Friday, January 30, 2009

Stuffed toy entrepreneurship

This story on the NYT Motherlode blog reminded me of my earlier post on the subject of stuffed toys.

Had the parents of 10-year-old Soski, who lives in Glendale, Calif., had a spare Teddy locked away somewhere, they might not have found themselves in need of rescue by firefighters on Friday night.

In the middle of a temper tantrum, Soski threw his stuffed bear over a guard rail atop a steep incline near the family’s home. His mother climbed over to rescue the Teddy, but slipped. When Soski’s Dad tried to come to her aid, both parents became trapped 80-feet down on the rain-slicked slope, unable to climb back up. All this with Soski alone at the top of the hill.

The boy — who, let’s remember, started all this trouble in the first place — ran to a neighbors house and someone called 911. You can see video of the rescue here.
One solution to all this is, when your child becomes attached to some toy, to get a spare. That, of course, is easier said than done. We did that for our son's ET (yes, the same ET that later turned out to be so pivotal in the movie, In America) and we still have an ample supply of those. Sadly, he moved on to a $2 IKEA blue dog that got thrown his way during a visit there. Equally, sadly, we didn't stock up. Who knew?

Recently, he lost said toy. Someone may have mistaken it for a dirty rag. Suffice it to say, IKEA had moved on. I decided to see if eBay would help but the closest it got to was this anteater. That wouldn't cut. But I did notice how many stuffed toys selling at seemingly premium prices were on eBay. It occurred to me that a more comprehensive entrepreneurial activity of buying up stuffed toys and cataloging them could be a very lucrative business -- not to mention socially desirable as it could save lives or embarrassment, whichever you regard as worse.

A quick Google search indicated that this idea was not novel. Here is one service. No luck on the IKEA thing though. He will just have to deal. Nonetheless, I suspect that the problems associated with matching children with lost toys is going to get easier and easier.

2 Hours of self-play

[HT: Boing Boing] Can a 9 month old keep themselves occupied, free of parental attention, for over 2 hours? Apparently so.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Peddling cookies

CNN's iReport has a punch of user-generated stories on the topic of selling your children's charity (re: Girl Scout) cookies at work. I know I have lamented this before but we have a new staff room at work and I cannot believe the amount of trade the cookie peddlers do. I think this year I am going to let my children get in on that action; as a complement to the front of the house stall of course.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Evidence that I have gone insane

Click here for Exhibit A. It's free but should you view it, consider yourself over-charged.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Real Parentonomics

The biggest reaction to Parentonomics I get from non-readers of this blog is that they were expecting something very different: you know, talking about the costs of having children and stuff like that. Of course, instead, it is a mainly non-academic set of stories about the travails of one economist parent. I refer to studies in the book but I feel far from expert in all of this. Nonetheless, the title Parentonomics seemed appropriate for how I viewed my own parenting style and so it became the natural title of the book.

But Bryan Caplan looks set to do something that is more closely related to what people were expecting when an economist took a look at parenting. His Selfish Reasons to Have Kids will be published by Basic Books in 2011. This is something he appears to have been working on for some time.

To get a flavour for that book, take a look at this essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Caplan presents the evidence on two propositions. First, that parents add little value through their parenting efforts (something that Freakonomics also dealt with).
The punch line is that, at least within the normal range of parenting styles, how you raise your children has little effect on how your children turn out. You can be strict or permissive, involved or distant, encouraging or critical, religious or secular. In the long run, your kids will resemble you in many ways; but they would have resembled you about as much if they had never met you.
Second, that parenting efforts make neither parents nor potentially children happy.
You might respond, "Yes, but at least parental attention makes the children happier." It's striking, then, that even kids don't seem to want all this parental attention. One notable study by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute found that while most parents believe their children want more face time, only a tiny minority of children actually do.
The obvious take-away being: what's the point of it all?

