Monday, March 21, 2011

Parenting and Economic Incentives

We recently watched the movie Freakonomics, which I found quite interesting.
Economist Stephen Levitt and journalist Steven Dubner (there is also a book and a Freakonomics blog) study how economic incentives influence human behavior?

Sin taxes have been around for a long time, such as the cigarette tax to influence people to smoke less. Positive incentives abound too: remember tax credits for installing solar panels after the first energy crisis in Billy Carter days, or more recently, health care plans offering rewards if you join a gym...

One of the experiments done in "Freakonomics" was to see if paying money for good grades (an economic incentive) would work to improve school performance of 9th graders who were failing.
The experiment was set up by the Economics Dept of the University of Chicago: the students were paid $50 if they kept all their grades at C and above, plus a chance to win an even bigger prize ($500) plus a classy limousine ride.
Interestingly enough, the program did not work as well as some might have expected. There were some improvements in grades, but really not as much as they predicted/hoped. The researchers were wondering if perhaps it was already too late for these 9th-graders -- would the experiment have worked better in elementary school? Is it even the right approach?

It made me wonder about the role of incentives in parenting -- how much do parents use incentives in raising their kids? And is it even a good idea?
We all have heard not only of parents that pay for chores and good grades, but even earlier in life, use candy as rewards for everything from potty-training to eating broccoli.
I call that "bribing", and I personally do not think it is such a good idea. Why -- what's wrong with a little bribery? OK, maybe a "wee" little bit, occasionally, is probably ok. But what if it's overused? Do incentives rob kids of the chance for self-motivation?
Kids start expecting something (money, candy) for things that really should be done as a matter of course -- eating your vegetables, clearing the dishes, doing your homework -- isn't that simply part of being a member of family/society?
True, when first introducing a toddler to something new, like potty-training, parents often resort to incentives. The Freakonomics team told the story of potty-training Levitt's 3-year-old daughter: M&M's for going on the potty. Sure, for the first 3 days it worked like a charm, but smart little Amanda had soon learned to game the system: a few dribbles for a handful of M&Ms, then back to the potty for a few more dribbles... you get the idea! The incentive program had back-fired: the parents had become a slave to the M&M payment system.

So what's a desperate parent to do? For potty-training it's probably pretty harmless to try incentives (I remember we used stickers at some point) -- as with so many things in life, when the kid is ready, he/she will start using the toilet (Digression: I remember a Kindergarten teacher once reassuring me that she's never had a child arrive in her class in diapers: "Honey, your kid will get there, eventually, on his own!").

But what about later in life? Especially during the tweens and teens? How can parents motivate them to "do the right thing?", especially when the kids seem to be immune to parental words of wisdom and/or even pleading? If you ask your teen to help clean the house or car before grandma gets picked up at the airport, and they won't do it unless there is compensation negotiated first, then something is wrong in how that family works.
Like the researchers in the Chicago experiment mentioned above, effective parenting needs to have started at a much younger age!

A friend with a toddler asked my husband and I recently about how we raised our kids -- did we use incentives? Not much at all, we realized, other than perhaps the incentive of love & praise. Kids naturally want to please their parents, and if they are rewarded for doing the right thing ("Thank you", "You're such a big help", "I'm so proud of you."), that seems to work well in most cases. Admittedly, raising children is not always smooth sailing -- sometimes there are situations where material incentives might well be appropriate.

Remember when the toddler wanted to help with everything, and you know that it will end up a great deal messier than if you just did it by yourself? Somewhere along the line, their eagerness to help disappears, becoming "work" rather than "fun". Getting the kid to pitch in becomes a battle of wills, bribes, and punishments in some families -- what happened?

In an ideal world, parents can raise their children with the expectation that this is what family members do to help each other out. They've made it about love, trust, cooperation, rather than about "what will I get out of it?". I'm not saying it's always easy, but it's certainly worth trying to start without material incentives!

I'm afraid that using candy and money for incentives leads to selfishness. And in my book, raising a child that think first about "How's that going to benefit me?" is not a good thing -- unless of course they're headed for Wall Street...


