Making Sense of the Child:  Getting Inside the Head

It can be difficult to follow a child’s thought process.  The logic is jumbled and the thinking cluttered with misconceptions and misinformation and following the conversation with a kid is akin to trying to track a rabbit that suddenly disappears down a hole, only to reappear fifteen minutes later from another hole linked to its den.  But there is a logic there and it’s helpful to make an effort to understand it, especially when it dictates actions and attitudes that are contrary to what we teach and try to model ourselves.  Such is the case with Youngest and his desire to lose this year’s Pinewood Derby.

If you aren’t aware, the Pinewood is a coming of age experience for millions of boys who’ve gone through cub scouts, in which they turn a Pine block, four nails and wheels into a racing creation.  It’s also where a father’s own attitudes come into play as to how to help the boy with the car.  My own attitude is that it’s ultimately the boy’s car.  I’ll help him to clarify his drawings and in the early years, cut the car for him, but it’s otherwise up to his own imagination and desire to produce.  It’s a function of my understanding of the purpose of Pinewood as well as my own awareness of my handiness with tools – I can do basics, but I’m not a craftsman.  Both of my sons have produced solidly middle-of-the-pack vehicles that will win a few heats but never take an entire derby.

After last year’s race, he was curious about why a particularly cool looking car was so slow as to consistently lose, so convincingly that it won the Most Fuel Efficient trophy, a consolation trophy awarded to assauge the embarrassment of the boy who builds that year’s slowest car.  While it’s awarded for the slowest car, it’s a legitimately nice award that doesn’t mock the effort.  All of the trophies are Hot Wheels cars and professionally engraved plaques mounted on varnished wood bases and in this year’s case, was a Hot Wheels modified 1971 Maverick; it isn’t a milk or garbage truck.  Over the intervening year, we’d have occasional conversations about Pinewood and it became apparent that not only did he not want to win, but he wanted to lose and do so consistently.  He didn’t want a sleek vehicle, but an absolute clunker that was the slowest thing on the track.  While my wife and I aren’t sticklers about having to win – do your best and try, but bear losing with some grace – this was frankly disconcerting.  When it came time to start this year’s Pinewood car, it sank in that he was actively incorporating design elements that were in last year’s slowest car.  As we talked further, his thought process clarified into something that was surprisingly mature and honestly, very goal-oriented.  But the goal wasn’t to win, it was to obtain a trophy.  He defined success in a much different way than I did.

You see, I make the trophies, which are cheaper than the good-looking statues and more attractive than the cheesy awards.

Youngest saw the trophies and realized that the Most Fuel Efficient was frankly as attractive as the others, albeit with a smaller scale car.  He wanted a trophy and measured his capabilities versus those of other boys who were either more gifted with their hands or had far more hands-on fathers and decided that in order to achieve his goal, his best shot of earning that trophy was to build a complete loser.  To his credit, he actively built his car to lose and when it came time to add white graphite to the axles, which effectively decreases friction on the nail-axles, he declined as he knew that everybody else wanted the graphite added.

Precisely how do I handle a situation in which a child defines success in losing?  Children are concrete and the abstract doesn’t come until much later, so the motivation is in a tangible, three dimensional award instead of an  ephemeral sense of victory.  Youngest determined his goal and then worked to achieve that goal.  Do I demand that he abandon that goal and come away with nothing or do I go ahead and support the kid when he’s actually using his head and thinking through the situation?  It’s one of the most surreal scenarios that I’ve encountered in sixteen years of fatherhood.

He came in dead last of four cars in his first heat and when he raised his arms and cheered, parents looked askance.  When he came in last again and celebrated, a few looked at me and I explained and as the morning wore on, a few parents – me included – also began to cheer when his car lost.  When all was said and done, he ultimately failed at his attempt to fail and as a measure of its surrealism, I don’t know whether he say that he actually failed or succeeded.  I can say that I’m honestly proud of him in his clear assessment of himself and his chances as well as his design that furthered his chance of meeting his goal.  The issue sometimes isn’t the child himself, but rather the circumstances in which the child finds himself and finding that that’s the case can save considerable heartache and grief.

As a final note, we’ll be having a conversation amongst the pack leadership about the lesson taught in such a visible reward of failure.



