Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Like Father, Like Daughter

I have been guilty of the odd April fool's prank or two in my time. I used to have lots of fun making use of fax machines in the olden days. Anyhow, it appears my 10 year old daughter has that bug too. And her target was me.

This morning I woke up to find that all of the coffee in the house was gone. As I don't like to risk a shortage we have a massive surplus. This was not good news. My daughter heard my distress was nearby. She suggested glumly that maybe coffee was the latest in the removal of all harmful food substances. This was not going to be pretty.

Anyhow, it became obvious quickly that she was the cause of this. So I retaliated with emotional swings and roundabouts that led to threats to destroy a computer and lots of hugs.

What was impressive was the trouble she went to. It was in the works for weeks and she woke herself up at 4am this morning in order to clear the house of coffee. Now that is commitment.

That said, I am in masses of trouble for years to come. Those who have suffered at my hands will be jumping, I'm sure, with lots of joy.

An Instant Classic

It is hard to find words when you have just read a (literally) classic children's book. But I just have and it is Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead. The problem is that I don't want to describe any part of this book to you. It is a rare instance that, I, as parent and reader-out-loud did not know how the book was going to end as I read it. I did not know that it would strike so many chords. I did not know it would be so amusing. And I did not know it would be so dramatic. The next time you find yourself in a bookstore with a child, seek this book out and force your child to listen to you read it. I can't vouch for whether they will like it. You will and it still counts for any book-related parenting points you might wish to earn.

Monday, March 30, 2009

New Maths

This site will make your day. A taste.

360 degree evaluations

So how do your kids rate your parenting? Is it much different than how you would rate yourself? According to a study reported in Ellen Galinsky’s Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, apparently there is a quite a bit of correlation (even when pooling parents and kids together rather than matching them).

Bryan Caplan provides a neat discussion. Apparently, on the question of whether parent’s control their tempers, both parents and kids give themselves the lowest marks but the kids also rate the parents more poorly.

I'm tempted to say that this shows that parents and kids would be better off if parents focused more on themselves.  Parents would feel better about their lives if they gave themselves a break; kids would indirectly benefit because their parents would express less anger toward them.  "See a movie on your way home from work - and smile at your kids when you get home," would be my slogan.  But the fact that parents agree that they have an anger problem makes me wonder.

I’d rate myself low on that question too. In fact, I am not known for getting angry and shouting but my kids know that I can.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kids in the Kitchen

A few weeks ago, Slate railed against kids cooking programs. Their lament was the whole public saturation of various cooking programs, restaurant reviews and whathaveyou, featuring kids. I must admit that my reaction was if you don't like it just switch off. As of today, I think the real crisis is in kids' cooking in the home.

Actually, our kids have been doing pretty well helping out in the kitchen. They are, in fact, net contributors. But today, it was our 8 year old son's desire to cook dinner for everyone.
"What are you going to cook?"

"Not sure. I'll work it out."

"OK, just don't take too long."
An hour later.
"What are you cooking?"

"I'm not sure. It doesn't have a name."

"How's it going?"

(Trying to mix something in a bowl too dense to mix without a jackhammer) "It is really quite hard."
The problem is: you can't just switch off this show. Everyone is eating it.

So we sat down at the table and were presented with a bowl of stuff that if I took my glasses off could have been mistaken for breakfast cereal. Unfortunately, there was one sense that wasn't going to escape this show.

My reaction, like most caring parents in this situation, was to wait and see whether others survived before delving in myself. Our 4 year old seemed happy to dig right in. She liked it (and ended up finishing her entire bowl). Our 10 year old was less sure but had the good sense not to complain. The cook himself displayed some uncertainty after the first bite but kept going. Their mother smiled and thanked him for the wonderful meal doing her best Meryl Streep in the process which is even harder given the amount of chewing that was required.

That prompted me to suggest that surely she didn't have enough but she covered without losing a beat and said, "surely we want there to be enough for the children should they want more."

So the moment of truth came for me. I'll tell you this much, it was not something I had tasted before. It had the consistency of broken crackers, the coolness of frozen cheese and another quite tangy ingredient that I couldn't place.
"Umm. What's in it?"

"Well, first I took some seaweed rice crackers and corn rice cakes and blended them together. I mixed in some grated cheese which I took from the freezer because I didn't have time to let it warm up and then I added three bottles of Yakult." (Yakult is a milky drink that is designed to ensure that 'good' bacteria stays in your stomach although in this case, I am not hopeful of their survival.)

"Yes, you can really taste the Yakult. I am certain we are the first people to ever taste this. How do you like it?"

