Sunday, July 27, 2008

Classic indignities

From The New Yorker, "if adults were subject to the same indignities as children."


Zoe: Dad, I’m throwing a party tonight, so you’ll have to stay in your room. Don’t worry, though—one of my friends brought over his father for you to play with. His name is Comptroller Brooks and he’s roughly your age, so I’m sure you’ll have lots in common. I’ll come check on you in a couple of hours. (Leaves.)

Comptroller Brooks: Hello.

Mr. Higgins: Hello.

Comptroller Brooks: So . . . um . . . do you follow city politics?

Mr. Higgins: Not really.

Comptroller Brooks: Oh.

(Long pause.)

(Zoe returns.)

Zoe: I forgot to tell you—I told my friends you two would perform for them after dinner. I’ll come get you when it’s time. (Leaves.)

Comptroller Brooks: Oh, God, what are we going to do?

Mr. Higgins: I know a dance . . . but it’s pretty humiliating.

Comptroller Brooks: Just teach it to me.

And there are more in the article. Well, so. They'll recover ... probably.

That said, near as I can tell, every 4 year old children's birthday party I attend is just like this. Stuck in a room with other adults whose only association with me is based on the age of our children!

Friday, July 25, 2008


I am a sucker enthusiast for Leap products. We have accumulated a ton of them over the years from the LeapPad to the Leapster and various products in between. All of them have been quite good but when I think about it more carefully never quite as good as I had anticipated. Despite this I persist largely because the products seem so cool.

With this in mind, I purchased the Tag Reading System for my daughter's 4th birthday. This is an evolution of the LeapPad but doesn't require the pad but does require the expenditure on books. It is basically a pen and then you can buy books that the pen can read. Strictly speaking the books are just books but they give away downloads to the Tag pen that make it all work, play games and other things. They also allow the parent to monitor progress.

Well, my expectations were not necessarily high. But my daughter loves it; although I have to admit that it is more of a renewed interest in books than anything else. So there is precious little progress for me to actually monitor. Anyhow, given the choice between this and yet another cheap Hannah Montana toy, I am happy with my continued subsidisation of Leap's R&D costs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The threat of punishment

I have written before about the use of a laid out path of escalating punishments (especially ironic ones) to elicit quick attention. The idea is to dole out easy punishments with a threat of increasingly costly ones if behaviour isn't correct.

Today I can report a 'success' with this strategy with my 7 year old son. This time he left his coat at school. He does this because it is cold in the mornings and not in the afternoons. He then forgot to find his coat the next day. So the punishment path was simple, if he didn't bring his coat back today, he would be forced to wear one of his sister's hand-me-downs. This would be one of the ones she had been given but had considered too 'girly' to wear. We selected the coat and he tried it on for size.

Anyhow, he saw the path ahead and made a pre-pitch against it. He argued to me that it would be unfair on the other kids at school. Why? Because they would tease him and then they would get in trouble!

Quite an argument and very selfless. Anyhow, I said that was their problem and the threat stayed. And what do you know, the coat returned home today. Ta da!

Monday, July 21, 2008

No kidding

[HT: Tim Harford] So it doesn't take much. From BBC News:

A Norfolk headteacher has said there have been no exclusions from his school since he started rewarding pupils with chocolate for good behaviour.

Dr Andrew Sheppard began the scheme in 2005, since when exclusion days at Redcastle Furze Primary in Thetford have dropped from 65 a year to zero....

But Dr Sheppard said: "It has improved behaviour, they are polite and... they have a sense of responsibility."

In September 2005, Dr Sheppard pledged to give all 240 pupils a bar of chocolate if they made it to the half term break without any exclusions.

The scheme proved so successful it was extended term by term. Since then discos, picnics and Easter eggs have been handed out.

But, of course, there were detractors:

"We had people saying how terrible it was that we were bribing children and it was unsustainable," he said.

"We had complaints saying we were contributing to childhood obesity and rotting teeth.

"But the children really liked it and it really works."

Dr Sheppard said he hoped other schools would follow his lead.

Earlier this year in an internet poll of 2,581 parents, 27% said teachers were giving their children sweets and three-quarters thought it was a bad idea.

