Does forcing kids to be bored teach them useful skills?: A deliberately controversial post

Related: does forcing kids to be with sucky people teach them important life skills?

We argue: no

Boredom leads to trouble and increased drop-out rates.   It would have to be an important skill to make up for the negatives.  But it isn’t.

As an adult, you have more control over your environment, so learning these skills (such as they are) may not be as applicable as we’d wish.

Better: give kids skills to manipulate their environment, so they know they can change it.

If they do have to be occasionally bored or to deal with sucky people, why not learn that on the job as adults? It’s an easier lesson to learn when you’re making the choice to deal with it because you’re getting a higher paycheck or other perks to your job.

And nobody should have to put up with a sucky work environment as an adult. That’s why we work so hard so we have options and freedom to change things, even if our parents sacrificed in their own work environments for us.

This post was brought to you by our childhood selves, who were bored as crap in school and got nothing useful out of grades 1 – 8.  [#2 says, except 4th grade with Mrs. A.  She was AWESOME.]

How much do you get to choose where you live?: A deliberately controversial post

A reader, in email, notes that sure, she gets to live near a Whole Foods, but she made that choice of where to live.  We could have made that choice, but we didn’t.  (Implicit:  so we should stop complaining.)  Indeed, one of us could commute a couple hours into work if she wanted to live in a city with a Whole Foods and the other would have to live in an entirely different state.  Seems as if the red state folk aren’t as into WF as those blue coastal cities.  (Which is weird, because isn’t WF from like Texas or someplace?)

Anyhow, that gets to the question:  How mobile are people?

Most of us are living constrained optimization problems.  Most of us aren’t quite qualified to be tenured professors at Stanford (we are ignoring people who would prefer Harvard or Columbia).  So we have to make trade-offs.

Currently the trade-off we’re making precludes us from walking to a Whole Foods (and don’t even get us started on the lack of Trader Joe’s).

It is true, we could re-optimize.  We *could* move.  But… making the trade off to be closer to a Whole Foods seems kind of the opposite of the advice to make the choices that make us happiest.

Many people have even more difficult choices and are even more constrained than we are.  In our optimization problems we generally have to balance:

Jobs– this is what our revealed preferences have put our strongest weight.  We’ve made most of our mobility sacrifices based on our ability to be tenure track professors at research universities.  We could have made the choice to have a more mobile career, but we didn’t want to.

Family– We’ve both asked our partners to make sub-optimal career and lifestyle choices in sacrifice to our jobs, and they have.  For a while #2 was living apart from her partner and that sucked more than anything.  With couples, often sacrifices have to be made for one or the other or both.  We don’t make choices in a vacuum.

Credit constraints– If we were independently wealthy, we could quit, pack up, and buy that house in the SF hills or Palo Alto or wherever.  We could walk to all sorts of fancy food places, and no longer care about our careers, finding fulfillment in high level charitable work instead.  Alas, we are not independently wealthy.  And many many families have it much worse than we do with our comparative privilege.  Rent for places near WF is generally not cheap.

Weather– I could very easily get a job in Boston or DC but I don’t want to live on the East Coast!  #2 likes the DC area, however.

Given that we’ve made choices that have these consequences… are we allowed to complain?  Well… yes and no.

Under constraints, rational actors try to find work-arounds that optimize their utility.  It’s easy to buy baby tomato plants at the grocery store to plant and get your tomatoes that way if the only tomatoes available at the stores are tasteless mush imported from the Netherlands.  So although we’d love to live closer to WF, and many other amenities, we’ve found some work-arounds.  We’re doing what we can.

Even though we complain about many red-state aspects of the culture here, it can be fulfilling to get students to see two sides of an issue that they once thought was only in black-and-white.  It’s still bad that homosexuality is thought of as a sin here, but that would be bad if we were living in the SF bay area (we just wouldn’t have to know about it because people wouldn’t talk about it in polite company).

And complaining about bad weather is totes fair game no matter where you live.  Even if you’re complaining about it being the short-lived rainy season in Santa Monica.

