Where to set the safety threshold?

Since I’ve been involved with designing and marketing play apparatus, fall surfacing, climbing walls and skateparks the issue of protecting kids from falls and the use of helmets has figured prominently throughout my five decades in this field. My experience leads me to the opinion that helmets, and other protective gear should be worn when the player has the intention of testing the limits of their skill or when the environment is unpredictable. For example helmets when dirt biking or on busy streets are a good idea but may not necessary when playing in the neighborhood.

What makes us safe is not protective devices but judgment, honed reflexes, and fundamental movement skills. The goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of injury. If you watch a toddler learning to walk they have several innate behaviors that help achieve this end. When they are about to fall forward their reaction is to resumes their crawling gait and extend their arms in what is called “protective arm reflex.” When the fall is backwards they drop to their bottoms. In both cases these instinctual reactions to the job of head protection very well.

The question arises then, what is the impact of using a safety helmet? In talking with child development physiologists they suggest several issues. First they suspect, although there is little research on this, that such protective gear may disrupt the normal progression of reflex maturation. They also are concerned that the lack of consequences when falling may retard the child’s ability to form proper assessments of their skill, i.e. reduce their judgment. Finally they speculate that it reinforces a pattern of parenting that is over protective and ultimately harmful.

From this example we can see that, what might appear as a good idea is fraught with complexity and perhaps unintended consequences.

From this post on playground design, questioning a proposal by the ASTM Playground Surfacing Committee (yes, that is a thing) to engineer more safeguards into public playgrounds.

The motivation appears to be that the goal of improving playground safety with the current standard has not significantly reduced the number of hospital visits.

To my mind this is not unlike the logic of the medieval doctor who, when their patient did not get well with one blood letting concluded that they needed more blood letting.

Parenting seems like a delicate balancing act. You can set the safety threshold too high, leaving your child too brittle for the real world they will someday inhabit without you. The anti-vaxxers seem to fall prey to that miscalculation.

I'm very curious to study the parenting style and childhood peer set of kids who become serial entrepreneurs because those are people who seem to have a better understanding than the average person of the concept of risk/reward and thus a healthier acceptance of failure. An overly cautious personality, maybe someone who has always had good grades in school, may only want to play deterministic games, where the relationship between hard work and success is linear.

Entrepreneurship, especially in tech these days, is a probabilistic game. That's not a comfortable style of game for those who bruise easily. Watch someone who isn't in a probabilistic modality sit at a blackjack table and witness their discomfort with every losing hand. Their safety threshold may be set so high the only acceptable play is to never sit down at the table at all.

[That's not to say even those who think probabilistically think they're going to lose when they sit down at a table, and that goes for entrepreneurs as well. The only way the whole system works is if 10 out of 10 entrepreneurs think they'll succeed even as they know 9 out of 10 will fail. As long as everyone thinks they're that 1 out of 10, we get that 1 out of 10.]

Economics of Tiger Parenting

Ian Ayres

This choice made me proud because I want my children to be willing to delay gratification in exchange for probabilistically greater future rewards. When it comes to human capital, I want them to have low discount rates. One of the most foundational aspects of a person’s utility function is the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future. If you (highly) discount future rewards, you’re less likely to be willing to invest in human capital; why give up leisure/consumption today for something in the future about which you don’t care very much?

Of course, if your discount rate is too low, you will sacrifice most of today’s pleasures for the prospect of even modestly greater rewards in the future. I want my kids’ discount rate to be low, but I don’t want it to be zero.? I don’t want them to sacrifice all of today’s pleasures for some future pie in the sky.

So, here’s a bleg for Freaknation: If you had to choose your child’s discount rate, what number would you choose, and why? How much pleasure would you want them to sacrifice now in exchange for more pleasure in the future? How low would you go?

Ayres goes on to endorse the value of the Suzuki method, one I'm familiar with from my many years playing the violin.

As a child of a Tiger Mom, I'm more empathetic to the sentiment that drives Tiger Moms the more the years pass. The payoff for hard work and perseverance often comes only years after the initial drudgery, and parents are often the only ones who realize it as they live in that future where they've reaped those benefits. How they get their children to appreciate those benefits before cashing them in is the trick of parenting, isn't it?

It can be taken too far, though, as in Japanese youth baseball. Young star Japanese pitchers are pushed to extremes that most of the world consider child abuse in efforts to win the mythical Koshien tournament, the most important Japanese high school baseball tourney. 

This spring, 16 year old Tomohiro Anraku pitched 772 pitches in 9 days for Saibi High of the Ehime Prefecture.  He pitched his team to the final, throwing four consecutive complete games — 232, 159, 138, and 134 pitches, respectively. It all caught up to him in the championship game, when he collapsed in the fifth and sixth innings, eventually getting pulled after 109 pitches in a 17-1 defeat as his velocity and mechanics disintegrated.

Modern pitchers already have a high injury rate, but the injury track record of Japanese pitchers coming to MLB has been even worse. There's a point at which pushing children for near-term gains (and college baseball coaches often subject star pitchers to high pitch counts in the NCAA tournament as well) at the expense of their future is a cruel inversion of the economics of parenting or mentorship.

The great stagnation of parenting

We’ve come a long way, as a species. And we’re better at many things than we ever were before – not just slightly better, but unimaginably, ridiculously better. We’re better at transporting people and objects, we’re better a killing, we’re better at preventing infectious diseases, we’re better at industrial production, agricultural and economic output, we’re better at communications and sharing of information.

But in some areas, we haven’t made such dramatic improvements. And one of those areas is parenting. We’re certainly better parents than our own great-great-grandparents, if we measure by outcomes, but the difference is of degree, not kind. Why is that?

The post includes a couple theories as to why the labor productivity of parenting has not increased.

If you accept the premise that parenting is difficult to do well no matter how hard you try, it's worth reading the arguments put forth by Bryan Caplan in his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, namely that you should chill out a bit and burn yourself out less trying to be a super-parent. You'll be happier and more stress-free, and your child will probably turn out the same.

(h/t to Tyler Cowen)