"Well, I don't mean to be rude to myself, but I don't really want to finish this."

"That's OK. How about giving what you have left to your mother who finished all hers?"
That prompted a look that suggested I might want to leave home ... quickly. Alas, with this thing in my stomach that it was not clear could be digested, I really was in no position to run anywhere.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More answers for Akst

Bryan Caplan, who is authoring a book that I have termed, "The Real Parentonomics," provides an answer to this question from Daniel Akst at the end of his WSJ review of Parentonomics.
It's a pity that Mr. Gans misses the chance to cover the most interesting question an economist might address in the parenting arena: Why he decided to have children in the first place? They're no longer an economic asset, after all. So is human reproduction nowadays irrational? Is it even ethical? If a pill is invented that would confer the joys of parenthood without all the mess or expense, should people take it? Dreary speculation, I know, but what better topic for the dismal science?
Bryan's answer to (i) is because we like them. The rest follows. Read on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

WSJ Review: Don't spare the rod!

The first US review of Parentonomics (non-Amazon that is) has come in and it is from a big media outlet, the Wall Street Journal. I won't dress it up, the reviewer, Dan Akst didn't like it. Put simply, he seems tired of pop economics books and certainly didn't want to read one where the author uses his own experiences as the base (or to use his term a "bore").

But there was actually more to it. He has a very different view of how to punish kids, to me, jaw droppingly, so.
Some of the author's child-rearing ideas will not strike such a universal chord. Mr. Gans doesn't believe in spanking, but he admits that he and his wife frequently punish their children by means of shunning -- making their kids stand in a corner, in keeping with the modern preference for emotional pain over corporal punishment. At one point Mr. Gans even uses hunger as a weapon, sending a helpless child to bed without her supper (prompting in him a meditation on whether the punishment is costlier to parents or child). Wouldn't a quick swat to the tush and a full belly be preferable all around?
Wow. And I was getting in trouble for suggesting using incentives with kids. I know parents angst over whether 'time outs' are effective but they are usually not reaching for the rod as an alternative. This was definitely a new kind of reviewer.

So I figured I might investigate some more. And when you look at Mr Akst's past writings, this is not a new theme. Take this offering from the WSJ back in 1999:
I say "mere," but it’s startling how casually this creepy technique is advocated. A whack to the bottom is held to violate the taboo against violence, but for some reason ostracism, physical isolation and emotional withholding are broadly approved, often in the widely adopted form of the "time out," which for the uninitiated resembles very closely what Dennis the Menace’s parents must have inflicted when the cartoonist drew him sulking in a rocking chair in the corner.

With its emphasis on silence and isolation, coupled with its faith in rehabilitation, the rise of the time out recapitulates the Quaker-inspired embrace of solitary confinement prison generations ago as a proper response to transgression. The idea was that the the wrongdoer could reflect on his sins without distraction. The time out is supposed to have the same effect, and justreplacement for corporal or other punishments in society at large. And just as America is a world leader in penitentiaries, American parents seem to lead the world in time outs (as well as in disrespectful children, it sometimes seems)., so too are we world leaders in incarceration.
Actually, I call it "incarceration" in the book (p.138) so I hardly glossed over these issues. But that was after, for the book at least, a fairly thoughtful and research-informed look at spanking that basically said, if you have to do it often, it is a bad and ineffective idea (and by the way, that is consistent with the economics of punishment).

But he goes on.
As the With its sporty name and air of thoughtful "hold everything," The time out is the emblematic punishment of our times, the time out is . It’s in keeping, to cite one example, with our preference in recent years for economic sanctions in lieu of war. Leaving aside our recent belligerence in Iraq and Yugoslavia, generally speaking we prefer to punish rogue countries nowadays by expelling them "from the community of nations." Diplomatic ties are broken, and trade is at least threatened. If you can’t be good, we won't let you play in our markets.

On a more prosaic level, the time out reflects a certain feminization of culture in which traditional fatherliness has become as dispensable as fathers themselves. Calling a time out--shunning your child until he does what you like--substitutes emotional manipulation for physical force, thereby replacing one dubious form of compulsion with another. Its lasting effect, such as it is, arises from the fear of psychological rather than physical pain, and contrary to appearances, its widespread adoption is based not on kindness but on weaknessselfishness. Except in the case of abusers and other sickos, whacking a kid’s bottom probably does hurt parent more than child, and inflicting pain on the psyche has somehow come to seem more palatable.
That theme comes through even more strongly here. But before you think that Mr Akst is favouring spanking, reading on, he is in favour something else:
Aside from these humane ploys, I’m a pragmatist. On mornings when it's up to me to dress bmy sons, for instance, I throw shirts and pants onto them as fast as I can, regardless of what they think or whether they're ready. I know I'm supposed to solicit their views in all this, but that usually results in a wrestling match. Work fast, and by the time they figure out they're missing a golden opportunity to argue, it's too late: they're already dressed. I figure if I keep this up, before I know it pretty soon they'll be old enough to read Bartleby instead of emulating him.

