The issue is strategies 2 year old's employ when it comes to disputes over property rights. This usually involves a toy that is scarce relative to demand.

I watched the behaviour of all three of my children in child care over this issue. Child No.1's strategy was this. When she had a toy if anyone who had a prior reputation for expressing a wish to relieve her of it would come near, she would scream her head off. The would be predator would be driven away but, suffice to say, some loss in trade efficiency would occur.

Child No.2, on the other hand, avoided conflict. At a very young age, he worked out that it was worthwhile just giving the other child the toy. He knew that within minutes it would be disguarded and he could retrieve it. I used to watch this in amazement. Literally, as soon as the toy was abandoned, he would swoop in and regather it. It was a model of conflict avoidance and in many respects a perfectly acceptable matching of needs and wants.

But Child No.3 has trade down. With two others in the household to contend with, when someone else expressed a desire for a toy, she would be reasoned with and accept a deal to exchange that toy, if only for a time, in return for something -- usually the offer of another activity or some attention. But she would only do it voluntarily with some upside to the deal for her.

The upshot of this is that I think that voluntary exchange and observed equilibrium behaviour amongst two year olds is an experiential thing. Hmm, just the same as for everyone else.

The Joy of Spore

Everyone seemed to be saying Spore was coming but I hadn't paid much attention to it. But last week the folks from EA Games posted the Spore Creature Creator, a program where you could make some of the creatures that you could play with in the full game. I must admit that I thought that it was a cheap gimmick but with a free trial download decided to check it out.

It was simply incredible. I would have bought the full version immediately but for the fact that there is no Mac download and apparently you can't buy it in Australia! In any case, my 7 year old son took to it as if it was the greatest thing ever. Basically, even in the crimped trial version you can create creatures with stunning 3D rendering and an amazing array of options. This was a program made for his mind. Over the last few days he has created 84 creatures, each with its own name and distinctive features. (I can only imagine what he will do with the full version).

Spore allows you to upload you creations to your own page. My son's is The Honk and you can see 33 of his creatures right there. For instance, here is one based on the Flanimal, Blunging. But most of his creatures are right from his own mind. In all of his early work, it was a requirement that a creature had a non-standard number of eyes, limbs and heads. You really want to be any of these things. Later on, a couple of days later, his work matured into things that might be more practical. The sheer flexibility in the design is just incredible. It will be amazing to see how all this comes together in the full game. I cannot recommend the trial at least highly enough.

One of my favourites is my son's rendition of his Pleo dinosaur (click here). The program allows you to film your creature in action and then to upload the video straight to YouTube. So here is his Pleo and its children doing some tricks.

In that genre

So I have been told that Parentonomics possibly falls in the genre of parenting books combined with humour, where humour and economics are interchangeable in the book publishing world. For that reason I thought I should read some recent books in that genre. This is something I haven't done for some time. Indeed, the last time was pre-children with Paul Reiser's Babyhood. I pulled that one off the shelf and it is still pretty funny. It is a book that is pre-blogging but in many respects it really reads like a collection of little posts (something I have tried to avoid when putting together Parentonomics).

Anyhow, following on the comedian angle, recently released is a book by Kevin Nealon. I used to watch him on Saturday Night Live and I think he occasionally pops up in movies. But I chose that book primarily because I was sitting at the next table to him in an LA airport lounge last year and he looked pretty much like the picture on the front of his book. Interestingly, he had bought a Sony eBook reader just as the Kindle had come out and I was puzzled about this. Maybe it was for the flight only to discover he was going to need a computer to get at those books.

His book is about his experience in pregnancy -- not his really but his wife's. He is 53 and so is older than the average parent and also, his celebrity lifestyle defined much of what he was going through. There was lots of angst about having children and feelings about life in general which gave him an excuse to recount previous non-parenting incidents with random abandon. It had its moments but there was not alot that I found easy to relate to. Nonetheless, I suspect that if you are pregnant (or close to one who is) this would be a good read.

