Sunday, 9 November 2008

Page turners: Parentonomics

I'm running a bit behind with Page Turners posts. We read Parentonomics by Joshua Gans, a friend of mine and husband of one our group members, in September and discussed at our October meeting. I've delayed posting because I haven't quite finished the book. Somewhat unusually for me, I'm still reading it after the discussion. However, we had the second half of our discussion at last week's meeting, so it seems appropriate to post about it now. ( . . . Before I get into posting about the next book!)

Parentonomics is subtitled "An economist dad's parenting experiences" and is exactly that. Joshua is an economics professor at Melbourne Business School who has found himself applying many fundamental economics principles -- mainly in the form of incentive schemes -- in the rearing of his three children. He has a blog called game theorist (musings on economics and child rearing) which I understand has a large following, and it is this which generated the material for the book.

Not being a parent, I'm not a follower of the game theorist blog, although on the occasions I've visited I've found it an interesting and entertaining read. Parentonomics of course picks out all the best bits. Joshua has arranged hundreds of anecdotes, derived from both his own parenting experience and his wide reading, into themed sections and chapters that deal with issues such as toilet training, discipline, and even children's parties. His writing style is easy to read, humorous and insightful, while the way he (and in many cases his children) thinks is fascinating. I admit that knowing the family probably makes it more meaningful, but I think this is a book that most parents would enjoy. Joshua dwells on both the successes and failures of his economic gambits.

Our first group discussion was over a month ago now and I don't recall much of it. I think we found ourselves dwelling on our own childhoods and how they compared with Joshua's kids', and that we discussed whether there might be a long-term impact of raising kids using incentive schemes. Without exception, we all enjoyed reading the book, even those of us without kids.

At our most recent discussion, we went through some questions that N, "the children's mother", had put together. (She intentionally wasn't present at our first discussion.):

1. Did you find reading the book voyeuristic? If so, was it because you knew (some of) the characters?
Most of us present said that in a few parts, but not many, we had felt a little voyeuristic, but only because we knew the characters. The most notable for me were incidents related to childbirth. Othertimes I felt like I was getting to know the family even better.

2. Did the fact that none of the characters are named (other than the author) bother you, or interfere with the flow of the stories?
We all said no I think. In principle this is true, although I think that Joshua wasn't always consistent with his pseudonyms, which probably bothered me a little bit. We commented that N was always "the children's mother" instead of his wife, which we found interesting.

3. Do you think you learnt anything about economics?
Yes, a little. I think I always considered economics to be about $$ and money markets, but in fact money is just one kind of incentive.

4. Did you learn anything about parenting?
Reading about parenting experiences is bound to introduce new aspects of parenting I hadn't before considered. Parenting is hard (from all accounts) and it's not surprising that everyone tries different methods. Parentonomics introduces a different perspective that might work with some children, but probably not all.

5. Have you thought about what a sociological equivalent to the book would be like?
I believe we agreed that there were many such books out there.

6. Do you think it's inappropriate for an economist to publish a book about parenting, about which he is technically not qualified?
Joshua makes clear right at the beginning that this is not an advice book, and that his experiences are his alone. There is no law that says one has to be qualified to publish a book. So long as there are people out there who want to read it, and a publisher who wants to publish it, it's fine!

7. Did the combination of stories about the authors children interspersed with his research work well as a narrative?
I thought so. However, I think most of us said the anecdotes about his kids were the most entertaining and interesting. I made the comment that I felt the book owed a lot to the personalities of the first two children, and the eldest in particular. Maybe it's just the slant Joshua casts upon them, but the way they think and act seems remarkable. But perhaps all kids are remarkable but it's not documented! (I understand child #3, who was very young for much of the time covered by this book, will be featured much more prominently should there be a sequel!)

8. For those who don't have children: did you find it difficult to relate to the stories?
We said no, we had all been kids once and many of us had nieces and nephews. As I said before, we spent considerable time at the original meeting reminiscing about our own childhoods.

To sum up, it was an interesting experience reading and discussing a book written by someone I know socially (as opposed to knowing someone from the SF community). Especially something that boils down to a fairly personal account of family life. There's some intriguing stuff in there. And some smart kids.

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