Experiences in raising children in shared housing

Sometimes I see posts about people’s hope to raise children in a group housing situation, and it often seems overly optimistic to me. In particular they seem to expect that there will be more shared childcare than I think should be expected.

Today I talked to another parent who lived in a co-op when her child was a newborn. She didn’t get into specifics, but her summary was “We didn’t even make it a year.”

Jeff and I have lived in several group situations with kids. I’ll describe each of them at the end, but first some takeaways:

The main benefits of parenting in shared housing have been:

  • Adult company. Compared to most nuclear families where you have maybe one other adult to talk with at the end of the day, we like having several of us at dinner and some hanging out at other times. 
  • Less housework in general. We’ve always had a dinner rotation with each adult cooking roughly once a week. Shared grocery shopping, taking out the trash, and cleaning get some economies of scale. Our kids produce a lot of the mess so we try to account for that in doing housework.
  • More intergenerational contact. I think it’s good for the kids to know more adults than their parents and teacher, and I hope the housemates enjoy having some kid time in their life.

The main downsides:

  • In addition to whatever other housing preferences people have, it’s harder to find a space that works in terms of lead safety, layout with children’s bedrooms not too far from parents and not too noisy for other housemates, and access to outdoor play space.
  • Kid noise bothering other housemates. To some extent this is just a reality of apartment living, but it’s more intense when you see each other all the time. We’ve had a couple of housemates who are particularly sensitive to kid yelling / foot noise. In one case we tried to mitigate it by padding the floor and eventually Jeff heavily soundproofing their ceiling, but it wasn’t enough and they eventually moved out. I’m sure this is unpleasant for the housemates, and it’s unpleasant for me to feel like I need to police kids doing normal kid things (not just yelling and running, but also things like tapping feet on the floor while doing homework, or in one case, stirring a bowl of cookie dough too loudly for the person downstairs.) I think Jeff finds this kind of thing less anxiety-producing than I do.
  • Mess. This hasn’t actually been much of a problem in our house, but with some combinations I expect it would be. Kids create messes and usually have a lot of stuff and leave it everywhere. I can imagine in some situations this would bother tidy housemates and stress parents who needed to do more cleaning/tidying than they would prefer.

Other thoughts:

  • We haven’t lived with other parents since becoming parents, but one thing I imagine might bother us is living with other parents who have a really different disciplinary style. Both Jeff and I find it grating when other parents do stuff like threaten punishments they obviously don’t mean.
  • I think it’s important that other housemates are allowed to set limits with the kids (“That’s too loud,” “The cat doesn’t like that,” “Leave my headphones on the shelf, they are not for playing with.”) I wouldn’t want to live with kids I couldn’t set limits with.
  • The situation we’re now in is easier for us because we own the building, and we won’t have to leave if something really doesn’t work out. Needing to move is a bigger deal with kids, especially if they’re in local schools. I’d be more cautious about trying out group living as a parent if the kids are the interlopers rather than part of the family that has the lease / mortgage.

Recommendations:

  • If possible, try some time living together (maybe a long visit) before moving in.
  • Take advantage of any chance to do soundproofing. Install solid core doors instead of hollow ones. If work is already being done on walls or ceilings, have sound insulation added.
  • Consider having more noise-sensitive people on upper floors so kid foot noise is less of a problem.

Where I think people are confused

A number of people seem to hope that a stay-at-home parent who isn’t them will materialize. That might happen. But if you wouldn’t want to quit your job and be a full-time parent, don’t assume your friends or housemates will either. And watching multiple kids (especially from different families, with different schedules and different rules) is more work than watching one. So even if there’s a full-time parent in your household, don’t expect they’ll want to watch extra children, homeschool more children, etc.

I worry that people have a  tendency toward thinking of women’s labor as freely available for childcare. Likewise, grandparents usually have other things they want to do with their time than do significant hours of childcare.

There are still some economies of scale that could be had here. Maybe a full-time parent would be happy to do paid childcare for more kids, or maybe another housemate wants to do paid childcare. Maybe you can get a nanny share for multiple families. Maybe there are other efficiencies like shared school dropoff. Maybe you’ll end up with your own little homeschooling co-op. 

But in general, I would assume that you’ll get some good company and not assume you’ll get childcare or education out of such an arrangement, and you’ll probably still need to get those things in other ways.

One vision that seems to have at least partially worked out, with some experience in the comments. 

The arrangements we’ve lived in:

Living with another couple and their baby, 2011-2012

Jeff and I lived with another couple who were expecting a baby. We were around for the first 8 months of his life, and their first 8 months as parents.

I viewed it as a chance to get practice at parenting, and because my grad school schedule was irregular I was often home during the day and helped with the baby so the mom could get a break. Jeff wasn’t too interested but helped occasionally because I thought the practice would be good for him.

My memory is that we did somewhat more housework for a while (all the dinner cooking for a few weeks after the baby was born) and I had the baby sometimes for up to about 45 minutes, long enough for the mom to return her library books / get a nap / get a break.

We liked the family and would have continued living together, but after the lease ended we couldn’t find another place that worked for us all in terms of cost, location, and being deleaded.

Extended family, 2014-2015

When Lily was born, we were renting a room in Jeff’s parents’ house. His two sisters, a cousin, and his sister’s boyfriend also lived there at the time. 

This was a classic multigenerational household, of the kind that probably most children throughout human history have been raised in. But we all had other things to do than childcare — jobs, medical school, a novel to write. One would have probably been happy to watch the baby part time but was too ill. 

One of Jeff’s sisters was especially helpful in the first few months, spending lots of time holding the baby on evenings and weekends. She still had a day job, so it didn’t mean we didn’t need a childcare plan. As is also a classic part of multigenerational households, she and I disagreed about some details, and eventually I found the help stressful enough to be barely worth it. I felt like a good parent except when I was around her. By the time Lily was about 6 months, the sister had a new boyfriend and that relationship became her focus instead.

Some good things about this arrangement: Jeff’s parents, despite having raised three kids, were very good about not backseat-driving for us as new parents. And there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing the generations together and the family getting to spend time with the baby every day.

Shared house, 2015 – present

We bought our own house in 2015, and soon after we bought it Jeff’s college roommate and his spouse moved across the country to live with us. The house is divided into two apartments. At first we all lived in one apartment and rented out the other, with various versions including other friends living in the house.

Our housemates did some amount of hanging out with the kids from the toddler stage onward. Them being willing to read or play video games with the kids was nice for us to get a break, especially when it allowed us to cook dinner without simultaneously watching the kids. A couple of times they were responsible for the kids while the kids were sleeping so we could run a quick errand. 

I think the only times there was overnight care by a housemate was because both Anna and Nora were born at night. In both cases a housemate took care of the older child’s/children’s morning routine while Jeff and I were at the hospital, and he went home in time to get them from childcare before dinnertime.

During the pandemic when one housemate was underemployed, they worked as a paid nanny watching the kids every day, which was great. Another housemate once did an evening of paid babysitting and recently said they’re up for a bit more volunteer help (for example picking up one of our kids from a friend’s house a short walk away).

A large household is more efficient in terms of chores, and we didn’t do much in the way of altering chores after the babies were born. After Anna and Nora were born, I think I missed one week in the cooking rotation. 

In the future, if our housemates have kids I expect Jeff and I will do some amount of helping them out, especially during the newborn period. And I expect all the parents will do some amount of swapping watching groups of kids, since watching two toddlers is not twice as hard as watching one toddler.

Meditations on newborns

[Content: death.]
I wrote most of this a couple of months ago when Nora was a newborn, but the first few months are not that conducive to finishing blog posts.

New babies put you into a liminal period, both in your own experience and in how others treat you. People congratulate you on pregnancies and new babies in a way they don’t congratulate you on having a two-year-old, a fourteen-year-old, or an adult child.

All seven billion of us were once someone’s remarkable newborn, but it’s somehow hard to believe. Especially when you’re drunk on the newness of your own, simultaneously alien and delightful: look at her eyelashes! Her tiny fingernails! Feel the skin behind her ears, can you believe it’s that soft?

Strangers stop you and tell you about their children who are now adults. They look at your baby with something like yearning. “They grow up so fast,” they tell you.

…….

Two things stand out in my memory about how I learned how precious newborns are to grownups:

One is what would happen when we’d pass a stranger with a baby and hear its thin newborn cry. “Oh, that’s a really tiny baby,” my mother would say with appreciation, as if enjoying a delicious food. (People say similar things to me now – strangers on the street, the customer service rep hearing Nora’s cry in the background over the phone.)

Another is my mother telling me that Cabbage Patch dolls were bought not just for children, but by old women who missed having a baby to hold. (I didn’t realize until reading old newspaper articles that the company had a whole schtick about the dolls being real babies to be adopted rather than purchased. The current equivalent is reborn dolls.) It impressed upon me how valuable a real baby must be, that years later people want to cuddle a fake one.