That said Nealon's promotional videos on Amazon are fun. In this example, he shows how to save money working out how to babyproof your house. We had the same idea but we just invited over friends with toddlers. That still seems to me to be a better experiment aside from the 'interfering' parents who didn't let some things run their course.

The final book I picked up is an edited volume by Heather B. Armstrong. She picks the best of parenting bloggers and has them write about Fatherhood. But surprisingly, the chapters do not read like blog posts but really a collection of stories. One of these I have linked to before (on Star Wars), but the story by Matthew Baldwin that likens pregnancy to The Return of the King was an absolute classic (here is a taste of that). And there are some others that hit the mark. This is definitely one to take a look at the next time you are browsing.

But all in all I was assured that perhaps what I am offering is a little more unique. It is a crowded genre but I took some comfort that somehow I have emerged from the parenting experience with a distinct perspective.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Emotional bias?

You know, I like Tyler Cowen's writings and think well of his economics. But this Bloggingheads TV discussion he was part of had me reeling. [HT: Althouse]

(Here is the whole bit for context). Near as I can tell Tyler is arguing that mother's feel emotional 'costs' of their children more than fathers and this leads children being "over-something" as a result of an asymmetry in bargaining power between mothers and fathers.

Wow, for an economist who you would think would be prone to evidence, I had no idea where this theory came from. Tyler seems to think that mothers are prone to resist their children making investments (such as learning to drive) because they will do more of it and hence, the mothers will worry more. Apparently, fathers can see through this (more 'abstractly'). I think Tyler seems to think that has something to do with evolutionary bias (e.g., mothers want to avoid immediate disaster). But that is a real stretch. Do mothers really get their way more often on parenting even taking into account differences in how often they are 'on the ground'? Tyler seems to be arguing that a mother's emotional commitment gives her a greater degree of bargaining power in conflictual parenting decisions.

This type of gender-based extrapolation of different parenting styles is something that is beyond my experience, I can't really imagine a theory for it (except maybe just after giving birth when there other physiological asymmetries at play), and there is no evidence I am aware of to suggest such a thing. Let me tell you emotional reactions in parenting are hardly the exclusive domain of women -- just ask my kids who have seen fury, rage and gut reactions from me as much as they have from their mother. In many respects, we have substantive agreement on parenting issues but in other situations, we alternate the 'good cop' and 'bad cop' roles to negotiate outcomes. No parenting decision is a two way negotiation between parents. It is at least three and possibly more in terms of negotiation. That is the larger bargain and it seems to me that gender issues fade well into the background on that.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting the classical facts

Yesterday, I took -- OK dragged -- my two eldest to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. They were performing a set of 'Space Classics' which was basically stuff by John Williams plus a few others. When I was a child, this would have been right up there is a top class, highly rated activity. The pieces included much of the good stuff from Star Wars, although somewhat inexplicably, Jabba the Hut's theme which was a tuba beating out some grunts. But it also included other Williams' classics from Close Encounters, ET, Superman and Jerry Goldsmith's fantastic theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It also included three of Holst's Planets but that was mere filler. Sure, they have good moments but really they don't stack up to modern imagery.

That said, my son decided right from the start that this is not the place he wanted to be and for the next two hours he asked every 15 minutes, how much longer? To be sure, our view from the stalls was not too great but I had hoped some peaceful enjoyment of the music might sink in. But it was not to be.

During the intermission, I created a game. The conductor would introduce pieces and get stuff wrong. Talking about things like "Luke Starwalker," "CP3O," 7 planets in the solar system (even dumping Pluto he was getting confused with Holst's 7 other planets and it went on. He couldn't even tell his "Duel of the Fates" from "Across the Stars"! So basically, the game became: count the number of obvious conductorial errors. That kept things going until the end but the lack of accuracy did little to sell him on the experience.

My son has invented a rating system for 'funness.' For any given day, he rates activities of the day and gives us, his parents, a score. '1' is the benchmark. Exceed that and the day is classed as 'fun' but below it is not. It is basically a form of 360 degree performance evaluation. Most of the time I welcome the feedback.

