Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games is a great movie for kids

[This post was originally published at on 26th March 2012]

That's my opinion having just taken my 11 year old son to see it. And if I am to read the blogosphere, it is a controversial opinion to hold. Some, including here at Forbes, see it as potentially causing reduced civility amongst kids. Others see it as pure escapism for teens with little teach them or improve their understanding of the world. I have read the first book and now seen the movie and I disagree.

Just in case you missed it, The Hunger Games involves a future society where, as a result of the outcome of an earlier suppressed rebellion, each year, each of 12 ruled districts offers up two 12-18 year olds as tribute to basically play a game of Survivor. The twist is that there is no tribal council or votes but instead the kids just kill each other until one is left standing. To be sure, this is not the sort of movie that we have come to associate as kid friendly these days. But to hold that view is to opt for a sheltered view of what our kids should be exposed to.

My son is actually quite a sensitive soul. When trailers for horror movies come on, he covers his ears and shields his eyes. So I was somewhat surprised when I learned that last year he had read The Hunger Games and enjoyed it. Why I asked? He said, "it made you think."
Cover of "The Hunger Games"
Cover of The Hunger Games

And it is from that perspective that I approached the book and then the movie. Right from the start the movie opens, not with the game, but with its anticipation. All of the kids are put in the position of facing uncertainty as to whether they would be offered as tribute for the game. It taxes them so much so that the lead character proclaims she will never have children in that world. It is this feature more than the game itself that teaches kids, especially amongst the more privileged in our society -- of which my son is one -- to think about the uncertainty that many less well off both here and throughout the world live. It may not beThe Hunger Games that taxes them but the fear of becoming ill without adequate health insurance or of losing one's home to a financial crisis. Studies show that this has great harmful implications for the welfare of adults. Think about what it does to children. The Hunger Games forces the reader to experience that fact of many people's lives even if dressed up in a fictional world.

The game itself brings forward another thought: what would you do? The disturbing thing about The Hunger Games but also its most plausible aspect is how easily most of the tributes buy into the game and are comfortable with killing others to save their own lives. To be sure, not all of them are alike but there is little thought in the moment given to the notion of combat or murder. How often in discussing the news or past historical wars have your children asked you how people come to kill one another? The Hunger Gamespaints a picture of how the situation rather than the person can matter. This is what social psychologists have taught us (think of the famous Milgram or Stanford prison experiments). Here, it is presented in fictional form and it is powerful. To us, it provoked a discussion of precisely that and made our children step back and think about how the situation can define their actions and the actions of others. This is not an easy subject to broach but The Hunger Games gives us the context.

Finally, there is the question of plausibility. In The Hunger Games, most players are coerced but some volunteer. Interestingly, they are from the apparently richer districts even though there is a prize of incredible riches for the victor. That provokes thoughts about whether people would volunteer for this sort of game in today's world. This is also the context upon which you can broach the subject of Kony2012 with your kids. The most salient part of that movement is the notion of stolen children who are made to fight (think abou that people who believe The Hunger Games is far removed from reality). But there have also been times in history where kids fought without coercion. In many respects, this is all about the plausibility of the economics of the movie. The point is that the very subject of how far removed the movie is from reality is one that the movie can stimulate. 

In my mind, the controversy surrounding The Hunger Games reflects a steady move towards a more sheltered existence for our children. I will freely admit that I might have hesitated about taking my son to see the movie had he not already discovered the book. And he saw it and enjoyed it and was not traumatised by the experience. The situation that took the choice out of our hands allowed him to broaden his own horizons without the cost of parental deliberation.

And what age is appropriate? That depends on the kid. Given knowledge my son's reaction, I would not hesitate in letting him see the movie had he been a year or two younger. Beyond that, the benefits I have suggested above in terms of a broader discussion of the world would probably be lost. But truth be told, apart from all the killing, the kids in this movie or the book are far less mean or cruel than children in the school playground. It is easy to get distract by adult classifications of trauma that may loom less large than those children actually experience.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Disney would like you to subscribe to vacations

[This post was originally published at on 25th March 2012.]

