Saturday, August 27, 2011

In Billionaire City, children will be seen, and not heard. (POP!Best!)

I'm going to turn POP!Best! from a random assortment of pop culture thoughts to a roundup of themes brought out in pop culture this week. Let's see how that works! Look for POP!Best! every Saturday from here on out.

This week on POP!Best!:

How you're failing your kids, no matter what you do, according to pop culture.

As a parent of several kids -- I'm too busy to count them -- I am of course, concerned about many things that have to do, almost tangentially, with those kids, things like:

1. Are they on drugs?
2. Do I really care, so long as they get home on time and don't eat the leftover pizza?

The answer to those questions came this week, from whence the answer to all good questions comes: pop culture, and specifically, economists. Who are part of pop culture the way your toes are part of your body: they're there, over on the one side, and people assume they're good for something, but nobody's sure quite what.

And yet, nobody's willing to just get rid of them. (Toes, I mean. Everyone's willing to get rid of economists.)

But not yet! Because they first have to free you from parenting, and also from vices. This week, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast called "An Economist's Guide To Parenting," in which the Freakonomics crew talked to a bunch of economists who also had children, and therefore were raising their children, economist-style.

Which in this case means "by being very mean, but not in the best-selling (but entirely made-up for purposes of putting into a book) Tiger Mommy way". Which is to say, one of the sets of economist parents they interviewed were not really being economists so much as being mean. They were raising their daughter, who I'll call "Mathilda" because that's what they said her name was, not really economist-style, which I'll get to in a moment, but mean-style. They feed her only organic food, and don't allow her sugar, or candy, or anything, really; it sounded as though she eats only bulgur wheat and goes to the Smithsonian on the weekends.

Which wouldn't be bad, except that one of the Economist Parents then said "Well, if we go to a restaurant and they don't have organic, she eats off our plates."

Think about that: That means that the parents will eat nonorganic foods -- but the only time Mathilda gets to do that is if she's fed table scraps at a restaurant.

From that I surmised that they're mean to Mathilda in a lot of ways. The parents don't apply their own rules to themselves that they do to their kids -- which is okay, if you're talking about curfews and watching Anna Paquin topless on True Blood, but not okay if you're eating a Snickers and your kid gets Barley Cakes.

The rest of the Economist's Parenting amounted to what all economists' theories amount to: Don't do anything, really, and don't account in any way for human variability. The economists, almost en masse, concluded that parents don't really have much of an impact on their children, one way or the other, citing studies done on Korean adoptees and twins from Sweden (if I were an economist, I would much rather study Swedish twins than Korean adoptees; wouldn't you?)

The conclusion was based on statistical effects they measured that showed, for example, upbringing was only about 1/6 as important as genetics when it came to determining whether kids went to college: the study found that Korean post-war adoptees given to parents with college educations were 16% more likely to go on to college themselves -- but that the genetic children of those same parents were 75% more likely to go on to college than the Koreans.

Which the economists attributed to genetics -- that is, they said "well, it must be the genes, because everything else is the same" but it's not, is it?

Let's list things that are different between those Korean kids and their adoptive siblings:

1. The Korean kids are Korean.
2. The Korean kids are either younger, or older, than their siblings.

Now think about that: First of all, the Korean kids were brought to a different culture, with no reference in the podcast to how old they were when they were brought here. Did they have to learn a new language? A new society?

Also, the Korean kids were minorities -- I assume, nobody said, but we don't really have many areas of America where Asian postwar adoptees are in the majority, do we? And so isn't it likely that minorities were less likely to go on to college?

(Nobody said, either, whether they adjusted for race - -and what the races of the adoptive parents were.)

Maybe they adjusted for that; maybe they didn't. But they didn't say they adjusted for that. They just said two kids, same parents, biological child goes on to college more often, genes rule! Huzzah! and went off to be mean to Mathilda.

(Poor Mathilda! I want to send her a Milky Way. It's the least threatening of all candy bars, so it's a good starter for her.)

Then there's birth order or in this case adoption order. Everyone knows that the more kids in the family, the more differently parents treat them, if only because less time with each kid. If you have one kid, that kid gets all the attention and all the experimentation and rules. Two kids = divided attention, plus the second time around, the parents know what didn't work the first time, and so they don't try that, they do some other stupid thing.

So without knowing the birth order of the Korean/genetic kids -- their ages and the like -- saying "this kid more likely than that kid to do X" is useless.