Well, there is a little point. There is a qualifier to Proposition 1.
Recent scholarship does highlight some exceptions. For example, while earlier researchers found that divorce runs in families for purely genetic reasons, some new studies find that both nature and nurture play a role. Another study finds that controlling for genes, run-of-the-mill spanking does no lasting harm, but harsh physical punishment can leave lasting psychological scars.
And kids do prefer their parents to be something:
In contrast, about a third of children wish their parents were less stressed and tired. What kids seem to want from their parents isn't more time; it's a better attitude.
But the conclusion is that there seems to be a vast amount of inefficiency going on:
Ironically, then, a bird's-eye view of parenting research suggests that it would be good for the world if parents stopped trying so hard. Parents would be better off, because they would be doing less of something that — through excessive familiarity — has lost its charm. Children wouldn't be worse off, because parental "investment" has little payoff anyway. In fact, if we take children at their word, they'd be better off. Kids know better than anyone that if mom and dad aren't happy, nobody's happy.
I am very much looking forward to this book as I must admit, I think this is one of the central questions faced by parents that perhaps some good data and analysis might actually help on. But there is also another reason to anticipate its arrival in 2011: Caplan's terrific writing style. A final example:
For example, one prominent study found that when adoptees are 3 to 4 years old, their IQ has a .20 correlation with the IQ of their adopting parents; but by the time adoptees are 12 years old, that correlation falls to 0. The lesson: Children are not like lumps of clay that parents mold for life; they are more like pieces of flexible plastic that respond to pressure, but pop back to their original shape when that pressure is released.
Well put.

The Mild Tales of Despereaux

A while ago, Emily Bazelon, arguing against the Tales of Despereaux's G-rating, lamented its violent scenes. This was despite the fact that, having exposed her children to the book, it seemed not to appeal to kids above the age of 8. At the time, I lamented the difficulty of ratings for kids movies and reviews that didn't involve an adult sitting next to a kid. As Bazelon's 5 year old was scared by the movie, I excluded our 4 year old and took the 10 and 8 year old to see it today.

Well I have to say, that the picture of extended violence seemed hardly what was going on. There were a couple of scenes which were scary but no more than all manner of similar scenes in animated movies today -- G-rated or otherwise. I can contrast this with Bolt. If anything, what was different in Despereaux was that the chase and other scary scenes were not humerous. Indeed, there was no humour at all in the movie -- reminding my more of the beautiful Iron Giant than the usual fare.

Instead what we have is a cinematic masterpiece. The picture painted was reminscient of Eastern European paintings of pre-industrial urban life. And the entire story, based on a mavrick mouse and rat, was beautifully crafted. Indeed, I don't want to give too much away because it is such a pleasant and satisfying ride. It isn't shockingly unpredictable but it does involve a story of relationships between individuals and also society that is worthwhile.

But there is a moment of irony. One of the key themes is the mice world that spends all of its time indoctrinating themselves and their children to be afraid. It isn't subtle but I could not help but think about Bazelon's concerns and fears taking her children to this movie. Was that concern the equivalent of mouse indoctrination? Are we guessing about what our children are thinking and what they regard as scary and permitting those emotions? The alternative to cowering being a posture of a lack of concern and confidence. Actually, I have no idea. But that thought did occur to me during this movie. And apparently, we as parents don't really know very much about our children so it is right to ask these questions.

So my assessment of Tales of Despereaux is that it is a great family movie. My 10 and 8 year old enjoyed it but didn't laugh at all. And my attention was fully there thinking this is the sort of higher level movie that I should be taking my kids too. Utility and satisfaction all around.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Core Economics goes multi-author

My other blog, Core Economics, has gone multi-author this week with the addition of 7 regular contributors. And they have been contributing intensively. One post from Christine Neill may be of interest to readers here as it has to do with public policy on swimming pool fences.

Friday, January 16, 2009

They're baaaaack!

It has been almost two years since Child No.3 brought lice into our home and infected everyone in it. The scars might never heal although it did lead to a good blog post. Since then there is the continual fear that they might return. The fear that is that they might return and end up in Child No.3's mother's hair again forcing her to face her worst nightmare: relying on me to clean her up.

That fear had led, for so long, to all children's hair being platted before going to school. But these summer holidays, we let Child No.3 run free. And sadly, being a sociable child, it only took one interaction with someone in the last few weeks to catch some of those hair hoppers.

So they are back and this time there's ... fortunately less. Unfortunately, they hit two members of the household. Child No.3 and, sigh, her mother. Not fun at all. Last time I lamented a delousing service that could come in and deal with this. Turns out that there is such a service in Australia: the National Head Lice Treatment Centre. Sounds official really. I was ready to drop the $75 per head right then and there but we decided to see what we could do ourselves. Apparently, I was not completely useless and was preferable to a professional service.