"I'm only here for the Fast Passes." That is what I unashamedly told the consultant trying to pitch us on Disney's Vacation Club. We had been at
Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt D...
Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Walt Disney World and while we were waiting for something such as children cycling through a bathroom run, we had wondered what all of the "enjoy your vacation for 70% off, ask us how" posters were all about. Standing right there was an appropriately uniformed person to ask them how. He said lots of stuff but I wasn't really paying attention. But then he said, if you'd like to hear all the details, it will take about an hour but in return Disney will give you enough Fast Passes for the day. From then, I was all ears (pun intended).

A Fast Pass is Disney's ingenious method of allowing theme park visitors to spend less time in queues. They usually work by turning up to a popular ride, grabbing a pass which then gives you an hour window to queue skip at some time later in the day. You can only hold one of these at a time so they have to be used sparingly.

But the Fast Passes on offer here were not of that variety. They could be used right away. And there were enough of them that we would be free of queues for a day. It didn't take me long to work out that that would save us a couple of hours in queuing. So I'd happily trade-off hearing a sales pitch on the Disney Vacation Club for that any day. I may even get a blog post out of it.

To that end, despite my clear and transparent motivations for being at the pitch, I paid attention. At our scheduled time, we were brought the Disney Vacation Club installation at Walt Disney World. This was a large facility that was part of the Saratoga Springs Resort. We were led to a consultation room with its appropriately Disney styling and we were given the deal. Here's what it was. Instead of paying for vacations -- specifically accommodation -- as we currently did, when we booked them, we could pay for them in advance. For either a one time payment or a 'mortgage' over 10 years (or it turns out anything in between), we would get 50 years of holidays. Yes, 50! For we who were currently involved in heavy planning of our activities over the next 50 hours, this was quite an adjustment in time horizon.

Now you might say that this just sounds like a 'time share.' A traditional time share is where you buy a 1/52nd share in a property somewhere and you are required to vacation during a specific week each year. For those, more popular weeks carry higher payments but you do get some real estate in the process. This has never been too appealing a notion to us as we never found a place we would be happy with to vacation every year and there just seemed to be too many things that may change our minds even if we did.

The Disney Vacation Club is 'time share' like in that you get 'time' and you are 'sharing' but that is about it. Instead, while legally you are buying a share of a property, in actuality, Disney has set up an organized market over the top of it that allows you to vacation at some 200 possible locations (near as I can count) at any time of the year you want. Now, it is subject to availability but when you are encouraged to book several months in advance, that isn't an issue. And there is a 'rate of exchange' based on your primary buy-in. What that means is that you purchase points and Disney assigns different redemption amounts for points at different properties and at different times of the year. Want to vacation at more deluxe accommodations, buy more points. Want longer vacations, buy more points. In economic terms, you are paying for the rights to a certain amount of vacation quantity/quality at Disney resorts.

But it is even better than that. First, if in one year, you don't want to do that, you can bank the points and have a longer vacation next year. Second, if you are impatient and want a longer vacation this year, you can borrow from next year's allotment. Third, this isn't tied to you. You can gift vacations to friends and family and indeed, leave the future vacations to your children and perhaps your children's children. If it is at a Disney resort they get all the resort privileges too. Finally, you aren't confined to Disney resorts. Disney has done deals with others so that you can choose places to go all over the world. To be sure, the redemption rates are higher for those but if you want to go to Australia, paying in advance in this way isn't going to cause you a dilemma.

What about the financials? Now I won't go into the details as that borders on financial advice that I am not in a position to give. But the demonstration of the costs and benefits was crystal clear in the pitch and stood up to my probing questions. If you are the sort of person who pays full price for vacations, you can, indeed, save 70 percent on accommodation but probably only if being a Club member turns you into the person who would plan for vacations and take advantage of discounts. Instead, for us, I believed it would have saved us 50 percent on what we paid for this year. That means that the Disney Vacation Club would pay for itself in 7 to 9 visits. Although it also would save me the days of planning for a vacation and researching options. Once you bought it, there'd be no reason to stress over that anymore. All that said, if you want to learn more about that I recommend this grumpy blog post from 2007.