Anyhow, prior to the MSO we had lunch, watched some street theatre and a few storm troopers (who I'll tell you this, look to short for a storm trooper) wandering around. And my son's rating: "It is a .5. It would have been 3/4's if the concert had been half an hour shorter." I had thought about leaving during intermission. His rating would have gone up but mine and my daughter's would have gone down. Besides he needs a little learning in making the most of what he perceives as a bad situation.

[Update: OK, maybe I should have just taken one kid as Emily Bazelon suggests].

Facebook Group

A friend has set up a group on Facebook for all things Parentonomics. It will be a place for news and maybe reviews. The group is open so please feel free to join. (Just search for 'parentonomics' on Facebook)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Entrepreneurial update

Child No.1's chocolate shop has now closed. She raised $215 for her Taekwondo club and did so without one single cent coming from parents or their co-workers. What is more, the stock she had was valued at $192 and so her pricing policy actually yielded a super-normal profit of $23. I couldn't be more proud of this endeavour. However, her biggest thrill was that this achievement appeared to best some of the whole teams forced to do similar activities on The Apprentice operating with far fewer constraints and much more time. Are you listening Donald Trump? Me thinks you are looking for talent in the wrong age group.

Holding back for no reason

Casual observation suggests that many parents are holding their children back a grade to improve their academic performance later on. The theory is that for some kids, not being behind in the pack can help them stay with the pack and assist learning. The problem is that studies of whether this actually helps or not are plagued by the likely fact that parents who choose to hold kids back might be doing so for reasons beyond simple learning; e.g., for other socialisation or maturity factors that confound later measurement of performance.

A new study looks at a Norwegian 'experiment' that takes parental choice out of the equation. In Norway, children start school based on the year they turn 7. So if you are born on December 31 you are a year ahead of a child born the next day. Effectively the same age but the New Year's Baby has been randomly red-shirted. The authors then look at the measured IQ of children entering the military at age 18 (apparently most people) and relate it to these date issues.

It turns out the age you start school matters little for the IQ test score at age 18. But those who start school late have reduced earnings up until about age 30.

The upshot of this is that there are no reasons to hold kids back or time births for some age advantage in class. It is not clear whether it goes the other way -- that is, we don't know if accelerating kids might help. My guess is that more caution in terms of moving around school entry away from standard practice should be the rule for parents rather than erring on the side of having your child be the oldest in the class.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A movie about incentives

The much anticipated Kung Fu Panda hit our cinemas today. Actually, it had a tough job to overcome following trailers to Wall-E, Madagascar 2 and The Clone Wars. Nonetheless, it was much as expected, a light-hearted homage to the martial arts genre. You know the drill, an anoited one is to be anoited and rather than being one of the 5 animals who had trained for it their entire lives, it someone ends up being a panda who gets the nod for what everyone including the panda but not the 'accident denying' turtle believes was, in fact, an accident.

The issue then becomes how to make this fairly bad state of affairs work against a snow leopard ,Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, former pupil character who is coming back to do bad things but, in reality, is just ticked off. And it turns out that the answer, and I am not giving too much away for those who have seen the trailer, is to get the incentives right. In particular, so long as said panda is appropriately motivated -- in his case, by food -- he can pretty much do anything and what should be a lifetime of training is compressed into what appears to be only a day of food related hijinks. The message for all the kids and parents out there is simple: anyone can be great so long as you put the right carrots, or in this case, Chinese food, in place. Our kids left the movie with this message firmly in place and hungry -- well, for lunch.

Role reversal

Great link: Dani Rodrik's daughter in classic form writing as her father:
And now I'm jamming out to the music on my iPhone in celebration while my daughter is coping with her crap iPod from 1923. You should see me play the air guitar.. mm hmm magic flows from my fingers. And I'm sure you can't wait to see me dance because that is, of course, the main attraction. When I start my daughters are so overjoyed that they have to step outside for a little. They tell me that it's because they don't want to be seen with me, but I know it's really to suppress their misery that this gene was not passed on to them.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fathers Day

As it is Fathers Day in the US (in Australia we have to wait until September -- only 80 more sleeps!) I thought I'd just link here to an old post of mine on the subject.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Been there

A story from CNN today about a wedding gown maker who went out of business leaving its customers stranded and not happy. I watched it and thought to myself; been there.

