Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Disney movie extravaganza

In the last week, we have watched three Disney movies: two new releases and one a year or so old. By coincidence, in Slate today, Emily Bazelon decides to rail against the inadequacy of ratings for kids movies. She was reacting to a non-Disney movie, Tales of Despereaux, and pointed to a ratings site -- Kids-In-Mind -- that I have written about before. Her point is that a G-rating doesn't necessarily give parents all the information they need and they need to look beyond to fully pre-screen a movie to see if kids will be OK. All true but I must admit the experience of the past week has led me to wonder if 'protection' is really enough.

I'll explain that in a minute but let me first review this week's offerings. First up was Bedtime Stories that we saw on Christmas Day (part of a family tradition of seeing movies that day). This is basically a fairly standard Adam Sandler comedy that happens to be a Disney-kids flick. By standard I mean, Adam Sandler is a flawed but life-losing character who then meets someone (kids + girl), engages in heartbreaking conflict, develops an understanding of the way the world works, blocks the even more flawed but more life-successful bad guys, and lives happily ever after, content with the simple life. By Disney-kids, add a seemingly magical run of coincidences that are related to kid's bedtime stories and some computer generated animation. All in all, the movie worked. It was as funny as any Adam Sandler comedy but also funny to the kids as well. My son, who is my barometer for kid-funny, cacked himself throughout the movie while my youngest daughter, my barometer for plot coherence, kept up her usual running commentary of understanding. The movie also used foreboding in a good way -- how will those stories play out in the real world. Not something you see everyday. As Sandler's character thought there was magic in the air, it was he who had to deal with the nexus between fiction and reality.

Let's jump a week to New Years Day, today, when I took the kids to see Bolt. Bolt is a dog-star who doesn't realise life isn't a movie and he doesn't have super-powers. So he is delusional but less so the Buzz Lightyear and what is more, when thrust into the real world, he realises it pretty quickly; certainly more so than Buzz but with a similar existential angst. Because we adults had seen delusion before the movie was no Toy Story but the opening sequence, in particular, left my son in hysterics (those bad guys were cleverly goofy) but my youngest daughter with her head buried in my chest so there was a mixed reaction there. But the movie sustained itself even if the 4 year old was a tad scared. Again, the primary issue was the main character dealing with real vs fiction and their role in life.

One night, we watched with our eldest two kids, Bridge to Terabithia. This movie is based on a book about friendship between two kids who are both isolated from others for various reasons but share an imagination and build an imaginary world, Terabithia, to escape in. They have no delusions between reality versus fiction but others want them to be more grounded in reality. That conflict is brought to a head by a shocking event (I'll spare you in case you haven't seen it but if you want to know Emily Bazelon discussed it all here). Suffice it to say, the movie is a downer but on a classic level on a higher plane than other movies. But it is a movie aimed at kids -- maybe between 8 and 14 -- and is useful preparation for life's issues. It also has its entertaining moments. However, you could hardly describe it as light.

So how would one sort out which movie to see? All three movies are rated PG or below and so are deemed safe for kids. According to Kids-In-Mind, each rates 3 or 4 out of ten for violence. As I worry about that characteristic for safety more than others, they are all within acceptable parameters. But Bridge to Terabithia is the one I would agonise over on protection grounds more than the others. Why? Because it actually has hard substantive content. It is the most real and therefore, the most emotionally wrenching. Amazing. We talk so much of getting our kids into real art and literature but when confronted with a piece that gets them there, we hesitate.

This suggests to me that protection should be one criteria but should not hold a veto on our decisions. I am confident that we will face moments where we are grateful our kids saw Terabithia in ways in which I won't care about the others. It is disturbing and so you need time to deal with it but with that time, there is a good investment to be had.

But beyond a meaningful message, this week highlights to me the problem with rating systems and most reviews. Kids-In-Mind is useful input on the protection -- or cost -- side of taking kids to movies. But there is the benefit side too. I hardly know any reviewers (although I guess I and parent bloggers are an exception) where the reviewers attended movies with kids. How can you possibly give a kids movie 2, 3 or 5 stars without having seen it with a kid? We want to know whether it actually held attention, what type of kids it might scare, whether the plot was comprehendable to a child and, most critically, whether kids actually laughed. I can go to all manner of crappy kids movies but if my son sits besides me laughing all the way through, I just don't care. It is worth taking him and worth paying for the extra adult ticket to sit next to him. For a proper screen, we need a child whose eyes and ears to see the movie through.


