Saturday, November 29, 2008

Take a hike!

This story got lots of publicity this week in Australia.
A NORTHERN TERRITORY man has been making his five-year-old son walk two-and-a-half hours to school every day, after he was kicked off the school bus.

When Jack Burt confessed that he'd been banned for five days for hitting the bus driver in the head with an apple core, dad Sam thought he should learn the hard way. He and Jack last week were getting up at 5.10am for the dusty 13km-hike from the Darwin rural area of Herbert, all the way to Humpty Doo.

Mr Burt also took the wheels off Jack's bike so he couldn't be tempted to ride to school.
While it is dangerous to pick up stories like this from the press, if we take it at face value, I gotta admire the nature of the punishment. It identifies the reason why bus travel is valuable and makes the child think about that for days. That said, while, in theory, that all looked good, the result wasn't too great:
But in the battle of wills between tall and short, the smart money's on Jack.

"Shame it didn't work," Mr Burt told the Northern Territory News.

"He got back on the bus Monday, and within three stops he was in trouble again. I couldn't believe it.

"I don't understand - he's good at school, he gets awards all the time."

However, a breakthrough might be in sight.

When Jack this week said he didn't mind walking - because it made him strong for fighting - he was told if he started fighting he might have to walk home in the afternoons too.

Jack's eyes got a little teary. He said he might not get home before dark.

Mr Burt told him not to worry - they'd leave the key out for him.
Jack is impressive for a 5 year old. This is an interesting contest.

Somehow I think they will work this out, eventually. Also, because it got all of this coverage, the message was sent to others about just what might happen if you didn't behave on the school bus.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clean Water

Here is something that might interest US readers out there. Virgin Money is donating money to Project Clean Water just for visiting their website. Cheap charity to get the kids clicking. For me, just by posting this here they donate another $50 -- so being cheap I figured why not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

More iPhone apps for parents

I have posted before on iPhone apps for parents. There are some newcomers that seem interesting [HT: TAUW].

This one is a baby monitor. Put your iPhone in the same room as your baby and it calls you when the baby cries. If you want to be irresponsible, you could even leave the house and go down the street. It is less than $1.

Another one allows nappy behaviour data collection if you are in to that sort of thing.

Then there is JirboMatch which is a simple matching game. My 4 year old loves this.

Here is a link to many others.

Are rewards good?

One of the big push-backs I get on some of the stuff in Parentonomics is the idea of rewarding kids for good behaviour. A set of objections are to materialistic stuff. One psychologist argued that it is better to reward kids with hugs and love than special treats or toys. I presume that he also means that we should withhold hugs and love if they don't behave. That implication sounds cruel to me but I am no psychologist.

Following up from the post the other day on paying kids for good behaviour, another psychologist appears to be disputing the whole idea of rewards and punishments, regardless of their form. Alfie Kohn writes:
Rewards and punishments are not opposites; they are two sides of the same coin and that coin doesn’t buy very much. The one thing you can get by dangling a goody in front of children if they do what you want is the same thing you can get by threatening to make them suffer if they don’t do what you want. What you get is temporary compliance, but it comes at a very steep cost.
Basically, he argues that you stuff things up for the long term by using rewards in the short-term. This strikes me as somewhat extreme although I have to agree that the goal isn't to rely on these things forever.

Apparently, the alternative is just to talk about it. But his prime example is this:

In “Unconditional Parenting,” I give an example about when my daughter, Abigail, was in preschool. It took her forever to get ready in the morning. I was nagging her, and I didn’t like that and she didn’t like that. My response wasn’t to threaten her with a consequence, nor did I offer her a reward for speeding up. I’m not house-training a puppy; I’m raising a child.

Instead I waited until we were both in good moods and not in the middle of rushing to get somewhere and I invited her to imitate what I sound like in the morning when I am nagging her to get ready. She turned out to be a devastatingly gifted impersonator. Then I asked her what she saw as the reason for the problem every morning and what she thought might be the solution. She said, “I take a lot of time getting dressed so maybe I should just wear my clothes to bed.” She did exactly that for several years.

Hold on a minute. She went to bed in clothes rather than avoid, I'm guessing a discussion. How is that a solution? That is precisely the sort of behaviour that clear and explicit rewards and punishments might get as an unintended consequence. My eldest daughter similarly had an issue of getting ready quickly. We gave her a reward for timely dressing and she, in fact, proposed sleeping in her clothes. We said no. The point is to get dressed quickly. Not to get dressed slowly the night before.