Back in the mid-1990s, 4 months before our wedding, we opened the Sydney Morning Herald to read about a bride who could not get access to her dress the day before her wedding because the shop she had bought from had not paid its rent and had been locked up. And then I read closer and asked: "hey, didn't you get your dress around this place?" I didn't know because I had not been a party to that transaction. And you know where this leads: "holy crap!"

Now you would think that 4 months before the wedding shouldn't be an issue. We hadn't actually got the dress. There had been only one measurement session. But there was a catch. The store had offered us 20 percent off if we pre-payed. And alas, given the cost of the damn thing, pre-pay we did.

Suffice it to say, that lead to problem after problem. You see, it is not like brides trot down to the shops and pick up the first frock they see. No, that transaction was the end result of a search of every dress in the whole of Sydney. It was the best. So if that option was closed, we would have to go to what had been revealed to be second best. Let me tell you, at least to one of us, that was more distressing than the idea of double paying.

Well, there is a silver or at least sequenced lining to our story. We tracked the store owner down and managed to transact directly with the actual dress-maker who had got paid our money (or most of it). However, we were worried about liquidity.

So rather than doing the sensible thing and having the dress made within the last month so it can be tailored to the bride's body as it exists in that month, instead the whole exercise had to be done right now, 3 months early.

Now how was this achieved? Well, and you can see why I was marrying her, my bride-to-be discreetly suggested (well, I am thinking lied) that the wedding had been brought forward two months and the dress was needed pretty much right now. And why? Well, she intimated that if it wasn't at that time, the wedding pictures might not look too good on account of the fact that she was, you know ...

... which of course she wasn't. Of course, that led to fitting sessions that involved lots of discussions of the kind: "you don't seem to be showing at all!" and "are you sure you might like us to leave a little room around the waist, just to cover the next week or so." Awkward but let's face it, we were not in the most honest of transacting environments by that stage.

Of course, I must admit, a little room would not have gone astray. We had the dress in hand 2 months before the actual wedding and 2 and a half years before any actual baby and so it was a constant regimen of exercise and dieting to make sure that dress still fit. Given the rest of the stress around that time, that was the last thing we needed. Fortunately for me, my outfit was a rental and could happily be adjusted right up to the day before the wedding (which, in fact, it was).

So the moral of this story: ruthlessness pays and even the nicest of person can rise to that occasion when facing a wedding.


It has been one month since the EconomistMom blog was launched by Diane Rogers, an economist with a long-standing career in public policy and who has accumulated 4 kids along the way. I wanted to link to it in a post as I am reading it. My problem is that I couldn't decide whether it should be at Core Economics or here.

Today, she asked the world who was out there and confronted her own classification dilemma. So I have decided to put a link here. It is not that her posts remind of parenting. They are not of the kind, well if I take my economics knowledge and apply it to children what do I get? (I guess that is my domain). They are of the kind, if I take what I learned raising my kids and applied that to economic policy, what happens?

And what happens? My impression is a ton of looking to the future and lots of fiscal discipline.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Age-Appropriate Gadgets

In today's New York Times [HT: Andrew Leigh], an article about growing up with gadgets. There is not much in there that isn't just plain common sense. After all, you may read about some 2 year old using a computer but in actuality that is a rare, rare event.

We have had mobile phone discussions in our family but basically, until they are out on their own there is no need. Our 9 year old says the school doesn't allow them and being so damn obedient there, she would likely refuse one if offered. Our 7 year old, on the other hand, wants nothing less than an iPhone but that is for a different reason that I'll come to in a second.

