Monday, August 10, 2015

Consistency Considered Harmful

It seems that almost every parent swears by consistency.  But sometimes inconsistency is best.

Well executed evidence-based parenting methods typically start showing results in a matter of days.  So, if you have doing the same thing consistently for months on end with no results, then you need to change. I knew a mom who started consistently reinforcing whining as soon as her kid started talking, instantly reacting to whining by giving the kid face-time and saying “Use your words”.  Three years later, we kept the kid for a few days and there was never any attempt to whine around us.  But within minutes of the mom’s return the kid whined at her. The mom immediately turned to the kid and said “no whining” and the kid made a little pouty face and the mom immediately went over and hugged the kid.   It would be hard to come up with a better operant conditioning procedure than this one for causing whining.  Since the kid never tried whining around us, it’s likely that there were other adults in her life that ignored whining and she had just quickly sized us up and categorized us with those adults that don’t reward whining.

Lots of immediate positive attention at first is great for establishing a habit, but constant, consistent praise of a specific behavior over the long haul creates a brittle habit that tends to go away when the praise stops.   In her book Don’t Shoot the Dog!, one of the methods that Karen Pryor recommended to get rid of a habit was to first subject it to constant positive reinforcement for a while and then abruptly stop reinforcing it.

Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Child Conduct Center, recommends, after a habit is established, fading praise to occasional.  Variable reinforcement has long been known to make a habit more robust, more resistant to extinction.  Skinner proved this in experiments with pigeons.  The best policy is to inconsistently direct positive attention at a low rate toward an established good habit.

But, inconsistency can be bad.   Variable reinforcement of bad behavior will make it harder to get rid of that behavior.  This variable reinforcement effect is considered to be one of the factors in gambling addiction.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Noble Prize for Parenting

Well...not exactly.  But James Heckman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000 for the evaluation of public policy bang for the buck and he has spent a great deal of time evaluating interventions that include improved parenting. Here's a paper by him:
"The larger message of this paper is that soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies."

Some highlights from the paper:

1. The paper has good things to say about Tools of the Mind:
2. Soft skills training has a long-term effect, and more so than early cognitive skills training. Measured effects are more persistent. Enrichment enhances kids' early IQ scores but this enhancement tends to fade away.
3. Soft skills training enhances cognitive skills, but not visa-versa.
4. At least some of the Big Five personality traits can be enhanced via soft skills training, so the notion that genes and peers are the only factors determining these traits is flapdoodle.

Some discount Heckman's work as being applicable only to low socioeconomic status(SES) groups, but I am not so sure. Soft skills deficiencies can be a limiting factor for a high SES kid.  A prospective parent can probably look at how soft skills deficiencies limited their own success and make some predictions about where the problem areas might be for their own kids, on the assumption that deficiencies tend to be inherited.

But it's true that Heckman thinks that, for maximum bang for the buck, public policy should focus more on:

  • low SES groups
  • kids before age five
  • prevention
  • soft skills.

Three of those are relevant for high SES parents.

Teachable skills like bicycle riding, juggling, swimming are retained long-term.  Same goes for teachable soft skills.

"Heckman sums up by saying "traits learned young, like perseverance and self-discipline, make it easier to acquire skills during the teenage years. Skills, that is, beget skills."

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Canned Heat and the Flute Mystery

Here's Canned Heat playing their song "Going up the Country" at Woodstock:

Here they are playing the song in the official "Woodstock"  movie, the version you all saw:

Notice anything different?  Answer: the first one has no flute.

See anything odd about this one?:

Answer: the guy "playing" the flute starts out blowing through the wrong end of the flute, but the notes seem to be coming out anyway. How the heck can that happen?  Lip-syncing, I guess.

Canned Heat rewrote the lyrics of a 1920's song "Bull Doze Blues", renamed it, and  used studio musician Jim Horn to play the flute part.  The song went to #11 on the Billboard Charts and #1 in 25 countries, but they only had a flute player as a band member between 2000-2005 according to Wikipedia.  The "Woodstock" movie used the studio recording, not the recording played at Woodstock.

There is at least one Youtube version with Canned Heat and a flute player from 2014:

In 1928, Henry Thomas played "Bull Doze Blues" solo with a guitar and a quills (a kind if pan flute) in a neck holder.  Here's the original:

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Reinforcing Power of Adult Attention for Children

...the discovery—of the reinforcing power of adults' social attention for children. We had never seen nor imagined such power! The speed and magnitude of the effects on children's behavior in the real world of simple adjustments of something so ubiquitous as adult attention were astounding. -Tribute to Wolf by Todd Risley

The power of adult attention has been extensively studied since 1960 and this research has resulted in child care methods that you would do well to learn to use.  Montrose Wolf discovered the reinforcing power of adult attention and showed how the parent or caregiver can use it to solve problems.  Here’s a tribute to Wolf summarizing his career. Here's an  interview with Wolf. His most well-known invention (with Arthur Staats) is time-out, but his most important discovery was that the redeployment of care-giver attention causes a 40-fold reduction in many common unwanted behaviors within 2 weeks.

The basic technique is to give attention to the behaviors you want and withdraw attention from the behaviors you don’t want.   This puts things under your control, you need to learn how to direct your attention to solve behavior problems and avoid inadvertently creating behavior problems.  If you want to become skilled at this, here are some resources for learning the ropes:

"ABCs of Child Rearing" Online Course (free to audit)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Controlling Tantrums 101

Perhaps parents can learn the principles of tantrum control by watching a few youtube tantrum videos.