What I would say is that the financing option offered by Disney wasn't too attractive at 12.5% APR for we Australians. That said, there was apparently no credit check required for non-US and non-Canadian citizens. For Disney you can't exactly make a few payments and run off with the property so they don't act as if you can. That was refreshing. I had never seen a financial option where foreigners were treated better.

Finally, your points can be resold to anyone (with a few minor restrictions). But it has to be officiated by Disney and they have a 'right of first refusal' to buy the points back at the price you may have negotiated. This is probably done to stop people trading just for individual year vacations but if you were a Club member you would probably appreciate Disney's oversight on asset value depreciation. It can't exactly hurt. You either resell the rights to whomever you have negotiated with or to Disney.

As I sat there listening to this, it all seemed too good to be true. What were Disney getting out of this? The consultant told us that Disney were doing this because their customers asked for it. That I didn't doubt. And then he went on to tell us that Disney weren't really getting anything out of it and that is why they made it work so flexibly. As I sat there in the considerable Disney Vacation Club installation, I doubted that. But I'd get no help from the consultant. I'd have to work that one out for myself.

So here goes. The first place my keen economist senses takes me is to tax. Is there some tax advantage to all of this? The answer is, probably yes. When you stay in a hotel or resort in Florida, Florida charges a whole lot of taxes for that accommodation. But when you buy into Disney Vacation Club you are buying real estate. That may involve some taxes but they appeared to be far less than the 12 or 13% tax that was running in Orlando.

But taxes weren't getting us the whole way. If our vacation accommodation costs were halved, the real value had to be greater than that for Disney to get their cut.

The second place I looked was in capital budgeting. Disney build resorts. They are high quality and expensive. So they face an issue of forecasting demand. If you can get people to buy in early, you get those capital costs funded upfront. That sounds attractive but remember, it is more costly for me to get money to pay for Disney's capital costs than it is for Disney. So that is a negative. But if Disney can improve the risk profile of their investments because some demand is assured, then that does get them something. But something tells me that this wasn't going to be a huge benefit.

The third clue is that accommodation costs are just a part of what we spend on a holiday. You might want to stay a few more days but here Disney will allow that for a 25% discount (which is about as good as it gets). There are airfares but Disney don't share in that. More importantly, there is food and activities. At Disney resorts these are considerable. There are park fees, food and Disney paraphernalia. Of course, if you were to come every year, you'd likely economize on these. Now Disney could, of course, discount its own accommodation to encourage more visitors and this stream of cash (you know, they way movie theatres try to encourage popcorn sales by getting more people through the door). But lower priced accommodations, may screen for the cash constrained. Instead, if you have customers who have paid in advance for their accommodation, they may be more liberal in their spending; especially, if they are friends and family who didn't have to fork out for that at all.

In the end, taxes, capital planning and extra spending, all could explain part of the value but my guess is that there was something else. I went so far as to read the contract about all this which was the most beautifully clear legal document I have ever read. Two pages, no fine print. From my examination, there didn't appear to be anything sinister hidden there and a good search of what was written on the web didn't uncover any broad disgruntlement. Instead, we have 20 years of the program, 145,000 odd club members (encompassing perhaps up to half a million people) and Disney Vacation Club sales points at regularly spaced as bathroom facilities at Disney theme parks and hotels. All that points to Disney and its customers getting something from all this even if I couldn't quite parse it during my own vacation time. To add to all this, Disney gives you it all back in taking the pitch.

And what did the children do while we were listening to all this? Disney, of course, had that covered. There was a big activity center and the kids happily played for an hour and when we came to pick them up with "Let's go to the Magic Kingdom" they all said (even the 13 year old!) "do we have to?" Well, yes, but not before they were parcelled out the door with an ice cream sundae.