That said, our kids are hardly gadget free. The two eldest have iPods and DSs that we have found invaluable when traveling. The 3 year old wants them too but doesn't care as much about whether they work. So she has been given a iPod cardboard cut out from one of our iPod accessories and she is happy with that. That said, there is something a little sad in that whole transaction and I'm sure she will have the three dimensional variety soon enough.

It is my 7 year old son that is the gadget fan and there is little holding him back. He gladly watches all of the ads and video demonstrations on He feels our house deserves a MacBook Air for the excellent reason that it is currently the best. We have resisted. But following on the New York Times article, he will do anything so long as it is on a computer. I downloaded the wonderful MIT programming software Scratch. It is a programming environment for kids and he quite happily develops animations and stories on it.

But now that he saw Steve Job's keynote on the iPhone applications and the demonstration of how easy it is to write applications with the SDK, he has become very interested in that. So we have officially registered as an Apple Software Developer and have downloaded the software. It is tricky but there are lots of video guides.

And what am I really after in all of this? Basically, what I want is a headline: "7 year old programs and launches software on the iPhone App Store." If we can manage that, he can have an iPhone for his 8th birthday.

Monday, June 9, 2008

International Parentonomics Release

I am pleased to announce that the world-wide rights to Parentonomics have been acquired by MIT Press. It should be available for purchase -- at least in the US and UK -- in early 2009. I'll post more information as it becomes available. This is very exciting news as MIT Press is one of the finest publishing houses for economics field.

Randomised baby data

Following on from last week's post about data collected by parents, Ian Ayres suggests using sites like Trixie Tracker to learn more about which parenting techniques work. His first suggestion is on controlled crying (something that I have written about here and here). The idea is that you need to 'negotiate' with your baby some sensible sleeping arrangements. I am an advocate but only based on economic theory and my own experience. But I am not sure it is for everyone and for every child.

What is interesting about the possibility of randomised experiments here is that there are no real ethical issues. Put simply, lots of people are giving parents advice to try various things. All this would do is ask parents to record what they actually did and a research could map that systematically with formal advice they are receiving. You could also control for diet and illness (you know when your baby is a little sick and uses that an excuse to halt the controlled crying standoff). This would put to rest (literally) random advice from parents like me with at most a few data points at their disposal and get us some real knowledge.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Charitable entrepreneurship

I knew this was coming. For years, beleaguered parents had come to work with boxes of charity chocolates that their children had committed to sell. It was usually good value and if placed well in the workplace could be sold quickly. But it was clearly a chore and I suspected many other parents just stocked up themselves. Last week, our 9 year old daughter came back from Taekwondo with 2 boxes (96 bars) to sell. The cause was to help send one of their club's members to the 2008 Olympics.

We had some time so rather than foist the chocolates on my work colleagues, I encouraged my daughter to think about how she might sell them. Instantly, she came up with the idea of setting up shop right outside of the movie theatre. Then surely customers would buy from her rather than the expensive offerings in door.

It was an excellent thought but I figured that this was just the sort of thing that might cause a spot of bother -- perhaps with the authorities.

Her next idea was to ring the father of one of her school friend's who, as it happened, ran a chain of chocolate shops. She would ask his advice. He suggested door-to-door selling. I, on the other hand, decided I'd rather take the 'work option' than supervise that activity.

So I restricted any opening to 'right outside our house.' I also pointed out that being across from a park, she would face little competition in the overall food market.

To organise herself I suggested that she think of this like a task from The Apprentice. Our family watches this regularly and our daughter is a big fan. I figured this would be a good opportunity to put all of the wisdom she has learned from Donald Trump to the test. She quickly anointed herself as project manager and put her younger brother to work on signage. He is easily the expert on the computer and they wanted a professional look. They must have put a day of work on the sign and you can see the result. (This idea to profess a love for chocolate was her brother's idea.)

Now you might also notice the pricing policy. The club had instructed a price of $1 per bar. But I suggested that perhaps she should think about pricing -- remember The Apprentice. She decided that to move greater volume, she needed a discount for quantity. But she figured that it couldn't be below $1 per bar or she would be losing money. So she decided to jack to price of single bars up to $1.50. "That way, if you buy a second bar you think you are getting it for 50 cents. A bargain," she explained. Sounded like an excellent plan to me.