What do you think?  Have you managed to get everything you want in life (career, family, quality of life)?  If you haven’t, should you be allowed to complain about the trade-offs you’ve had to make?  And what tradeoffs have you made?

Is GDP how we should be measuring success: A deliberately controversial post

Chacha and Linda commented on an earlier post that they didn’t like the way that success of a country is measured by GNP (gross national product) or GDP (gross domestic product), basically how many goods and services are sold in an economy.  Having more goods and services doesn’t mean a country is doing better and focuses on materialism as a sign of success.  [They also talk about the lump of labor fallacy, but that’s the subject of someone else’s post.]

Believe it or not, in economics we don’t assume that GDP is directly a measure of success.  We really care about happiness, or, as economists like to jargon it up, “utility.”  GDP does measure stuff, and stuff is something that we put into our utility functions.  Assuming free-disposal (which, admittedly, is a pretty big assumption), that is, that if you don’t want something you can get rid of it at no cost to yourself, then more stuff is better (or at least not worse).  We’re all about maximizing happiness, and stuff is just one thing that goes into that equation.

We would love to measure actual happiness.  But… it’s hard to measure happiness.  Even if we ask people, we’re not really sure if they’re telling us about relative happiness or absolute happiness, or if there are cultural differences in how to answer the happiness question that make differences in happiness not comparable across countries.

But we can measure stuff, so that’s what we measure.

We do also use other measures besides GDP: things like poverty rate, infant mortality rate, income inequality, literacy, etc.  These tend to give a measure of how a nation’s poorest citizens are doing.  Each of these captures a measure of a country’s success, but alone each cannot give a full picture.

What do you think?  How should we be measuring success of a country?  Is GDP a valid measurement?  Is happiness our end goal?  What would you measure instead?  (And should we even be comparing countries?  Why or why not?)

Must every weekend day have planned activities?: A deliberately controversial post

Laura Vandekam has been pushing planning things on weekends.  Not doing chores, of course, but something Fun!  Something you can look forward to All Week!  Don’t waste a single weekend day!

I’m as type-A a planning person as almost anybody (I suspect #2 isn’t), but I get a little angry at the thought of someone taking away my occasional (more frequent now) completely unplanned weekend day (and #2 even more so) because somehow that’s supposed to make me happier.  It’s mine!  You can’t have it!  You can’t make me get dressed!

Planning requires mental load.  It requires looking at the clock.  It requires not being able to be completely relaxed.  It means if something comes up you have to make a choice and lose an option instead of just going with the flow.  It may even require getting out of bed at a certain time (and certainly requires getting out of bed at some point) and putting on day clothes.

Oh, but it could be something as simple as going for a jog by yourself (whose idea of fun is THAT?) or having a friend drop by to socialize or going to church.  All of these options require  *effort*.  All require putting on clothes.  What could be better than lazing around the house in one’s pajamas?  Not having to put on pants unless and until one feels like it?

But if you were a sports fan (we’re not), you wouldn’t resent having to go  to your favorite sports team’s game if you had tickets?  Well, actually, I am a big fan of many kinds of arts (definitely not sports… especially not ones that involve sitting outside to watch), but I do resent having to remember to go, having to make sure I’m dressed appropriately, having to deal with driving and parking, and having to stay up past my bedtime.  Plus, since we live in a small town, all such events tend to be on weekday nights anyway.  If I want to enjoy a weekend arts event, that requires driving into the city, something that is a major production so we only do it about once a month.  And we generally need to have the next day off to recover… doing nothing… so as to hit Monday ready to work again.

In fact, there aren’t many things in this small town that I want to do more than laze about at home with my family.  Maybe even *gasp* doing chores.  Because doing chores on the weekend together is actually kind of fun, even though it couldn’t possibly be, and even though chores should be crammed into the weekdays instead or hired out (nobody touches my underpants who isn’t related to me!).  We’re even a bit tired of things to do in the nearest real city (there’s only so many times one can see each museum and zoo and park) and have been considering exploring farther away large cities.