I came for the Fast Passes but the pitch was worth hearing even if you weren't writing a post about it. It will cost you at most an hour which you make up for in reduced queuing and your kids will be more than happy for the fun.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

There are more high priced nannies than you think

[This post was originally published at Forbes on March 22, 2012]

When NPR's Adam Davidson wrote this week about a New York nanny who earned $180,000 per year plus benefits, I knew this would be something I'd have to look into. Much of the discussion about this was whether it was worth it. The implication was that nannies even earning $50,000 or $100,000 a year wouldn't be worth it.
But what does worth it mean? Davidson looks to some utilitarian rationale:
Many clients are paying for the privilege of not having to worry about their child’s care, which means never worrying if their nanny has plans.
That is, are the services themselves worth paying for. He concludes not and, instead, ends up seeing high priced nannies as a "credence good." Something you purchase to keep up with the Joneses.

Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer f...
Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But I'm not so sure. There are many more high priced nannies than you think and they aren't just on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

How often is it the case that one parent (yes, usually the mother but there is a small but significant group of fathers in this category) give up a high paying job to take care of children, particularly, pre-school aged children? In each of those cases, the household is "paying" for their services in the form of what economist's call an "opportunity cost." In this case, it is the loss of the salary of the parent staying at home. If that parent would have earned $50,000 to $100,000 plus per year, that means your internal nanny service (i.e., the parent) is as extravagant an expense as an Upper West Side counterpart. In fact, it can be more so if you take into account the tax implications.

Now you might say that what you are getting for the parent supplied services is better than the outsourced nanny services. Parents know their children, have their interests at heart, are on call all the time and mean you don't have to worry about child care. But go read the Davidson piece again. This is precisely the utilitarian services that the high priced nannies are being valued for. Once you include stay-at-home parents, you'll find that we are all paying much more for nannies than we think.

Monday, March 26, 2012

O' Air Canada, do you really want to separate families?

[This post was originally published on the Parentonomics blog at on 21st March 2012]

When a parenting blogger goes on vacation, there is always stuff to write about (click here for a taste). Having just spent 10 days with the family in Florida where, apparently, the temperature is a whole three degrees warmer than Toronto, travel will be a theme of my next few posts. More specifically, I'll be concentrating on the business end of the vacation scene.

And where best to start than the airlines. We have travelled on many different airlines. By far the most family friendly is Virgin. I recall, fondly, a trip in Australia where, half an hour into the flight, a flight attendant announced, "whose up for face paints?" where upon all of the children on the flight moved to the back of the aircraft and we didn't see them again until we had to land. You can't get better than that.

This time around, we chose Air Canada; Virgin don't fly between the US and Canada. Our motivation was simple: Air Canada have little screens on the back of the seats. Now we don't need those in these days of iPods and iPads to keep the kids entertained but there is that 30 minute period on take off and landing. More if there are delays on the ground. Apparently, while electronic devices pose a risk to safety, running an screen system to every single seat poses no risk! So we can happily plug children in for the entire flight as soon as we board. There is one wrinkle: they have to have ear buds for takeoff and landing because over the ear headphones pose some other, hard to imagine, risk. [Any airline people, please feel free to enlighten us on those risks in the comments.]

Departing Toronto Pearson
Departing Toronto Pearson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Air Canada had a surprise for us: you can't specify to be seated with your children. Well, at least not the way we booked our flight. Because we wanted to use some frequent flier points and to leverage a vacation package to Disney, I booked the flight on a third party site. This apparently put us into a cyber black hole as our five tickets could not be recognized as being 'together.' That meant we couldn't choose seats upon booking although that is quite common. That I could live with. But Air Canada allocated seats randomly. That meant all five of us were strewn over the aircraft. Our kids would be sitting separately next to other random people.

