Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Chocolate frogs and all that

Robert Merkel, who is not a parent, reviewed Parentonomics and found it fun to read anyway. His post engendered plenty of discussion with one of the commentators pointing to this method of using chocolate frogs to drive (literally) good behaviour.

Before you start the car trip, buy a packet of chocolate frogs.

As you all get into the car, children in the back seat, adults in the front, the adult(s) should open the packet of chocolate frogs. The packet of chocolate frogs should be left in full view of the children.

Then, start driving.

Sooner or later, the bickering, the shoving, the kerfuffle, the noise, the complaints from the back seat will get to be too much for the grown-ups to bear.

At that stage, the adult(s) should reach for a chocolate frog. They should wind the window down, and throw the frog out.

At the end of the journey, the children may eat any frogs that are left.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fair grades

[HT: Mark Richards] A Pittsburgh school district has set 50% as a student's minimum grade.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say they want to give struggling children a chance, but the district is raising eyebrows with a policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score a student can receive for assignments, tests and other work. ...

"A failing grade is a failing grade," district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

At the same time, they said, the 50 percent minimum gives children a chance to catch up and a reason to keep trying. If a student gets a 20 percent in a class for the first marking period, Ms. Pugh said, he or she would need a 100 percent during the second marking period just to squeak through the semester.

It gets better ...

Superintendent James Lombardo said he's in favor of implementing the idea, partly as a fairness issue. He noted that a failing grade carries far more mathematical weight than any other grade if the "E" or "F" has a range of zero to 59 percent.

"I guess I laud the Pittsburgh district for recognizing some of the foibles of our numerical system," he said, adding low percentage scores sometimes are given to students because of their attitude or work ethic, rather than their level of accomplishment.

I guess if one were to be kind, this would be considered a nudge as opposed to a scheme that weighed early assessment lower as a means of providing a catch-up opportunity or for allowing a low assessment grade to be discontinued. That said, it doesn't say much about the numeracy component of the education program.

Science and parenting

In Slate, Alan Kazdin looks at the evidence on corporal punishment. His lament is that lots of parents still hit their kids despite the scientific evidence that it likely does harm. But the discussion is more about why parents do not pay attention to scientific research.
Part of the problem is that most of us pay, at best, selective attention to science—and scientists, for their part, have not done a good job of publicizing what they know about corporal punishment. Studies of parents have demonstrated that if they are predisposed not to see a problem in the way they rear their children, then they tend to dismiss any scientific finding suggesting that this presumed nonproblem is, in fact, a problem. In other words, if parents believe that hitting is an effective way to control children's behavior, and especially if that conviction is backed up by a strong moral, religious, or other cultural rationale for corporal punishment, they will confidently throw out any scientific findings that don't comport with their sense of their own experience.
The issue is that a parenting behaviour can appear to work right away (and so be affirmed) but actually do more harm later on or be otherwise ineffective. Scientific research can inform about the latter. And it is not just corporal punishment. Consider sleeping, eating and all sorts of other things where it is difficult to weigh the present and future.

The argument in the article is that governments need to ban violence against children and Kazdin again laments the lack of political traction in the US on that. But come on, is he really surprised. The same parents are the voters and if they see corporal punishment as effective and morally OK, why would they vote to ban it.

This suggests that the way to get parental behavioural change is not the public equivalent of corporal punishment -- bans and penalties for infractions. Instead, my guess is that social norms and changes will be more powerful. I have not looked into it, but my guess (hope) is that the degree of violence against children has fallen: e.g., less using of hard objects and more using of hands. Why has this occurred? Social pressure mainly.

The key to social pressure is exposure. And that is the issue with parenting. So much of it is within the confines of a household and not exposed socially. That is why pressures to breastfeed are stronger (as you leave the house sometimes) while punishment is another matter. Then again, how often are we seeing physical punishment performed outside the house? The point here is that we need to think far less from the hip and far more using science (this time on parenting behaviour) to actually produce changes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Parentonomics on TV

I just got word that Today Tonight (in Australia) is running a story on Parentonomics tonight (Channel 7 at 6:30pm). I gather it is a 'reality TV show' where some families are trying out Parentonomics in the home; whatever that means. If there is an on-line version, I'll post a link in the next few days.

Here is the link to the video (scroll down to 'Bribing Kids')

[Update: Well that wasn't quite what I was expecting. All about bribery where I came off as the academic who creates highly incentivised children while a psychologist (read: anti-economist) came off as saying it would be better to give children praise and hugs as rewards and time-outs and I am guessing no hugs as punishments. Call me crazy but I'd rather toy with material things than emotions.]