At the time the School Food Trust said it would be better to use healthy food as a reward.

Yes, and exactly what quantity of healthy food would achieve this outcome? None, I'd say, unless of course you banned all food at school and they only got some if they were well behaved.

Word Cloud

Thanks to Wordle, a word cloud of this blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

We have party organisation down

Today we held our 20th children's birthday party. Suffice it to say, while it was certainly far from profitable, it was a very stress free affair. 30 odd children for Child No.3's 4th birthday (whole class + extras), play-centre location, food all provided and cleaned-up, no structured activities -- just running around for 2 hours, Hannah Montana ice cream cake, a few lollies to take home and we were all done and relaxed. Very low outcome on the party stressometer.

To be sure, there was little special about all this but Child No.3 did feel special which was the point. Sadly, in a few years she will start to have party preferences like her siblings and it will get complicated again. At least then we can negotiate the numbers down.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is happiness the point?

[HT: Will Wilkinson] This has come up before, but there is a debate about whether children actually make parents happy. The 'scientific' evidence says no but the 'anecdotal' evidence says yes. Newsweek have a piece on this issue and can't resolve the debate. My best guess is that happiness isn't the point but once again it all too philosophical for a weekend so I'll leave it at that.

FYI, redshirting

Since it is not something we have ever contemplated, I don't have much to say about holding kids back a year. Although, in principle, I guess it depends on the child. For instance, Ken Robinson has remarked that it is extraordinary why all kids in a class are of the same age. "Why do we think they are best matched on learning according to their date of manufacture?" That said, school isn't just about the learning but about the society too.

A little while back I reported on a study that suggested that red-shirting did little to improve educational and employment outcomes. In today's WSJ blog a discussion of a new study by David Deming and Susan Dynarski that argues that the practice is leading to little good.
Kids who start school a year late have one year less schooling before they reach the age at which they’re allowed to drop out, decreasing their average educational attainment and widening the gap in learning between rich and poor. (Low-income teenagers are more likely to drop out.) And those who do stay in school enter the labor force a year later — decreasing their average lifetime earnings as well as their contribution to Social Security.
That is a bit of a worry. Economist Mom who does have experience with this offers her thoughts.

[Update: In Slate, Emily Bazelon summarises the research.]

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Launch at Melbourne Writer's Festival

If you are in Melbourne, you might be interested in attending the official Parentonomics launch. It will take place at the Melbourne Writers' Festival on Sunday 31st August from 12-1pm. It is a free event. Click here for details and location.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hedge mazes and iPhones

Melbourne is surrounded by hedge maze attractions; you know, the big things like they had in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire but with fewer dragons. This weekend we had visitors and so trekked out to one of these. These are great activities for the kids. Basically, they can run off on their own and unlike your normal predisposition on such things the actual point is that they get lost and have to work their way out.

For parents you are either going to do take it seriously or not. Common sense would dictate making that decision prior to entering a maze. Sadly, you usually decide on this after you have stepped in the maze and are yourselves, lost. So there I was, along with a prominent economist, both realising that we were too busy talking about other stuff to have paid attention where we were going. It could take a good half hour to navigate our way out.

Fortunately, I decided on another path. I had a newly purchased iPhone 3G and so decided to use the GPS to locate us on an actual aerial shot of the maze. My colleague had a Blackberry that did a similar thing but the screen shot was too small. For me, the screen shot was barely readable but didn't quite have the detail to help us get out. The technology failed us. That said, I was able to see whether it was possible to book a nice lunch at a warm restaurant as we trapsed through. Turned out it wasn't but I could at least multi-task.

We eventually emerged from the maze. There was a tower at the end so we could see what else is happening. There were some adults in a 'clearing' and they signalled our attention. They then held up a child and asked us if we owned him. Turned out that it was my 7 year old son. (He had got really lost and used the age-old strategy of 'looking lost with a hint of distress' to secure help). So after a thumbs up I re-entered the maze to locate the clearing. Of course, that was as hard as finding your way out. This time I took another child who had paid attention with me so it was a bit quicker.