…….

On one of Nora’s first days home, Jeff walked around the kitchen with her. “Nora, those apples are older than you. Nora, that loaf of bread is older than you,” he told her, and we both marveled.

A friend was amazed that his newborn daughter’s feet were so soft. “But that’s because they’ve never been used as feet!”

I remember sitting with newborn Lily, seeing the tiny blood vessels beneath her skin. It blew my mind that they had all formed over the last few months. The miniature perfection of them, created by my own body without my knowing how.

……

When I read Peter Pan as a child, the thing I remember most is the depictions of childhood as simultaneously fleeting and eternal. Looking at Anna’s smiles, I often think of the description of Peter, “the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth.” (There is something really lovely about baby teeth, so small and even.)

The last line of the book describes how Peter will come to the window of Wendy’s daughter, and her granddaughter, and so on: “When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”

…..

When Lily was born, Jeff’s mother was very sick with cancer. A few days afterwards, she went to the hospital in terrible pain and was kept there while they tried to find out whether she was about to die. I sat on the sofa with Lily on my lap, waiting for Jeff to get home from the hospital.

As I waited I listened to a mix of lullabies a friend made me, and one of them struck me to my core:
“Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes, go to sleep.
If I die while you’re asleep
Don’t you cry, don’t you weep.”
– Tom Waits, “Lullaby”

I sat there with my terror that Suzie could die very soon and leave the family without its core, that Jeff and his sisters would soon be robbed of their mother. But also, staring at my baby, knowing that she wasn’t mine to keep, because she wouldn’t stay a baby. She’ll be this way once, and then she’ll be replaced by new versions of herself, ones who talk and drive a car and move away. And eventually death will part me from her, and from Jeff, as it eventually parted Suzie from her family — one by one it will part us all.

…….

At bedtime Lily sometimes gets sad and scared about death. One night she told Anna “I’ll always be your sister,” but began to cry inconsolably when she realized that “always” is only until one of them dies. 

The idea of death parting our family again is in some way too terrible to think about, but I also feel the familiarity from those days in a house teetering between new life and impending death. I tried to comfort Lily while I thought over the words that help me deal with the unbearable: Nothing’s ever yours to keep.

The life extension people say we should all be outraged about death, should be fighting it with all we have. Like Lily, we should find it unacceptable. I don’t know if I don’t feel outraged because I believe death is inevitable, or if I believe death is inevitable because I’ve tried to come to acceptance.

……

Already Nora’s a different baby than she was when she came home in June. Then her eyes were unfocused as she tried to make sense of the room, her little mind clearly blown by almost everything. Three months later she’s much more capable, able to smile and look around and bring your hand to her mouth to gnaw on. I try to drink in these days with her, each new thing she does, the smell of her skin. When something’s not yours to keep, all you can do is enjoy it now.

Watch Team Backup

This is a useful concept that’s been written up in its original military context, but I wanted to write out how it’s also applicable in more mainstream settings.

Amy Labenz introduced “watch team backup” to the Centre for Effective Altruism where we both work; Amy learned it from a friend who’d worked on a nuclear submarine. On a nuclear submarine, it is extremely important that there not be mistakes, so there’s a culture of double- and triple-checking.

Here’s how one veteran of the nuclear Navy, Jared Chaffee, describes it:
The concept of watchteam backup is about empowering all members of the team to speak up when they see something that doesn’t look right. . . If done incorrectly, people can take it as criticism or that they don’t know how to do things correctly. Frankly, it can hurt their egos. No one wants to look stupid or uninformed. But again, this is all about empowering the team and making sure they can make the best possible decisions. The ‘two heads are better than one’ concept applies here.”

Doing this kind of double-checking without evoking defensiveness or hurt feelings is really useful, even when you’re not in charge of any nuclear anything.

Examples from work, where we often call it WTBU:

  • “You likely know this already, but just in case as WTBU: [info]”
  • “I haven’t been sleeping well and I’d like to request extra WTBU: if you think I might be forgetting something or if you feel confused by something I say, please flag it.”
  • “WTBU – wanted to check someone saw Gabriela’s email and replied if needed.”
  • “WTBU – when you’ve been thinking about [scheduling an event in California], have you been remembering that this is during fire season?”

Especially when the backup is coming from another team – for example, someone outside the events team asking them if they’re remembered that fire season might be a problem for their event – it really helps to have a shared understanding that there’s no insult meant. It doesn’t carry an implication of “I don’t think you’re doing your job right.”

The second part of this is that the other person often replies with “Thanks for the WTBU!” or “Oh wow, I missed that, thanks for the WTBU.” Whether it turns out to be needed or not, it’s treated as helpful. And that means we’re all willing to provide WTBU again next time because it’s not seen as a big deal.

Examples from home:

  • If Jeff asks me something like “Is the oven supposed to be on?” I now find it easier to take it as helpful watch team backup rather than him implying I’m incompetent. We both sometimes leave the oven on by mistake. We both really don’t want a fire. It’s better to check even though usually it didn’t turn out to be needed, because occasionally it was needed.
  • This is especially needed in the early days of parenting when you’re exhausted and awash in hormones. On that new little team, I found it really helpful to have a culture that it’s ok to double-check if the carseat straps are buckled correctly, if the baby has space to breathe when they’re in a carrier, etc. Jeff has been especially gracious about this at times when I’m haunted by the idea that something might be wrong with the baby, as is common with new mothers. We do both make mistakes, and the baby’s safety is way more important than maintaining an image of ourselves as parents who get everything right all the time.

I’m sure it’s possible for this to go off the rails, perhaps in excessive checking of other people’s work or obsessive anxiety. But I’ve found it really helpful and would like to see it used in more spaces.

Songs about terrible relationships

[Spoilers for several old musicals.]

TV Tropes lists dozens of examples of the “I want” song (where the hero of a musical sings about their dream of escaping their small surroundings).

After watching a bunch of musicals on maternity leave, I’m wondering how many examples there are of the song genre “I’ll never leave my man, even though he’s terrible.” Often they’re (otherwise) great songs!

In Show Boat (1927), Julie and Queenie sing “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine” about their suboptimal husbands – “I even love him when his kisses got gin.”

In Carousel (1945), Julie sings “What’s the Use In Wond’rin” about her husband.
“Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away,
But whats the use of wond’rin
If the ending will be sad?
He’s your fella and you love him –
There’s nothing more to say.”
The ending for Julie is indeed sad, unsurprisingly since the play starts with her quitting her job to hang out with this guy despite a cop warning her that he preys on young women. Shortly after this song, he dies in an attempted robbery.

The whole play Kiss Me, Kate (1948) is kind of along these lines, like The Taming of the Shrew which it mirrors. Lilli sings:
“So taunt me and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours till I die.”

In West Side Story (1957), Maria sings “I Have a Love”:
“When love comes so strong
There is no right or wrong.”
Pretty sure there actually is, given that her lover just stabbed her brother to death.

In Oliver (1960), Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” about her brutish boyfriend. Then he beats her to death.

My favorite response to this genre is “She’s My Girl” by mathematician-turned-musical-comic Tom Lehrer, with this introduction:
“I’m sure you’re familiar with love songs on the order of He’s Just My Bill, my man, my Joe, my Max, and so on where the girl who sings them tells you that, although the man she loves is anti-social, alcoholic, physically repulsive, or just plain unsanitary, nevertheless she is his because he is hers, or something like that. But as far as I know there has never been a popular song from the analogous male point of view, that is to say, of a man who finds himself in love with, or in this case married to, a girl who has nothing whatsoever to recommend her. I have attempted to fill this need.”



Books and websites on babies

Several people I know are expecting a first baby soon, and I wrote up notes for one of them. Might as well share here too:

Medical:
Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting is an interesting read, and some parts are actionable. 

If you live in an old building (pre-1978 in the US), here’s my writeup on lead paint.

If breastfeeding, KellyMom is my go-to for advice on whatever is going wrong.

On childbirth, I read several books but The Birth Partner is the only one I’d use again. It’s written primarily for the partner rather than the person giving birth, but it’s the best one I read even for the person giving birth. The advice for working out your attitude to pain relief and medical interventions felt more balanced than some of the other more obviously pro- or anti-intervention stuff I read.
Even if you’re not expecting a c-section, read about what aftercare will be like if you do get one. For example laying things out in the house to minimize walking / stairs, figuring out what pain meds you’d be ok with during recovery if breastfeeding.

The Happiest Baby on the Block techniques are well worth learning for dealing with fussy babies. The actual book is needlessly fluffy, but there’s a video version that covered the important stuff in an hour, or there’s a 9-minute version.

Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet have some good info, and enough of your friends have read them that you’ll hear about her opinions no matter what. At least on her blog, I feel like her brand is now “don’t worry, studies show your child probably won’t be harmed by X.” I think she’s overly cavalier in a few cases (for example claiming that light drinking during pregnancy won’t hurt; this rebuttal by an epidemiologist specializing in fetal alcohol syndrome was pretty convincing to me.) There are cases where there’s no conclusive evidence that X is bad for your child, but often she’s only looking at one particular type of harm, or it seems like there’s just not enough data to answer the question. For example she convinced me that caffeine is not likely to cause a miscarriage, but that’s not the only harm I care about, and common sense is that you don’t give psychoactive drugs to developing brains.

Now that you can google everything, I don’t feel like a Dr. Spock – style baby guide is that important if you have a decent sense of what babies are like. If you’ve never spent much time around babies, it’s probably worth skimming a baby development type book to get a sense of what happens when. I skimmed Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child and T. Berry Brazleton’s Touchpoints, which were both fine.

Another part of why I didn’t feel like I needed a book that explained every last medical situation you could encounter with a baby is that our pediatrician’s office has a 24-hour phone line where they answer your questions about the baby’s rash or whatever. I definitely recommend finding a practice that offers this.

When researching medical problems, I find that children’s hospitals often have good guides. You can find some doctor somewhere with all kinds of opinions, but I assume the guides from children’s hospitals represent some kind of expert consensus. Example on fever.

Behavior:

On sleep training, my take is that people have a pet method they prefer and will tell you the other methods are terrible. But different families do succeed with completely different methods, and if one method is a terrible fit for your family you can switch to another. We used the Weissbluth cry-it-out method and will do it again. If you run into other sleep problems the Ferber book might be worth getting because he’s an actual pediatric sleep expert, while the other authors are usually generic pediatricians. The Ferber book covers a bunch of other sleep stuff like sleepwalking and bed wetting, so might be worth consulting later even if you don’t use it for sleep training.

Aside from nighttime sleep training, read something about nap schedules. One example. If your baby is in daycare, you can ask the daycare what they do and do the same at home.

On potty training when the time comes, the Oh Crap method was great for us. Both kids trained in a weekend.

On other behavior stuff, Jeff’s main thoughts are here and mine are here. I talk a lot in that post about How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, but a lot of it is about older kids. For younger kids, I start with How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen.

Other life stuff:
On time management, Laura Vanderkam is about the only productivity person I can stomach anymore, because she has 5 kids and most other authors seem to write for people with no commitments aside from work. Her book I Know How She Does It is based on time tracking by mothers who earn at least $100k and are presumably pretty busy. The time logs indicate you can work a lot, have some personal time, and spend quality time with your kids if you organize things well and pay for a lot of childcare.

Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is based on a bunch of twin and adoption studies. He argues that they show parenting doesn’t make that much difference and mostly your kid is going to come out how they were always going to come out based on their genetics, so you might as well just focus on enjoying time together instead of shaping them into a star achiever. I thought I was going to be a really relaxed parent after buying these arguments, but there’s still a bunch of environmental stuff like lead exposure that I managed to be anxious about anyway. And there’s still a lot to figure out about how to make life pleasanter in the meantime. 

Notes from “Don’t Shoot the Dog”

I just finished Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog: the New Art of Teaching and Training.” Partly because a friend points out that it’s not on Audible and therefore she can’t possibly read it, here are the notes I took and some thoughts. It’s a quick, easy read.

The author started off as a dolphin trainer at an aquarium park in the 1960s and moved on to horses, dogs, and her own children. There are a lot of anecdotes about how to train animals (apparently polar bears like raisins). At the time, training animals without violence was considered novel and maybe impossible. I read it as a parenting book since I don’t plan to train dogs, horses, or polar bears.

It’s probably not the best guide to training dogs since a lot of it is about people, and not the best guide to training people since a lot is about animals. She’s written a bunch of other books about training dogs and cats. But this book is an entertaining overview of all of it.

The specter of behaviorism
I can understand not wanting to use behavioral methods on children; the idea can sound overly harsh or reductive. The thing is, we already reinforce behavior all the time, including bad behavior, often without meaning to. So you might as well notice what you’re doing.

“To people schooled in the humanistic tradition, the manipulation of human behavior by some sort of conscious technique seems incorrigibly wicked, in spite of the obvious fact that we all go around trying to manipulate one another’s behavior all the time, by whatever means come to hand.”

“There are still people who shudder at the very name of Skinner, which conjures in their minds some amalgam of Brave New World, mind control, and electric shock.”
(B. F. Skinner in fact believed that punishment was not an effective learning tool, and that positive reinforcement was much better for teaching.)

Pryor argues that behavioral training allows you to get good results more pleasantly than with other methods. She describes her daughter’s experience directing a play in high school:

“At the closing performance the drama coach told me that she’d been amazed to see that throughout rehearsals Gale never yelled at her cast. Student directors always yell, but Gale never yelled. ‘Of course not,’ I said without thinking, ‘she’s an animal trainer.’ From the look on the teacher’s face, I realized I’d said the wrong thing—her students were not animals! But of course all I meant was that Gale would know how to establish stimulus control without unnecessary escalation.”

Of course there are bad applications of behavioral training: “The psychological literature abounds with shaping programs that are so unimaginative, not to say ham-handed, that they constitute in my opinion cruel and unusual punishment.”

I don’t know a lot about ABA (applied behavior analysis), which is one application of behaviorism. My understanding is that its bad applications are certainly cruel and ham-handed, although there also seem to be good applications. I think that even people opposed to ABA should be able to find a lot of useful material in this book.

You’re already doing reinforcement training

One point I think is underappreciated is that we all reinforce each other, and children train parents as well as the other way around.

“A child is tantruming in the store for candy. The parent gives in and lets the child have a candy bar. The tantruming is positively reinforced by the candy, but the more powerful event is that the parent is negatively reinforced for giving in, since the public tantrum, so aversive and embarrassing for the parent, actually stopped.”

It’s also easy to accidentally reinforce bad behavior.

I recently read Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona with the kids, in which a preschooler scribbles in a library book she wants to keep. Her older sister pays for the book, and the librarian gives them back the discarded book to keep.
That’s not fair, thought Beezus. Ramona shouldn’t get her own way when she had been naughty.
‘But, Miss Evans,’ protested Beezus, ‘if she spoils a book she shouldn’t get to keep it. Now every time she finds a book she likes she will…’ Beezus did not go on. She knew very well what Ramona would do, but she wasn’t going to say it out loud in front of her.

Jeff and I try to not let bad behavior lead to a reward. For example, our four-year-old was eager to go home from the park, and left without us towards the house. I caught up with her and told her not to leave without us. We were halfway to the house, but If I’d continued home with her from there, she would still have achieved what she wanted: getting home sooner. So I took her back to the park and we redid the whole situation: she said “I want to go home” and I walked home with her. Running off on her own didn’t pay, and she hasn’t repeated it.

Responding to good behavior, not bad

Instead of punishing bad behavior, the emphasis is on noticing and reinforcing good behavior.
“Shutting up about what you don’t like, in order to wait for and reinforce behavior you do like, is counterintuitive and takes some practice.”

My mother, who taught preschool for decades, sums it up as “You have to catch ‘em being good.” 

Some animals can’t be trained by force, or at least can’t be trained to do anything very complicated. Such training was necessary with dolphins because they’ll simply swim away if you try to make them do anything they don’t like. You can only train them by offering something they like (fish).

“As a dolphin researcher whom I worked with sourly put it, ‘Nobody should be allowed to have a baby until they have first been required to train a chicken,’ meaning that the experience of getting results with a chicken, an organism that cannot be trained by force, should make it clear that you don’t need to use punishers to get results with a baby.”

At its best, reinforcement learning is enjoyable for the learner:
“Clicker trainers have learned to recognize play behavior in animals as a sign that the learner has become consciously aware of what behavior was being reinforced. When ‘the light bulb goes on,’ as clicker trainers put it, dogs gambol and bark, horses prance and toss their heads, and elephants, I am told, run around in circles chirping. They are happy. They are excited.”

Clickers and other sounds

Pryor became known for “clicker training” because she started using the method of using a sound to immediately convey “yes, that’s good.” The particular sound isn’t important as long as the learner can hear and recognize it. With aquatic animals you use whistles because they can be heard underwater; with dogs she uses mechanical clicker noisemakers; with a person I’d probably use a specific phrase but some people also use clickers.

The sound initially has no meaning, but by giving it at the same time as a reward (food, smiles, pats) you create an association between the sound and the reward. Later the sound itself is rewarding.