And neither of us will have to suffer through too many time outs or sore bottoms along the way.
He just goes for full command and control. No wonder he didn't like the book. At its heart is the idea that we are parenting kids so they can exercise good judgment themselves. Punishment is one means of communicating the dimensions of that judgment. If you decide instead to give them no control, you avoid the need for punishment and much else. Mr Akst doesn't like books like Parentonomics for a reason. Its philosophy shares much with that of economics that we want to allow people (including children) to make their own choices but to feel the consequences rather than to deny the choices themselves. Forget the spanking issue, this is an area where we seriously disagree,

Monday, March 23, 2009

See, it's a misunderstood condition

From The Onion:
NEW YORK—A new study published in The Journal Of Pediatric Medicine found that a shocking 98 percent of all infants suffer from bipolar disorder. "The majority of our subjects, regardless of size, sex, or race, exhibited extreme mood swings, often crying one minute and then giggling playfully the next," the study's author Dr. Steven Gregory told reporters. "Additionally we found that most babies had trouble concentrating during the day, often struggled to sleep at night, and could not be counted on to take care of themselves—all classic symptoms of manic depression." Gregory added that nearly 100 percent of infants appear to suffer from the poor motor skills and impaired speech associated with Parkinson's disease.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The very lucrative caterpillar

Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar is 40 years old. It is special for me as it was a book I remember loving when I was very young and was a rare occasion when I finally picked it up for my daughter she loved it as well. I guess it was the almost unique combination of eating and mathematics that really worked for her. And let's not forget the whole non-standard page and hole form that almost scuttled it from ever being published.

What travels less through time is the whole notion that the caterpillar being a caterpillar was somewhat less 'good' than the butterfly it became. And if you think that I am stretching this interpretation too far, consider what the author himself says:
"My friends, my family, my editors, my publisher, we all wondered why it's been so successful," Carle says. "It is a book about hope. If you're an insignificant caterpillar, you can grow up to be a big butterfly in the world."
Let's face it the whole Ugly Duckling resolution just doesn't stack up these days with our general attempts to have children by happy with what they are. Then again, the caterpillar transformation is more natural and less societal, and gives us days of the week to boot.

Al Roth notes just how lucrative the whole inter-generational children's book industry is.
Bestsellers in any category are what make publishing profitable. But childrens' books must be very special, because a bestseller can have high sales for a long time, as new generations of the target audience are born. I've always thought that this must be especially true for those books made of thick cardboard, suitable for chewing on as well as reading, since each new reader needs a new copy (chewing cuts down on the used book/hand me down market). But I hadn't guessed just how big the revenue stream is.
And that revenue stream is $50 million annually. A quick walk around my house and I can see why. We have the original paperback I bought my daughter, and then the board book I bought because I wanted the paperback to survive until the next child. But we also have a nice hardcover version that we never let out (maybe that is for future grandkids) and also a mini pocket version that I think came with a plush of the very hungry caterpillar itself. Finally, there is a jigsaw puzzle. That's alot of merchandise for a single book and a quick look at Amazon suggests that we didn't even touch the surface there. Take it from me: one book is enough.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rembrandts on the Fridge

I got this from some friends who have an 8-year-old daughter whom I’ll call Franny:

Friend (looking at Franny’s artwork, which is labeled “$10,000″): How much do I have to pay you for that picture?

Franny: $10,000.

Friend: Is that in real money or pretend money?

Franny: You can pay me $5,000 in real money and $5,000 in pretend money. And if you only want to pay me the pretend money, then you get to borrow the picture for the weekend.

I’ve been struggling for weeks trying to think of the perfect real-world analogy - maybe something to do with assets being held on the books at $10,000 that everyone knows are only worth $5,000.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The snack bubble

I have been listening to NPR's Planet Money podcast for help with my day job. It has to do with the financial crisis and usually is depressing and wordy. But I just listened to this episode which was neither. It described a story from one of Planet Money's hosts, Joshua Bearman, of his experiences at school in an environment where kids traded tasty snacks with one another everyday. Joshua's parents didn't let him bring stuff worth anything on that market and so he was an outcast. His solution: he invented a cake future based on a fictitious, soon to be backed, concoction that would be brought to school at a later date and traded those futures. Hijinks ensued. It is well worth the listen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Amazon obsession

The US/UK Parentonomics releases have afforded me, as an author, more information than I should probably be allowed to have regarding the book. This comes from the online selling options. One benefit of these is that they allow potential readers to learn more about the book. For instance, here you can be shown a random page of the book.