And the moral of this story is ... hedge mazes are fun but current technology isn't going to save you just yet.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dinner time togetherness

Today's Slate inspired post is on having dinner with your children. The article cites various studies showing beneficial effects from everyone having dinner together for both children and parents. Of course, it is hard to work out whether the dinners cause the benefits or the benefits cause the dinner or something else causes both. Indeed, the NPR program that delves into this further suggests that the type of conversation you have over dinner really matters. You listen to that and you just worry.

Anyhow, we are a household that dines together. This is one of the benefits of having our dual incomes coming from academia and public service. We can all be at home by 5 or so. And that means dinners together at 5:30 almost every night. (Well, actually, these days the other parent darts off to the gym or something so we ain't the perfect model of this anymore).

Now the studies suggest that you have to have meaningful conversations for all this to mean anything. From this I take to it to mean pleading to sit still or eat your vegetables or not wipe your dirty face on your shirt doesn't cut it. On that latter one, it does result in instant shirt removal without replacement.

We do better with "how was your day at school?" with the typical response "good" or "I don't want to say" which always piques my interest, making said child not wanting to have even said they didn't want to say. Sometimes it is more intriguing and we hear about playground politics and engage in thoughtful responses of how to deal with it. For example,
"So and so won't let me play this and that."

"Well, have you tried asking nicely."

"Yeesss, it doesn't work. They just tell me to go away."

"Well, maybe this and that is pretty dull. How about doing something more interesting? You get the interest and that just shows them!"

"There isn't anything more interesting."

"You know maybe I can just come into school and flog those bastards."

"Dad, you're not helping."
And so it goes on. This is far removed from the intellectual discussion that is supposed to be associated with dinner time togetherness. So sometimes an adult attempts to transmit knowledge:
"So they think they discovered water on Mars today."

"We already have water here."

"True and we have life here too. If they find water on Mars that might mean there is life there too."

"Why can't they just look around for the life and not bother with the water?"

"Well, it may be that the life died out many years ago. So the water indicates life might have been there."

"In that case, the water didn't do them much good, did it?"

"True, I guess not."
Suffice it to say, perhaps we should leave the serious learning to school.

Pleo in Australia

So your friendly dinosaur toy, Pleo, will soon be available in Australia. Regular readers know that I bought my son one for his birthday last year and it is an expensive toy. However, if you are flush with cash and want to spoil yourself children, you can pre-order from Next Technologies for iPhone territory prices.

Home Alone

This week, for the first time in a decade, I am home alone. Everyone else is in Sydney during the school holidays. I was there at the weekend but had to come back for work.

Now you would think that such a change would be relished, just for a little while. Five nights without obligation, no compromises, television before 7pm and so on. Just for a little while, it sounds like a welcome change.

But no. The second I walked into the empty house I was lost. I literally did not know what to do with myself. Getting dinner seemed not to be worth it just for myself. There was no laundry to do and I actively sought it out. But all around were reminders of what the house is usually like but with less mess. I didn't watch any more TV or read. I just sadly went about paying bills and getting other work done. Even at work this week I spent a considerable amount of time (and I am not making this up) co-opting a visitor and working on an economic model of marriage.

It has been five days and my attitude hasn't changed. Sounds like I am a bit of a baby about this but what can I say. I have never looked forward to a homecoming as much tomorrow's. I know people say you sometimes don't appreciate things until they are gone. But sometimes, even for a little while, it can surprise you. I'll be avoiding weeks like this in the future.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

You are on your own, kid

I love ironic punishments. This one from GeekDad is excellent:

The Puzzle:
Your son (or daughter if you will) has been caught overplaying his Wii past the allowable time. Your punishment, designed to build character as well as future gaming skills (because, you know, you're not capricious) has him put in an empty, windowless room devoid of any and all technology save for two, old-fashioned hourglass-type egg timers that precisely measure seven and four minutes respectively. You tell him that he is not allowed to come out and must stay in the room for exactly nine minutes. If he comes out over- or under-time, he is denied the Wii for the rest of the month. Your son is not wearing a watch or other piece of timekeeping device primitive or modern, but he is a clever and determined gamer and emerges on the nose in nine minutes. How did he do it?