As usual all this depends on the child. If talking works, then good for you. But if not, then there are more tools in parent's arsenal.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting cooperation

From the NYC Mom's Blog: [HT: NYT's Motherlode] in reaction to her kids' constant bickering:
The next day I decided to try a new tactic. I told them that whichever one of them bugged me the least all day, didn't tattle and didn't bother the other one, would get fifty cents. But, if neither one of them bugged me or fought or tattled on each other, they would each get a dollar. I explained how they would have to work together to not bug each other, and to mediate disagreements by themselves. What followed was the most peaceful day I can remember in a long time! There was zero bickering, none! They each got their dollar and I told them the same deal would be on for the next day. And the next. And the next. Principles, schminciples. $14 a week is a cheap price to pay for peace and quiet.
Basically, this is the Prisoners' Dilemma in reverse; also known as the "moral hazard in teams" problem. The idea is that to get a team (in this case children) to do something, you reward the team. Of course, what is interesting is that as well as the collective bonus, there was a fall-back. The fall-back is the hard one to monitor but thanks to the broader incentive she didn't seem to get there.

The alternative to this is 'joint punishment.'

Home movies

David Pogue today wonders why we spend so much time keeping home movies.

But one e-mail response stopped me cold:

“What makes you think you’ll have any grandchildren with the time and inclination to sit through more than a few minutes of your home videos?

“The movies an uncle shot of me and my siblings a few decades ago were projected for about 30 minutes a decade ago, and have not been looked at again by anybody.

“Home movies require a captive audience, for long periods. How many hours could you bestow on your children right now? How many hours would you expect them to sit still for them? And unlike photographs, home movies can’t really be dipped into, flipped through.

“I’m not against home movies. I just question whether the people amassing them at great length have much idea of what they require of the people in them, or who inherit them.

Good point. For years I spent time collecting our movies and putting them on to DVD. Now they just stay uncatalogued on the computer.

Pogue lists lots of reasons for this behaviour but he misses one that for us has proved important: benchmarking. Whenever we want to understand the behaviour or milestones of one of our younger children, we go to the video of the older one at the same age. Then we can work out if they are behind or ahead. Of course, from that perspective, one might ask: "then what?" The answer: then nothing. But at least we have answered the question: "why keep the movies?"

Interestingly, it turns out that we often find out just how similar our three kids are. In particular, their voices at the same age are virtually identical. Accent, expression, everything. I guess that might change as they grow but if we close our eyes it would be hard to tell which child was speaking.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The coveted "meets expectations" criteria

I am not sure if it works this way in other academic institutions but at mine we have an annual performance review whereby we are assigned subjective statements that we either are below, exceed or meet expectations on various criteria. The system has settled down to a situation where 80-90 percent of faculty get "meets expectations" on any given criterion. Suffice to say, no one is really sure quite what their expectations are and, for the most part, don't really seem to worry about it.

Apparently, the issue happens in parenting. In this case, however, it is parents constantly expecting things of their children and then evaluating whether their children meet those expectations. Suffice it to say, there are lots of below expectations reviews coming in. In Slate, Alan Kazdin says that this is likely the fault of the expectations rather than the children.
Because parents love their children and want the best for them, they worry about them a lot, and one of the things that parents worry about most is whether their children are hitting age-appropriate targets for behavior. Shouldn't a child be toilet trained by the age of 4? Should a 10-year-old to be able to sit down and do an hour of homework? One reason why such questions produce so much conflict and woe in the home is that parents' expectations for their children's behavior tend to be too high. I'm not talking about permissiveness or strictness here; I'm talking about accurately estimating children's actual abilities. A reliable body of research shows that we expect our children to do things they're not yet able to do and that we judge and punish them according to that expectation.
This resonates with me precisely because we fell into this whole trap. Child No.1 was subject to issues associated with high expectations. We didn't know what to expect at various ages and so we decided to expect everything. Sadly, for Child No.1, on many initial stuff she meet those expectations, causing us to continue that pattern.

All this wasn't helped by the fact that when we looked at parenting books that had 'milestones' she appeared to be exceeding those. Being an economist, I decided that those books were likely wrong and that they were, on purpose, downgrading milestones to sell more books. I imagined parents browsing in the bookstore and saying, "look honey, according to this one our 3 month old has the gross motor skills of a 6 month old. Let's buy this one." Any respectable publisher looking to maximise sales would surely go for the low threshold milestones.

So, as I said, Child No.1 did quite well but much of that was also due to our selective milestoning. According to one of those books, at 8 months, "your child should be able to do pat-a-cake." I was concerned, I didn't think she could do pat-a-cake. We discussed it and worked out that this was likely because we didn't know how to do pat-a-cake. So we ignored that one.

But it was on reading that all of this caused us problems. Child No.1 learned her letters quickly and could draw them on command at Age 2. So we expected that reading was just around the corner. But that wasn't to be. She learned to read around ages 5 and 6 when most kids do. The problem is that caused us years of angst until at age 4 we decided we were the problem and abandoned all reading efforts. Turns out that wasn't such a good idea either and we should have been doing something. Then again, what we really found out is that we knew nothing and even if we did, it wouldn't have done much.