But for me there is more information too. And this is a problem which my publisher has diagnosed as a common afflication amongst authors: CARCD or 'compulsive Amazon rank checking disorder.' The first step to getting better is to admit you have a problem and hence this blog post.

So let's start with the Amazon sales rank. I'll make your life difficult by not providing a link but that is mainly because it fluctuates wildly between the 250,000 mark and the 10,000 mark (and today it is on the bad end of that one). This is hardly surprising. As there is no mainstream publicity yet, the potential readership of the book is really confined to the readers of this blog. (And yes, just in case you are one of the estimated 3 readers out there with a Kindle, it will be there too, hopefully in the next few weeks).

More critically, however, there are the Amazon reviews; the cause of another related CARCD (here, 'compulsive Amazon review checking disorder'). Now there is an interesting phenomenon going on here: accepting criticism. Those of you who are academics know that most academic work is subject to a level of criticism that is, compared to ordinary discourse, quite extreme and can border on the abusive. I have many such critiques levied at me during the course of peer review and I am quite accepting of them, take them in to consideration and then move on.

For some reason, despite their incredibly mild and good nature, I find myself far more obsessed with Amazon reviewers than I have been with the opinion of my academic colleagues! This is even more ridiculous given that there are 8, yes only eight, reviews there right now. And what is more, the majority are positive. Indeed, even the person who disliked the book the most wrote:
I was really looking forward to Parentonomics. I wasn't expecting a serious discussion of parenting or economics but I was disappointing because it was light on both.

To be fair, the author does explain in the preface that the idea for the book came out of a blog and that it's not a parenting book and that he has no particular expertise and hasn't performed research in the area of economics as it applies to parenting/children.
Basically, the book wasn't for them. Fair enough. And there was this one who was hoping for something more like Freakonomics.
That said, it's not a bad book. Fast and light reading. Something like a modern Erma Bombeck perhaps. There are enough funny bits to keep you engaged, but if you are expecting Steven Levitt or Malcolm Gladwell, keep looking....
Which is very true. The only thing the book has in common with Freakonomics is the 'onomics. But let's face it, Levitt and Dubner have defined the brand there. I had figured having a whimsical title would be cautionary enough not to expect seriousness but seriousness is what the market gets with even more whimsical titles and so there is some, now apparent, consumer confusion.

My main obsession with the Amazon reviews is driven by the fact that they are spot on. One review writes that the book reads "like a sort of less-funny Dave Barry column." True, how could it not be? And goes on:
This book is all sizzle, no steak. I give it three stars for being an enjoyable read, but cannot give it five stars since it did not meet my expectations for the purpose of the book.
I don't disagree with that even if I hoped that more actually liked the book. Yep, I was going for 'sizzle.' The reviewers actually appreciated the book for what it was and it isn't for everyone. (Actually, that reviewer appears to have a blog with an excellent post about Star Trek upcoming movie fear that I am feeling a close affinity with). And all this reminds me of this great Malcolm Gladwell talk on differences in consumer tastes. One product can't satisfy everyone.

That said, I'm not above trying to game the market. Apparently, the more reviews the merrier in terms of getting Amazon's attention, so I want to encourage anyone who has read the book to pop one up. I'll be sure to obsess over it.

Parentonomics released in the UK

Parentonomics is now officially on-sale in the United Kingdom (click here to purchase from amazon.co.uk). It is, however, the US version of the book so you will get 'diapers' instead of 'nappies.' (If you are desperate for the version in the original Australian, this bookstore appears to ship internationally; although I am not sure the difference is worth the extra cost). And if you don't like on-line purchases it should be in the bookstores in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New Weekly Email

By popular demand, I have now set up a weekly email service to Game Theorist. You can subscribe by entering your email address on the sidebar form to the right or clicking on one of the following links:
It is pretty easy to unsubscribe straight from the email should you so choose. Also, if you follow my other blog at Core Economics (click here to subscribe to its daily email using the same service).

(Also, if you are using your Melbourne Business School address, some over-zealous blocking seems to stop that).