I read about Twitter all of the time as something that is worth doing and getting into. I signed up a few weeks ago and am not quite there on its usefulness -- I think it is scale issue. Anyhow, I managed today to put my twitter feed on this blog (you can see it in the sidebar). If you want to follow me on twitter, click here but I won't promise great insights or much volume.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Turbulent activities

You know I have always wondered how I might react when flying with kids and the plane hit serious turbulence. Well today on a Qantas flight from Melbourne to Sydney I got a chance to find out.

It appears we hit an unexpected storm. Why it was unexpected I do not know. But we were buffeted during the morning tea service. The plane appeared to be blasted and went into what I swear was a downward dive. It was more than enough to send everyone back to seats except people on the bathroom who were told (and I am not making this up) to stay put and hang on. I guess the theory was if they had to go they might as well have convenience.

Anyhow the kids started to look concerned and I wondered what to do to take their minds off it all. Then I remembered a scene from Madagascar 2 last week. When the plane was crashing in that movie the lemurs put their hand in the air and said "it is more fun if you do it like this." So I did the same and the kids joined in.

Suffice it to say there were more dips to come and each one the kids treated like a roller coaster. It was both surreal and amusing at the same time. It also got us some strange looks from the other passengers. I guess though it was a distraction to them.

Now as I am writing this you have probably guessed we survived the experience although I did wonder what it would be like to update my Facebook status while all this was happening. Then again turning on my phone during a crisis is probably not a good idea. The flight staff seemed pretty freaked out when we saw them again so I guess they were pretty occupied during it all.

Alas the kids were quite sick by the end of it and had their paper bags at the ready during the landing and afterwards. There is only so much you can do in this situation but pretending it is a roller coaster will at least take the edge off.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Not your Grandma's auction

From The Daily Telegraph: [HT: MR]

THE family fracas over who gets the best seat in the house this Christmas have finally been put an end, thanks to an enterprising nanna and a heavily contested online auction.

After years of petty arguments over who gets the prime position in front of the television, West Yorkshire grandmother Bev Stewart was so sick of the Boxing Day sibling squabbles and infighting among her 25 family members, that she auctioned the front-row seat on eBay.

She claimed on the ebay advert that the prime position in her Stockbridge home was “a very comfy and popular item” before opening the auction to all members of her fractious family.

Nanna Stewart gained a little solace from the usual musical chairs arguments last year because she “had a heavily pregnant daughter and daughter-in-law who both gave birth in January, so they got the seat most of the time.”

However, this year the coveted couch has been up for grabs – and much of the family has been bickering over who will take centre stage.

Making the already valuable piece of lounge room real estate even more attractive for the big auction, Nanna Stewart said she would even throw in a few cushions to the winner bidder.

Nanna Stewart’s daughter-in-law Alexis won the auction with her £13.50, outbidding the 17 other family rivals. Alexis is likely to share the coveted couch with her 11-month-old son Mark for the whole day the Boxing Day.

Nanna Stewart said: "There is always arguing over who gets it, it's the perfect seat. It is straight in front of the TV and has got the coffee table at the side for you to rest your drink on and the TV remote, so everybody wants to sit there.”

Brilliant. I will have to try this at home. That said, eBay seems like overkill. Surely, a quick auction while the TV remained off would do. Also, one wonders whether this price might be enough for Nanna to consider reconfiguring her lounge room to earn more revenue.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Holiday cross-over

Lemony Snicket's, The Latke who couldn't stop streaming: A Christmas Story is one of the best cross-over holiday books ever. Actually, it is the best. Lemony Snicket's writing is 'read-out-load' friendly even the big words. I learnt a new one "arrondissement" but you will have to read the book to find out what it means.

