Category Archives: Parenting

The Sydney Project: Powerhouse Museum

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. Welcome to our year of child-focussed activities in Sydney.

This was our second visit to the Powerhouse Museum, both times on a Monday, a day on which it is extremely quiet.

Bendy mirror

The Powerhouse seems so promising. It’s a tech museum, and we’re nerd parents, which ought to make this a family paradise. But not so. Partly, it’s that V is not really a nerdy child. His favourite activities involve things like riding his bike downhill at considerable speeds and dancing. He is not especially interested in machinery, intricate steps of causation, or whimsy, which removes a lot of the interest of the Powerhouse. Museums are also a surprising challenge in conveying one fundamental fact about recent history: that the past was not like the present in significant ways. V doesn’t really seem to know this, nor is he especially interested in it, which removes a lot of the hooks one could use in explaining, eg, the steam powered machines exhibit.

We started at The Oopsatoreum, a fictional exhibition by Shaun Tan about the works of failed inventor Henry Mintox. This didn’t last long; given that V doesn’t understand the fundamental conceit of museums and is not especially interested in technology, an exhibit that relies on understanding museums and having affection for technology and tinkering was not going to hold his attention. He enjoyed the bendy mirrors and that’s about it.

V v train

I was hoping to spend a moment in The Oopsatoreum, but he dragged me straight back out to his single favourite exhibit: the steam train parked on the entrance level. But it quickly palled too, because he wanted to climb on and in it, and all the carriages have perspex covering their doors so you can see it but not get in. There’s a bigger exhibit of vehicles on the bottom floor, including — most interestingly to me — an old-fashioned departures board showing trains departing to places that don’t even have lines any more, but we didn’t spend long there because V’s seen it before. He also sped through the steam machines exhibit pretty quickly, mostly hitting the buttons that set off the machines and then getting grumpy at the amount of noise they make.

Gaming, old-style

He was much more favourably struck with the old game tables that are near the steam train. He can’t read yet, and parenting him recently has been a constant exercise in learning exactly how many user interfaces assume literacy (TV remote controls, for example, and their UIs now as well). The games were like this to an extent too; he can’t read “Press 2 to start” and so forth, so I kept having to start the games for him. He didn’t do so well as he didn’t learn to operate the joystick and press a button to fire at the same time. He could only do one or the other. And whatever I was hoping V would get out of this visit, I don’t think marginally improved gaming skills were it, much as I think they’re probably going to be useful to him soon.

Big red car

We spent the most time in the sinkhole of the Powerhouse, the long-running Wiggles exhibition. This begins with the annoying feature that prams must be left outside, presumably because on popular days one could hardly move in there for prams. But we were the only people in there and it was pretty irritating to pick up my two month old baby and all of V’s and her various assorted possessions and lump them all inside with me. I’m glad V is not much younger, or I would have been fruitlessly chasing him around in there with all that stuff in my arms.

Car fixing

It’s also, again, not really the stereotypical educational museum experience. There’s a lot of memorabilia that’s uninteresting to children, such as their (huge) collection of gold and platinum records and early cassette tapes and such. There’s also several screens showing Wiggles videos, which is what V gravitates to. If I wanted him to spend an hour watching TV, I can organise that without leaving my house. He did briefly “repair” a Wiggles car by holding a machine wrench against it.

Overall, I think we’re done with the Powerhouse for a few years.

Cost: $12 adults, $6 children 4 and over, younger children free.

Recommended: for my rather grounded four year old, no. Possibly more suited to somewhat older children, or children who have an interest in a specific exhibit. (If that interest is steam trains, I think Train Works at Thirlmere is a better bet, although we cheated last year by going to a Thomas-franchise focussed day.)

More information: Powerhouse website.

The Sydney Project: Art Baby

This year is my son’s last year before he begins full time schooling in 2015. I’ve therefore decided to embark on a self-imposed challenge to go and do different child-focussed activities in Sydney and review them!

Art Baby is a preliminary Sydney Project entry, because it wasn’t an activity for preschoolers! Instead, it’s an activity for carers of babies, who tour the Museum of Contempoary Art with their babies.

Entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art, nighttime

by Robert Montgomery

Mostly, it’s a short (45 minute) tour of one of the exhibitions (it was Volume One today), and the fact of having babies in tow is largely irrelevant. (Most of the babies today were two or three months old, much too young to do much touching or exploring.) I very much enjoyed our tour guide, who significantly contributed to the artworks with some background about each artist, and with her personal reactions to the art works. Fine art has really grown on me in recent years, as I’ve come to understand many genres — fine art in this case, but not it alone — as a conversation, and that you need to come at it with a cheat sheet that brings you up to speed on the conversation. A good tour or audio guide is the way to go with fine art museums, given that I’m unlikely to ever follow the conversation as a practitioner or serious student. Today’s tour, by an art educator and artist, was an excellent insider briefing.