Friday, September 19, 2008

Punishment Capital

Tim Harford runs a 'Dear Economist' column in the Financial Times whereby readers write in their problems and Tim helps them out. This week's column involves the use of incentives for discipline children. And here is part of the answer:
The challenge, then, is to make sure that you have punishments available to you that you are willing to carry out. You may be able to rise to that challenge by building up what Joshua Gans calls “punishment capital” – not to be confused with capital punishment. Professor Gans, author of a new book called Parentonomics, points out that if you are the source of a steady stream of money or sweets, that gives you a negotiating position. Threatening to remove the carrot (or rather, the flow of chocolate coins) is more credible than threatening to wield the stick. What one parent sees as junk food, Professor Gans sees as an “incentive opportunity”.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Parentocomic: Font Size

I have done some of these before (here, here and here). Here is another one:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Father's Day (Australia)

Today is Father's Day in Australia. I had written up a piece for an Australian newspaper on this but I think it might have missed out. Anyhow, here it is. The basic message was not to buy things for Father's Day (you know, like my book) and to make them.

That is what my kids did. Child No.1 painted me a picture which you can see to the left. It is of an iPhone with a special message.

Child No.2 wrote me one of his stories. This one is called the "Evil Pirate." It is made with pictures (which he took using Mt Potato Head) which he uploaded and then edited with Pages to write the story. Here is a link to the pdf. I think it is one of his best (if I do say so myself).

Child No.3 baked me some chocolate chip cookies. I am told that is has a special secret ingredient which I am told will taste much better if I "do not know what it is." And they are good. Perhaps she can sell the recipe if they pass standard health tests on food products.

Incentives for study

Tim Harford counsels a father on how to incentivise his son's preparation for some 48 (!) tests he is about to take. If you have a limited pool of funds to use in bribery, Tim says go for incentives upfront to get good habits.

In my household, I suspect that this won't be an issue if the school gets the incentives right.

TV and kids

I have written about this before, but since the Wall Street Journal covered it again today, I thought I'd highlight this finding on the impact of TV on kids [HT: Greg Mankiw]:

The economists then looked at results of a survey of 800 U.S. schools that administered tests to 346,662 sixth-grade, ninth-grade and 12th-grade students in 1965. Their finding: Adjusting for differences in household income, parents' educational background and other factors, children who lived in cities that gave them more exposure to television in early childhood performed better on the tests than those with less exposure.

The economists found that television was especially positive for children in households where English wasn't the primary language and parents' education level was lower. "We don't exactly know why that is, but a plausible interpretation is that the effect of television on cognitive development depends on what other kinds of activity television is substituting for," says Mr. Shapiro, 28.

The WSJ article goes on to document research on the impact of television on the independence of women (good) but on community social organisation (bad).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Risks and economics

It didn't take long but there was a letter to The Age newspaper in Australia from a medical researcher complaining about Parentonomics and the idea that an economist might have something useful to say about parenting. The letter writer had not read the book and so was taking it all way too seriously while also engaging in stereotypical jibes against economic rationalism. The basic point was that economists should stay away from such matters.

This was on my mind today as I read economist Justin Wolfers who was writing about a study by three economists into the advice given to pregnant women as to whether they should get an amnio or not. The point was that the medical advice neglected option value and so it is possible that too many women over 35 are getting the procedure. Anyhow, read Wolfers' post and then think about whether economists should, as a matter of principle, stay out of medical decision-making.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Swear code

On CNN today, an article about the swear (or curse) words invented in the original Battlestar Galactica series. One of these, "feldergarb" as in 'load of feldergarb' didn't make it to the new series but another one 'frack' or, apparently, now spelled 'frak,' did. This one is used appropriately thus: 'frak off.'

Our household was already up with all of this. We had come to an agreement with the children that they could use the word 'frak' in polite conversation rather than its illrupted but equally meaning cousin. Of course, we didn't adopt feldergarb but instead the Orkan (a la Mork & Mindy) phrase, "shazbot" to be used in the form 'load of shazbot.' This has worked quite well in both giving them (and I guess us) something to say and also in highlighting the paradoxes of swearing (you know, why the frack to people really care anyway?) and coming to no apparent resolution in explaining that.