PracticalDad and the Education Cutbacks

The budgetary chickens are coming home to roost as newspapers run stories about school districts having to cut back significantly to meet the financial shortfalls.  With no money forthcoming from the states since they’re broke as well, all manner of things are on the block to bring the budget into balance.  While some can talk about reinstituting programs later when the money is available, the simple reality is that we’re resetting to a new and lower norm of spending.  There simply isn’t the money to cover all of the promises made and obligations taken on.  So what can I do for my kids in what’s sure to be a tighter, more competitive educational environment?

I can kick their ass. 

What Does Food Inflation Really Mean?

Everybody talks about incipient inflation and what it really means, and the most recent data from China – suspect that it is – indicates that the consumer prices there rose  4.9% year over year from January of 2010.  When I mention suspect, bear in mind that they rejiggered their marketbasket and had it been left alone, the rise would have been 5.1%.  So what does it mean to the typical family when they see increasing inflation hitting the grocery stores?  Percentages can be scary, but what’s the real impact?

Let’s play with the use the Chinese rate of 4.9% and extrapolate it with some American data. 

First, remember that inflation means that there’s a decline in the buying power of the currency so that with the same amount of money, you’re able to purchase less than you could before.  If the inflation rate from one year to the next is 4.9%, then the same amount at the later date is 4.9% higher; the inverse is that if you maintain the amount spent as a constant, then you’re only able to purchase that much less.

Let’s work through the numbers.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics courtesy of, the average American "consumer unit" of 2.5 people spent $3753 annually in 2009 for food at home for a monthly average of $312.  Bear in mind that when dining out was included, the total annual amount on food rose to $6372.  For our purposes, we’ll use the $312 as a baseline while understanding that if you’ve got kids, you’re spending more per month than this example bears out.


Effect of Constant 4.9% Inflation Upon $312/mo Budget
Year % Inflation Adjusted Inverse Budget Buys
now   1.00 1.00 312.00 312.00
1 4.9 1.049 .953 312.00 297.34
2 4.9 1.100 .909 312.00 293.61
3 4.9 1.154 .867 312.00 270.50
4 4.9 1.211 .826 312.00 257.71
5 4.9 1.270 .787 312.00 245.54

 Assuming all else remains the same, the impact upon the food budget is significant as a $312 monthly budget only purchases what you can buy now for $245. 

The other problem is that income is at best, flat and for the lower wage groups, actually dropping.  According to the BLS at the same site, the average pretax income of that odd 2.5 average consumer unit declined from $63,091 in 2008 to $62,857 in 2009.  Likewise, inflation is a nebulous and inexact thing and to think that it only happens in an orderly and predictable manner is like saying that you can capture a specific number of insects with a single swoop of the butterfly net.

So where do we begin to cut?  The first source is most likely the amount that’s spent on dining out, which was about $218/month for the consumer unit.  And after that comes a rejiggering of the family menu as brand names go by the wayside in favor or store brands and then a shift in the menu to lower cost alternatives.  And that’s for families – not consumer units – who still some leeway and aren’t already to the point of doing without or going to the food bank.

When this does start to really percolate through the domestic economy, the final acts will be a complete realignment of our priorities as we reevaluate what’s truly necessary versus that which we’ve come to consider as necessary.

Got cable?

How Do We Manage With Inflation?

Inflation or deflation?  After ongoing debate, the fog is clearing and significant rises in the commodity arena – sugar, wheat, corn – are harbingers of the inflation that the Federal Reserve has sought.  It also means that costs will be rising for the end users in the supermarkets.  I’m young enough to have a kid in the primary grades but old enough to remember the inflationary 1970s and have been asking myself, what did families do to manage with inflation then?  What are the best courses of action if inflation, whether stag- or hyper-, takes hold?

For those who are a bit fuzzy on the 1970s, inflation began prior to the decade when the consequences of funding both the Vietnamese War and the Great Society became apparent.  Too much money was chasing through the economy and prices started to rise.  Housewives protested the butcher shop when the price of hamburger began to hurt the food budget – where do you think Hamburger Helper came from?  Prices however, rose across the board in a wide variety of items apart from food and inflationary expectations took flight.  While everybody talks about the supply shocks of having oil supplies cut off in 1973 and 1979, the reality is that inflation was already alive and thriving.  President Richard Nixon attempted to rein in the situation with statutory wage and price controls as far back as August 1971, a full two years prior to the first Oil Embargo. As you might expect, that effort failed – miserably.  It took painfully high interest rates by then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker to bring inflation to ground.  In thirty years however, the company line on inflation has changed.

