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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Risky Parenting
February 26, 2009 - 9:14pm

Today I taught about Bay’s Theorem and Bayesian Statistics in my Advanced Statistics class. As I was lecturing, I talked a little about the game shows “Deal or No Deal” and “Let’s Make a Deal”, both very similar games but separated by about 30 years and some minor details. As I talked about the game shows, I found myself in a tangent discussing risk aversion, risk neutrality and risk loving behavior. It is then that I realized that these topics actually had something to say about parenting.

Risk aversion deals with the willingness of people to take on risk, with or without any compensation. Risk adverse people will make choices that will expose them to as little risk as possible, taking on more risk only if there are extra benefits for doing so. Risk neutral people would be willing to take a bet of one dollar to win back one dollar, while risk lovers would be willing to bet one dollar to win back even less than one dollar, as the risk itself gives them pleasure. I asked my class what they thought they were, and found that most of them think they are risk adverse. One, however, did admit to playing the lottery on occasion, where the prospect of winning back one’s money is slim.

Many of the moms that I know subscribe to a set of books that discuss “Love and Logic”, a philosophy of parenting that says that we should allow our children to take risks today, so they can learn to make their own choices now, when the cost of mistakes are small, rather than later, when the costs of mistakes become large. I think this is a generally good idea, but I find it hard to do. I want to sweep in and save my daughter from the consequences of her mistakes more often than I should. I am, in relation to her, very “risk adverse”.

What these books, and these fellow moms propose, is that we become risk lovers in terms of our children. We bet that they will make good choices, and even if they don’t make good choices, the experience of making those choices is a good thing. I ran into a situation several weeks ago, and found out just how difficult this was.

My daughter had taken two favorite stuffed animals to school, as some of her friends had been doing since they were often cooped up in “inside recess” now that it is winter. I warned her that she should be careful not to lose them, as something bad might happen if she let them out of her sight. When I picked her up at her aftercare that evening, I was greeted by her telling me that she had lost her animals, but they were at school. I assumed they were in her “cubby” at school, and that she would get them tomorrow. We were almost all the way home before she filled in the details. They had gotten thrown in a snow pile at (outdoor) recess, and she was not able to get them back before it was time to go back inside. I knew that there was a snow storm coming that evening, so I realized that we would need to go back to the school and find them right away, or risk losing them forever. We drove back and found the offending snow pile, off to the back of the school, where I would never have thought to look. I put my car’s lights so they shined on the pile, and we got out looking for her stuffed animals, her in her snow boots and me in my business clothes. I was sure that a police car would come by and find us before we found them, but it was only a few very cold minutes before we found the two animals and took them home to be washed. Had we waited until the next day, which turned out to be a snow day, those piles would have been higher and we probably would have never had found the animals.

I suspect that I was doing her no favor by saving the animals that she should not have brought to school in the first place. But I do know that when it comes to my only child, I am finding it very hard to not save her from the consequences of her actions. When it comes to her, or even to her beloved stuffed puppies, I admit that I am very risk adverse.


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