Connor the Unicorn is missing. It's freakin' annoying.

My daughter has a whole host of imaginary friends, who she calls "pretend friends." We hear about them a lot less than we did a couple years ago, but they are still around, and from time to time, we will hear her talking to them. 

Audrey. Elizabeth. Anna. The list goes on and on. 

Most of these pretend friends are related to one another in some complex family tree that is set in stone in her mind. She expects me to have this family tree memorized as well, and she becomes angry when it's not (which it never is). 

Amongst these human pretend friends is Connor, the Unicorn.

Connor went missing about a week ago. The first indication of his absence were the signs that started going up around the house.

Lost unicorn signs. 

Then she began talking about his absence. Lamenting it. Looking genuinely sad. 

The other day I walked into the living room and found Clara sitting on the couch, head in hands, looking as sad as I have ever seen her. 

"What's wrong?" I asked. "Are you sick?"

She answered with one word: "Connor."

This has happened a few times since then. I walk into a room, find her sitting quietly, looking sad, and when I ask what's wrong, she says, "Connor."

You would think that a guy who wrote an entire novel about imaginary friends (and almost finished a sequel) would love this imaginary world that my little girl has created for herself.

You'd think that a guy who had an imaginary friend of his own as a boy (and thought that imaginary friend was real for years and years) would understand his daughter's emotional attachment to her mythical, imaginary friend.

But no. Not if the damn thing is going to make her sad.

Someone please find this stupid unicorn and make my daughter happy again.

Four of my books and one dead unicorn

A photo of my books at The Strand in New York, sent to me by a friend.

I especially like how Death of a Unicorn is sandwiched between the soft and hardcover editions of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.

I’m always asking my students for a unicorn sandwich.

They never find my request as amusing as I do.


A unicorn and the tendency towards loss aversion result in cleaner teeth and a new idea in behavior management.

The pre-gifting of the stuffed unicorn as a reward for the excellent behavior that we expected from my daughter during her recent dentist appointment was a stroke of genius on my wife’s part because of the nature of loss aversion.

In economics, loss aversion refers to people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. The unexpected loss of $100 is significantly more painful than the joy of suddenly finding $100.

This tendency has been demonstrated again and again across cultures in a  wide range of contexts. 

But how often do we ever take advantage of this tendency?

As a teacher and parent, I normally establish an expectation and an associated reward, and only when that expectation is met does the child receive the reward.

Complete your chores and receive your allowance.

Write an essay that meets my requirements and receive an A+.

Work hard all week and behave well and you can eat lunch in the classroom on Friday.

But my wife flipped that paradigm in an effort to get my daughter to sit in the dentist chair and allow the dentist to do her work. She pre-rewarded Clara with a toy and the knowledge that if she did not behave well, the toy would be taken away.

She utilized Clara’s tendency toward loss aversion to change a behavior, and it worked beautifully. Clara refused the fluoride and balked at the flossing, but she sat more patiently than ever before.

image  image 

Could parents and teachers do this more often when attempting to change the behavior of children?

Here is your allowance. You’ll need to pay me back at the end of the week if you don’t finish all of your chores.

I’ve entered an A+ in my grade book for the essay that I am assigning to you. If you complete the essay on time and meet all of my expectations, that A+ will remain.

I’ve planned for you to eat lunch in the classroom on Friday unless your effort or behavior cause you to lose this privilege.

Should parents and teachers be utilizing loss aversion more often?

Could employers find ways of utilizing loss aversion to improve employee performance and production?

I think so. With four months left in the school year and a lifetime of parenting ahead of me, let the experimenting begin.