“It often happens, especially when training with food reinforcers, that there is absolutely no way you can get the reinforcer to the subject during the instant it is performing the behavior you wish to encourage. If I am training a dolphin to jump, I cannot possibly get a fish to it while it is in midair. If each jump is followed by a thrown fish with an unavoidable delay, eventually the animal will make the connection between jumping and eating and will jump more often. However, it has no way of knowing which aspect of the jump I liked. Was it the height? The arch? Perhaps the splashing reentry? Thus it would take many repetitions to identify to the animal the exact sort of jump I had in mind. To get around this problem, we use conditioned reinforcers.”

“Breland called the whistle a ‘bridging stimulus,’ because, in addition to informing the dolphin that it had just earned a fish, the whistle bridged the period of time between the leap in midtank—the behavior that was being reinforced—and swimming over to the side to collect one’s pay.”

Pryor describes the program her son (an airplane pilot) designed for pilot training:

“A flight instructor can also click a student for initiative and for good thinking: for example, for glancing over the instrument panel before being reminded to do so. So the clicker can reward nonverbal behavior nonverbally in the instant it’s occurring.”

“Once you have established a conditioned reinforcer, you must be careful not to throw it around meaninglessly or you will dilute its force. The children who rode my Welsh ponies for me quickly learned to use ‘Good pony!’ only when they wanted to reinforce behavior. . . One day a child who had just joined the group was seen petting a pony’s face while saying ‘You’re a good pony.’ Three of the others rounded on her instantly: ‘What are you telling him that for? He hasn’t done anything!'”

Attention

This doesn’t mean you give positive attention only during training.

“One can and should lavish children (and spouses, parents, lovers, and friends) with love and attention, unrelated to any particular behavior; but one should reserve praise, specifically, as a conditioned reinforcer related to something real.”

I think when children point out minor accomplishments — “Look at all the sticks I collected” — it’s more often a request for attention than a situation that requires praise. I’m likely to comment in a way that shows interest — “Yes, you’ve got a lot of sticks there!” — but I don’t see a need to evaluate the quality of their stick pile or whatever. I try to save actual praise for something I especially want them to do more of, or something that was new and challenging for them.

Interested attention during training is necessary, and ignoring someone is a kind of punishment:
“If the trainer starts chatting to some bystander or leaves to answer the telephone or is merely daydreaming, the contract is broken; reinforcement is unavailable through no fault of the trainee. This does more harm than just putting the trainer at risk of missing a good opportunity to reinforce. It may punish some perfectly good behavior that was going on at the time. Of course if you want to rebuke a subject, removing your attention is a good way to do it.”

Wrong timing

Pryor emphasizes that if you give punishment or reward at the wrong time, you reinforce the wrong behavior. If you call a dog to you and it finally comes, then you strike it, you’ve punished it for returning to you.

My mother always complained of the same tendency in her choral director: when the singers finally got a difficult passage right, instead of praising them he’d shout “Why couldn’t you do it like that the first time?!”

I’ve noticed the importance of timing when a child finally does what you want, because it’s tempting to scold them even after they’ve shaped up. Anna has a wide variety of delay tactics for brushing her teeth, and I find it easy to be stony-faced when she’s capering around instead of coming to the sink. By the time she finally comes to have her teeth brushed I’m feeling annoyed and would like to give her a lecture. But if I give her an unpleasant response just as she’s finally doing what I want, I disincentivize her from doing it. Instead, as soon as she comes to the sink I become pleasant Mama, smiling and joking.

Maintaining behavior

Once a behavior is established, you use intermittent reinforcement to maintain it:

“In order to maintain an already-learned behavior with some degree of reliability, it is not only not necessary to reinforce it every time; it is vital that you do not reinforce it on a regular basis but instead switch to using reinforcement only occasionally, and on a random or unpredictable basis.”

“Many people initially object to the idea of using positive reinforcers in training because they imagine that they will forever have to hand out treats to get good behavior. But the opposite is true. Training with reinforcement actually frees you from the need for constant vigilance over the behavior, because of the power of variable schedules.”

In people, the behavior itself eventually brings its own reward; we praise toddlers for learning to use the potty, but after the behavior is established we no longer need to reinforce it. And having dry clothes is its own reward.

“The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there’s no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcer will come (it might be the very first time).”

We encountered this in my house when Lily was two. Our housemate would sporadically show her a Sesame Street video on his phone, and she loved this so she’d pester him constantly for it. The reward came unpredictably, so she asked very often. Once he moved to a predictable schedule (one video every day after dinner) she learned the pattern and stopped asking at times of day when she knew it wouldn’t work.

Also affects adult relationships:
“If you get into a relationship with someone who is fascinating, charming, sexy, fun, and attentive, and then gradually the person becomes more disagreeable, even abusive, though still showing you the good side now and then, you will live for those increasingly rare moments when you are getting all those wonderful reinforcers: the fascinating, charming, sexy, and fun attentiveness. And paradoxically from a commonsense viewpoint, though obviously from the training viewpoint, the rarer and more unpredictable those moments become, the more powerful will be their effect as reinforcers, and the longer your basic behavior will be maintained. Furthermore, it is easy to see why someone once in this kind of relationship might seek it out again. A relationship with a normal person who is decent and friendly most of the time might seem to lack the kick of that rare, longed-for, and thus doubly intense reinforcer.”

Pryor training herself to go to class even when she didn’t feel like it, and then maintaining the behavior without the reward:
“I found that if I broke down the journey, the first part of the task, into five steps—walking to the subway, catching the train, changing to the next train, getting the bus to the university, and finally, climbing the stairs to the classroom—and reinforced each of these initial behaviors by consuming a small square of chocolate, which I like but normally never eat, at the completion of each step, I was at least able to get myself out of the house, and in a few weeks was able to get all the way to class without either the chocolate or the internal struggle.”

Sports players and fans become “trained” to do certain actions (wearing their lucky clothes, etc) because they associate it with the team winning. 
“I have seen one baseball pitcher who goes through a nine-step chain of behavior every time he gets ready to pitch the ball: touch cap, touch ball to glove, push cap forward, wipe ear, push cap back, scuff foot, and so on. In a tight moment he may go through all nine steps twice, never varying the order. The sequence goes by quite fast—announcers never comment on it—and yet it is a very elaborate piece of superstitious behavior.”

Raise expectations gradually, with rewards for incremental progress:
“I once saw a father make a serious error in this regard. Because his teenage son was doing very badly in school, he confiscated the youth’s beloved motorcycle until his grades improved. The boy did work harder, and his grades did improve, from Fs and Ds to Ds and Cs. Instead of reinforcing this progress, however, the father said that the grades had not improved enough and continued to withhold bike privileges. This escalation of the criteria was too big a jump; the boy stopped working altogether.”

Pryor claims that you have to be much more consistent with aversives (punishments) than with rewards. Seems like that might be right with animals and young children, but adults are usually willing to avoid committing crimes even if they don’t expect to be caught every time.

“Often when we are teaching the behavior, we use a fixed schedule of reinforcement; that is, we reinforce every adequate behavior. But when we are just maintaining a behavior, we reinforce very occasionally, using a sporadic or intermittent schedule. For example, once a pattern of chore sharing has been established, your roommate or spouse may stop at the dry cleaners on the way home without being reinforced each time; but you might express thanks for an extra trip made when you are ill or the weather is bad. When we train with aversives, however—and that’s the way most of us began—we are usually taught that it is vital to correct every mistake or misbehavior. When errors are not corrected, the behavior breaks down. Many dogs are well behaved on the leash, when they might get jerked, but they are highly unreliable as soon as they are off leash and out of reach. When out with their friends, many teenagers do things that they wouldn’t dream of doing in their parents’ presence. This can happen because the subject is fully aware that punishment is unavailable—when the cat’s away, the mice will play—but it can also happen as a side effect of training with aversives. Since the message in a punisher is ‘Don’t do that,’ the absence of the aversive sends the message, ‘That is okay now.'”

Learners can go long periods of time without a reward:
“One psychologist jokes that the longest schedule of unreinforced behavior in human existence is graduate school.”

When to stop a training session

End a training session while the learner is having success:
“When you stop is not nearly as important as what you stop on. You should always quit while you’re ahead.”

“The last behavior that was accomplished is the one that will be remembered best; you want to be sure it was a good, reinforceable performance. What happens all too often is that we get three or four good responses—the dog retrieves beautifully, the diver does a one-and-a-half for the first time, the singer gets a difficult passage right—and we are so excited that we want to see it again or to do it again. So we repeat it, or try to, and pretty soon the subject is tired, the behavior gets worse, mistakes crop up, corrections and yelling take place, and we just blew a training session.”

Sports training

Pryor notes that in the second part of the 20th century, sports training seems a lot better than when she was young, and has moved toward more effective reinforcement learning:

“I think what had changed in the last decade or two is that the principles that produce rapid results are becoming implicit in the standard teaching strategies: “This is the way to teach skiing: Don’t yell at them, follow steps one through ten, praise and reinforce accomplishment at each step, and you’ll get most of them out on the slopes in three days.”