The baby-relevant part of the tour is the conclusion in the Creative Learning room where the older children would do the Art Play (3yo and under) and Art Safari sessions (3–5yo). This includes a piece specifically commissioned for the children’s room, a child-safe and welcoming artwork for them to interact with. (Much of the museum is an attractive nuisance for children, with many bright, changing objects that they must not touch. It’s a shame. This adult would like a museum of fine art you can beat upon.) Afterwards, everyone has coffee (included in the price) and goes their separate way.

I’m keen to trial Art Safari with my 4yo now.

Cost: $20 plus booking fee.

Recommended: yes. It’s a good introduction to the MCA collection, and the timing is suitable for people with babies in tow. You could also just attend a normal tour, of course, but sometimes it’s fun to be part of a WITH BABY market segment.

More information: Art Baby website.

Cooking notes: mud cake

I made a birthday cake for my son yesterday.

Turntable!

The basic recipe was this mud cake recipe from Taste. Modifications:

  • we’re a three person household, so I cut the recipe in half, give or take (about 2/5ths, mostly, because I used 100g of Lindt 70% Dark chocolate)
  • I used cream, not sour cream. I am intrigued by sour cream in a chocolate cake I have to say, but Andrew doesn’t like sour cream and generally I didn’t want to mess with the sweet flavour of a kid’s birthday cake more than I was already doing by using this recipe

Since we have an espresso machine in the house I also pulled my second or third ever espresso (actually, a very long black at that volume!) which undoubtedly was terrible. I drink coffee very rarely; but of course I didn’t have to taste it directly, I just had to not get coffee grounds in the cake. The coffee taste went well in the cake and means not having to use a liqueur for a bit of zing.

The we established an ancient ritual of our culture:

Cake tasting

I cooked it in a $3 train mould from Kmart. All my love to you silicone cake trays: you’re a pain to get into the oven but a cinch to extract cooked cakes from. The “icing” is molten milk chocolate and the “decorations”, such as they are, are of a train turntable. I’m hoping to decorate cakes with a little more forethought as he gets older.

I cooked it for 20 minutes in a hot oven and another 5 minutes as the oven cooled and that was about right. If you like mudcakes slightly wet as I do 15 would probably work (for pieces of cake this size). The train pieces are a bit short: I wasn’t sure how full to fill the molds when it had self-raising flour in it and tried about 2/3, when I really should have gone nearly to the top.

While he got very excited about the sprinkles, my son actually ate half the undecorated engine with far more enthusiasm. It’s not really a cake for a toddler’s palate (and he totally has one, if everything in the world was made of butter icing he couldn’t be happier) but he didn’t seem put off.

Nannies and flexibility

Liam Hogan tweeted:

Further on rebates for nannies: if they’re a response to family-unfriendly working hours, flexible childcare is solving the wrong problem.

Here’s some systemic problems with childcare as it currently stands that one might hire a nanny as a possible solution to:

availability (strong form) For under 2s in Sydney, you simply might not get a childcare place accessible to you, by your scheduled return to work. Full-stop.

availability (weaker form) You have 2 or 3 children under 5, not uncommon. If you do get childcare places for them all, they (a) start to approach the price of a nanny and (b) are often not at the same daycare centre. So you can add 2 to 3 drop-offs to your commute run, 2 to 3 infection sources to your health problems, and when your children do all end up at the same daycare centre, you can enjoy four to six weeks of emotionally resettling them with the new centre. Or hire a nanny.

commuting in general Family unfriendly work hours are common. Family unfriendly commute hours are even more common: either a really tight schedule where you hope for no breakdowns/signals failures, or just total impossibility of getting to the centre in time. (Or you can have your kids in care near your work, and have them commute with you. Fun for the whole family. Plus you cannot use the centre when you are sick, which is one of the times when you really want to.)

illness I had four bouts of gastro and eight respiratory infections in the four months after my son began daycare. A nanny is an expensive way to avoid this, but that night I considered calling the police because we couldn’t lift him up to feed him? Maybe that’s worth $200 a day to people who can pay to avoid it.

throughout the day contact a privilege of (partial) telecommuters and (partially) at-home business people, and in theory daycare centres allow drop-ins if children are well-settled there and can handle two separations in a day (so, probably not in the first several months of care). For these people, a nanny may be one way of allowing the parent and child to have throughout-the-day contact without the parent needing to be first contact point for the child’s needs.

Now, I fully agree that funding nannies is less good ultimately than, say, free and freely available childcare, predictable work hours, widespread onsite/neighbourhood childcare with liberal allowance for parent drop-in, redesigning work and cities so that 1+ hour commutes aren’t the usual case, or… I don’t even know what you do about the illnesses, because I once saw my 9 month old licking another baby’s face and getting a good licking back. But there’s a raft of reasons why nannies are attractive. We may turn to one after our next child on cost alone. So that’s the context of nannies, for me.