Monday, March 2, 2009

From the Parentonomics Google Alert

So I have a Google Alert set up to tell me whenever Parentonomics is mentioned in the world. It doesn't have much activity.

This morning this gem of a short blog post came through. It is about a father who reads adult books out loud to his baby. I guess he figures he gets the kudos for reading but doesn't have to be bored even when his baby doesn't understand. Sounds like a win-win. Reminds me of the time I introduced the kids to The Beatles as the new Wiggles.

Anyhow, guess what he is reading to his baby in the post.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why not? Period edition

I have written before about Why Not? the book by Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff that has little strategies for thinking creatively. I applied it to teaching children mathematics using subtraction before addition to great effect. I have also written recently about Ian Ayres' accomplished children.

Barry Nalebuff's endorsement adorns the cover of Parentonomics: "Dr. Spock meets Freakonomics. Parenting will never be the same." But he too, it turns out, has an accomplished 18 year old daughter. Rachel Kauder Nalebuff has just released a book, My Little Red Book, that has just been reviewed by the New York Times. And the thing about it is that it looks like it's genesis was a "Why not?" moment:

To understand why Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s “My Little Red Book” manages all of the above, you need only muse for a moment on the fact that your local Victoria’s Secret, that high temple of undress, has private dressing rooms. Or that “Hair” on Broadway features full frontal nudity on stage and the usual segregated men’s and ladies’ rooms at intermission. Or that sex education still routinely proceeds in single-sex classes.

In other words, for all our public exploration of everyone else’s bodies, our own personal specimens remain quite private. So when it comes to the onset of menstruation, it is the rare girl who will launch an enthusiastic dialogue with family or friends on the subject. Far more typical is she who enters the feminine-products aisle alone (and returns there alone for the duration).

To 18-year-old Rachel Nalebuff, this particular privacy made no sense.
And she did something about it. Her book collects stories of the 'first period' experiences of many women. The NYT endorsement is impressive: "Seldom can a book stretch to accommodate both its author’s and its publisher’s fondest hopes: that it be original yet universal, artistic yet practical, and likely to sell briskly for centuries to come." You can't buy that type of endorsement!

In reading about the book and looking its website, I had my own "why not?" moment. Why do fathers never seem to talk about their daughter's menstruation? So I decided to correct that right here, right now. And in researching this blog (yes, I actually did that) I discovered that the answer to "why not?" may actually be "because."

First, some context. As regular readers know, my daughter is 10 years old. What you may not know, because I have not really been open to discussing it publicly until now, is that she has been going through puberty for about 18 months. (By the way, various permissions to discuss this openly have been sought and approved but as you will see, there is only so much detail I can provide). And if you think that sounds young, you are right. But apparently it is not so young as to be regarded as outside the norm. Apparently, there has been a downward trend in the onset of puberty for girls. I, for one, don't think I'm ready.

This has manifested itself in various developments. I know this by conversations between myself and my daughter and her mother on the other side of a closed door.
"What's up? Can I help?"

"Go away. We have this under control."

"You have what under control."

"Nothing that you need concern yourself with."
And so I was left to not concern myself with it. As I knew that the whole puberty thing was going on, I always figured that her time had come. But actually I was wrong and it hasn't yet come (although apparently that is just around the corner). It was other stuff that I can't describe because I have been removed from the loop.

Other signs have appeared.
"Whose bra is this?"

"Your daughter's."

"Really? Did I miss the meeting on this?"

"Err, no."
I usually expect to have meetings on important developments but apparently not. I don't know quite what I was expecting. Some sort of party. But somehow growing up is going on without so much as a memo.

And the growing up is right. Early puberty means an early growth spurt. My daughter is now the tallest in her class and towers over kids a year or more older. She is wearing her mother's clothes! Boys are hobbits to her. But there is a sad side to this that we can't do much about. Her growth will actually stop very soon and she will spend many years watching everyone else grow past her. Child No.1 won't be really short but the looming prospect of it doesn't thrill me.

On other matters though my knowledge is non-existent. I have broached this with the mother of my young woman.
"You know, what if you weren't around and I needed to do something?"

"What exactly would you need to do?"

"Whatever it is you are doing?"

"Call one of her aunts."

"What if they can't be reached?"

"Reach them or get someone else in."

"Aren't I in the line of succession somewhere?"

"No, you aren't."
Apparently, years of wiping crap off her bottom was just fine but not this. Well, I'll show them. I ordered My Little Red Book and will give it to my daughter. That way I'll be doing my bit. Also, I believe that now you know why fathers don't talk about this stuff. It is just because.