On patience

Good trainers are disciplined and intentional:

“People who have a disciplined understanding of stimulus control avoid giving needless instructions, unreasonable or incomprehensible commands, or orders that can’t be obeyed. They try not to make requests they’re not prepared to follow through on; you always know exactly what they expect. They don’t fly off the handle at a poor response. They don’t nag, scold, whine, coerce, beg, or threaten to get their way, because they don’t need to. And when you ask them to do something, if they say yes, they do it. When you get a whole family, or household, or corporation working on the basis of real stimulus control— when all the people keep their agreements, say what they need, and do what they say— it is perfectly amazing how much gets done, how few orders ever need to be given, and how fast the trust builds up. Good stimulus control is nothing more than true communication— honest, fair communication. It is the most complex, difficult, and elegant aspect of training with positive reinforcement.”

One thing I notice in all this is that it’s self-reinforcing. The method requires a certain amount of patience and self-discipline from the parent. It’s easier to do that when things are already going well, and in turn you’re rewarded with children who are easier to live with. When parents are exhausted and time-pressed, it’s easier to slip into inconsistency, and both parents and children are more prone to outbursts and unpleasantness. 

Limits of reinforcement

She ends with some warnings about trying to apply reinforcement to absolutely everything, or assuming it’s the only thing in play: 

“Idealistic societies, in imagination or in practice, sometimes fail to take into account or seek to eliminate such biological facts as status conflict. We are social animals, after all, and as such we must establish dominance hierarchies. Competition within groups for increased status—in all channels, not just approved or ordained channels—is absolutely inevitable and in fact performs an important social function: Whether in Utopias or herds of horses, the existence of a fully worked-out hierarchy operates to reduce conflict. You know where you stand, so you don’t have to keep growling to prove it. I feel that individual and group status, and many other human needs and tendencies, are too complex to be either met or overridden by planned arrangements of reinforcement, at least on a long-term basis.”

This isn’t the only tool I’d want in my parenting repertoire. But I do think it’s well worth having.

Baby stuff I’d get again, the third time around

Jeff and I are expecting a third child in June. We gave away most of our baby stuff in the interim, so I’m now considering what stuff to get. Since I’m more experienced than I was the first time, I feel like I don’t need to do as much trial and error.

Basic principles
Clothes
Carrying
Cleaning
Feeding
Sleeping
Misc
Maybe
A note on nurseries

Basic ideas

I’m being neither super minimalist nor maximalist. You might get more or less stuff depending on your budget, your tastes, and the space you have.

Babies grow out of things fast. You can get almost everything used from friends, Ebay, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, and Facebook groups like Buy Nothing [name of town] where people give things away. It’s cheaper and lighter on the environment. When you’re done, you can send stuff back into the same system. (The same is true for maternity clothes and gear.)

I found it hard to think about buying things that I’d only use for a few months, but they’re intense months. You’ll use a lot of baby products every day. And again, the beauty of the secondhand market is that if you get something and don’t like it you can resell it.

Clothes

Rather than individual clothing items, I would try to get bundles of clothes for a given size. You can get bags of clothes in the various sizes from any of the sources listed above. Remember seasons (if you’re having a summer baby, you want lightweight newborn clothes and warm 6 month clothes). After that it gets less predictable, so I would hold off on getting 9 month 12 month sizes until you know if you have a big, medium, or small baby.

“Newborn” size clothes are sized for babies around 5-8 pounds, and an average baby weighs around 7.5 pounds already at birth. You can probably skip newborn sizes and go straight to 0-3 month sizes.

If you just buy stuff that’s cute, you will end up with lots of cute patterns that don’t go with each other. Now I try to go for patterned/interesting tops and solid color pants so it’s not too crazy.

Hats: If you live anywhere at all cold, get a warm hat both for warmth and to reduce the rate of older ladies telling you the baby needs a hat. Sunhat for summer. The hats will fall off and get lost at some point – have a backup.

Carrying

Infant carseat: even if you don’t have a car, you will need this at some point. We used a hand-me-down from a family member – tips on safety of used seats. If you want to use a stroller with the baby in the first year or so, you might want to get one that snaps into a stroller frame (examples). It is possible to fit 3 carseats in a standard car – there are several guides.

Some kind of carrier: Even if you never go anywhere in it, I would still get one to use around the house to be able to hold the baby hands-free. Also good when the baby is fussy and wants to be close to you and in motion. If you can learn to breastfeed in the carrier, even better. We used a stretchy wrap for the first several months, but they’re hot to use in summer. Having a pocket in front is convenient, so you might want to sew one on. They look complicated, but if you can learn to tie shoelaces you can learn to tie a wrap. Wirecutter on soft wraps and slings

For older babies and toddlers, a soft structured carrier. The Baby Bjorn is popular but not very comfortable – there are better ones out there. We used our Ergo for errands, parties, conferences, travel, everything. We continued using it as late as age 3 for when a child was sick and wanted to be held at all times. Wirecutter on structured carriers

We got a double stroller once we had two little kids. We got one for the specific things we needed (narrow to get through store aisles, single front wheel to get up onto a bus, rain cover) because we had no car and used it as our main vehicle. For others it’s more of an occasional thing and they might want other characteristics, or might not need it at all.

Cold weather gear:

Outdoor clothes: We had a warm zip-up suit that the baby could wear in a carseat for winter. If they’re going to be buckled into a carseat or stroller, you need something with legs that separate rather than a sack shape, or a hole for the buckle to go through.

If you plan to wear the baby outside in cold weather, some way to keep the baby warm in the carrier. A snowsuit with feet doesn’t work well because it gets pulled too tight and is uncomfortable on their feet and crotch. I sewed a panel into my coat. I’ve also seen parent tuck a blanket or something around the baby and the carrier.

Cleaning

Diapers and wipes: We cloth diapered for the first 6 months and then decided this was not an additional task we wanted in our lives. Now we use disposable diapers. The big boxes of storebrand ones from Target are cheap and worked fine for us.

Even if you are cloth diapering, I would get some disposable newborn diapers for the first two weeks or so because they come with a cutout so they don’t bother the umbilical cord while it’s still attached.

Diaper pail: Many of the specialized diaper pails like the Diaper Genie only work with special bags that cost more than normal trash bags. We ended up using normal lidded trash cans and normal trash bags. I do recommend a lid, but it doesn’t have to be hermetically sealed.

Nasal aspirator thing, aka snotsucker: Nosefrida or similar. At some point your baby will have a stuffy nose and be unable to breathe while latched on to the breast or bottle, and it will be a sad day for everyone. This device will unstuff their nose. Yes, it’s gross, but this kind works better than the bulb kind. My babies hated having their noses cleaned in any way, but life is better once they can breathe freely.
Minimal version: A doctor I know says the old-fashioned method used by some of her patients on their babies is just mouth-to-nose suction.

Some kind of spit cloths: babies vary a lot in how much they spit up. Even with not-very-spitty babies, we wanted some. You can use things sold as burp cloths, old cloth diapers, cut up flannel baby blankets, or whatever. You can get or make bandana-type drool bibs so the baby’s shirt doesn’t keep getting wet.

Some kind of bathtub: We used the bathroom sink for the first few months, and later a plastic tub that I think was meant to hold drinks. Even once they’re old enough to sit in the big tub, it’s nice to have something quicker to fill, and ideally small enough that they can’t tip over very easily. 
Minimal version: wash baby in the sink with a towel for padding, or take a bath with the baby and hold them. I find both more annoying, especially in sinks with a popup drain where the baby inevitably sits on the drain and opens it, draining all the water out.

Feeding

Somewhere comfortable to sit: If you’re breastfeeding, you will spend a lot of time sitting and feeding the baby. Some people just do that in bed or on a couch. The Ikea Poang chair is a popular cheap alternative to gliders or rockers. I prefer a chair with padded arms (for less head-bonking) and where I can rest both my elbows on the arms at once (for me, that’s a narrower chair). I do like a glider, and since I’m going to spend a lot of hours in this chair I did get one I thought would be maximally comfortable.

If you want one that moves, I would go with a glider rather than a rocker. Rockers move around on your floor so you have to keep repositioning them after you’ve rocked for a while, and if you have cats or older children it can rock on their feet or tail.

If you have older children, you might want a glider where the gliding mechanism is not exposed, so nobody gets their hands and feet caught in it. DaVinci is one brand with a bunch of such gliders.

I’m paranoid about flame retardants in furniture, so I get one that’s not made with flame retardants (like Ikea or some other brands) or where I can take off the cushions and wash them. Since no one in our house smokes, our furniture is very unlikely to catch fire.

Footstool: if you’re short enough that your feet don’t easily rest on the floor in your chair, a footstool of some kind is nice. I like this wooden kind.

