Friday, September 3, 2010

Freakonomics with the Kids

So tonight Freakonomics the Movie was released on iTunes. It was rated PG-13 but somehow I just didn't think it would be that unsuitable for kids and so I gathered up the 9 year old and the 11 year old and we all dug in. I, having read the book, knew how it was going to turn out or that it was going to turn out that incentives matter. They came to it with a clean slate.

The first thing of course was their stunned expressions when they found out that it was a documentary. We had recently watched Airplane! and if you look at the poster you can be forgiven for thinking that Freakonomics was going to be a wacky spoof on economics rather than something more serious.
Anyhow, despite that disappointment, there was enough there to get their interest going. Basically, Freakonomics is an unusual documentary as it is really four or five of them (I lost count) all done by different film-makers. That meant all manner of different perspectives on Levitt and Dubner from friendly interview, to shadowy figures to more amusing animations. But it also compartmentalised the issues nicely. There was a segment on parenting that had to do with crazy names people might give their children and what it might mean (answer: nothing). There was also a segment on crime and, in particular, disentangling cause and effect. That one might not be for every family as it deals with the notion that abortion laws could explain a good part of the drop in US crime rates in the 1990s but when it came down to it what better way to discuss the issues there between practical and moral concerns. There was also a broader discussion of corruption based on fraud in Sumo wrestling that went beyond that and into a commentary on Japanese values that frankly I could have done without.

But perhaps the most interesting segment was on bribing kids. My children are, of course, no strangers to that notion. In some sense, it helped them see that their weird family might have something to do with their father's profession. Nonetheless, the particular bribes highlighted were payments for good grades. I could see my eldest daughter just calculating what that might mean and I have to admit that I became curious as to what might happen if we did something in that spirit. This past year she had come to the US, made the honor roll but then fallen behind when she was sick for a month with some flu like thing. So there was ground to make up. It seemed to me that a little financial focus wouldn't go astray and might get her back into the swing of things. Yes, I know that is fraught with danger but sometimes you just want to know if it will work or not. We will see.

That's the lesson. If you are thinking of watching this with your kids, they will find it educational but there is also a danger that they might get some ideas. If you want to save yourself the trouble and have a laugh I can certainly recommend Airplane!