Now you might be thinking that my immediate reaction was horror. But not really. I thought, hmm, what a nice start to a vacation to have some other adult, by default, responsible for my children's happiness? Someone else to ask to take to the toilet, work out how to use the inflight entertainment, fill in the immigration forms, order a drink and to clean up said drink when it spilled on them during turbulence. Certainly a great start to the vacation for me. But I'm not sure how others would react to Air Canada doing this to them. And I also figured that this being school holidays, I might end up with some other random kid next to me!

So I called to see what could be done. Apparently, despite booking two months in advance: nothing. I was told that Air Canada didn't release seats for third party bookings until 24 hours before and I should call back then.

And I did. And what could they do? Almost nothing. Because the flight was booked out and everyone had been allocated seats. I say 'almost' because they could get three of us together. The remaining two would be many rows away. I was told that perhaps we could get a better seat allocation at the gate and I should try then.

So I did. But they couldn't change anything because -- and I am not making this up -- they not permitted to give seat assignments to parties with more than four people! Two adults and three kids was not a 'party' they wanted to encourage.

We boarded the plane and said goodbye to our eldest child and to each other. And then I found out where the three of us were sitting: the exit row. Ordinarily, that's great. But there were two problems. First, you can't legally sit kids in the exit row. Air Canada knew they were allocating seats to kids (they took their ages with the booking) but somehow had not told their seat allocation system about that important requirement. But, second, and more importantly, the exit row did not have 'back of the seat' screens so the whole advantage of travelling on Air Canadawas gone. Suffice it to say, this then required everyone to board plane and then for the flight attendants to negotiate some trades. You can imagine that on a flight with families there weren't a lot of single adults or couples without kids who might fill the three exit row seats we had. But they did eventually find two elderly people who were happy to trade and operate the door in case of emergency provided the staff could find overhead compartment space for them. That led to more negotiations.

So what are we to make of all this? The sinister business expectation is that Air Canada don't want to encourage families or, more to the point, do not want to encourage families unless they book directly with Air Canada. For an upcoming trip, we booked directly and you can specify seats with everyone seated together. Air Canada, most likely, get a lower return from third party bookings and I guess this gives them a reason to push people onto their own site.

But think of the cost. Random travellers who book on their site may end up with random children sitting alone next to them. They end up misallocating children to exit rows causing costly delays and work for airline staff. The only winners are the families who book directly with Air Canada who can smugly watch the chaos ensue. That doesn't sound like great business strategy.

The less sinister explanation is that Air Canada have a very poorly executed booking and flight reservation system. Someone, somewhere forgot about families and deep in the code there is no way for Air Canada to sort out the mess. My bias is on incompetent planning rather than evil attempts at price discrimination in these matters.

And so what of the return leg of our flight? I didn't bother to try and get us seated together. We got one adult with our youngest which was good. And as I walked back to the very last row of the plane I saw a woman travelling with three very young children sitting in the exit row. I figured we'd be a little longer before we took off so I plugged in to watch some television on the seat back screen.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Unconventional Design Tips

The general advice for upstarting developers seem to be to focus on mechanics, building fast a prototype, getting the core game fun and and so. For instance CliffyB did so at GDC 2012. This is not bad per se, but it is really not the only way to make games and usually, and this is the issue, result in the same kind of experiences. So to create a counterweight to this, I decided to make my own list of design advice. Here goes:

Build top-down
Find some core mechanic of controlling and interacting with the game, be that sidescrolling shooter, point and click or whatnot and then focus on the big picture. What feelings should game create, what is the theme, what kind of message should the game get across? This means creating an overarching structure for the game first, and then when you start designing the mechanics, levels, etc you make sure that it goes along with this. By doing so you can design games that try and convey things not possible over shorter time spans. It lets you control build-up and emotional journey to a much greater degree.

Design and create chronologically
Try and see the development process as a very extended playthrough of the game. By designing and producing the initial level/area/etc first you get a better feel for the player's journey through the game. This make it easier to understand the how the holistic experience will play out, and it allows you to always base later levels/areas/etc upon what the player's frame of find (as it is formed by the previous experiences) is at that point.
Of course you can still go back and change things as needed, and this is often required later. But you want to stick with the chronological structure until as much as possible of the game is completed.

