Skill-biased tech change in parenting

27/02/2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve been reading the literature on skill-biased technological change. Essentially, technology is a substitute for low-skill work and a complement to skilled work. If you can write it down as a formal process, then a machine can probably do it better and faster than a human.

What about parenting? A lot of parenting is low-skill and repetitive. How many times have I told them to put their dirty socks in the hamper? How many peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches have I made? I dream of something like this:

> for (years in 3:length(years_at_home))

> if (dirty_socks > 2){instruction <- 1}

> if(dirty_socks > 4){nagging <- 1}

Offsetting Behaviour wants to follow Becker, and is wondering about professionals’ domestic production activities and NZ’s minimum wage. So much of parenting, though, is context-specific. That’s the value of a nanny over a cleaner: the nanny can respond to the changing contexts and have a menu of contingent responses.

I was recently reading about Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. She identifies two broad approaches to parenting, and points out that the middle-class approach better prepares children to have an active voice in adulthood. They are better prepared to make demands on institutions because families make discussion and negotiation a central feature of family life.

Modern technology — ICT — is focused on communication. So, shouldn’t it make middle-class parenting easier and more efficient (and cheaper) to produce?

I’m not sure how much ICT really helps. Parenting is a collection of activities, skilled and unskilled: cleaning, cooking, discussing, taxi-ing, playing, etc. For a lot of the low-skill work, the labour-saving devices were all invented decades ago. The remaining low-skill tasks, such as driving or making sandwiches, still require human work. For the skilled work — homework help, heartfelt discussions about who said what to whom — technology has a minor role. I don’t have to drive my kid to the library, but I still need to spend time explaining how to get information out of an (on-line) encyclopedia.

One place technology seems to be substituting for parental effort is games. I don’t have to play checkers/draughts or battleship with my kids; the machine will do it for me. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes I actually do want to play.

I did have a good experience with technology this weekend. My kids take voice lessons, and I sometimes help them with the warm-ups. The problem is that I’m not usually around in the peak homework hours, and after tea is getting a bit late. I used music-writing software (Sibelius) to write out one of the exercises, and the software has a play-back feature. Now, the computer can ‘comp’ them for their warm-ups. The technology allows me to ‘amplify’ my skills and the kids get better practice time. Bingo — more efficient parenting.

Now, about those socks…

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§ 3 Responses to Skill-biased tech change in parenting

  • I outsource as much parenting as I’m currently comfortable with via daycare on campus. A live-in nanny would be nice, but really would require a larger house than we’re able to afford. But there are plenty of outsourceable tasks that are less relationship-specific than parenting.

    What I’d want to outsource is all the cleaning, laundry, and other tedious low-skill time-intensive activities that could be being done at the house while we’re away. We already outsource the gardening; we’ve started outsourcing large parts of pool maintenance.

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