I don’t know what people find best for bottlefeeding – I assume the chair is less important.

Breastfeeding pillow: something to rest the baby on while you’re feeding them. I have one for upstairs and one for downstairs. Boppy and the oddly-named My Brest Friend are the two common kinds.
Depending on the distance between your lap and your breasts, you might want a thicker pillow. I jam extra stuffing inside a Boppy kind.
Minimal version: use regular pillows, or feed the baby lying down.

Breastpump: If you’re going to be pumping at work. In the US, your insurance will probably cover a couple of models, but if you use it every day you might want to buy your own if the model you want isn’t covered. Wirecutter on pumps. I loved having one with a rechargeable battery so I didn’t have to plug it in everywhere, but you can also get an external battery for models that don’t come with this. 

If you’re pumping every day, definitely get some way to pump hands-free, whether it’s a bra that can hold the pump parts, or a wearable pump. This way you can still use your computer, read, etc while you’re pumping.

There are a lot of in-bra models now that didn’t exist when I first looked into this; I would look at those if you’re going to pump at work. And someday the MIT breastpump hackathon may save us all from poor design and those little flaps that wash down the drain.

If you expect to pump only occasionally, a hand pump is fine. Wirecutter recommends a couple. Also worth having for travel, public bathrooms, etc where you don’t necessarily want to bring your full electric pump or can’t plug it in.

Minimal version: hand express and you don’t need a pump at all. It’s slower and won’t get as much milk, though.

The Haakaa or similar very simple devices are good for catching milk to freeze, and much simpler to wash than everything else.

Some kind of bottles: Even when I was breastfeeding 95% of the time, we did a couple bottles a week so I could go to dance practice. I would start with a few and then buy more if you like that kind, or try different kinds if not. Then buy more of the kind you like.

If your baby is not liking bottles, you might want to try different kinds. Some breastfeeding support groups have loaner kits where you can try out a bunch of different ones.

I wanted to avoid plastic bottles, so we used glass bottles with silicone covers. I was happy with them.

Something to dry bottles on: All those little bits can take over your counter very fast. There are various racks intended for drying bottle parts.
Minimal version: dishcloth or dish drying rack, but wash it pretty often

High chair: I love this one that buckles into a normal chair. We used it every day, and it’s light enough that we packed it in our suitcase (with clothes in the crevices) when traveling.

Bib: I get the kind with sleeves. The kind that just covers their front still leaves their arms/sleeves covered in food.

Clothes you can breastfeed in: If relevant. You can get ones that are specifically made for this, with some kind of opening or layers that lift out of the way. I typically wore loose shirts with a tank top underneath, aka the two-shirt method. That way you don’t need to buy a different set of clothes.
Most dresses do not work for breastfeeding because you’d need to hike the whole thing up to your shoulders. Dresses and tops can work fine if they have a wrap style, or have buttons at the neckline that can be undone, or are stretchy enough that you can pull the top down.
If you’ll be breastfeeding at night, think about sleep clothes – button-down pajamas or stretchy tank tops work well.
(For the first few weeks when you’re figuring it out, don’t worry about clothes – just hang out at your house and feed the baby the best you can. You can figure out how to do it in clothes later.)

Bra you can breastfeed in: Most people seem to like the kind with little buckles that open up. I’ve always used something like a stretchy cami bra that can be pulled out of the way. You might start by finding one you like and then getting more.

Breast pads: both disposable and reusable kinds are kind of annoying, but less annoying than leaking milk in your clothes.

Sleeping

Swaddles: The blanket method is good to know, but velcro is so much better and less likely to come undone. By far my favorite is this sleepsack with wings, so they can have arms out or in. More recommendations from Wirecutter. Some babies hate swaddling, but enough people (including us) find it so helpful that I would have some swaddles available. I would have at least two so you still have one to use when the other is in the wash. In a pinch while out of the house, we have swaddled Lily in an adult flannel shirt or any other thing we could wrap around her to get her to sleep.

Something to sleep in during the early stage (first six months or so):
You could just go straight to a crib. You’ll be getting up to feed them a lot, so you might find it more convenient to have the crib in your room rather than in a separate room.
You could cosleep (sleep with baby in your bed), but if you already have two adults in the bed I’d recommend sidecar-ing another mattress or using a co-sleeper so the baby has room. Cosleeping is most dangerous when you do it without planning out of exhaustion – if you want to do it, figure out a safe setup where baby won’t fall off the bed, get trapped between mattress and wall, covered with a blanket, etc.

This time I am biting the bullet and getting this ridiculously expensive robo-bassinet that rocks and shushes the baby. (I’m getting it used, but they’re not cheap even used.) If it does result in significantly better sleep, even for 5 months of use that’s a cost of about $7/night, and as the parent of a newborn I would definitely pay $7 for an additional 30 or 60 minutes of sleep a night. [Edited to add, two months in: I’m happy we got this. Would recommend if you can afford it.]

Crib, crib mattress and crib sheets: Easy to get used. We kept them in cribs as long as possible, which worked well for us. Once they seemed on the verge of climbing out, we just moved them to the same crib mattress on the floor without the crib frame. A child doesn’t actually outgrow the size of a crib mattress until they’re 5 or so.

Crib sheets and waterproof mattress covers: I recommend the layering method so when your child has a stomach virus or whatever and you change the sheets in the middle of the night, even if you have to do it multiple times, you just take off the dirty layer instead of wrestling more sheets on. I like to have at least 3 layers (so 3 sheets and 3 mattress covers).

Minimal version: cosleep in parents’ bed, but you probably still want a bigger mattress or an additional mattress to put alongside yours.

Night light: to see the baby a little while you’re feeding them at night.

White noise machine: Especially when sleeping in the same room as the baby, this was helpful for everyone’s sleep. You can use your phone (or an old phone with no data) and a white noise program, but you want to be able to take your phone out of the room. We used the Dohm kind that’s basically a little fan. Or you could use an actual fan, pointed away from anyone.

Air conditioner: We’ve done without air conditioning for nearly our whole time in Boston. But when you have a baby who normally sleeps swaddled, and it’s too hot to swaddle them, it’s a very rough night. We finally own, and periodically use, a window unit.
Minimal version: just have bad sleep when you can’t swaddle them

Warm sleeping clothes: We used sleep sacks through age 3 or so (search for “wearable blanket” or “sleep sack”). Thick ones keep the baby warm in winter without blankets that can get over their face or get kicked off. Even in summer, they make it much harder to get a leg over the side of the crib.

Blackout curtains: Your baby does not have to wake up at dawn. We made some curtains that velcro for a good seal. There is a commercial version too.
Minimal version: try aluminum foil or black garbage bags first, or while traveling. It might get moldy if you leave it indefinitely, so I would take it down periodically and wipe off the windows.

Baby monitor: Unless your apartment is so tiny you can hear the baby from anywhere. We liked having one with one parent set that lived in our bedroom all the time and another one that we’d carry around during the day. I can see how a video one could be useful but have not used one.

Misc

Something to put the baby down in: 
For the early weeks when they lie down a lot, we used a bassinet on the floor.
For once they want to sit up and look around, we used some kind of bouncer seat. We liked the kind with a wire frame that you could push with your foot so that the whole thing bounces, like this or similar.

Teethers: I’m getting a natural rubber one because I’m not keen on them chewing on plastic.

Maybe

Something to change the baby on: You probably want a changing table if you have a c-section or have back or knee problems that makes it hard to be on the floor. I don’t find that I want one, and don’t plan to have one this time. You can change the baby on a mat on the floor, or just a folded towel on the floor. I switched to this after Lily fell off the changing table (which was my fault, but it made clear that I should switch to a more foolproof method). If you do want something at table height, you can use a changing mat on top of a low dresser – they make trays to hold the mat on top of the dresser.

Other swaddle type things: we used the Baby Merlin sleepsuit (basically a stiff snowsuit type garment that makes it hard for them to roll over) as a transition once our second baby started rolling over in the swaddle. There are various other kinds of swaddle-ish things. I wouldn’t get one preemptively, but worth trying if your baby is waking themselves a lot by rolling or startling.

Stroller: We didn’t get one until I was pregnant with our second child and it got uncomfortable to wear the older one everywhere. I did like having a double stroller with two little kids. Obviously some people get a lot of use out of theirs with one kid, but we preferred using a carrier.
If using the stroller in really cold weather, I would get one of those bag-type buntings that fastens into the stroller and keeps the baby’s legs and torso covered.

Bumbo or other thing for the baby to sit in: marketed to help your baby learn to sit up, but the child development people think it’s bad for that. Can be useful for having the baby sit near you while you’re cooking, sorting laundry, etc. We had one but didn’t use it much.

Toys: people will give you some random toys. You can wait and see what you get.