This reminds me of a plan a friend of mine's parents undertook to deal with this. They made up their own swear words and told their children never to say them. That, of course, meant that they said them all of the time. But the genius of this was they never said the culturally recognised swear words and it was only years later that their children saw through it all.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


So Child No.1 is currently not well. We don't know what it is but she hasn't wanted to eat for two days which is a bit of worry. I'm sure it can't last too much longer.

Anyhow, that didn't stop her and her mother having the following conversation today:
"Our school's library is so small. It doesn't even have 1000 books in it."

"I'm sure it has more than that. Just ask the librarian."

"It doesn't. Why bother?"

"OK, how about this? I will give you a chocolate frog if the librarian tells you there are less than 1000 books."

"Well, OK. But how will you tell whether I am lying or not when I tell you there is less than a 1000 books?"

"I can get your brother to ask too. He never lies."

"He might if I offer him half the chocolate frog."
Actually, he wouldn't but it was an interesting thought on how to corrupt someone. When she returns to school perhaps we will find out the answer.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Looking for Meaning in Lego

Now this is different. Dan Ariely, Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec have run a set of experiments on 'meaningful work.' Their paper describes the experiment with the goal of seeing whether meaningful work makes you work harder. Why am I writing about it here? Because the experiment used Lego.

The subjects were male undergraduates at Harvard University, recruited via posters around the university. Each subject participated in the experiment alone, without the presence of other subjects. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions, Meaningful (N = 20) and Sisyphus (N = 20), and were unaware of the other condition. The procedure was similar to that used in Experiment 1. In each of the two conditions, subjects received payments for assembling Bionicle Lego models according to a declining unit wage schedule. Each Bionicle consisted of 40 separate pieces, with written instructions on how to assemble them into a figure. There was only one way to combine the pieces, and no subject had trouble following the assembly instructions. The mean time to build the first Bionicle was around 10 min. Before deciding whether to build each Bionicle, the subjects were told how much they had earned up to that point and how much they would earn for making another Bionicle. The subjects were paid $2.00 for the first Bionicle, $1.89 (11¢ less) for the second one, and so on linearly. For the 20th, as well as for any subsequent Bionicles, they received $0.02. The only decision the subjects made was when to stop making Bionicles. At that point, they were paid and the experimental session was over. During the experiment, we measured how long it took each subject to build each Bionicle. ...

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk.

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter. This was the only difference between the two conditions. Furthermore, all the Bionicles were identical, so the Meaningful condition did not provide more variety than the Sisyphus one.

And the results:

the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful condition, subjects built an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40, while those in the Sisyphus condition built an average of 7.2 Bionicles and earned an average of $11.52.

And there I thought that no matter what you did with Lego, it was meaningful. I guess that isn't the case.

Tough negotiations

Sometimes you just have to call on a 'bluff.' Read on.


I have mentioned before that, in many respects, our four year old is our most strategic child. And unlike our eldest her motives are far more sinister. Child No.3 likes to win and what is more it is simply for personal satisfaction.

An incident just the other day highlighted her powers. We have a consistent routine at dinner time. When you finish you take your plates to the sink, wash your hands and go upstairs for bathtime. Same routine. Every night.

Child No.3 has a mission: to skip the 'taking your plates to the sink' part. In the past, she would take advantage of distraction and slink her way upstairs. She would say nothing but something always told me later on that she was secretly pleased. She understood that to gloat would invite attention and she would lose. Usually, by the time we discovered the omission, it was too late. She was in bed or something.

But we were on to her. That, however, has only made her more crafty. The other night we had friends over for dinner. Child No.3 left the table and took one plate but not the others to the sink. She then returned and put on her most dimpled smile and asked her mother if she should wash her hands. Her mother, of course, said yes. Child No.3 then pranced off to the bathroom.

I remarked, "you know she just tricked you, don't you? Her plates are still here." And then I went on to explain to our friends what would happen. "She will emerge from the bathroom and make her way upstairs. However, I am going to call her back to do the rest of her plates. She will then immediately appeal on the basis that she had her mother's 'permission' to skip that step."

And sure enough, Child No.3 came out of the bathroom. Just as she was turning to go upstairs, I called her back to do her plates. Right on cue, without skipping a beat and pointing at her mother, "But but she said I should go and wash my hands." I insisted and she relented., "Awwwu." She wasn't upset but I could see she was already working on the next day's move.

My worry, of course, is that this is what she does at four. And this is just for the dishes! What are we going to do later on?