And again, maybe they controlled for that, but how? They didn't say -- and they didn't comment on what effect birth order had on the likelihood of going to college, period.

Which may be a major problem for Freakonomics, as the hidden side of everything in this case might be "the hidden side of studies that show having more kids might screw over the middle kid."

Which is to say: studies have shown that only children are way more likely to go to college than kids from larger families, and that the effect goes away if you have more than two kids -- but it only goes away a little, and only for the first and last kids.

I'll put it this way: Only children are far more likely to go to college. Then, when you get into multiple-child families, the first- and last-born are equally likely to go to college (but less likely to go than only children), while kids in the middle are the least likely to go.

Whither now, Economist Parents? The podcast's point was that parents have very little impact on their kids' upbringing, but it turns out that parents have a major impact on their kids' upbringing by having another kid -- and then a third, and so on.

I had assumed, as I listened to the podcast, that someone, somewhere, was selling a book as a counterpoint to Fake "I Made It Up To Sell Books" Tiger Mommy story, and I was right: there's a book that says having more kids is better, which, economist-style, presumably ignores studies that say the exact opposite, like the one I quoted above, and, which, economist-style, ignores that human behavior, on a macro scale, is predictable, but that nobody anywhere can say that human behavior on an individual scale is predictable.

All of which means: you can't read Fake Tiger Mommy, or Economists Say Lazy Parents Are Great! and apply that to your kid. Your kid -- and you-- are different and need an individual style.

But if I were to write a book titled "You're going to have to work at this, after all, you had kids, and now you'll likely have to think through and respond to a great many situations that you didn't predict, and it can't all be boiled down to a simple slogan, it's work, that's what parenting is all about," I doubt it would sell very well, if only because putting the title into a review would use most of the space for the review.

So, SLOGANS it is! And Freakonomics helps out: Not only does overparenting your kid not work, it wrecks your kid by making you unhappy.

You may have read studies that said that parents are desperately unhappy people -- that becoming a parent robs you of happiness along with sleep and leftover pizza. I read those studies, and I thought:

"I don't know who those parents are. I'm happy, and in fact happier than I was when I was a single guy who spent his nights watching Apollo 13 on videotape and sleeping on that old green couch I bought from the thrift store for $5."

Those studies, I imagine, measured the general unhappiness that I assume most people feel, because most people I run into are unhappy in one or more ways -- almost all of which are attributable not to their kids, but to them. People don't like their jobs, or their wives, or their car, or their neighborhood, or their dad, or their lives -- but they don't want to admit that they might be the reason. Settling for a job at Hardee's instead of going off to try to be an actor makes one unhappy, but who wants to tell a pollster "Yeah, I settled and gave up on my dreams. I'm the one who made me unhappy." So instead, parents who are unhappy with their lives blame the kids, or their wives, or their bosses -- not themselves.

Kids can probably make you unhappy -- but I suspect the roots of unhappiness are somewhere else and that the person wasn't happy before kids, either.

(I haven't read the studies, and don't want to. I don't have time for whiners.)

But it doesn't matter why you're unhappy: It matters that you're unhappy, because the Freakonomics podcast came out and said that you being unhappy is wrecking kids: kids, they say, learn primarily three things from parents: smoking, drinking, and being nice to waitresses.

(Not making that up at all. It's what they said.)

So if you're a surly drunk smoker of a parent, your kids are going to be surly, drunk smokers of kids. And worse: if you're unhappy, you're wrecking your life and changing your kids' disposition.

The economists' solution: Don't smoke, don't drink, be nice to waitresses, and don't make your kids do stuff.

That last one is important: Don't make your kids play soccer, or go to the Smithsonian, or eat Barley Cakes, or be in a band, because they don't like it, and that'll make them unhappy, which'll make you unhappy, which will make the New York Times happy because now they can run another poll about Sad Parents, but which in the long run will make your kid even less likely than a Korean Postwar Orphan to go on to college.

So, got it? No band lessons -- because it'll make you sad, and it's your duty as a parent to make yourself happy.

(I think I'm on to an entirely different book here... wait for it: I'm Happy, My Kids Are Happy: Why Parents Must Put Themselves First For The Good Of The Family.)

(I'll see you in Billionaire City: Population, Me. And Bill Gates. And Warren Buffett. Man, Billionaire City is getting a little crowded, isn't it?)