Do not care about fun
First of, despite what some might say, fun is a very specific word and leaves out many type of experiences. For instance very few people would call "Schindler's List" fun. Hence you should not use fun, unless you are specifically after creating a "fun time". A better word to use is "engaging" which can be used to describe the quality of anything depressing dramas and lighthearted comedies.
Second, what you want to care about are your high-level goals. The most vital part is that anything you add to the videogame serve these. If making them fun help this purpose, then by all means make them fun. But if you want the player to be part of a dark and disturbing journey, then fun is most likely not what you want to aim for.

Proper assets early
Art assets such as a graphics, music and sound effects are far more important than what some might argue. Not all videogame ideas can be properly evaluated by using simple blocks and beeps. What the player sees and hears has a great impact on how they can relate to the game. Sometimes mechanics that at first seem really crappy, can start to shine once higher quality assets are used. If you want the player to experience a story by moving through an environment, then you need to have the audio-visual feedback that immerse them in that.
This does not have to mean that full production quality assets are needed and it is not always easy to know when your prototype looks and sounds good enough. But if make sure to keep in mind that the underlying system is not everything, then that is one step in the right direction.

Diversity in the world, not game core

Do not think that everything you want to represent in the game needs to be inside the core mechanics. Instead, keep the mechanics simple and then let the world do the work in delivering a wider experience. For instance in Limbo, there are only a few core actions available for the player, yet the game keeps the activities varied and unique through out the game.
This is the hard way of designing games as you cannot simply extrapolate from a prototype, but the end result is a deep experience that is easy to get into.

Do it as short as possible

Do not make a game that is the best value possible. Let the videogames say what you want it to and then STOP. Do not try and drag sections out for no real reason. In the end what you want to create is a product that delivers your high level purposes in the best way possible.
This is also a legit business choice as you do not compete with other time consuming videogames. If your game does not take up huge amounts of time and yet gives the player a coherent and fulfilling experience, there is a bigger chance they will have time and motivation to give it a go. I would also rather see a world with many smaller interesting experiences than long ones whose only motive is to eat as much time as they possibly can.

There you go! Now of course these tips are not some ancient wisdom that lead you to the path of glory. One must always try and figure out the best process for the type of game you want to make. But what I hope this does is to show any aspiring developer that there is more ways to create videogames than the conventional ones. At Frictional Games we pretty much follow the above and have managed stay in business for over five years and are currently financially stable. So what I just said are tips that have been tried in practice.

If you know any other tips that goes against the "fun mechanics are everything" line of thinking, do share!

Monday, March 19, 2012

We are hiring: Script Programmer wanted!

Yet again we find ourselves in the need for adding a new member to our company. We are looking for a script programer with C++ syntax styled script language experience. We specifically use Angel Script, but experience with for example C#, UnrealScript, Javascript or other similar high level languages will do fine. The initial employment will be for a 6-8 months project, but can possibly be extended to an ongoing employment.

Your work with us will consist of writing the base implementation of the designed gameplay for each "level" in a game. This includes going over the design documentation, plan the basic needs and implement it, while keeping in mind that the script must be able to be easily improved, tweaked and added to. In addition you need to be creative and realize things missing/improvements that can be made to the script implementation. This can include going as far as having a completely new idea. It is also crucial to be able to imagine how the player might tackle each situation and add in the support needed to let the player continue the game in any manner that makes sense.

Experience with level editing, sound, music and effects implementation is a bonus attribute as you realize and understand the importance of timing and multi-step events needed to make the player interaction interesting and engaging.

Either you live in Sweden or you live in a time-zone nearby. Swedes are welcome as employees or contractors, if you are living abroad you need to be a contractor capable of invoicing. You'll be working from home, at a distance to the rest of the team (whom also works from home).

If interested in the position, please take the time to consider the following situation and respond to it by discussing problems and how to design it for an Amnesia styled type of game.