It was Sunday afternoon by the time all this had been worked out. It was cold outside and 4pm. She desperately wanted to try the shop out and so I, figured, why not. If there aren't any customers, there aren't any. There will be other days.

Now it is true that there are very few people walking past our house of a Sunday afternoon. But everyone who passed and had money, bought a couple of bars. I think it was the effort of the signage that did the trick.

But there was more. There were cars stopping and eager customers picking up bars for the kids. Suffice it to say, there may have been low traffic but her conversion rate would have impressed Donald Trump immensely. By 5pm, when I decided it was too cold to stay out longer, she had sold 34 bars. The next day, she was out earlier, at 3pm, and is doing reasonable business despite the public holiday, even colder day and occasional rain. She even sold a few at $1.50!

So much to my surprise, there appears to be a retail opportunity right outside our door. No need to go door-to-door. And my guess is that in a few short hours my work colleagues will be safe.

Game old

What happens when a museum puts on an exhibition with this description?
Game On tracks the development of videogames from the first computer game to arcade-era hits and the very latest from today's billion dollar industry.

Original illustrations by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and concept sketches behind classics like Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto provide unique insight into the creative process of game development. Rarely-seen consoles, controllers, arcade machines, packaging and collectables are brought together in a showcase of game history like no other.
Answer: crowds. I looked at this and thought, "am I to understand that we go there and can play from over 125 video games as much as we want and to class the activity as 'educational'" Apparently so and so went we did.

To say that the 'history' and 'science' was hard to bring out was an understatement. To be sure, there were 'exhibits' with consoles pulled apart and some older pieces of technology such as an Apple IIe which my son said reminded him of a laptop -- which, without the screen I guess it did. But they weren't even trying. There were no grand timelines. No display videos running with 'how do they make video games' and such. Instead, you could have been fooled into thinking that this was a travel through the arcades and living rooms of the past.

First stop, a display of Pong -- although Pong like you have never seen it before on a big projection screen. I insisted that we play. Big mistake. This was the button rather than the paddle variety and suffice it to say, getting a rally going was difficult. Moreover, we were on the big screen which was a magnet for embarrassment. We quickly moved on.

Next stop, into the late 70s with Space Invaders. "Did you really play game built into a coffee table like that?" "Why yes we did." "Why don't we do that these days?" "Good question." Perhaps Microsoft surface will be a winner. Anyhow, I pointed out that, because the computers were not that powerful, you could only fire one missile at a time which was a challenge. They pointed out that the game seemed slow and also there did not seem to be apparent reason why so many aliens were continuing to invade.

Next up, Asteriods. "You see you shoot at the asteriods and they break up." "Those are asteriods?" "Yes." "Then, how come when they leave the screen on this side they appear at the bottom as if it is one big sphere?" I muttered something about theories of the universe at that time and moved on ...

... to around 1980 and Centerpede. This was definitely a big favourite of mine. The track ball. The rapid fire bullets. Not only the centerpede but spiders, slugs and those damn mushrooms. But I got to the next level first time up. "Woo hoo, I finished the first level." "How come it hasn't changed?" "Yes, it has. See the centerpede is a different colour." "That's it? How do you know when you are done?"

Packman proved a bigger hit with my daughter for reasons I wasn't sure and we spent some time there while I attempted to hit the high score on Centerpede on the next machine. I didn't manage it even though the machine had been on for less than an hour. Also, a hit was an old Star Wars arcade game complete with a responsive X-wing controller. The kids like the novelty of feeling like they were in the ship even if the graphics were stick like. As they said, it worked because "that is how it was like in the movie." Authenticity counts.

Then I showed them Donkey Kong. "Wait a second, Mario and Donkey Kong were enemies?" "Yep, it was a harsh and divisive gaming world then." There was a warm glow that somehow we had moved to a more peaceful and understanding era (well, until we got to the violent video games down the track).