The story is about a latke (which here means potato pancake) who, thanks to having been boiled in oil (symbolic or otherwise), runs around the neighbourhood screaming at Christmas decorations looking for the source of its existential angst. Children really get into the story but it also hits upon every single inadequacy that is part of the whole Hanukah thing. It was hilarious but also a great story at the same time. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Why Madagascar?

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is a great movie but you really need to have seen the original. For starters, less than 60 seconds of the movie takes place in Madagascar although admittedly, it is a crucial plot piece. But the character development all took place in Madagascar and this movie is just gravy.

As everyone knows, this franchise's appeal rests with the minor characters -- mainly penguins and lemurs, although the moneys do feature. The major characters are there to keep a main plot-line going so we can enjoy the antics of the minor ones. And they do not disappoint in this movie. The penguins are as efficient as ever while the lemurs carry with them the untamed masses. No one is looking at their watch during this movie.

So I would rate it highly this holidays on the "volunteer to take your kids' friends to the movies so that they have to reciprocate by taking them to something less adult friendly." Get there first now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A fable?

From Tim Harford responding to the question of how to explain the credit crunch to a 5 year old:

Once upon a time, there was a blameless girl called Consumerella, who didn’t have enough money to buy all the lovely things she wanted. She went to her Fairy Godmother, who called a man called Rumpelstiltskin who lived on Wall Street and claimed to be able to spin straw into gold. Rumpelstiltskin sent the Fairy Godmother the recipe for this magic spell. It was written in tiny, tiny writing, so she did not read it but hoped the Sorcerers’ Exchange Commission had checked it.

The Fairy Godmother carried away armfuls of glistening straw-derivative at a bargain price. Emboldened by the deal, she lent Consumerella – who had a big party to go to – 125 per cent of the money she needed. Consumerella bought a bling-bedizened gown, a palace and a Mercedes – and spent the rest on champagne. The first payment was due at midnight.

At midnight, Consumerella missed the first payment on her loan. (The result of overindulgence, although some blamed the pronouncements of the Toastmaster, a man called Peston.) Consumerella’s credit rating turned into a pumpkin and Rumpelstiltskin’s spell was broken. He and the Fairy Godmother discovered that their vaults were not full of gold, but ordinary straw.

All seemed lost until Santa Claus and his helpers, men with implausible fairy-tale names such as Darling and Bernanke, began handing out presents. It was only in January that Consumerella’s credit card statement arrived and she discovered that Santa Claus had paid for the gifts by taking out a loan in her name. They all lived miserably ever after. The End.

I think he has glossed it over!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Educational value

A group of students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University have done a game theory project looking at the Parent's Dilemma in punishing children. Their analysis is available here. It is very insightful and interesting. I expect that got a high grade. What is good about it is that it does not presume that all parents are alike and demonstrates that some parents will have to favour different strategies depending on how much they hate (or I guess like me, enjoy) implementing punishments.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Podcast on Parentonomics

I did an interview on BNet Australia about Parentonomics. You can download the podcast here or alternatively can listen to it online here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Breakfast blues

Breakfast is a time-sensitive experience in our house as we try to get out by an early time. I missed the breakfast shift this morning but received the following email indicating that incentives had gone array:
The children were mucking about this morning during breakfast, singing to each other and chatting. I eventually told them that the only sound I want to hear is that of spoon against bowl and chewing. So you know what your daughter did? Started banging her spoon against her bowl and making exaggerated smacking noises with her mouth!
Emphasis, I believe, on the 'your.'

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Overcoming copyright

My son's 8th birthday party is coming up soon. What we usually do cake-wise is an ice cream cake using a technology that puts an image on edible rice paper as the cake's decoration. Previously, we have had photos of the kids but also images of their favourite things. However, the company that supplies these has wised up and realised that images grabbed from the web might be copy-protected and so we can't use them any more.

My son wanted a Ben-10 theme on his cake. Given copyright, this was not possible. He immediately realised that he could have what he wanted by doing it himself. The image to the left is what he came up with. It is a picture of an iPod touch where he has drawn his own Ben-10 picture.

I am sure some lawyer is going to comment that there might still be an issue here but I was thrilled with his ingenuity.