Now, when we were living in a city, it was much easier to have low-key planned activities every day without having to worry about stress or the clock.  We could walk to the Saturday farmer’s market, we could walk to a sushi place and a frozen yogurt place and to the library (which was even open on Sunday!).  The weather also tended to stay in the 2-digit range which made it easier to take advantage of such things.  And there were lots of untried restaurants and free activities a short drive away on the weekends (when traffic wasn’t as bad).  The bar to doing things was lower and they didn’t have to be truly planned with a set time.  Even so, the occasional weekend day off always ended with my partner saying, “I had a good day today.”  And I would reply, “Me too.”

Occasionally when I get cabin fever we’ll take an unplanned day and just get in the car and drive!  Those lead to fun times too, even if completely spur of the moment.  Sadly this part of the country has fewer bakeries and ice cream shops per capita than other parts of the country in which we have lived.  But we still find the occasional random tea shop or pie place.

Now, we’re not saying you should never do anything on the weekend.  We do something most weekends.  But we also cherish our days off.  The ones where we don’t get up until late (totally wasting the morning!) and the answer to, “Did we have anything planned today?” (or if partner is asking, “Do we have anywhere we need to be at?”) is “No.”  If you’re not happy with doing nothing, by all means, start planning stuff.  But if the thought of someone making you do something more on weekends makes you feel a bit possessive, then by golly, don’t force yourself to plan more activities.  Listen to your boredom and listen to your stress, and you should be ok.

There’s a reason many religions celebrate a Sabbath.

Vive la no pants!

Do you think every day of your life should be planned so that you get things done and always have something to look forward to?

Telling kids how they feel: a deliberately controversial post

One of the things I don’t like in many parenting books, but have found no research pro- or against- is this idea that you’re supposed to tell little kids how they’re feeling.  The books tend to call it “acknowledging feelings” and it’s what you’re supposed to do instead of praise, instead of solving kids’ problems, interfering in sibling conflicts, and a number of other verboten parent-interactions, depending on which parenting book or “expert” you’re following.

My first problem with this is, even if my kid is only two, how the hell am I supposed to know what he or she is feeling better than ze does?  Isn’t it presumptuous of me to say, “You’re sad because X” or “I can see that you’re angry”?  Sometimes I will ask, “Are you sad?” But, I’d get pretty pissed off if someone told *me* what I was feeling.  I think even very small children deserve more respect and agency than that.

My second problem with this, and mind you, this is correlation, not causation, is that I’ve hung around parents that use these techniques and their kids are either 1. holy terrors or 2. hold a bit of contempt (or just healthy ignoring) for their parents whenever their parents pull this crap.  In practice, it doesn’t seem effective.  But the parents who follow “experts” blindly tend to be less confident in their parenting in other ways, so it might be something else going on and not a problem with the actual (unproven) technique.

Do you think it’s appropriate to tell small children how they’re feeling?

Should parents pay for their childrens’ college?: A deliberately controversial post

A common discussion on PF blogs is whether or not parents should pay for a kid’s college education.  The discussants generally fall into two camps:  Yes, we are trying to save for it now (though often they don’t go into why) and here’s how, and No, we think kids should pay for their own education mainly to help build their character.

We at Grumpy Rumblings will flesh out some of these reasons, and discuss why we think some of the reasons may be more or less valid.

Yes:  Graduating without student loans is a great gift and can provide kids with a head start in life once they graduate.  They will also be better able to concentrate on their studies if they’re not forced to work all the time or go into massive debt.

No:  Kids whose parents pay may not take college seriously.  They may be more likely to goof off or drink or skip class etc.  College is expensive and parents should take care of their own wants and needs– kids can work or take out loans.  Learning how to pay off college loans isn’t a bad lesson.

Yes or No depending on your perspective:  Some of the differences in beliefs about paying for college seem to be in part class based.  One potential effect of parents paying for college is that students can follow what they’re interested in in terms of majors without having to think about how profitable that major is.  If you come from a privileged background, then being able to major in anything, even a *gasp* humanities major, is a benefit.  If you come from a less-privileged background, this may be considered to be a waste.  Similarly being allowed to experiment with different majors can be seen as a plus or a minus depending on the parent’s viewpoint.  Is college a coming of age experience vs. career preparation?  Is the goal to make the most money or to leave the world a better place?  One’s view of college depends greatly on one’s background.