The part of the Freakonomics podcast that said never make kids do stuff really hit home with me, not least because my parents made me take piano lessons, and, yeah, I wasn't crazy about it, but I did learn music and did go on to college and also along the way learned to play guitar and took a bunch of other arts classes and generally expanded my mind to the point where I also learned Japanese and Arabic, so I think things turned out pretty well and I also can still play both "Music Box Dancer" and "Chariots of Fire" and "Toccata In D Minor" by heart, even 26 years later.

You know Toccata In D Minor, by the way, even though you don't think you do. It's this song:

Learning those things may have led to some stress in my life, and fights with my parents, but they also made me a better person -- I'm taking for granted that liking music and knowing how to play an instrument makes me a better person, because everything I do makes me a better person -- so isn't that a net gain?

Or is parenting supposed to only be about not fighting? Because if so, what about making kids do homework? If fighting and stress are bad for families, and kids don't want to do homework, then shouldn't parents not stress out about it and let kids not even go to school if they don't want to?

That's the end result of "Parent Like An Economist: Don't Give Your Kids Candy While You Eat It In Front Of Them", right? Nothing you do matters, so don't make your kid do anything.

Seems problematic to me. And also, if teaching kids music is so problematic, what is one to make of Videogames Live! ?

Have you heard of Videogames Live? I have -- I drove by a sign advertising that it was coming to town, and I got very excited because I have long wanted Live Action Video Games to be a thing, and so I thought "Oh, man, I am going to get to play Live Videogames! I hope I can be the guy in Berserker!" (I then only later thought of my kids, because I am a Good Parent who knows that It's Me First, since, after I quit smoking, my happiness is the only thing I can pass on to my kids.)

But Videogames Live isn't anything of the sort: It's... well, let them explain it. From the web site:

Video Games Live™ is an immersive concert event featuring music from the most popular video games of all time. Top orchestras & choirs perform along with exclusive video footage and music arrangements, synchronized lighting, solo performers, electronic percussionists, live action and unique interactive segments to create an explosive entertainment experience!

I did not add that exclamation point. But I do respect that they used that ampersand in the second sentence. Gives it a touch of class, doesn't it?

That doesn't really give you a flavor for it, though, so check this out:

That seems both immersive & explosive. Or neither. It's still early.

But Videogames Live (which could be seen, also, as a statement that videogames are living organisms, think about it) poses a larger problem than simply "Who thought that was a good idea?" It also poses a problem for a parent -- because if you take your kid to that show, you are exposing them to culture and trying to get them to do something, and thereby making them unhappy, which will make you unhappy, and you'll probably be rude to the waitress on the way home, which will make your kids marry an uneducated Korean Postwar Adoptee and liven an unhappy life. (Not because he married a Korean; because he didn't go to college.)

So what are you to do? Go to Videogames Live by yourself and tell your kids about it? Probably, except that doesn't seem very fun for you, does it? Sitting at a classical music concert, not drinking or smoking, being polite to the waitress... what's in it for you? Isn't parenting supposed to be about you?

That's the catch: If you do something with or for your kids, you're wrecking them, so you've got to do this stuff on your own -- and maybe not enjoy it all on your own, but that's what parenting is all about these days: Not doing anything with your kids for fear that you'll screw them up.

Another thing that messes up kids? Jogging. And being perfect, or trying to be. Over at TODAYMoms, a new study found that of all the parents who are saddened by their kids, nobody is more saddened than Supermoms.

What's a Supermom, you might ask? It's someone who

has, in a single day: run 3 miles, gotten the kids up, fed and off to school, made it to work, skipped lunch, juggled meetings, driven carpool, watched a soccer game, gone to the grocery store, fixed dinner, helped with homework and put the kids to bed.

Which I thought was just a mom. But what separates moms -- you loser-y, slackers wastes of human life who are engaged only in ordinary parenting -- from Supermoms is this: Supermoms try to "have it all."

You know, as opposed to regular moms (those losers!) who just want some of it all, or maybe even a little piece of it all, if there's any leftover after the Supermoms hoover it up.

Supermoms are more depressed than anyone -- Super Depression?-- because they've been misled. Says an expert in a field that cannot possibly require expertise:

Women today are raised being told they can have it all, though rarely are they let in on the way this charming slogan translates to the real world–as if through an evil game of telephone–that, more than likely, they’ll have to do it all, that what they’ll really have “all” of is the work.
Who is it that's telling "Women today" that they "can have it all"? That expert doesn't come right out and say it, but it's parents -- the "Women today" "are raised" believing in the world that doesn't exist -- a world where nobody works and that 3 miles is easy to run and kids' spaghetti dinners prepare themselves and soccer games are never held.