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kitten updates

First of all, the male kitten is no longer fully male -- he's an "itten". Poor guy was "cryptorchid" (from the Greek, meaning "hidden orchids"). The neutering operation was actually quite a serious abdominal surgery -- his incision went from where the goods should have been to where the vet finally found them next to the kidney. Yikes!
His name has now settled on Gomer (as in Gomer Pyle USMC).
The female (whom we now frequently refer to as "Victim" on account of her schizoid personality) was spayed a few weeks later. She was a brave little toaster, and both have recovered well.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Joy of Naming Kittens

Happy New Year!
Our household is blessed with two new bouncy kittens: they sure are a great deal of fun.
Right before Christmas we went to AKcat in Wasilla (a shelter that specializes in kittens) and picked out:
8 week old FEMALE, striped, poly-dactyl (i.e. extra toes, a characteristics of Manx cats and associated with inbreeding)
10 week old MALE, black

You may ask "What are their names?"

In our family, cats have always had a multitude of names. Let me give you a little background. When I met my husband 20 years ago, he came with 2 cats: a male Manx (polydactyl without tail)named Gorbachev and a female Siamese named Belinda Sue Carstairs III. For short, we called them Kittyboy and Kittygirl. These 2 lived long and happy lives, until old age finally caught up with them. For a few years we enjoyed pet-free lives that made it easier to travel and go camping anytime without having to make arrangements for pets. But Youngest in particular has been begging for pets for years: 2 years ago we acquired geckos -- still fairly easy pets to leave for a few days camping. But we were ready to get cats again (and I have to admit overcoming my last resistance when we started getting mice/voles in the basement, plus the kids swore up and down that they would be "real good" about cleaning the litter box).

Back to our new kittens. We decided that it might take a while to find the perfect name -- after all, you got to let their personalities come out.
Our first choices were the obvious names describing each by their characteristics (striped and black). On the drive home from Wasilla, the kids came up with "Tiger Rose" for the female and "Midnight" for the male. We had just watched the movie Dr.Zhivago the night before, and my husband (who has a thing for Julie Christie) thought that Larissa Antipova (Lara, Dr. Zhivago's love interest) was the perfect name for our beautiful sweet kitten.

For the black kitten, my husband suggested George Foreman, but Wolf and I preferred Kunta Kinte from Roots, but that was voted down by the other half of the family. We needed a Black name that was not "politically incorrect". So we decided to look for a Scandinavian name, and modern family that we are, we went straight to Google Translate with its nifty feature of letting you listen to the pronunciation.

"Black kitten" translates to:
svart kattunge (swedish and norwegian)
svartur kettlingur (icelandic)
musta kissanpentu (finnish)

which would ,incidentally, be same result if you searched for the word "Negro".

"Midnight" translates to:
midnatt (swedish and norwegian)
miðnætti (icelandic)
keskiyö (finnish)
this last was one of our favorites -- it sounds so cool!

Another good name for our black kitten is something that reflects his panther-like demeanor. We think he moves a lot like Bagheera in the Djungle Book, and she looks like little Mowgli beside him, being so tiny: he sometimes walks/pounces right over her, or when they wrestle they look like Bagheera and Mowgli!

But interestingly enough, the name that actually stuck for the black kitten is Kalle. It's the scandinavian form of Karl, and we sort of named him for the character Kalle Blomkvist in the Astrid Lindgren "Pippi Longstocking" series, which is also the nickname given to one of the main characters in Stieg Larssen's "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" of the Millenium trilogy, which we all read.

The female kitten's name, however, is still not entirely settled. It seems to be Larissa for the parents and Tiger Rose for the children.
The candidates for her scandinavian name are:

"Tiger" translates to
tiger (swedish, norwegian and icelandic)
tiikeri (finnish)

"Stripes" translates to
ränder (swedish)
striper (norwegian)
rönd (icelandic)
raidat (finnish)

Given how much this kitten purrs, we thought of translating the word "Motor", which yielded the best choices in the finnish language:

For short, when she purrs contentedly in our laps, we sometimes call her Lili'uokalani, the name of the last Hawaiian queen, which is what comes to mind when trying to recall that last finnish entry for motor!

Check in with us in another month to find out what we're calling our kittens then!