Understand that inflation is precisely what the Federal Reserve wants as it seeks to devalue the dollar.  With no end in sight to out of control federal spending and a grotesque national debt, the plan is to devalue the dollar so that this debt is paid for in dollars that hold less purchasing, if not actually valueless; the presumption however, is that the spending will be brought under control so that the debt really no longer grows and can be ultimately eliminated with these faux dollars.  The conventional thinking is also that the average family will return to spending – with renewed credit – as they use their dollars before they become further devalued.  For the Fed, it’s a policy two-fer as consumption increases while the national debt and interest payments are rendered manageable.  With the Volcker experience of the 1980s under their belt, the central bankers believe that they can bring inflation back under control after they’ve achieved the policy gains.

So, what did our parents and grandparents do during the inflationary 1970s?

First, they surely didn’t spend more, as the following graph demonstrates.

 They went the opposite way, ratcheting up savings during periods of economic stress.  Granted, not only had the average real income risen for decades previously, but the percentage share that the average US consumer spent on non-necessities (exc food, clothing, housing/affiliated expenses) had grown significantly.  In 1934-35, the average US family spent 23.8% of it’s money on non-necessities while that rose to fully 49.9% in 2002-03.1 

The surprising part of the savings increase though, is that it really didn’t come from the non-necessity category.  The previous inflationary period was from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s; non-necessity spending as a percentage of total spending rose from 42.6% in 1972 to 48.6% in 1985.  If savings during that period ranged from 8 to almost 12% while spending on discretionary items rose, where did the savings come from?  It would have had to come from the necessities category of housing/food/clothing.

So what else did our parents and grandparents do?

Many of them went back to gardening and growing their own food to reduce the rising costs.  In a 2009 USA Today article, an executive with a seed company noted that vegetable seed sales were fully 40% higher than in 2007 and they hadn’t "…seen this kind of spike in 30 years."  Which places us back in the period when savings were peaking  between 10% and 12% of income. One of the retrospectives at the time pertained to the Victory Gardens that their parents had grown to supplement the World War II war effort.  Between this gardening and the subsequent low domestic food prices, the percentage of income spent on food dropped from almost 20% in 1973 to 13% in 2003.  With an inflationary  uptick in food and commodity prices, that percentage spent on food will rise upwards again unless families return to gardening on a scale reminiscent of the 1940s era.

Our parents and grandparents likewise made due with consumer durables, such as automobiles and appliances.  Vehicles in the 1970s were nursed along so that a family had a vehicle for much longer than today’s family might.  Cars and appliances would be repaired again and again until they really were at the point of complete breakdown.  Legendary investment manager Peter Lynch once wrote that he realized that the auto industry – and by extension, the market – was ready for a run in the 1980s when he recognized how far along was the age of the typical American family vehicle.

They also were at a distinct advantage in terms of clothing costs.  Sewing was far more prevalent then than today and families had fewer clothes – and repaired them more frequently – than would occur today.  The percentage spent on clothing by the average family then, which was much larger than the 2.9 figure today, was 7.8% while as of 2003 had dropped by almost half to 4.2%.  The Walmartization of the American economy is a principal cause of this as American textile jobs flowed overseas to regions with far lower labor costs so that mass market clothing, on a historical basis, became incredibly cheap.  Think about it:  when Junior rips a hole in the knee of his jeans, do you patch them or just get another pair at Walmart?

The impact of even relatively stable inflation would be significant, although there are things that we can do.  We can manage to hold the line by:

  • extending the lifespan of high-ticket items;
  • re-thinking our clothing needs and shopping habits;
  • shifting back to some self-sufficiency with our own gardens;
  • simply deciding to forego some of the luxuries that have come to permeate our lives, such as the ever-present cup of Starbucks.
  • understanding that true leisure time might be in short supply as non-work hours are taken up in the tasks necessary to tend gardens, cook more frequently and sew and mend more.

That’s within our immediate grasp.  We need to also speak more forcefully and vocally about the policies that have brought us to this point, a central bank that’s been corrupted by a financial system and a government that cannot control itself.