What we think:

We do not believe that the best way to get kids to care about the value of an education is to make them pay for it.  The value of education in general can be instilled at home from an early age.  And if it doesn’t take, then we doubt that forcing the kid to work 40 hour weeks is going to make hir any more likely to attend class.  In fact, we think it’s going to make hir more likely to sleep through class if ze attends at all.  If that’s the case, then perhaps ze should be doing something else besides going to school.  #1’s parents paid 100% for her college education.  #2’s parents left her with a reasonable loan load.  They both took college very seriously, seriously enough to get into good graduate schools.

One thing that really bothers us is when wealthy parents refuse to pay at all for college.  The ones who value fancy cars and exotic vacations over paying for some of the kid’s tuition.  The problem is that when your parents are poor, you are pretty likely to get financial aid at some portion of the schools to which you’re accepted.  However, if you’re rich, that’s much less likely to happen unless you luck into some pretty amazing merit or sports scholarships.  That means a poor kid may be on the hook for 10K in subsidized loans after graduation, but a rich kid 40+K unsubsidized from a state school or upwards of 200K from a private school.  Even if the rich kid has had more opportunities K-12, it still seems to be an unfair burden to be on the hook for full-tuition with four years of unsubsidized loans.  Less wealthy parents should obviously secure their retirements first and their kids are likely to not come out with as horrific loan burdens precisely because of financial aid.

No matter what you decide, it’s a good idea to let kids know early on what to expect.  I felt so bad for my friends who applied and got in awesome places but then had to do 2 years at community college because their parents figured Hawaii and/or a new car was a better deal that year than paying some of the tuition at Dartmouth or Notre Dame.  On the other hand, knowing that I could go anywhere because my parents had been saving their whole lives opened up a world that would eventually propel me into a higher economic class.  If I hadn’t known I could go anywhere (and given how little money we had growing up, I wouldn’t have assumed I could), I might not have aimed as high.

Update:  Cherish the Scientist asks about her situation.

Do you think these reasons are valid?  Where do you stand on the paying for kid’s college education question?

A deliberately controversial post: The sins of the parents

should be visited on the kids.

This is a sentiment we often see on the internets.

Schools in poor neighborhoods are often terrible.  If the parents cared, they’d homeschool or move. (Because that’s totally an option for single moms on EITC working minimum wage jobs as best they can.)

We shouldn’t improve the quality of school lunches.  If parents cared, they’d be feeding their kids organic meals full of veggies made from scratch every night so one meal a day wouldn’t hurt them.

Personally we suspect a lot of this sentiment is disguised racism.  Who cares about black kids or Hispanic kids.  It’s their fault for being born something other than anglo-saxon.  But maybe not– the internet seems to think just as poorly of rural white parents from West Virginia.

We also suspect it’s a way that middle class folks feel superior.  We’re not like THOSE people.  Our kids will do just fine because we’re so wonderful.  Our schools are great not because everyone else in our neighborhood is able to pay higher property taxes, but because we made the decision to be (white and) middle class.

It’s parents’ fault is the repeated refrain.  That’s why schools are crumbling.  That’s why kids are fat.  That’s why kids are in bad schools.  Or don’t get enough to eat.  Or get kidnapped or shot.

We at Grumpy Rumblings say:  WHO CARES?

Whether it’s parents fault or not, Won’t somebody think of the children?

Kids could have crappy parents and still get a great education if all kids had access to great schools.  Sure, some kids may be too damaged to benefit from even the best interventions, but what about the bulk of kids who could benefit?  Who through no fault of their own are stuck in poverty with little way out?  Imagine if they had great preschools, safe neighborhoods, healthy food, high quality K-12… the chance to take a calculus class.  Maybe they’d have a chance to live the American Dream.

Even if their parents suck.


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