The Solution:
Your son was on to you before you shut the door on him. He flipped both hourglasses over at the same time. When the four minute timer ran out, he flipped it again. When the seven minute timer ran out, he flipped that over. Seven minutes have now passed. When the four minute timer ran out again (the eight minute mark) he flipped the seven minute timer back over. Only a minute's worth of sand has fallen between the flips and when that minute runs out, he knows he has been in the room for exactly nine minutes.

I think I'll have to engineer an indiscretion so I can try it out on one of the kids.

Monday, July 7, 2008

There has been a disturbance

[HT: Tim Harford] The BBC reports:

The Church of England says it is taking a complaint that a couple's young son was ordered out of their wedding for being noisy "very seriously".

Relatives of the couple complained to the Diocese of Lichfield after the two-year-old was apparently asked to leave the church in Fenton.

The Archdeacon of Stoke-on-Trent, the Venerable Godfrey Stone, is carrying out an investigation into the matter.

A spokesman said a report would be prepared before any action was taken.

Lichfield Diocese spokesman Gavin Drake said the complaint was made by relatives of the couple following their wedding last Saturday.

He said: "The Venerable Godfrey Stone has been asked to carry out a preliminary investigation and then the Bishop can decided what steps, if any, can by taken.

"It is a serious allegation. A wedding is a time of celebration and we want parents with children to feel welcome in church."
You know I can see this happening but I can also see it as unreasonable. Here is the thing: if you are organising a wedding, you have a choice -- children or no children, babies or no babies. So given that the organisers had allowed a toddler to attend -- for whatever reason (knowing the risks, parental blackmail, etc) -- then you have to expect that there might be a disturbance. Moreover, the chances are that it could not have been too serious. It is a rare situation whereby a parent would not remove their own child before an officiator intervenes as appears to be the case here.

When we got married we chose to have no children (attend the wedding); something that was our right. I now think that was a bad decision. There is something about the randomness of children that takes the edge off ceremonies like this. Let's face it, there is nothing better than a wayward 5 year old carrying a ring or some flowers to provide terrific memories.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Spending time with the kids

It is hard to know what to make of it, but here is a pointer to new research that shows that the more educated parents are, the more time they spend with their kids (even taking into account the fact that they work more). Of course, one possibility is that more education = greater income = more money for non-kid household chores = more time for kids. The authors seem surprised about that but that seems to me to relate well to common intuition.

When it comes to putting kids to bed, apparently that is time a couple of parents fight about (not doing it that is!). Tim Harford is inspired by research from Susan Athey (and he fails to mention Kyle Bagwell) that showed the cooperation (or in the case of the research, collusion) leads one to simple solutions that may mean it is your turn when you happen to be the more tired in a pair. Of course, there is a sense that the broader household bargain may necessitate specialisation -- one gets the kids for bath and the other for bed (every night). We do this. Each of us is more efficient at the task we specalise in.

Friday, July 4, 2008

New Parentonomics Website

With the looming publication time coming, I figured I needed to do a better job on the Parentonomics on-line presence than relying on a Google page. So you can now visit the all new Parentonomics web-site at I designed it all myself (with a little help on the logo). But when it comes down to it, there isn't much new there for regular readers of this blog.

Sold for A$1,001.55!

The first copy of Parentonomics has sold for A$1,001.55; just short of US$1,000. Now someone suggested to me that I had been bidding in this thing. I most certainly was not but the possibility did occur to Child No.1 who then needed a lesson in legality and morality. That said, I do know the winner (and the person was not a family member) but will not reveal their secret identity. More critically, however, I did not know the other bidders; notably the second highest bidder who was as much responsible for the price as the winner was not someone I knew (that person has commented over at Core Economics).

Of course, we have a couple of these books lying around the house. One of them was kept safe but then as the kids played and pretended to read the others I wondered if we needed to get them put away. After all, who lets their kids play with $1,000 books?