What It Means For The Kids – Reforming Housing Finance

A large part of a father’s job is to teach and help prepare the kids for the world and that means that I have to actually follow what’s going on in the world.  Much of my worldview is skewed by the knowledge that I have children who will someday have to contend with issues that are being impacted by actions taken now.  Given that, I just finished reading the US Treasury Report on the reform of the housing finance system, a k a what the hell do we do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Everybody knows that the housing market is a complete trainwreck and most are aware that the financial hulls of Fannie and Freddie are so shot full of holes that they’ve gone into government receivership.  This report outlines the potential steps that the government proposes to bring stability back to the housing market and it’s finance mechanism.  The upshot is that the mortgage market revert back to a principally private domain with private funding and the only government involvement would be for targeted markets.  This involves revoking the $729,000 maximum conforming loan limit (probably not impacting our kids), increasing the cost of mortgage insurance (impacting our kids) and increasing the size of the downpayment to a minimum of 10% (again, impacting our kids).  With the expectation that the lion’s share of lending for mortgages will revert back to the private sector, the handwriting is clear that the underwriting standards will be returning to the pre-house mania standards of solid credit history, which will absolutely impact our children.  After all, the banking sector has to be a good steward of the money entrusted to them now that they can’t slough it off on the taxpayer.

So here’s the brief synopsis of what my kids will have to consider when they eventually wish to purchase a house:

  • increased monthly premium for mortgage insurance from today’s levels;
  • higher downpayment as percentage of house price (from about 3% to at least 10%);
  • higher credit scores.

 Intellectually, this is a good thing and something that has to happen for the system to right itself and recover.  But I’ve got a real problem as I look at it.  We know that the real income – corrected for inflation – of the average American is dropping or stagnant at best.  This means that the amount needed just to get into a house will be higher as a percentage of income and assets than the amounts which we’ve had to pay in quite some time.  Given the poor savings habits of Americans, who collectively haven’t saved 10% of their paycheck in decades, this drives the hope of homeownership further away from our children as the ability to gather a sufficient downpayment will be taxed.  Couple this with real concern about incipient food inflation, and the kids paychecks will be stretched just trying to keep food on the table.

I suspect that the Treasury authors understand this as well.  They’re blunt in their upfront assessment that their goal is not to put all Americans in their own homes, as proposed by George Bush.  Their goal is to reform the broken system so as to make it sustainable and  safe.  A later section of the report flatly states that work must be done to improve the state of financing for multi-family housing in order to attract apartment building owners that will put sufficient money into the properties to make them passably habitable.  Hey, if the kids are gonna be priced out, we still gotta find ’em someplace decent to live

What truly bothers me however, is that the only way – given these proposed changes and the existant income parameters – for a home to be affordable to the kids is for the price to fall.  But this imperils the financial system as housing prices are the foundation of so many Collateralized Debt Securities and everything possible is being done to prevent that from happening.  So…my kids or the banks?  Guess where that one comes down.

What do I have to do to help prepare my kids for this scenario?  There are several things on which to work, but none of them are simple or foolproof.

  • Speak frankly with the kids about buying a house.  First, a house isn’t a home, it’s a structure and ignore the advertising about buying a home.  While the kids might not understand all of the details, they’ll get the underlying message better than you think that they might.
  • Speak frankly about the need to save and then go out and model that behavior yourself.  Purchase items with cash that you’ve saved in a coin jar or alter your own behavior.  Kids smell hypocrisy like stink on a skunk and they’ll notice.

  • Work with them to understand debt.  What exactly are the varying forms of debt and when are they appropriate?  How much debt should one be able to carry given a certain income level?

  • Talk with them and teach them to be skeptical of what they hear and read.

In short, talk to them.  Don’t just chat, but talk to them in the car or at the basketball hoop, ask them if they know anything about whatever and see what they say.  And while you’re chatting about drugs, chat about the money, too.

Kindergarten:  Ready?  Get Set, Go

It’s midwinter and the school signs have started appearing, reminding you that it’s time to enroll your little girl for kindergarten.  You glance at her and you ask yourself the questions.  She’s five years old now, but is she ready?  Is it the same as when I went through Kindergarten?  What can I do to help prepare her for the experience?  It’s a big step for both of you and you want to assure that she’s ready.

The fact that a child is five years of age is solely a baseline established by states as the minimal age at which a child should be able to start the mandatory educational process.  States set a certain date in the Fall – September 1 or October 1, for example – as the cutoff date by which a child must have reached the age of five to even enroll in kindergarten.  If the cutoff date is September 1 and the child turns five on September 8, then kindergarten almost always waits another year.  When most parents become concerned is when the child’s birth date is in the several month period prior to the mandated cutoff date, and the question becomes whether or not the child is ready for the experience.