Sunday spam: watered-down gruel

Mmm, yum.

I’ve been thinking more intensely about schooling my son since, well, he was born and also since I began reading Rivka’s homeschooling blog (she began homeschooling her then five-year-old year old daughter in June 2010, when my own son was about four months old).

I probably, frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing about homeschooling otherwise, but as it is, I can bring you several links. The first couple are a defence of homeschooling from a self-identified liberal point of view, in the US sense of progressive. In fact, all of this is about the US school system.

Does homeschooling violate liberal values?

Do we have a responsibility to work towards equal educational opportunity for all children, and if so, do we violate it by removing our family from the public system? Even liberal homeschoolers don’t really seem to engage with this question much. Partly I think it’s because there’s such a strong libertarian streak in homeschooling communities, even on the left wing. But also, liberal philosophical arguments for homeschooling tend to be based on a critique of schools as rigid and stifling institutions…

Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?

… I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness.

And that last point about soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness neatly brings me to Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools:

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher…

Every day, dozens of reporters and bloggers cover the Big Three’s reform campaign, but critical in-depth investigations have been scarce (for reasons I’ll explain further on). Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working…

Talking about his generation: you too can be a bad futurist

The X or Y posts (Gen X or Y?, On being X-ish) reminded me of something I wrote about my son, who was born in 2010, not long before he was born:

I was looking at one of those “the kids of today” lists and thinking about V. What will the world of the 2010 baby look like? I came up with:

  • September 11 will be something that happened when his parents were young, roughly equivalent to the Vietnam War for me, a bit nearer than the moon landing or Harold Holt drowning
  • in fact by the time he’s a teenager everyone or nearly everyone who walked on the moon will have died
  • he may not ever learn to read a paper map or street directory unless he gets heavily into bushwalking or something
  • by the time he’s grown up, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s really unusual to own many paper books, perhaps as uncommon as people my age who own vinyl (yeah, I do know a few, but…)
  • there will be a few veterans of WWII and people who experienced the Holocaust (other than as little babies) around in his childhood and even teens, but they’ll be like I remember WWI veterans: very elderly

If anyone wants to play: can you come up with things that aren’t true of children born in 2000, say? Things like “your parents have always had mobile phones” are going to be true of children 10 or even 15 years older than V will be. (Of my list, the paper map stuff probably fails that test, so might the WWII stuff.)

I’m a terrible futurist, that already reads badly to me. For example, I didn’t own a GPS device at the time: that’s why I thought that bushwalking would rely on paper maps in 2030. (Since they don’t run out of charge, presumably they’ll be useful as backups for a long time, at least for the type of folks who are wary enough to take backup maps anywhere.)

But the question stands: there’s a lot of difference already between me and someone born in, say, 1995. But what’s the difference between that child’s life, and that of my son born in 2010?

Parenting economics

From Matt Yglesias:

Family life is subject to a vicious economic conundrum known as Baumol’s cost disease. Economy-wide wages are linked to economy-wide productivity. That means that over time sectors of the economy that don’t feature productivity gains will see rapidly rising costs…

Child-rearing is basically stick stuck in a kind of dark ages of artisanal production, but as market wages have risen the opportunity cost of this extremely labor intensive line of work has steadily increased. The implication is that societies that want to continue existing in the future are increasingly going to have to find ways to subsidize parental investment in the next generation.

Childcare

I just got a call from a childcare centre who has had my son’s name down for nineteen months. I’m not even sure if they were offering him a place, most likely they are just culling their waiting list in preparation for the 2012 enrolment season. Nineteen months long waiting lists, on the very edge of the metropolis.

I’m sure there’s plenty of info out there already about the economic inefficiencies generated by private childcare in countries like Australia and the US where supply doesn’t meet demand and there’s little government intervention in the market. One of the most noticeable for us is geographic lock-in. If it takes a year or more to get our son care at a new location, we can’t move, until, oddly enough, all of our children are school age and thus likely to be badly disrupted academically and socially by a move. The next most obvious is all the mother-work in this. Applying to 20 centres (… many of which ask for a $20 waiting list fee). Ringing them all once a month or more just to keep a tick next to our name as “really wants a place”. (It likely doesn’t advance you up the list, what with all the other mothers ringing monthly too, and they certainly don’t give us any actual news until a place actually appears.)

I should put in a little bit of background for people from countries with at least some government provided childcare. Childcare in Australia for children 8 weeks to 5 years is provided by for-profit and non-profit suppliers in a private market. Waiting lists for first born children in Sydney (younger siblings of an enrolled child often receive some preferential treatment) who aren’t in certain disadvantaged and at-risk groups are somewhere in the realm of nine to twenty four months. (Employers are supposed to keep permanent jobs open to a returning mother for a year.) Costs are in the realm of $70 to $110 dollars per day for infants (median maybe $90?) and $60 to $100 per day for children over age two. There are government subsidies on a sliding scale that for some families might halve this cost.