The important question is: why pay so much for a book that will be released in just a month? Again, Child No.1 had remarked when the bidding passed $100, "who would pay one hundred dollars for just a book?" She said this with a derisive accent on 'book.' Of course, it isn't just a book. It is a donation and tax deduction (at least here in Australia). But, interestingly, it was purchased by one of the rare people who read the first draft of the book. So they had inside information and you can take this to mean that it is some sort of forecast of its expected future value! In August, compared to this, we are virtually giving them away.

Anyhow, thanks to all of those who put in a bid. Over $2,000 extra will now be going to the MS Readathon as a result even though only a couple of us had to actually fork out the cash. Child No.1 has suggested that next year what we can auction is her true identity. I am not sure how valuable that is (to someone other than us) but then again I can't wait to find out who Hannah Montana really is. So perhaps there is value out there for that.

[Update: Turns out this whole idea wasn't so original. Tim Harford put the first ever signed copy of Freakonomics up for sale in 2005. It was for charity and Steve Levitt matched the winning bid. It sold for US$610. That bit bodes well.]

Thursday, July 3, 2008

eBay baby returns home

CNN reports that the baby put up for sale on eBay at the reserve of a Euro (high value these days) has finally returned home.

"The child has been returned to his parents," prosecutor Johannes Kreuzpointer told The Associated Press.

The parents maintained that the posting was just a joke gone awry. Investigators agreed, dropping their probe into possible child trafficking.

What?? It took this long. I wrote about it back in May!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Last chance on Parentonomics No.1

About a day to go on the bidding for the first copy of Parentonomics. It is at A$462 (about US$440) at the time of writing this. That is already a great result and I am grateful to all those who have bid. The winning bid times 2 will go to the MS Readathon and there is free shipping to anywhere in the world. (Click here for the eBay item page).

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It is hard to regulate

In our household, healthy eating is enforced ruthlessly. I am more of an unquestioning agent in this endeavour. But my past indiscretions and current size mean that I do not have the moral high ground in this department.

What that means is that our children get hardly any special treats, most of the food is preservative free, there is very little eating out, and every dinner involves vegetables before you get anything else. As a consequence, to all appearances, we look like a model of healthy eating. And for our two eldest, I suspect they conform to our model (they either like vegetables -- Child No.2 who is an anomaly -- or food -- Child No.1 who is obsessed with it and so will toe the line to get enough).

But what of Child No.3? I mentioned earlier that I regard her as the most strategic of our children. So when she is presented with vegetables at dinner, she often chooses to eat nothing. She is 3 years old and looks well enough fed and so we put this in the category, 'if she were really hungry she would eat' so missing dinner was not the end of the world.

What shouldn't surprise you is she eats breakfast just fine. That isn't unhealthy but it isn't vegetables either. But by that time she is surely hungry so that makes sense. Sadly, what this means is that we are substituting breakfast for vegetables. So much for getting vegetables in her.

But Child No.3's substitution and patience goes way beyond that. When she goes to a party, gets fed at school or goes to someone else's house, she eats like a pig. It is almost like she is stocking up for the winter. Basically, what I think is that she has worked out that she needs to stock up when the going is good but at dinner-time she realises that she just has to wait and some healthy food options will come along.

How do we know this? Well, when she spends a few days at home and is under our control, she starts to eat her dinner; vegetables and all. Her plate is cleaned in seconds. It is stunning to watch. Put simply, she is not getting enough otherwise. And it is not like she is begging for dinner or anything. Moreover, she questions all of the time prior to this event about when she is going back to school. If it seems to far in the future, vegetables are back on the table. It is not that she hates them, she just optimises over time.

Our problem is that we do not have perfect control over her eating options outside of the home. So in the ordinary course of our lives, Child No.3 can substitute away from her controlling parents. We could complain to the school or to others but I am pretty sure she will find another route. Then again, it is not like those outside options are so bad in the health department. They are just not at the extreme at home. I think through her activities, an appropriate balance has been struck. (After all, we all do that. I found this out when the chocolate cafe near Child No.3's mother's work knew her on a first name basis with 'the usual' meaning a warm, rich Italian hot chocolate!)

You know you are an economist when ...

... you side with Milton Friedman on this one.

You know you are a happily married economist when you side with Milton Friedman and save.

You know you are a really happily married economist when you both side with Milton Friedman and save regardless.