What are the considerations for kindergarten readiness?  John Berry is an accomplished educator with more than 25 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and was kind enough to share his observations.  In Berry’s experience, there are multiple areas that indicate that a child is ready for kindergarten. 

  • Foremost is that she should be able to listen to directions and focus for a sustained period of time.  What is meant by sustained?  According to Berry, the rule of thumb is that an appropriate time frame is three times the child’s age.  Remember that this is only a general rule and a child’s shorter attention span isn’t necessarily an indicator of future problems.
  • The child should be able to separate from the parents.  Children are naturally apprehensive and nervous before kindergarten but must be able to spend time away from parents for the period of the school day, trusting that they’ll be getting home.  Kindergarten teachers are skilled in handling the children who are distraught on the first several days of school but if there are too many in a single classroom, those first days will be difficult for everybody there – students, teachers and aides alike.
  • There should be an appropriate level of trust of strangers.  We scrupulously teach our children not to speak with strangers in order to help protect them from predators who might approach.  But kindergarten is a time for encountering all manner of strangers that range from teachers and aides to bus drivers, custodians and even other children. Children should be able to learn to trust adults that they’re only just meeting, yet still remember the stranger rules that they’ve been taught.
  • Children should have an ability to care for themselves in terms of personal hygiene, particularly with toilet habits.  Accidents will happen but the norm should be that the child can routinely clean herself after using the toilet.
  • She should have age-appropriate motor skills, such as the ability to cut with scissors and hold and use pencil or crayon.  According to Berry, one of the changes wrought by the No Child Left Behind legislation is an increased focus in school on readiness for reading and writing to the exclusion of the fine motor skills activities that would have occurred previously, such as playing with clay, for example.  There simply isn’t the amount of time available to do those activities that were done before.
  • There is an expectation that she also have a grasp of basic information such as shapes and colors, knowledge that can be learned in a good pre-school program.

There are questions as to whether to send a child simply because she’s reached the age of five and kindergarten educators have an axiom:  when in doubt, keep them out.  While it can apply to all children, there is an acknowledged tendency amongst parents to hold boys out a little longer because of slower maturation and emotional development.  There are no real issues with having a child wait a little longer, although it can creep up years later if the latter-start child is getting a driver license ahead of his peers.  Frankly, there can be far more issues that arise when a child is enrolled in kindergarten before she or he is prepared and those issues will cluster about issues of maturity and emotional development.

If you aren’t entirely certain about readiness for kindergarten, find out if your school district has an evaluation program.  If the district doesn’t evaluate the students, you can have a conversation about readiness with your child’s preschool teacher or other parents who interact with her.  Regardless of whether there’s a formal evaluation or not, most kindergarten teachers would be happy to provide guidance on determining readiness for upcoming children.  Conversations with the schools and kindergarten teachers also help to determine what students might require additional assistance.  Schools are obligated to provide special assistance to children who might require it, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you find that special needs children are in the class along with the adult aide.

Perhaps the key difference between your kindergarten experience and your child’s is due to the No Child Left Behind legislation.  Kindergarten is no longer viewed as an almost free-standing experience prior to the beginning of the "real" school of first grade, but instead as a gateway to school.  Consequently, there is a greater emphasis placed upon reading preparation, writing and numbers than in the past and your prospective kindergartener will be expected to master more than would have been expected of you. 

As the months pass and September approaches, there are things that you can do to help prepare her for the big day.  Certainly, talk to her repeatedly and positively to help alleviate her concerns.  Take her to play at the school’s playground in the evening  or on the weekend so that she can become familiar and comfortable with the school.  If the school has any summer activities for the incoming kindergarteners, make it a point to attend so she can meet her new classmates and teacher.  More school districts are starting brief on-site  programs for preschoolers – such as school library story times – and if you have the opportunity to take her, attend one so that she can see what the inside of the school looks like.  Likewise, spend more time working with her on her fine motor skills with such play activities as modeling with Play-doh, coloring with crayons, using connect-the-dot pictures and cutting with scissors.

She’s entering a new world and you should understand that she’s not going to be the only one learning as the year progresses.  While you might be nervous, as I was, know that there’s considerable expert assistance to help your child adjust and have a great year.