And so we left the early 1980s and entered the living room era. There was an original Atari (thankfully, no ET game; I am sure they were all pulped) and there as well as a whole heap of things I had not remember such as the Sinclair computer -- it was so small! But these weren't part of my childhood as the recession of that time left our family out of that generation of technology (and after that I grew too old). But there were old Nintendos and even computers running the text-based original adventure game and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I could have stayed there some time but this didn't hold anyone else's interest.

Then we happened upon the hand-held 'exhibit.' It didn't include an original Simon (too many thrown against a wall in frustration to have survived) but a Simon 2 -- we lost out at about 15 in the sequence. It also had one of my cherished toys from the early 1980s, the Game and Watch Donkey Kong with a double screen; working and in its original orange. I showed it to the kids with delight. "This is what I used to play all of the time." "How does it work?" "Well like a normal video game. You move forward and jump of the barrels as they hurtle down at you." "Hurtle? They are just moving from one space to the next." What can I say, we took what we could get. "Look it also had a clock."

After that, we got beyond the past and to a regular video game era from Nintendo 64 right up to the Wii. There was lots of fun to be had. It turned out that my otherwise pacifist son (click here for a reminder) took a shine to the hand to hand combat games. We didn't have any of these in the house but he lapped them up from Street Fighter on. I had never played them before.
"Hang on stop hitting me. How do I kick?"

"Well, you need to work it out. I can't teach you everything."

"But my guy is bleeding."

"Too bad. Take that."

"OK I got it now. Take that back. And that you little terror."

"Dad, please."
Suffice it to say, he enjoyed giving me a pummeling but I eventually got the hand of it.

For those in Melbourne, Game On is a great day out. Just remember, it is 'educational.'

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Borgification of your Baby

One of the cutest scenes in Star Trek: The Next Generation is when Riker and co, opened up a drawer on a Borg Cube and found themselves a baby with a few rudimentary implants. I haven't seen that happening yet but after last week's look at data gathering, here is a review of a product -- TotSpot -- that allows you to get your baby right into social networking.

Writing about your kids (in public)

As regular readers know, Slate's Emily Bazelon stimulates many a blog post here. Her offering today hits home because I have been asked the same question by so many: when is it OK to write about your children and family on the Internet (or I guess in a whole book)? Bazelon expresses a nervousness about her writing but also a knowledge that the activity of writing itself is a pleasurable one. Pretty much all of the issues she deals with are ones I can appreciate. Been there.

But there are ground rules. Protection is number one. The material I write about is censored. There is stuff I worry might embarrass someone today or in the future (e.g., it has crimped my writing about my views on lots of things that go on at school). But there is more than that. The only name that appears on this blog is my own. The same is true of the book. That was a decision that the children's mother and I made right at the start. When someone who knows us puts in a comment that mentions them, it is deleted.

Even that has raised issues. The first few readers of Parentonomics worried about all of the alternative expressions I chose. For the children, it was Child No.1, No.2 and No.3. They asked: why not make up a name? I just couldn't do that. To do so would feel odd to me. Besides, I see them as 1, 2 and 3 and so the names are actually good internal ones. (Indeed I can't count how many times I call them by the wrong name in real life!)

What is more awkward is "the children's mother." It sounds like we are divorced or separated or something. But I have never liked the alternatives like "wife" or "spouse." So I am stuck there because, in that case, I do internally see her by her unique self. It is only some of the time that she is our children's mother.

That said, my name is out there and so there will be some time where one of the children will be teased or upset by something I write. It is a risk that every single person who enters this field takes. What they don't see is that writing about it all actually helps me be a better parent. So I'll try and explain that when the time comes. But I can tell you now, as they get older, if they aren't happy, this will end. [And they can point back to this public pledge to make it so.]

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Question of the Day

From my 7 year old son, "Dad, why do they call them 'folders'?" (He was referring to them on a Mac) Ah, how the English language changes. My eldest when she was young was asked what spiderman did. "Oh he makes web sites."

Well, at least we don't have a PC and so I don't have to explain the 'recycle bin'.