"To open a door, the player must tie a rope between it and a heavy create, and then push the crate into a hole."

Send CV, response to the situation and any additional links to previous work (as in videos, games or demos that clearly demonstrate your part in it): jobs [at] frictionalgames [dot] com.

We are mainly interested in script programing that deals with the player's interaction in the game world, the events that are triggered and the overall game experience that the script conveys to the player. This position is as much, or even more, creative as it is a need to be logical and structured. Please do not send any large attachments to our email address, instead upload and give links for downloading.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Rise of the Creative Parent

[This post was originally published in the Parentonomics blog at on March 9, 2012]

Creativity advocates are everywhere. From the workplace to government and to our kids learning. On the last point, if you have missed it you'll want to watch this talk by Sir Ken Robinson (the most watched TED talk of all time).

But what about parenting? We hear all the time about parenting styles. There is tiger parenting, a French-style of parenting, free-range parenting and more recently, a more laid back approach advocated by the likes of Bryan Caplan and Tom Hodgkinson. But where is the creative parent?

I'm a professor in strategic management and to me there are two core managerial tasks in parenting. The first is managing logistics: how to you get all of the stuff done that you need to get done without losing a child? But the second is something requiring more: how do you stay ahead of the game? Your kids are moving targets both literally and also in their development. Just as you find you have got some behavior down right, another problem emerges. Kids are like evolving viruses building up immunity to past tactics.

As it is Friday afternoon, and as this blog is economically-focussed, let me focus on one particular aspect of creative parenting: how we punish our children for 'bad' behavior? This, it turns out, is a very difficult issue. Many parents have a time out corner. We did this and it worked well with our first born for all manner of indiscretions. Our second born son, however, was exiled to the corner but didn't take it in the way we hoped. What we want is despair and outrage. What we got in his case was no reaction. He would go to the corner. Sometimes we would hear him singing, "I'm in the corner, I'm in the corner." It was a merry ditty but it often triggered discussions as to whether the whole corner thing was working. It turned out that it was. The behavior was usually not repeated.

But corners are your stock standard, generic punishment. To be sure, they have symbolic value. But they don't really stick in the mind. We became a bit more creative when it came to punishments over the "failure to share a toy" statute. In that case, we not only confiscated the toy in question, we also put it out of reach but on display for the child to be reminded of its existence. The best thing about this one was that the punishment was associate with a specific transgression. A potential non-sharing child need only cast their glance to the confiscation shelf to think twice.
Sir Ken Robinson at The Creative Company Confe...
Image via Wikipedia
The real punishment for the creative parent is, of course, the ironic punishment. I once forced my son to take a Disney Princesses lunch box to school because he kept on losing his normal lunch box. The idea was that the 'pink' would remind him to bring it home and to look for past lost ones. It worked very quickly. That said, when I tried the same idea for lost clothing he tried to argue his way out of it saying it would be unfair on the other kids at school. Why? Because they would tease him and then they would get in trouble! I appreciated the effort there but was unrelenting.

In an extremely creative and ironic punishment, Vincent Janoski (a GeekDad) punished his child who had overplayed computer games but setting him a puzzle to free himself from what appeared to be jail. And for older kids, I'm not sure this has been tried, you could use strategies like this one suggest in the comic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

To be sure, being creative in punishments takes some effort but when you get it right it can be quite pleasurable (albiet in a somewhat sadistic way). Moreover, if it has an upside you are more likely to follow through on it which helps you in setting and keeping to boundaries.