Thanks, John.

Is Inflation Happening Now?  Kraft Says…

Yes, or at least in several months.

Kraft Foods, a multinational corporation, announced that it will be raising prices in the next several months across several of its key brands to offset the effect of elevated costs of such commodities as sugar, wheat and rice.  They’ve absorbed the rising costs for months already and have watched their bottom line get pinched in the vise of rising input costs versus slack sales across some of the teen-oriented product lines, such as gums and candies.  Apparently the kids have decided that in the competition for their dollars between candy and Apples, the Apples are going to win hands-down.  According to the Yahoo Finance article, Kraft is joining the likes of Sara Lee, Kellogg’s and JM Smucker in deciding to raise prices.

While what will happen is now discernible in the distance, when it will happen is a ball that’s entirely in the air.  We’ve been apprised of months of economic data which points towards rising inflation.  The logic is inescapable since the finished products that sit on the store shelves are composed of the commodity inputs that are rising.  How quickly and how soon will these ripple through the supply chain before it gets to us?  That depends principally upon the companies that compose that chain, companies that are caught between weak consumer demand generally resistant to price increases and rising costs that force higher prices in order to maintain profitability.  But now we’re seeing that the companies are finally starting to give way to the rising prices and as more leaks are sprung in the dam wall, those of us downstream in the chain will be hit harder.  When it reaches a critical mass to break the dam is now a legitimate question.

In the monthly PracticalDad February Price Index, the items that I price are generally store brand.  My sense and experience is that when someone is really trying to meet a budget, cost is more important than taste and reputation, so I concentrate on the lower priced generics.  While all of these corporate announcements are from major food producers, don’t think that the store brands will be exempt as food retailing is an industry with a very thin profit margin and the rising input costs will apply even greater pressure upon the retailers.  They simply don’t have the cushion that an entity such as Kraft has.

So buckle up for the ride and if you’re like me, head on over to Costco for a bulk purchase of Kraft Mac and Cheese.

PracticalDad:  Friends vs Playmates

Children are cruel and one of the sadder moments of a parent’s life is helping a distraught child learn the difference between a friend and a playmate. 

It really is simple when the kids are very small because of the large tendency to practice parallel play, in which the kids veer erratically between playing by themselves and playing with one another.  Two little boys can happily play their own backyard games apart from one another and then veer together to play with one another for a period, returning again to solo play after several minutes.  But as they develop emotionally and begin to actually interact with one another, then they begin to gain a measure of the other’s personality and character.  Is he good at sharing?  Will he tease maliciously?  Does he get aggressively physical and is there some control over his impulses?  Kids do take a measure of one another and even preschoolers can assess that he’s mean and I don’t want to play with him.

But there are other issues that only become apparent as kids grow and these generally pertain to character and emotional development.  The covert cruelty raises its head and the damage begins to appear with the hurt child’s feelings, self-confidence and self-worth.  It might not manifest itself directly but come out in other ways, such as a markedly decreased ability to handle tasks and frustration, loss of sleep or increased aggressiveness to release the pressure.  When the dam finally breaks and you determine that the others’ words are the source, then you can have the conversation about the difference between a friend and playmate.

One of the questions or comments is liable to be who else there might be with whom to play.  You can walk through the list of the other kids and then ask, does this child speak this way or say these things? and progressively winnow through the cast of characters in your child’s life.  Take a few moments to touch base on the real difference between friend and playmate – will a real friend turn the things that you’ve said against you? And if a child breaks that simple rule, is this a person with whom you want to play?  Is the play so good that it’s worth the potential upset and hurt that the other child can cause?

When I’ve encountered the situations, I’ve tried to leave the final choice on whether to play with our child, with the child clearly understanding that this is potential price that has to come with this other kid.  If it continues – and there have been moments when it has – then I’ve finally refused to let the child play with the other out of school.  And in those rare circumstances, there really hasn’t been any complaint at all.

When Encouraging Skepticism Comes Back To Bite

When I discovered that I was going to be a father for the first time, I spent time reflecting on my own childhood as a gauge to help determine what kind of father I hoped to be and what I wanted to emphasize with the kids.  One of the things that came back to me from my own father was the need to think – about problem-solving, about issues, about courses of possible (in)action (since doing nothing is also a possible route).  This was something that I’d also try to inculcate among my kids but I broadened this to include helping them distinguish real meaning from the porridge bowl of crap presented by the various media.  I wanted the kids to learn to examine something and be able to determine if it was a load of crap.

