Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fantastic game

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

Publication incentives

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

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

Want to try out Parentonomics on TV?

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

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

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Principles of Parentonomics

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Teaching themselves

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

Friday, August 22, 2008

Some things won't change

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

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

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


"Hardly worth it."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Outsource the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Don't let your kids know about this

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

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Clone Wars

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

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

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

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

Conditioning toughness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study: Most Children Strongly Opposed To Children�s Healthcare

Friday, August 15, 2008

iPhone Apps for Parents

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

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

A review

A short review of Parentonomics appeared in The Age today. It summarises pretty much what the book is all about.

Also today is a feature in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it I was paraphrased:
Professor Gans, who says his book should be taken as seriously as any other parenting manual, is already considering a Parentonomics II, tackling dilemmas for parents of primary school-age children, but is too terrified to contemplate the teen years yet.
In case anyone is wondering, by "seriously" I mean that most parenting manuals are just as useless on advice as my writing here and in the book. Not all, but most.

Winning is everything

Well, not quite but it is really much better than not winning. And I am not talking here about the participants. It is all about the interested parties; specifically, myself as a parent watching my children compete in sports. Now I have mentioned my newfound bias when it comes to my eldest daughter in Taekwondo competitions. But yesterday she competed in her school's Athletics Day and it all crystallised for me. You know all of that stuff they feed you -- that "it is just great to watch them being out there and trying their best" -- you know, the stuff they must have fed my parents. I am here to tell you it is all a big lie. Well, pretty much. Just watching them might be satisfying but watching them actually win is much much better.

But first some context. The Athletics Day is a day where they grab a few classes at a time -- in this case, my son was in 2nd grade at some other competition that didn't bother inviting parents while my daughter was at the 3rd through 4th grade one that did invite parents -- and truck them out somewhere to a real track and have them run a mini-olympics type thing pitting houses (yes, this is Australia, just like Hogwarts) against one another. My kids were decked out in green for the day (I think they are in Slytherin) and off they went.

Then came the other thing about Athletics Day; because I presume someone has booked and paid for a track, it would happen come rain or sun. And, of course, raining it came. The problem for we parents was that where there was seating was a sun-shield. Near as I can tell this had frightened away the sun but for rain this acted imperfectly and in places like a giant funnel of water onto the seating area. No doubt some architect had decided that since no one would surely compete when it is raining, no one would be watching either so there was no point in creating a rain-shield or as it is commonly called elsewhere, a roof. This was not lost on the parents standing there as they tried to convince themselves that it is satisfying just to "watch the kids participate."

You may be thinking at this point: what about the kids? Surely they were not happy about running around in the rain. Well, you don't know Australia. We are made of tougher stuff when it comes to sport. For instance, just today as I was driving around delivering Child No.1 to some Saturday morning (thankfully inside) activity, we saw hundreds of kids at a sports ground learning Australian Rules Football in the pouring rain. She remarked: "That training company is not good. They don't allow you to tackle other people there. I mean, what is the point? That makes it just like soccer but where you can use your hands. Actually, in real football they don't even allow tackles above the head. At lunchtime we are free to play for real." You could hear the disdain. And she went on: "and they are playing there on grass. How soft is that? We play on the ground." Of course, they had to do that because until recently there was a drought and no grass. But that also explains the sheer volume of cuts and torn uniforms she comes home with.

But drought was not the issue yesterday. And as I stood there wet and in the cold, my daughter flew past her classmates in the 100m hurdles and won by a mile. They gave out ribbons based on their place and so, unlike other events, had the incentives right. Suffice it to say, it was all worth it. I as thrilled and excited and as I looked around at the other parents it is pretty clear to me that they were wishing they had a daughter such as mine. Too bad for them. The jig was up: winning is really great.

You know, between events I tried to empathise with the other parents but I have to tell you, it didn't happen. Let's face it, no one apologises for watching their team win at the Olympics or anywhere else. My daughter is my team and that was just how it was going to be. If I felt sad for anyone it was for my own parents who never got any similar joy from myself or my brother. Then again, they should just come out and watch the grandkids.

