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It’s Sunday morning.  You are reading the Week in Review section of the New York Times and realize piracy still exists in the twenty-first century.  Who would have thought it? The Travel Section leaves you a bit wistful as you realize how many interesting places in the world you’ll never visit. Now you pack like a small army because you have two young children.  You wish you had done the Inca Trail in 1987 when you went to Peru.  That might have invited a kidnapping at the hands of the Sendero Luminoso, but maybe that’s better than grad school?

You hear the sound of Lego and see your kids building the John Hancock Building out of Lego.  You smile, thinking, “The Inca Trail can never compare to the joy I just felt seeing the kids playing together so happily.”  You turn to the crossword puzzle.  Your reverie comes to a screaming end as a fight breaks out behind you.  Who got one of diagonal bits that criss-cross the Hancock a bit wonky?  You will never know but each kid blames the other.

What to do?

The situation reminds you of the famous Moral Hazard in Teams paper by Bengt Holmstrom.  Someone clearly did not exert the cooperative effort level. But you cannot tell who it was as there is no kid-specific signal, just the aggregate signal of the building falling over and the fight.  First, you think that you should be fair and punish a child if and only if the weight of evidence is high. You realize you’re screwed as you never have that level of evidence.  You could ask the children what happened and cross-check what one did against the other.  In fact, this would give an opportunity to apply your own research and you’re excited about that.  It dawns on you that the 8 year old can always out-lie the 4 year old.   And the volume of the four year old’s cries is measured on the Richter scale.  Your research obviously did not take account of these practical matters.

Incentive theory gives the obvious answer: punish them both.  This works very well if there is nothing random that can cause the building to fall over.  Then, each child knows they get punished if they start fighting so no-one fights as long as the punishment is big enough.  If a fight can start randomly – and we parents know this can happen – sometimes you’ll punish them even though nothing truly bad happened.  This is unfair and inefficient but what can you do?  This second-best solution is still better than no incentives at all.

Briefly, you think about the theory of repeated games which claims to get cooperation even when the game is quite noisy and there is lots of private information about who did what to whom.  You  remember that Jeff has made important contributions to this theory.  You use your common sense and decide that using his research might take the application of game theory to family life a little bit too far.  You get up, confiscate the Lego and send the kids to their room to get out of their pajamas and put clothes on.  The ultimate punishment.  The lovely mother of your lovely children has solved the crossword puzzle by the time you’re done. Bugger.

A recent Slate article “The messy room dilemma: when to ignore behavior, when to change it”  by tackles the important topic of when you should ignore your child’s undesirable behavior and when you should intervene.  The authors use a series of intriguing percentages to suggest that many childhood behaviors will change on their own if you just wait long enough.  Here’s an excerpt:

Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don’t overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention. Take thumb sucking, which is quite common up to age 5. At that point it drops off sharply and continues to decline. Unless the dentist tells you that you need to do something about it right now, you can probably let thumb sucking go. The same principle applies for most stuttering. Approximately 5 percent of all children stutter, usually at some point between ages 2 and 5. Parents get understandably nervous when their children stutter, but the vast majority of these children (approximately 80 percent) stop stuttering on their own by age 6. If stuttering persists past that point or lasts for a period extending more than six months, then it’s time to do something about it.

There are a lot more behaviors, running the range from annoying to unacceptable, in this category. Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can’t sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don’t reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they’re a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.

The logic would seem to be don’t worry about the thumb sucking, the stuttering, the lying and so on. It will probably go away on its own and look there are many statistics to back this up … but this is a total fallacy. Suppose all of the statistics are completely accurate.  It still doesn’t follow that they suggest you should just ignore behavior that you deem to be a problem.

I am guessing that most parents faced with unwanted behaviors like thumb sucking, stuttering, lying, and certainly, theft or vandalism intervene in some way, possibly many parents even “reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention.”  The percentages reflect the impact of this intervention as well — 50% of adolescent boys do something delinquent, their parents justifiably freak out and only a small number do it again.  This decidedly does not argue for doing nothing when you are concerned about your child’s behavior.  We don’t know what fraction of young vandals would become repeat offenders if their parents ignored their behavior.  All we know is that when the typical kid misbehaves and his or her parents react in a typical fashion, the behavior eventually goes away most of the time.  The statistics are mute on whether this is because of, or in spite of, parental intervention.

(I have taken to titling my posts in the style of an Alinea dish.)

I was reading one recent morning to my 2 year old boy a story from Frog and Toad.  In this story, Toad is grumpy about Winter but Frog talks him into coming for a sleigh ride.  Once the sleigh gets going really fast, Toad begins to forget all of his complaints and enjoy the ride.  Unbeknownst to Toad, Frog is knocked off the back of the sleigh as the sleigh starts to hurtle faster and faster down the hill.  Despite the sleigh being without a driver and completely out of control, Toad begins to feel more and more secure and at peace with the Winter.

Of course, something is going to happen to bring it all crashing down on Toad.  In fact, what happens is not that the sled crashes into a tree, at least not yet.  What happens is a crow flies by and upon hearing Toad describe what a wonderful ride he and Frog are having, points out to Toad that Frog is not behind him anymore.  Its only after learning that there is nobody at the wheel does Toad panic and cause the sleigh to crash.

This is a recurrent theme in children’s literature.  I think the quintessential expression of it is from the cartoons, especially the roadrunner/coyote cartoons.  Here is the image.  Coyote is chasing roadrunner through some rugged canyonland along a steep ridge and the chase brings Coyote to a cliff.  He is so focussed on finally nabbing the roadrunner that he does not notice that he has run off the cliff.  He keeps running.  In mid-air.  But then at some point he looks down and notices that there is no ground beneath his feet and at that moment that he falls to back to Earth.  (At which point he turns to the next page in his ACME catalog and the chase is on again…)

If you run off a cliff you should make sure you are running fast and that the opposing cliff is not too far.  It also helps to be like the roadunner: looking down is not in his nature and he always makes it to the other side.

I think of Obama’s first 100 days as running off a cliff.  We have a pretty good running start.  So far we are not looking down.  I hope we get to the other side before somebody does.  And please, pay no attention to the crows.

The blog Lone Gunman is one year old, and here is my selection of his best pointers from the past year.

  1. Lies told to a three-year-old. (Mine:  roads are paved to flatten out a spherical Earth.)
  2. Planned Parenthood.
  3. Days with my Father.

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