Many tantrums are the results of misdirected parental attention, as illustrated by this youtube video:

But many parents can't seem to figure this out. At 1:15 in this next tantrum video, the parent hits upon the right strategy, but does not know how to follow through. Notice that the second he directs his attention from his tantruming daughter and redirects it to praising a well behaved kid, his daughter's tantrum starts to abate and she starts cooperating. He should have continued to praise the other kid and should have praised his daughter for putting on her shoes. But instead, he reverts to his usual pattern and the tantrum revs up again:

Most parenting books are not based on evidence from research on how to control unwanted behavior, so they give poor guidance and even advocate methods that are known to increase unwanted behavior. One good evidenced-based parenting book is the Kazdin Method by Alan Kazdin, head of the Yale Parenting Center and former head of the APA:

Most unwanted behavior can be addressed by ignoring it and praising the opposite. Give your kids lots of praise and facetime when they are exhibiting good behavior and moving toward self-control. It OK and good to give a kid having a first tantrum a bit of empathy, but you need to move to ignoring pretty quickly to avoid reinforcing unwanted behavior and thereby getting more of the behavior that you don't want.

Not all tantrums are attention-driven. Tantrums have other causes and it's good to try to ferret out the cause. Certainly a kid's early tantrums are initialy driven by frustration. It's only later that a kid learns that he can control his parents via tantrums, if the parents fall into the wrong response pattern.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How to Find a Used Car with ESC

Electronic stability control (ESC) it the most important non-retrofittable safety feature in the history of the automobile. It prevents about 1/3 of fatalities. It's standard on all vehicles under 10,000 pounds starting with the 2012 model year. But finding it on an used car can be a challenge, particulary if you are looking for an older car or an economy car.

Web sites that can help you find the models that have ESC are:

It is optional on some models, so you have to bore down to the trims to see which trims have it as standard. I have not found a good tabulation page for trims, but Edmunds has information on the trims in its feature lists and reviews:
Edmunds uses the term "stability control" for ESC.
If it's optional on a trim then that typically means its could have been purchased as a standalone option, but few buyers did that so its probably going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. (But VWs might be an exception to this rule - at least it seems to me to be easier to find a used VW with ESC as a standalone feature.)

Finally, you need to be aware that all these web sites, and other information sources, have errors. IIHS and Safecar conflict on the 2008 Malibu Hybrid. IIHS and Safecar both ignore the conversion van aftermarket where cargo van versions of certain passeger van models have been converted to passenger vans that don't have ESC. Edmunds lists the 2008 Malibu LS as having ESC, but it's not available on that trim. You need to confirm that the vehicle you buy has ESC. Used car ads, salespeople, and even window stickers are not reliable. Consulting the owner's manual will help. There is typically an off button for ESC or an icon that lights up during the icon check. (The icon check happens when you turn the key at or before starting the car.) It's not easy because almost every car maker has it's own product name for ESC:
(BTW, You will probably never need to use the ESC off button, check the owner's manual for when that is warranted.)

The search function at allows additional keywords to be specified to modify a used car search.  Adding "stability control" as a keyword with the "Exact Search" option is a useful screen for vehicles with ESC, but I don't think its perfect.

Some of my favorite used cars with ESC:
The 2008 Chevy Malibu New Model (not Classic) LT or LTZ. Car of the Year in 2008.
Toyota 4Runners for the 2001 model year and later models. One of the earliest non-luxury models with ESC.  Might be possible to find a 2000 or later Toyota Avalon with ESC and side air bags for around $5000, but ESC was optional in the early years so it might take some digging to find one.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lack of ESC Awareness Kills People

Before last September I had never heard of Electronic Stability Control (ESC), but a few months later I found myself blowing the whistle on the fact that the transit van I drive was not equipped with it:

ESC is a safety feature like no other. It’s second only to seat belts in preventing fatalities and (unlike seat belts) it cannot be retrofitted by practical means. So, once you buy a vehicle, you are stuck with what you have.

It turns out that there have always been problematic trade-offs in fleet buying practices relative to cost versus safety. This combined with the current availability of this unusually important safety option is leading to a rash of bad decision making.

ESC will be mandated by the NHTSA in late 2011 for all 2012 motor vehicles under 10,000 pounds. (I think that conversion vans may have another year to comply, I am not sure about this.)

The NHTSA web site and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) web sites both say that ESC has been standard on all Ford and GM passenger vans since 2006, but this is not true. Both Ford and GM sell cargo vans without ESC to van conversion companies that covert them into 15-passenger vans. That’s how I ended up with a 2009 Ford E350 passsenger van without ESC. (The van I drive has has 13 seats, by the way)

There is an ESC awareness program in Europe:

but there is nothing comparable in the USA. There are campaigns in Europe to try to get fleet buyers to equip vehicles with ESC, but no such effort in the USA:­cars/32609/

I have made estimate that equipping 1700 vehicles with ESC on average saves one fatality over the life of the vehicles. So its realistic to think that an awareness program to get people to choose it prior to the mandate could save lives:

1.53 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveld (vmt)
128,000 vmt per vehicles lifetime
1.9584 deaths per 1000 cars
0.3 = ESC fatality reduction (based on field data)
0.58752 lives saved per 1000 cars equiped with ESC
equipping 1702 vehicles save one life