Actually, I should say grandchild. Child No.1 came home with ribbons for every event she competed in. I did watch in anguish as another, similarly competitive girl, pipped her at the end of the 200m. Child No.1 was in the outside lane and kept looking around and that cost her precious time. The two of them were miles ahead of the others as they killed themselves in getting over the line first. So if you find my gushing a bit much now, imagine what this post would have been like had she won that battle.

Child No.2 came home with a 'Well done' ribbon. That is what they give to those who didn't get a placed ribbon. He didn't mind. These sporting competitions aren't very interesting for him and so our expectations weren't high. We had to resort to the usual parenting encouragement.
"It's good that you had fun."

"Dad, it was raining and normal people would be inside."

"But at least you got that colour ribbon. No one in this house has got one of them before."

"Actually, I think I have lost the ribbon."

Now I don't want to suggest any asymmetry of love. But let me tell you, if faced with a choice of whom I am going to stand in the rain and watch, my choice is clear.

[Update: See Emily Bazelon for a more balanced view of competition and winning.]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A little taste

Some Australian media outlets will be publishing extracts from Parentonomics. While the story in this one in New Matilda is familiar to readers of this blog, it has been cleaned up a little.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Radio Interview: Life Matters

I did a radio interview today on ABC Radio National's Life Matters program. You can listen to it here. It is about 15 minutes long and quite wide-ranging in its coverage of Parentonomics.

Parentonomics on Sale

To the right, I have a new set of links -- where to buy Parentonomics. While I haven't seen it in stores myself, a few places have it listed in stock and online (or available for pre-order). The UK Amazon link is among those that will provide international shipping. So if you want to get a copy in its original Australian -- the US edition by MIT Press will be edited, Harry Potter style, for language and cultural-specific content -- you might try that option.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

This time on reading

Sydney blogger and writer, Sacha Molitorisz, has been reading Parentonomics. In this post on literacy he quotes my thoughts on the subject:

All the while, I've had the words of a Melbourne academic bouncing about my noggin.

"What is the deal with all the reading?" asks Joshua Gans, a professor of management at the Uni of Melbourne's Business School. A father-of-three, Gans has written a book called Parentonomics, which is out next week. In in, he looks at parenthood through an economist's eyes, which leads to some interesting insights.

He writes:

"It seems that as soon as we work out a child can see, we thrust letters in their face, read them books carefully pointing out the words so they know we're not making it up, and then, when they get to school, we count down the days to literacy.

"I am not an innocent bystander in all this fuss. We did everything we could to get Child No. 1 to read. When she was just two (now this may sound competely ridiculous, but it wasn't at the time), we labelled everything in the house using the pretty 'Comic Sans' font. Visitors were astonished but soon appreciated the fact that they could easily find the bathroom. It was at least three more years before Child No. 1 made much of the signs."

Gans argues that a lot of time and energy is wasted by overzealous parents pushing their kids into literacy prematurely.

"Learning to read is excruciating," Gans writes. "It is a tough activity and, what is more, the case for expecting kids to be reading at six rather than by eight is not particularly strong. In Scandinavian countries, they don't begin formal training until the age of seven."

Which brings us back to irony.

"Now I am not one to rail against books," he writes. "I'm an academic after all and I guess I am writing one now."

What he does next is examine the way literacy is taught and promoted in our education system. According to Gans, it's not all good. At this point, I don't really have much experience of how literacy is taught in our schools _ although I don't remember any particular dramas in my own case. Apart from the lingering curse of being a dodgy punner. (Sorry about the title.)

This reflects some of the stuff I was saying around the time of the 2020 Summit.

Molitorisz has his own book on parenting entitled (and I can't believe no one got that before), From Here to Paternity.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The frindle is mightier than the word

I know I am late to extol the virtues of this one (10 years too late) but Frindle by Andrew Clements is a gem of a book. It is about a boy who has ideas. One day, pretty much to irritate a dogmatic teacher, he comes up with the idea of replacing the word, pen, with the word, frindle. Hi-jinks ensues.

My two eldest just loved the book. The whole notion that words come from somewhere and that their value was in how people understood their meaning was a great lesson. I might even be able to explain to them one day how it is that a piece of paper can be worth something. For now, we concentrated on the words. I even left them with a lesson from Shakespeare who is credited with introducing countless words into the English language including countless. It was an olympian effort; well at least after he invented the word olympian.