The alternatives are local government certified “family carers” caring in their own homes, who have similar waiting lists, nannies at around $200 per day, or family. I don’t see a lot of solutions aside from nationalisation: the private market obviously sees no need even for centralised waiting lists and for whatever reason it certainly doesn’t see the need to create enough places to meet demand. All I have is a couple of lessons:

#1 you do not put your child’s name down at birth you put it down when you are pregnant, if they let you, and if they don’t, take the forms to the hospital with you and post them from there within hours of your child’s birth. (Sydney hasn’t quite reached the stage that I am told New York City is at, of ringing them all to give them notice that you have stopped using contraception, and might therefore require their services at some point in the next two years.)

#2 most childcare places open up in January and February, with enrolments in October. It’s obvious why when you think about it: (southern) January is when the five year olds leave to start kindergarten, so it’s the time when by far the most vacancies are created. That doesn’t mean put the kid’s name down in October for a place the following January, it means putting them down as early as possible and then concentrating your phone calls in October.

This can be frustrating depending on your child’s month of birth. Born January or February? You may well have to keep them out for a full year. Born November or December? You may have to enrol them much younger than you would have been comfortable with if you are lucky enough to be offered a place (although only for a day a week, already enrolled children almost always get the pick of newly opened spots on other days).

For the record, my January-born first son got a place that July, in a centre that had recently re-opened after bankruptcy and was taking immediate enrolments. That same centre, whose youngest enrolment at the time was a child 9 weeks old, is a year later asking us to re-confirm 2012 enrolments four months ahead because of their enormous waiting list. They currently have no children born in 2011 enrolled, implying a waiting list of 9 months at the very least We’re ourselves presently awaiting results of the 2012 enrolments closer to the city, to see if we get to move closer to my husband’s work in the next 12 months, or if we’re staying out here for the foreseeable future.

US-based websites and COPPA

Alex Sutherland, who is not yet 13 years of age, told Google+ his date of birth and promptly lost access to his Gmail account.

I’m not posting this to join any obnoxious blamestorm aimed at Alex or his parents: it sucks he lost his email archives and I hope that his parents are able to get it back for him. It sucks he had his trust breached and there’s no getting that back for him.

But I’m mostly posting because people are seeing the provisons of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for the first time and saying “pfft, not that hard to comply, why ban under 13s at all?” There was an illuminating comment on Making Light that is helpful there:

COPPA has a lot of “common sense” provisions which no doubt sounded great from the point of view of legislators and parents, but which are pretty appalling from the point of view of the operator of a Web 2.0 service. They’re burdensome enough, that, to my knowledge, only sites intended specifically and exclusively for children trouble to implement them. That is, no Web2.0 websites operating in the US permit users under the age of 13, except for specialty children’s sites. Not Google, not Facebook, not MySpace, not Livejournal, not Twitter, not Flickr or Picassa or Photobucket, not any web service here in the US.

Why? Well, you know how when you have a problem with your Gmail, you can pick up your phone and call Google’s tech support line? Ah ha ha ha. Right: no such thing. Well, one of the provisions of COPPA is that there has to be a phone number through which parents can call the service, as well as an email address at which they can email the service. Google doesn’t particularly want to have to pay operators to be standing by. No Web2.0 startup wants to be staffing a phone number open to the general public.

Google also doesn’t particularly want to figure out how to fulfill the provision of writing a statement as to what “information it collects” from (minor) users, since it allows users to type absolutely anything they want into those email bodies. Among sites for children, the open-ended TEXTAREA form field, like the one I’m typing this comment into, are seen as threats; highly structured or brief forms of input — pulldown menus and short text fields — are seen as safer. That prohibits most interesting Web2.0 applications.

Now Google is pretty big, it could afford to solve this if it wanted to, but has decided not to. But I think this is an issue worth knowing about in general: this means that children under 13 can’t participate in the Web as we know it today, essentially, because COPPA means that it’s prohibitively expensive to allow them to use websites that allow free-form content. Opinions might vary on whether this is a good thing (I certainly don’t think so, although I’m also not planning to turn my son loose on Google on his sixth birthday either), but it’s a thing.

Failure to blog: situation normal

Hello long neglected blog. I am actually not going to say I feel bad about not writing, because here’s what I’ve been doing with my time:

  1. working on my PhD
  2. working on getting the Ada Initiative underway
  3. working on a PHP programming contract
  4. working on the Linux Australia Council
  5. household stuff, like snuggling my boy!

I’ll be back more once a few of those things disappear from my life.