While I expected that it could come back to bite, it was in an intellectual sense and I didn’t expect it to be so personally difficult.

It was easier as the kids were younger but with the advent of the teen years, the questioning has become more personal and contentious.  There are things that I understand from additional decades of life that a young teen simply cannot comprehend and trying to explain them can be difficult as the words come slowly, with difficulty.  The conversation can reveal things about you that, for better or worse, smack of hypocrisy and teens can smell out hypocrisy like a hound on a scent.  I sometimes honestly wonder after a conversation with a teen whether I’ve managed to get the import of my thoughts across or whether it’s been garbled into some mutant pretzel shape.  And frankly, I believe that parents have a particular authority that flows from the sheer dint of parenthood and now I’ve got kids questioning me. 

I can’t have it both ways, raising kids to question why things are as they are and yet excluding my own paternal authority.  It isn’t fair to them, it undercuts everything that I’ve attempted to teach and it encourages distrust.  So we’ve had some contentious moments with frustrated conversations that have broken off and come raggedly together again later as we attempt to knit together a common understanding from what feels like the jagged edges of sheared metal.  There have been moments when I’ve begged off of the question at hand, openly stating that I wanted the opportunity to think about how I wanted to say something so that it made sense.  There have likewise been moments when we’ve come together again as one of us has sought the other out and – as happened this weekend – I’ve had to acknowledge that the youth had legitimate points that required adaptation of my own actions. 

The point is that communicating with teenagers isn’t always going to be comfortable and will take you far beyond your parental comfort zone.  Expect turbulence and expect some hard feelings and dark moments, but also expect that you’re going to have to continue to engage with them as you both adapt.

PracticalDad Price Index:  February 2011 Unchanged But Things Are Percolating Underneath

After a large rise from November to December of 2010, the February 2011 PracticalDad Price Index remained flat with an index level of 100.63 (November 2010 = 100).  While the overall remains static, the increasing cost of commodity-related agricultural products within, such as wheat, cooking oil and sugar have finally started to rise along with that of coffee.

Within that figure, derived by pricing a basket of pre-selected items at three unrelated grocery stores, was a large decrease in the cost of one dozen eggs by 14% that offset price rises in such commodity items as sugar (2.9%), flour (3.6%), canola oil (4.5%) and coffee (4.3%).  Sugar, flour and canola oil had their first price moves since the PracticalDad Index began while coffee’s move followed a 9.8% jump from November to December of 2010.  What’s notable about the rise in the cost of coffee is how it’s masked by stealth inflation;  throughout the four month period, only one of the three stores actually raised the nominal price on only one occasion.  Two of the three stores however, decreased the container size from the original 13 ounces to 11 and 11.3 ounces respectively so that the effective cost of coffee on the original 13 ounce basis rose.

I’d like to touch upon a housekeeping note as to the index figures for the months of December and January.  When I’m pricing different items, I pay particular attention to the item, size/quantity and cost so I didn’t realize during those months that a 64 ounce carton of orange juice also varied by whether it was derived from concentrate – the cheaper choice – or not.  In these two months, the juice was subsequently priced with both varieties and I’ve corrected the data to reflect the original juice non-concentrate variety, which is higher, but that originally used in the November pricing.  The effect is to skew the data higher than the original index numbers, but the direction remains the same:  a sharp one month rise followed by two months at a lower level.  I’ve made note of this and re-evaluated other items as well to assure that this is simply a one-item correction.

What else is notable in the February pricing?

  • Eggs and butter both registered declines of 14% and 4.7% respectively to more than offset the increases in flour/sugar/cooking oil/coffee and other items.
  • There are additional examples of stealth inflation as one chain has decreased the number of diapers per box from 104 to 96 and another began offering canned beans in a 15 ounce can, down from 15.5 ounces.  In each case, the nominal price of the items didn’t change and I’ve recalculated them on the original size to account for the adjusted prices.
  • As the actual basic food staples – flour, sugar, canola oil – show their first increase and the business/financial news discusses the rising cost of these raw items, I’m curious as to how long before the price for the finished goods also starts to rise.  These would include products such as bread, hot dog rolls, spaghetti and children’s cereal.