With Children Nos.2 and 3, we gave up all expectations. This has helped immensely. When it comes down to it, most kids do eventually do whatever it is they are supposed to. And if they don't some authority/teacher figure will tell you. That said, that I expect my near 8 year old son might someday actually get his wee into the toilet at something close to 100 percent efficiency rather than his current 70 percent is surely not that much to ask. And when he misses that he might do something about it rather than leave a puddle and smell is surely within the coveted "meets expectations" level? I guess I need to tie his pay to extra-toilet wee levels if those could be measured.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

No you can't

Conversation in our house this evening after watching Obama's speech:
"Dad, can we play Guitar Hero?"


"But Barak Obama says 'yes we can.' And he's the President."

"Still no."
Next they are going to want a puppy.

Obama's parenting style

From the victory speech:
Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House.
An incentive scheme straight out of Parentonomics. Now what is he going to promise them for 4 more years of good behaviour?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Politics and candy

Yale's Dean Karlin and a group of his students have taken Halloween activities to a whole new level. They decided to see how strong children's political allegiances were by having them choose between getting their candy from an Obama or a McCain stand-up. Here are their results (impressive given the day two turn-around) and here is Emily Bazelon's take in Slate (her children were subjects in the experiment). Apparently, Obama supporters are more likely to take candy hidden in a brown bag than McCain ones but not so much more if they have to switch tables. I wonder whether their candy demand would have been so inelastic had it not been in the midst of such a candy rich environment?

It is hard to tell if this had as much to do with politics or even parental politics than the measure of image as close to Disney ideal -- of which I am pretty sure Obama comes up trumps. In our household, Child No.1 is definitely for Obama but I am pretty sure that she would have gone for the extra candy from McCain.

Also, in the spirit of "you let our kid watch what?" our eldest two have been watching The Colbert Report with me. Despite its M rating it is very family friendly. What has surprised me is that they seem to get it. It took them some time, and I must admit I let it run without commentary or explanation, but they worked out that his extreme support for McCain and Palin was a put on. They seem to laugh at the appropriate bits. This is without any of the background in terms of history and media bias that really underpins the show. They find him funny and are just happy to watch. I guess they are so TV deprived that they will watch anything.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Economics education on the iPhone

Just released for the iPhone is Lemonade Stand. It is $0.99 (click here). It is the best economics teaching tool for school aged kids. Basically you run a Lemonade Stand. This involves looking at the weather, setting price, choosing quantity and also your level of advertising. To make a profit you need to get close to the demand curve in these choices and pay attention to costs.

Child No.1 is, not surprisingly, playing it intensively. Indeed, I think she is outplaying me in terms of earnings. Then again she cares about virtual money much more than I do.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What possessed us?

There is some collective wisdom in parenting. You know, there are some things you might choose to do that everyone who has had any experience in doing it will advise against it. Or at the very least they will give you a frank and brutal description of the costs. And the precision of their estimate is very high indeed.

One such activity is when your 9 year old daughter asks for her birthday party to be a slumber party. This is when your daughter and say 4 of her friends stay the night and engage in what can safely be termed, 'all night partying.' The collective wisdom suggests that this will be a shock to your household that could involve weeks, months or years of recovery. And you take that into account when you agree to said party. I guess there is something going on in your mind saying, "well, I had better see this for myself. That way I will have a story to tell."

But there is no story to tell. Others have told it time and time again. The misnomer of the term, 'slumber,' the predictable results from continual hours of eating sugar, the screams or worse, the actual conversation. We had got through a basketball game, a chocolate eating game (which involves throwing dice, changing clothes and taking turns in stabbing a 500g block of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate to death), a drawing game, an ice cream eating contest (necessitating another change of clothes), dinner out at a Chinese restaurant and a treasure hunt (that had previously involved months of planning and treasure in the form of sugar to fuel the festivities for the rest of the night). I looked at my watch after that and remarked "only 14 and a half hours to go!" All exactly the same story, regardless of era or locality.

Our, now 10 year old, daughter had engaged in an extreme amount of planning for this event. Every minute was accounted for. I couldn't see how she would get through it. But she did and what is more, all of her friends went along with it. She had even scheduled the times her younger brother would spend annoying or playing pranks on them. He had agreed to that schedule as it all made some sort of sense to him. And he kept to it and they had, much to my surprised actually been annoyed by it!

We had one activity that was claimed to have parental approval, that we did have to put a stop on in the middle of the night. We heard a giggling mob converge up the stairs before said younger brother's bedroom armed with an array of cosmetics products. The plan was to give him a make over during his sleep. We deferred that activity until the morning whereby they bribed him to sit still by giving him a portion of their remaining sugar supply. The result was apparently so bad that he volunteered to have them take a picture of his bare butt rather than his face. It now sits in iPhoto as a precious memory of the occasion.

It was one night but I feel as if it has taken some months off my life expectancy. And so I write this post not to you folk reading it as a word of caution. That word is already out. No I write it so I can read it before we agree to any more of these things. I am not sure that will work but it is worth a shot.