It has sold over 2 million copies but is unknown and seemingly unavailable here in Australia.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Every Olympiad: the Geography Challenge

Our family has a tradition (well, we did it in 2004 and will do it again tomorrow) of watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics and playing a geography game. The challenge is this: when a team comes out during the ceremony, you have to find the associated country on the world map. What is more you have to find it before the next team is announced.

Now this would appear pretty straightforward but for the fact that the smaller teams tend to be from the countries hardest to find. You have less than 30 seconds. I guess this year we could employ Google Earth to help us out but that would be cheating.

Anyhow, it is one way of turning a television event into an educational benefit.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Travel accessories

In Slate, Sara Mosle talks about the stuff you could use to ease the pain of travelling with kids. In my mind, much of it seemed like overkill (and there was no mention of the critical DVD players, DSs or iPods) but this was sensible advice:
Over time, I've learned a few lessons. First, although infants can ride on a parent's lap up to age 2, you should spring for the extra seat if you can possibly afford it. That's especially true if you're traveling alone and can't trade off holding the baby. Otherwise, expect to emerge from the cabin at trip's end looking as if you were mauled by a feral cat. I know of nothing that prevents this except perhaps large, leather animal-trainer mittens. Second, think of the plane as a potential deserted island. During that 12-hour flight with my daughter, the plane had no food and eventually ran out of water; you need enough provisions to last a day. This includes a bucket-load of baby wipes (whether or not your baby is in diapers) and a change of clothes for your kid. Both help (trust me) with vomiting at 30,000 feet.
For more, you can read the (now hidden) chapter from Parentonomics on "Travelling."

Monday, August 4, 2008

The tough stuff

Stephen Dubner today grapples with how we tell our kids about bad stuff that is or might happen. Do you tell them the truth or shield them until they are "old enough"? And when are they old enough anyway? Dubner provides useful links to studies and advice about this.

His motivating example was what was happening in Zimbabwe. It reminded me of a conversation with my 9 year old daughter. She came home from school the other day and said, "What are we going to do about Mugabe?" Clearly they had discussed the situation there and she was of the view that he had to go. I responded that I didn't know and this is a difficult situation. She countered, "well, he could be killed. After all, if someone did that they could get away with it because he was the person who set the laws."

A longer discussion about the notion that assassination, murder and what stops it from happening (answer: it shouldn't be just the law) ensued. But it was clear to me how complex this issue was and that it was fundamental to moral development and not just in terms of coping with bad stuff happening in the world. Almost all bits of literature that deals with war and is at the level of a 9 year old is unambiguous on this point. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, it is OK to go after evil people. Her level of comfort with that concept shouldn't be a surprise even if our reaction is not to like to hear it coming from someone so young.

But there is more to this than just dealing with bad events around the world. The harder stuff for a parent is dealing with grief and problems closer to home. In our family, someone close is sick (and worryingly so). This has engendered explicit discussions about death and our approach has been to be very open so that feelings can be discussed and the children can work through it all while at the same time hoping that these things do not happen. The complex thing is dealing with uncertainty. In these matters, adults are really bad at it so how to you help children through?

Our problem is that while we have adopted the expert line on such matters and have been happy to talk about this, when they are around others, if the topic comes up, it is quickly and obviously squashed. Our 7 year old, in particular, wants to discuss these things with as many adults as possible. But instead, he is greeted with denial of the possibility or "you shouldn't talk about that" or what have you. Of course, this is just part of the difficult situation and is, in many ways understandable. However, it is hard to run textbook grief handling tactics when everyone around you isn't on board. I fear it has left him less comforted and more confused. But then again, what else should you be?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Not in the dictionary

So the 9 year old was doing some homework assignment that involved looking up words in the dictionary. She was using a dictionary here at home. For some reason, the following conversation ensued.
9 year old: "let's see spank, sperm, here it is, sprawl."

7 year old: "Sperm is in that dictionary? It isn't in the dictionary at school."
Well, I am glad to see censorship is alive, well and completely ineffective.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Some press

Parentonomics should be in Australian bookstores next week and I'll identify on-line sellers as soon as they become available. But the press has started on it. Here is an article from Melbourne's Herald Sun. We had talked about lots of things but toileting and eating appear to have risen to the top. I also wonder whether "punishment capital" might become a term of art.