But we were able to enlist Child No.1 to do the microscopic screening of what was coming out of people's hair (we were all checked). A few like that to the left. But lots of dead eggs thankfully and lots of what appears to be food in the hair of Child No.2; which is a bit of a worry. I hope the food isn't catching.

Friday, January 2, 2009

What's the deal with reading?

In Parentonomics, I rant about reading and the attention it is given at pre-school. This is not to say that I'm against it. It just seems to be a source of undue pressure for 5 and 6 year olds.

So it was with some joy that I began to read today's article in Slate entitled "Reading isn't fundamental." The article starts with a discussion of how parents feel when they observe their child (not) reading while others appear to be. I remember feeling that with Child No.1. I would observe a class-mate who, say, read a description "the sky is blue" and pointed out that that day the sky was, in fact, not blue but grey. This required reading the description and relating it to the world. Of course, by the time I got home this feat was translated to "did you know that so and so can read the weather forecast in the newspaper?" Let's face it, that was a tad exaggerated but the cause of it was concern.

Turns out that this happens all of the time. When Child No.1 was 4, she caused another parent to think that she could read perfectly (and by implication their child was inadequate) but 'reading' the whole of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. (I can imagine the translated version of that feat: "did you know that Gans kid is reading not just books but entire series of them?") Turns out that she had done no such thing. My daughter had been read that book so many times that she knew it off by heart! Suffice it to say, the other parent could not imagine that was the case given that the book is 40 some pages (although we could easily imagine it given how many millions of times we had read it) and it was only years later that the myth was dispelled.

But as the Slate article rightly points out, such feats are mythical and do not necessarily relate to real success in future life. (Oral skills for one seem more important). No kid is going to be reading Shakespeare by 7 so we can all just chill. Indeed, I can atest that early reading does not necessarily translate into some great love of books. Child No.2 was reading before he turned 5 (mostly self-taught). However, to this day, he shys away from books without pictures. He doesn't like them. He read to make sense of the pictures not for information per se. Even now as I read A Series of Unfortunate Events to the two eldest every night (something we are doing because I want to read them as much as the kids want to listen), he is constantly hopping up to look at the long picture on the cover. The words are not enough.

The Slate articles goes on:
... let's take a moment to recognize that compared with the development of oral language, the acquisition of reading is unnatural. Speech and the ability to understand speech can be considered the result of a natural process in the sense that the requisite skills emerge without formal training. ... Before children can speak fluently, they move from sounds to words, words to phrases, and so on, acquiring their growing expertise from exposure to the speech around them. They then make efforts to speak, with little formal guidance. By contrast, children must be taught to read.
So one would think that the Slate article might be a call for rationality and an alleviation of blame. No such luck. Right away it falls into a standard trap: children learn to read at different rates (a good true fact) and if parents are worried here is a thousand things you can do to overcome it (a bad conclusion). It is precisely the same talk we had from teachers at our kids' school: they learn at different rates (i.e., if your kid is not reading it is not our fault) but you should be reading to them at home (i.e., you probably aren't doing enough so it is your fault).

So the article moves into a raft of advice of what parents should be doing. For example, start young:
With infants, talk to the child and encourage him to make a range of talklike sounds. Begin reading to the child, and keep books around, including some within the child's reach. Do what you can to make reading fun, enjoyable, peaceful, and engaging, setting the stage for what comes next at the toddler level. You are building command of sounds, love of reading, and an appreciation of the value and importance of books.
What?? They just explained how oral communication was important and reading was an unnatural activity. Now they are saying through books all around the place to prep your toddler for reading action.

Come on. Since when does reading equate to 'love of books'? And since when is a love of books a pre-requisite to reading? I don't know about you but throughout my life most of my reading is non-book related. I reckon that if I never read another book tomorrow the amount of reading (and understanding what I read) would hardly change. Why is it the case that we think that books will hold some magical power over our children and their future success?

The issue is not 'love of books' but 'love of communication' and reading is just a part of that. You need to read to communicate in society and that is the primary consideration. Whether you appreciate or even like literature is surely second or worse. And to think that we are teaching our children to read so that they can immerse themselves in books is completely out of place with how important reading actually is for other things. Moreover, appreciating books is not a pre-requisite to writing clearly or communicating to others.

My point here is that to structure our curriculum and pressures on parents around reading books is misplaced. We need to concentration on communication and its elements. To focus on reading is to focus on an arbitrary benchmark; something I think parents need to resist.