For the record, listed below are the monthly PD Index figures, both original and revised.


PracticalDad Price Index / Monthly Results
Month Avg Cost ($) Original Index Revised Index
November 2010 178.39 100 100
December 2010 180.29 100.78 101.07
January 2011 179.51 100.55 100.63
February 2011 179.50 ——– 100.63

Finally, here’s the actual data with the December data corrected as discussed above.


PracticalDad Price Index – February 2011
Item Size Category 12/10 Avg Price 1/11 Avg Price 2/11 Avg Price
hot dog rolls 8 bread 1.09 1.09 1.12
loaf, wht bread, store brand (oz) 20 bread 1.12 1.12 1.12
spaghetti, store brand (oz) 16 bread 1.11 1.18 1.18
child cereal, sugar flakes, store brand (oz) 17 cereal 2.74 2.90 2.90
cereal, rice chex, store brand (oz) 12.8 cereal 2.66 2.74 2.74
oatmeal, one minute, store brand (oz) 42 cereal 3.12 3.18 3.18
milk, 2% (gallon) 1 dairy 3.54 3.46 3.51
butter, unsalted (lb) 1 dairy 3.49 3.56 3.39
vanilla ice cream, store brand (qt) 1 dairy 1.88 2.04 1.94
grated parmesan, store brand (oz) 8 dairy 2.99 2.99 3.08
American Cheese / Deli (lb) 1 dairy 5.52 5.52 5.86
peanut butter, store brand (oz) 28 grocery 2.96 2.96 2.96
grape jelly, store brand (oz) 32 grocery 1.82 1.89 1.82
kidney beans, dark, store brand (oz) 15.5 grocery .86 .86 .87
can green peas, store brand (oz) 15 grocery .89 .92 .92
can diced tomatoes, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .94 .94 .94
can cut green beans, store brand (oz) 14.5 grocery .89 .92 .92
can corn, store brand (oz) 15.25 grocery .89 .92 .92
spaghetti sauce, store brand (oz) 26 grocery 1.13 1.13 1.13
cola, store brand (L) 2 grocery .89 .89 .89
caffeinated coffee, store brand (oz) 13 grocery 3.25 3.25 3.38
diapers, store brand, size 3 (ct) 104 baby 17.35 17.82 17.82
formula, Enfamil Premium, Lipil (oz) 23.4 baby 24.02 22.94 22.94
child ibuprofen, OS, store brand (oz) 4 hlth/bty 4.82 4.96 4.96
adult ibuprofen, 200 mg caplet, store brand (ct) 100 hlth/bty 6.72 6.92 6.72
shampoo, Suave (oz) 22.5 hlth/bty 1.74 1.71 1.71
pads, long, Poise (ct) 42 hlth/bty 16.09 16.09 16.09
bath soap, Dial brand (ct) 8 hlth/bty 5.39 5.39 5.39
aluminum foil, store brand (sq ft) 75 hshld 2.97 2.97 2.97
kitchen trash bags, store brand (ct) 26 hshld 4.11 4.41 4.11
paper towels, 2 ply, store brand (ct) 8 hshld 7.26 7.26 7.26
hot dogs, meat franks, store brand (oz) 16 meat 2.46 2.46 2.46
ground beef, 80% lean, (lb) 1 meat 3.02 3.32 3.32
eggs, large (dozen) 1 meat 2.01 1.99 1.71
lunchmeat, deli ham (lb) 1 meat 5.12 4.59 4.06
chicken, roaster (lb) 1 meat 1.52 1.56 1.62
fish sticks, Gortons (ct) 44 meat 7.96 7.86 7.86
tuna, water packed, store brand (oz) 5 meat 1.32 .96 .78
bananas (lb) 1 produce .58


apples, Red Delicious, bag (lb) 3 produce 3.59 3.42 3.76
carrots, bag (lb) 2 produce 2.02 2.09 2.02
OJ, non-concentrate, store brand (oz) 64 produce 2.66 2.56 2.66
potatoes, russet (lb) 5 produce 3.99 3.66 3.82
sugar, store brand (lb) 5 staple 3.12 3.12 3.21
flour, store brand (lb) 5 staple 1.96 1.92 1.99
canola oil, store brand (oz) 48 staple 3.12 3.12 3.26
rice, white, long-grain (lb) 2 staple 1.59 1.59 1.67
total     180.29 179.51 179.50