So parents wrecked "Women today" and now those "Women today" are all SuperDepressed and unable to take joy in even the simple pleasures of an orchestral Zelda-theme medley, which we know from Freakonomics is going to destroy the Supermoms' kids, so what are you supposed to do?

The answer is simple: just give your kids away entirely.

But not to those families that adopted those Korean Postwar Orphans. They really messed up those kids, from what I half-listened to on the podcast.

If you can't give your kids away entirely, then it's best to just scare them to death while placing them at greater risk of real threats while warning them of virtually non-existent threats. By, say, not warning them about the dangers of talking to strangers, while making sure they are prepared for earthquakes.

In the Freakonomics podcast, see, the economists recommended not bothering telling your kids about strangers, because stranger-abductions are actually pretty rare -- as rare as being struck by lightning. Which, by economists' viewpoints, should mean that you also ought not to warn your kids about lightning, because being struck by lightning is so rare that it's the standard by which we measure rarity.

What the economists didn't get into was whether stranger-abductions, and lightning strikes, are rare because we take precautions against them: warning our kids, not golfing with Bill Murray in the rain, etc. They just said "Oh, those things are rare, so don't bother warning your kids about them."

(Again: Not making it up.)

So if you shouldn't bother telling your kids not to take candy from strangers or stand near live wires in a hurricane, what should you warn your kids about?

Earthquakes in Washington D.C. As everybody knows, there was an extremely minor earthquake on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States this week - -a minor occasion that no doubt will make the Republicans insist that we now take away Third Amendment rights, too, because every national emergency is met by eliminating one item from the Bill Of Rights, and "No quartering of troops" is all that's left -- and parenting blogs leaped into action with tips on how to prepare your kids for an earthquake.

Or, um, not so much. That particular blog just asked if you had a plan, and wanted to share it. Which will be my next parenting book: "What Would You Do?" It'll be a book in which I set out various horrible things that can happen to kids, offer no tips, and ask parents to write to me with their suggestions. It'll lead naturally to a sequel, "Here's What You'd Do," and so I'll be the Mayor of Billionaire City, and they'll eventually make a movie about those books that's at least as ill-conceived as the Cameron Diaz movie based on "What To Expect When You're Expecting," a/k/a "Didn't they JUST MAKE 'Knocked Up' and 'The Back-Up Plan" and That One Tina Fey Movie About How She's A Great Mom?"

That blog post asking people to For God's Sake Tell Me How To Protect My Kids From An Earthquake Because I'M FREAKING OUT! generated exactly one comment, from Nuke41:
I refer to the neighbors in family emergency planning sessions as “meat on the hoof”.

Now, there's a guy to take parenting tips from.

Or this guy:

I don't know who that is, but if you Google-Image-Search "movies about parenting" you'll get that picture. I imagine that's how Mathilda's going to turn out.


Rogue Mutt said...

Ah, Bach.

I wish my parents had pushed my sisters to do more, so they wouldn't still be at home in their 30s and working menial jobs.

In most cases you can't really expect the kid to supply the effort. You've got to push them to do something with their lives. Maybe they'll get pissed and do the opposite (which would prove one of Newton's laws of physics about equal and opposite reactions) but at least they're doing something. Otherwise they're just as likely to drift around like a boat with no sail or rudder.

Of course my parenting book would say to take your kids out to a cottage in the woods and raise them with no TV, no Internet, no CDs or DVDs or anything. Basically cut them off from our vapid, worthless "culture" and teach them to appreciate books, art, and so forth.

Though probably the kid would grow up to be a serial killer or something. Or just really resent me. Which is fine in a way. I mean your job as a parent isn't to make the kids LIKE you; it's to prepare them for the adult world. So in some way the economists might be right to do that to Mathilda. Cuz in the real world the more powerful get the candy bars and you get rice cake crumbs.

Briane P said...

Your saying that you'd cut off TV and let them read books made me think of Jim Gaffigan and people who say they don't like TV. "Have you SEEN TV?" And people who say the book was better than the movie: "You know what I liked about the movie? No reading."

I subscribe to the "Make your kids do something" rule. The economists were talking about making kids HAPPY, which is great, except that kids will be HAPPY if you don't make them go to school, etc. I think a smarter approach is to do what we actually did: "You've got to do some kind of afterschool activity, but you choose it."

None of our kids are serial killers, so by that standard, it's working beautifully.

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