Socks: they just fall off and get lost. If you need to keep their feet warm, some kind of booties with elastic or velcro stay on better. Or put them in footie suits.

Baby shoes: they don’t need them, and it’s better for foot development to walk barefoot or in minimally structured shoes. Once they learn to walk and need something to protect their feet outdoors, here are recommendations for flexible-soled shoes.

Baby food: we did the baby-led weaning method and gave the kids pieces of table food, and soft things like yogurt. Spoon-feeding can be more convenient in some ways (can be faster and less messy) and less convenient in other ways. Most parents do more spoon-feeding purees, which seems fine, just not what we prefer to do.

A note on nurseries

A surprisingly large portion of the baby-related internet is devoted to setting up and decorating your baby’s nursery. If you enjoy decorating a baby-themed room, that’s cool. But be clear that aside from some basics, the room is for you, not the baby. They do not care if there is a color theme. They will not appreciate the wall art.

Make it comfortable, and optionally make it pretty if that’s something you’ll enjoy. But you’ll probably spend more time hanging out in the living room than you will in the baby’s room.

Once the baby is crawling, having their room be a fully childproofed “yes space” means you can leave them there while you go to the bathroom or whatever.

Toddlers do not have tastes that look good by Pinterest standards; as soon as they get some say in how the room is decorated they will probably want it full of rocks, things they found in the recycling, etc. More on scruffy spaces.

Gift ideas for preschool / early elementary children

Previously: gift ideas for young children (0-2)

I thought I’d list some toys our kids have especially liked. None of these are amazing revelations that you probably couldn’t find on other sites.

I’m picking things that need little or no adult supervision, unless otherwise specified.

A few of these (especially the Melissa and Doug toys) are so ubiquitous that you might well duplicate toys they already have, so it might be worth asking the family if they already have them. We had three identical wooden train sets at one point. This is fine for sets that build on each other, less so for other toys that you really don’t need multiples of.

Eeboo, Mudpuppy, and Crocodile Creek puzzles – attractive and well-made large jigsaw puzzles.

Melissa and Doug toys of many kinds. We have several of the food sets that have gotten a lot of use, including pizza, cupcakes, and cutting food. The cleaning set is surprisingly good for actual cleaning.

Battat take-apart airplane (and other similar take-apart toys from the same company). Pieces go together with big plastic screws. The coolest part is that it comes with a working drill (forward and backward) that you use to put the screws in and take them out. Unlike a bunch of construction toys, the pieces are big and simple enough that a 5-year-old can do it themselves with maybe some adult help the first time.

Some kind of marble run set. A poorly made one is pretty annoying, so I do think it’s worth reading reviews. The ones that snap together are easier for younger kids than the wooden kind that falls completely apart if you bump into it.

Costumes: hats, crowns, and fancy dresses have been popular with my kids. You can buy used sequiny dance costumes on Ebay.

Play kitchen. There are usually some on Craigslist or similar sites. The Ikea one is popular for good reason.

Dolls and stuffed animals: when I asked the kids, these were the first things they listed as their favorite toys. BUT we’ve been given about 9 times more volume of stuffed animals than the kids actively play with, it’s kind of a storage problem, and I would not suggest getting these for other people’s children without checking what they already have.

Paper activity books: Play All Day is maybe out of print but I think it’s the best. Masha’s World, My Giant Press Out Activity Book.

Dollhouse: I would only get this for a kid who’s already into dolls. 2-4 seemed to be the peak years for dollhouse interest. There’s a sort of standard wooden type with expensive ones by Hape and Melissa and Doug, and some other cheaper ones for typical 4-inch wooden dolls.

Physical play:

Bilibo: plastic seat / teeter totter thing. Versatile and doesn’t take that much space.

A kite. Get one described as for kids or beginners.

Large floor mattress: ONLY get this for your own household, not someone else’s unless you are sure they want it. Most of Anna’s bedroom is taken up by a queen mattress. (She sleeps on a different smaller mattress.) It serves as a guest bed, a sleepover location when Lily wants to spend the night with her, a trampoline, a circus ring, and a gymnastics tumbling mat.

(In climates with snow) snowpants and sleds. Snowpants for both kids and adults mean you can do stuff in snow or cold weather and not be miserable.

Books:

What We Do All Day has my favorite collection of book suggestions by age, topic, etc. Can use for picture books, or longer books to read aloud to kids at this age.

You can search for “Caldecott lot” on Ebay or similar sites and find collections of prize-winning books, often classics from other decades.

Anything published by Usborne seems reliably good. For example their “Look inside” series of lift-the-flap books about science topics like space and the human body, good for younger kids who aren’t ready for wordy science books.

Let’s Read and Find Out science series is also good, with topics from germs to weather to animals. Some are old enough that you can search Ebay for “Let’s read and find out lot” and get bundles of them, but I haven’t found the info outdated.

Board/card games:

My First Orchard: attractive wooden pieces, teaches game mechanics, no skill involved. Pieces are big enough that you can play with a baby around and they cannot eat the pieces. Best for age 2-4.

Rush Hour, Rush Hour Jr, or Three Little Piggies spatial puzzle games. The first two seem to be very similar except that the Jr version has some easier puzzles.

Uno: of the standard children’s games, less boring for adults than Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Can play a simplified version starting around age 4.

Board Game Geek’s lists of games by suggested age. Mostly pretty obscure unless you’re in Germany (and maybe even there.)

Open-ended materials:

I would not give messy project type supplies (e.g. paint) as a gift unless you know the parents are up for that.

String. Rope. Scrap cloth. Tissue paper. Giftwrap. So much scotch tape.

Big rolls of paper. Washable paints (watercolor, tempera). Paint sticks. Spillproof paint containers and brushes. Washable markers. Pipe cleaners. Pompoms.

Digging tools like shovels and trowels, either sets for kids or small real tools. Can be used at the beach or in dirt.

Bucket, bowls, boxes with lids, other containers.

Flashlight. Kids leave them on and the batteries run down, so we’ve enjoyed a wind-up rechargeable one.

Rocks and branches in the yard.

Educational:

Tiny Polka Dot: card game with lots of variations for different levels.

Counting bears: This set or any of many other sets. We use ours a lot for Bear Store, other ideas here.

A bowl of pennies. We use them as counters for a bunch of things.

After developing a distaste for BOB books and other learn-to-read books, Lily had a breakthrough with the Acorn series at age 6. They have chapters, but with few enough words per page that they’re manageable for a kid who needs to sound out a lot of words. A key thing was getting books on a topic she was interested in (fairies, in her case.)

Needs adult supervision:

Snap circuits Jr. Lily listed this as one of her favorites. Some of the projects are loud (I have banned the one that plays “Happy Birthday” during work hours). She was ready for this at age 6.

Science kit: there are a lot of ones that look kind of bad, but this one has been a hit. Lily really wanted to do the kind of science where you need to wear goggles, and this did it for her.

Pricey but versatile:

Magnatiles or similar magnetic tiles. My kids never got super into these, but they’re consistently recommended enough by other families that they’re worth considering.

Duplos: my kids did get super into these. The cheapest option we found was buying them by the pound on Ebay, though you might get knockoffs instead of name-brand Duplos which are easier to work with. My kids are more into narrative than pure construction, so the animals that came with our set were a big part of their enjoyment. We haven’t gotten into legos yet except for travel, where a lego set can provide a lot of playtime for little luggage space.

You can make maple syrup in a slow cooker

I tried to find out if anyone had successfully done this, and couldn’t find verification on the internet. So this is just to confirm: yes, you can boil maple sap into syrup in a slow cooker / crock pot. This is my third year doing it.

I’m not sure if the cost of the electricity makes this actually cheaper than buying maple syrup from the store, but for me it’s a fun project. Outdoor fires are not practical or legal in the city where I live, and indoor boiling creates more steam than I’m up for. So for me, the slow cooker has worked well.

One of many guides about how to tap trees and collect sap.

I verified that two of my trees were maples. (One produced barely any sap – I think it’s a Norway maple which apparently doesn’t drip well. Now I just tap the other.) I got some taps from Amazon or somewhere. You need a drill with the right size bit to tap your tree.

Once the weather is right (below freezing at night and above freezing in the day), it’s time to collect sap. Typically this is in January – March depending on where you live and the particular year. I used this app the first year, and I don’t anymore but I just want to share my joy that it is called the Sap Tap App.

I use well-washed gallon milk jugs to collect and store the sap. I keep them in my fridge, or outside if it’s not too warm – you don’t want the collected sap sitting around at warm temperatures for days or it gets nasty.

Last year I showed Lily’s kindergarten class how syrup is made, and we tapped this tree at the school. The jug got played with, knocked over, etc so it’s good we had backup sap from my tree. 0/10 do not recommend schoolyards as a place to collect food products, other than for demonstration purposes.