Nonetheless, if all that is too taxing, one strategy I have been able to get away with -- especially when behavior needs a quick correction (such as loud noise, slow dressing or sibling disputes) is to close my eyes and shout out "I'm thinking of a punishment and if you don't ____ I will enact it." The beauty of this is that it taps your children's own creativity in thinking what I might be thinking. And let's face it, they have a far better imagination than I have. In that way, I both outsource punishment management as well as encourage creativity. A win-win.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Naming iPads and naming babies

[This post originally appeared on Forbes on 7 March 2012]

Apple has announced its new iPad. It is a significant upgrade over the iPad 2 with a new display, faster wireless broadband and more power. But the biggest surprise was that Apple couldn't find a name for their new baby. We had all got used to this with the iPhone that spawned newer siblings, iPhone 3G, 3Gs, 4 and 4S. Even the iPad went to iPad 2. But for the third incarnationApple couldn't bring itself to create a new name. So there was no "iPad 3" or iPad HD" or anything like it. Just the "new iPad" which now sits a little awkwardly next to the "iPad 2" which will remain on the market as the cheaper option.

I must admit that I felt for Apple's marketing team as they opted for the no name option. Choosing a name for things is hard. Think about what goes into the choice of a name for a baby. Many couples struggle with it. A baby's name stays with them for the rest of their lives. Some years ago, I had some thoughts on this especially with regard to my own name 'Joshua' that went from obscurity to popularity in my lifetime. But let's review the evidence on how much this matters.

In Freakonomics, Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner devoted a whole chapter to the issue of what baby name choices mean. The answer: apparently, a surprising lot. The name you choose for your child might be correlated with later success in life. I was particularly pleased with this as our youngest child had one of the names, if chosen in the last few years, was predicted as associated with future success. Of course, we hadn't read the book when choosing that name so if the cause of this association is some hidden characteristic it reveals about us as parents, that will still be there. But, even if we had read the book, it may be that the name itself generates success; although I suspect that isn't the case. Nonetheless, if you are a parent, why take the risk? Get a copy of Freakonomics and pick one of the names of the future winners in society.

The names identified by Freakonomics were not currently popular ones. The theory is that families at the high wealth end of social life choose names that are more unique and their example causes a trickle down to the rest of society; creating a popular name. Of course, that database is based on California and it may have its own peculiarities. That said, you can see how these names are performing here.
So when it comes to naming children, parents rightly agonise. It is possibly easier with a first child. You get a short-list, rule out the bad ones (e.g., ones that might quickly become a worrying nickname or might be hard to pronounce) and usually one remains. But then what do you do when you have more children? Unless you are George Foreman, you usually want them to have different names. But you gave Child No.1 the good name. If Child No.2 is of another gender, you may be OK. But by the time Child No.3 rocks around what are you supposed to do? Moreover, you have had to scramble for middle names and so there just isn't much left. And it is not like people are inventing new names all the time. I've known parents to wait weeks to commit to a name for those later children; until the authorities required it for the official birth certificate.

When it comes to products, names can make or break it. We all suspected that Apple had trouble getting to the name "iPad" in the first place but that did work out. iPhone was an obvious name except that it was already owned by Cisco and Apple had to buy the rights. (Actually, that is still an ongoing issue with the iPad). But anyone knows that numbering is just unsustainable. I like to number my children -- 1, 2 and 3 -- but I knew there was an end to it. With new technology, that isn't the case. Moreover, an iPad is much more exciting than an iPad 1 but the difference between 2 and 3 is less. It is what economists might call "the law of diminishing returns" if they hadn't already used it for production costs.

So as people rail against Apple for breaking out of the iPad naming cycle and sticking to the one name, have a heart. Choosing names can be tough. You don't want to do it unless you really have to.

Friday, March 9, 2012

New Parentonomics Blog

So I was asked and accepted an offer to write a regular blog over at (specifically, under the ForbesWoman sub-brand). The blog is tagged Parentonomics and can be accessed and followed here. Now that doesn't mean I'll be abandoning this blog but there will be a 5 day gap in posting. The good news is that posts should be more regular than they have been of late.

There are two posts up now:
They are familiar territory for regular readers here but in a more 'Forbes' style. My intension is to start branching out into a greater variety of parenting problems -- particularly concerning teenagers as I now have one.

In the meantime, if you want to know when new posts go up, either follow the blog directly on Forbes (you need only click one button). Or alternatively, I'll post links at