The process of turning watery sap sap into thick syrup is basically reducing it about to 1/40th its volume by evaporating the water out of it. Traditionally you boil large pans or pots of sap at a high temperature, which puts a lot of steam into your house if you do it inside and requires some amount of watching to be sure it’s not boiled down too much about about to burn. The slow cooker method is, well, slower.

I fill my slow cooker with as much sap as it will hold, and keep it on high constantly for several days. Leave the lid off – remember the point is for the water to leave the pot. It won’t boil, but will stay hot and gradually reduce. Add more sap about once a day. You don’t want it to burn overnight, so be sure it’s at least half full if you’re leaving it on overnight. After a few days, many gallons of sap will be about half a gallon of amber-colored fluid. I store that in the fridge in a glass jar and repeat with fresh sap. Once the sap has stopped running or I’m tired of having the slow cooker occupying the counter, it’s time to finish the syrup as per these directions. You can do this in the slow cooker or in a pot on the stove. Cook it until it’s thick like syrup. It will try to boil over if you’re doing this on the stove.

The finished syrup keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Here’s a jar from last year that we’re still finishing up:

Who benefits from the au pair program?

I’m writing this post from more of an economics-y perspective than usual. I used to be super suspicious of this approach because I read it as cold and selfish. I hope you’ll take me in good faith here as caring about au pairs, about people who could become au pairs if they were allowed to, about host families, and about other childcare workers. I seriously considered being an au pair, and I’ve done stints as a daycare worker and a nanny. While that’s not the same as being an au pair or a professional long-term childcare worker, I do think I have some basic understanding and compassion for everyone involved here.

We’ve hosted au pairs for the last 4.5 years, and I have mixed feelings about it. But I want to lay out some things that I think are misunderstood about the program.

The main objections I know of to the au pair program:

  • The program is exploitative. Au pairs earn less than the minimum wage. It isn’t truly focused on cultural exchange, and is really a way for American families to get cheap childcare. 
  • Some host families break the program rules.
  • The program undermines American workers.

Background:

The basics of the US program: the government allows au pair agencies to facilitate matches between au pairs and host families, and then issues temporary work visas to au pairs.  Their legal status is some weird hybrid of an exchange student and an employee. Au pairs must be unmarried childless high school graduates between 18 and 26. Host families must house and feed the au pair and pay $500 toward some kind of education for them. Au pairs cannot work more than 10 hours a day or 45 hours a week, and cannot do any work besides childcare for the host family, and cannot do any other work. Both au pairs and host families pay the agency for things like screening, the au pair’s travel to the US, and having a local staff member who mediates problems. The arrangement lasts one year by default but can be extended as far as two years.

The au pair program in Massachusetts changed after the state court decided that a different set of laws applied, meaning that au pairs would be paid the state minimum wage rather than a stipend as in other states, and some other protections that apply to domestic workers now apply to them. So things are currently better for Massachusetts au pairs (except the ones who were laid off when the cost jumped). 

On bad host families:

  • It’s absolutely true that some host families are exploitative and disrespectful to au pairs, and the au pair agencies should kick these families out. Any au pair can tell you stories of friends who are expected to work extra hours unpaid, who aren’t given proper bedrooms but expected to sleep in a laundry room, etc. The au pairs are not on an even footing — if they leave their host family, they have only two weeks to match with another family before being deported. Many stay in bad arrangements out of fear of being sent home. As far as I can tell, these families are allowed to stay with the program and continue hosting au pairs. Agencies should be more aggressive in removing such families from the program, and should better support au pairs who leave because of bad treatment, but they seem to be reluctant because most of their income comes from the host families. The federal government licenses agencies, and it should withdraw licences from agencies that aren’t doing an adequate job here.
  • Not all au pairs are lovely rule-abiding people either (one stole money from us), but the families are in general less vulnerable than the au pairs. 

On motivations:

  • Yes, for most families the primary draw of the program is lower-cost childcare rather than cultural exchange. This is fine — we don’t expect families to prioritize cultural exchange when choosing a daycare or school. And it’s no wonder that families want to pay less for childcare: in most states, care for an infant costs more than state college. Charts here. When Lily was a baby, an infant spot at a large daycare cost about $30,000 a year and the cheapest childcare we could find was about $19,000 a year at a poorly-run one-room operation. When we had a second child and an au pair became the cheaper option, it was a relief to switch.
  • Another attraction for families is in-home care. It’s great to not have to get your children out the door to daycare, especially if you work odd hours. An au pair just has to walk downstairs and won’t get stuck in traffic or kept away by bad weather.
  • For au pairs, a lot of the draw is the chance to live in the US for a while and travel in their spare time. (This pandemic year has been a tough one for au pairs because they didn’t get to see the sights as they expected.) For ones who want to improve their English, it offers a lot of language practice. And for those used to living under the watchful eyes of their parents, it can offer a lot more social freedom. And as I’ll say later, the pay is often better than what they could make at home.

On pay: 

  • Au pairs get housing, food, sometimes car access, and a $200/week stipend. (More in Massachusetts.) That comes out to less than $5/hour, while federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. But consider that our last au pair came from El Salvador, where college-educated workers might expect to earn about $5,000/year as a teacher or accountant. By contrast, au pairs in the US make almost twice as much, and have basic living expenses paid. (Families pay quite a bit more than that, but the rest goes to the au pair agency.)
  • My first job out of college was a similar arrangement — I was a “kitchen intern” at a religious center, working as a cook for $200/month plus room and board. In retrospect I’m sure it wasn’t legal, but it worked well for me. When I filled out the sliding-scale form to get birth control at Planned Parenthood, the receptionist was incredulous that my income was so low. But because I had basically no expenses, I paid off a bit of my student loans and had less stress about my living situation than most new graduates. I realize I still had a lot of privilege as a college-educated American. But for young women in poorer countries without a lot of good options, I think this kind of arrangement is still a good chance to save money (or spend it on travel, or whatever they choose.)
  • I worry that saying “the amount au pairs are paid is too low” ignores the question of what would happen if they didn’t have the option of this program. After their time with us, most of our au pairs have gone back to living with their parents. One of them has gone back to her small town in Argentina with no good employment prospects. Another has gone back to a homophobic country after two years of being out and proud in Boston. I don’t know if their long-term trajectory was changed, but I’m glad they had a time of higher income and more freedom here. A third got another visa and hopes to stay in the US, which she feels is safer than her home country. I don’t see how taking the au pair option away from them would have been better or fairer to them.
  • And what if the program required higher pay? That would be better for those who get au pair jobs, but I expect fewer of them would have jobs. Some families would be priced out, as happened when Massachusetts raised wages: many families left the program, and some agencies stopped operating in Massachusetts. At some price, it’s not worth matching with a stranger over Skype and hoping they’ll be a good fit with your family for the next year vs. getting local childcare.

On race and nationality:

  • There’s a weird dynamic around white families hiring people of other races to watch their children. There’s a long history of behavior by employers that ranges from distasteful to truly awful, including deliberately limiting the options people of color had (particularly Black Americans) in order to retain them as cheap labor for childcare, agriculture, etc. 
  • Our last several au pairs have been Latin American, largely because their academic calendar lines up with the time of year we were looking. In some way, it felt more comfortable to have a white American nanny or a white Australian au pair, because I didn’t worry that other people would feel we were somehow being racist. I know I treated them all with the same respect and same adherence to the rules regardless of color or nationality, but I somehow felt like a bad progressive by hiring Latinas to watch my white children. Of course, the urge to look like a good progressive by hiring someone of my same race is harmful — it discriminates based on race, and discriminates against precisely those people who would most benefit from the position. In my experience, the Latin American au pairs we’ve matched with have been better educated and more motivated than au pairs from richer countries who are more likely to be looking for something like a vacation year.

On displacing American workers:

  • My basic response to the concern that au pairs is that they take childcare jobs from US residents: I don’t think it’s fair to favor some people over others because of where they happen to have been born. Overall, I favor more immigration.
  • In my area, the going rate for a nanny is around $40,000 / year, more if they have experience and speak good English. That’s a bit below the Boston median individual income, but once you account for the fact that most nannies don’t pay taxes, I expect they come out better than the typical Boston resident. Even if you believe that US residents have more right to US jobs than other people, it seems like the pay is good enough that there’s room for more qualified workers here.
  • Au pair visas have been frozen for the last 6 months, along with some other visa types, in an effort to protect American jobs. During the pandemic with schools and daycares closed and in-home childcare in particularly high demand, freezing au pair visas seems especially bad. 

Bottom line

  • In general, when the rules are enforced, I think the au pair program is a win-win for host families and au pairs.

Indirect hat tip to Brian Caplan’s piece on tourism and social desirability bias, on why rich tourists spending their money in poorer locations is good even though it highlights inequality – not doing so doesn’t actually help inequality.