Tag: Parenting

5 Mental Models to Remove (Some of) the Confusion from Parenting

Just a few days ago, I saw a three-year-old wandering around at 10:30 at night and wondered if he was lost or jet-lagged. The parent came over and explained that they believed in children setting their own sleep schedule.

Interesting.

The problem with this approach is that it may work, or it may not. It may work for your oldest, but not your youngest. And therein lies the problem with the majority of the parenting advice available. It’s all tactics, no principles.

Few topics provoke more unsolicited advice than parenting. The problem is, no matter how good the advice, it might not work for your child. Parenting is the ultimate “the map is not the territory“ situation. There are so many maps out there, and often when we try to use them to navigate the territory that is each individual child, we end up lost and confused. As in other situations, when the map doesn’t match the territory, better to get rid of the map and pay attention to what you are experiencing on the ground. The territory is the reality.

We’ve all dealt with the seemingly illogical behavior of children. Take trying to get your child to sleep through the night—often the first, and most important, challenge. Do you sleep beside them and slowly work your way out of the room? Do you let them “cry it out?” Do you put them in your bed? Do you feed them on demand, or not until morning? Soft music or no music? The options are endless, and each of them has a decently researched book to back it up.

When any subsequent children come along, the problem is often exacerbated. You stick to what worked the first time, because it worked, but this little one is different. Now you’re in a battle of wills, and it’s hard to change your tactics at 3:00 a.m. Parenting is often a rinse and repeat of this scenario: ideas you have about how it should be, combined with what experience is telling you that it is, overlaid with too many options and chronic exhaustion.

This is where mental models can help. As in any other area of your life, developing some principles or models that help you see how the world works will give you options for relevant and useful solutions. Mental models are amazing tools that can be applied across our lives. Here are five principle-based models you can apply to almost any family, situation, or child. These are ones I use often, but don’t let this limit you—so many more apply!

Adaptation

Adaptation is a concept from evolutionary biology. It describes the development of genetic traits that are successful relative to their performance in a specific environment—that is, relative to organisms’ survival in the face of competitive pressures. As Geerat Vermeij explains in Nature: An Economic History, “Adaptation is as good as it has to be; it need not be the best that could be designed. Adaptation depends on context.”

In terms of parenting, this is a big one: the model we can use to stop criticizing ourselves for our inevitable parenting mistakes, to get out of the no-point comparisons with our peers, and to give us the freedom to make changes depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Species adapt. It is a central feature of the theory of evolution—the ability of a species to survive and thrive in the face of changing environmental conditions. So why not apply this basic biological idea to parenting? Too often we see changing as a weakness. We’re certain that if we aren’t absolutely consistent with our children, they will grow up to be entitled underachievers or something. Or we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, and strive for an ideal that requires an insane amount of work and sacrifice that may actually be detrimental to our overall success.

We can get out of this type of thinking if we reframe ‘changing’ as ‘adapting’. It’s okay to have different rules in the home versus a public space. I am always super grateful when a parent pacifies a screaming child with a cookie, especially on an airplane or in a restaurant. They probably don’t use the same strategy at home, but they adapt to the different environment. It’s also okay to have two children in soccer, and the third in music. Adapting to their interests will offer a much better return of investment on all those lessons.

No doubt your underlying goals for your children are consistent, like the desire of an individual to survive. How you meet those goals is where the adaptability comes in. Give yourself the freedom to respond to the individual characteristics of your children—and the specific needs of the moment—by trying different behaviors to see what works. And, just as with adaptation in the biological sense, you only need to be as good as you have to be to get the outcomes that are important to you, not be the best parent that ever was.

Velocity

There is a difference between speed and velocity. With speed you move, but with velocity you move somewhere. You have direction.

As many have said of parenting, the days are long but the years are short. It’s hard to be focusing on your direction when homework needs to be done and dinner needs to get made before one child goes off in the carpool to soccer while you rush the other one to art class. Every day begins at a dead run and ends with you collapsing into bed only to go through it all again tomorrow. Between their activities and social lives, and your need to work and have time for yourself, there is no doubt that you move with considerable speed throughout your day.

But it’s useful to sometimes ask, ‘Where am I going?’ Take a moment to make sure it’s not all speed and no direction.

When it comes to time with your kids, what does the goal state look like? How do you move in that direction? If you are just speeding without moving then you have no frame of reference for your choices. You might ask, did I spend enough time with them today? But ten minutes or two hours isn’t going to impact your velocity if you don’t know where you are headed.

When you factor in a goal of movement, it helps you decide what to do when you have time with them. What is it you want out of it? What kind of memories do you want them to have? What kind of parent do you want to be and what kind of children do you want to raise? The answers are different for everyone, but knowing the direction you wish to go helps you evaluate the decisions you make. And it might have the added benefit of cutting out some unnecessary activity and slowing you down.

Algebraic Equivalence

“He got more pancakes than I did!” Complaints about fairness are common among siblings. They watch each other like hawks, counting everything from presents to hugs to make sure everyone gets the same. What can you do? You can drive yourself mad running out to buy an extra whatever, or you can teach your children the difference between ‘same’ and ‘equal’.

If you haven’t solved for x in a while, it doesn’t really matter. In algebra, symbols are used to represent unknown numbers that can be solved for given other relevant information. The general point about algebraic equivalence is that it teaches us that two things need not be the same in order to be equal.

For example, x + y = 5. Here are some of the options for the values of x and y:

3 + 2

4 + 1

2.5 + 2.5

1.8 + 3.2

And those are just the simple ones. What is useful is this idea of abstracting to see what the full scope of possibilities are. Then you can demonstrate that what is on each side of those little parallel lines doesn’t have to look the same to have equal value. When it comes to the pancakes, it’s better to focus on an equal feeling of fullness then the number of pancakes on the plate.

In a deeper way, algebraic equivalence helps us deal with one accusation that all parents get at one time or another: “You love my sibling more than me.” It’s not true, but our default usually is to say, “No, I love you both the same.” This can be confusing for children, because, after all, they are not the same as their sibling, and you likely interact with them differently, so how can the love be the same?

Using algebraic equivalence as a model shifts it. You can respond instead that you love them both equally. Even though what’s on either side of the equation is different, it is equal. Swinging the younger child up in the air is equivalent to asking the older one about her school project. Appreciating one’s sense of humor is equivalent to respecting the other’s organizational abilities. They may be different, but the love is equal.

Seizing the middle

In chess, the middle is the key territory to hold. As explained on Wikipedia: “The center is the most important part of the chessboard, as pieces from the center can easily move to either flank with great speed. However, amateurs often prefer to concentrate on the king’s side of the board. This is an incorrect mindset.”

In parenting, seizing the middle means you must forget trying to control every single move. It’s impossible anyway. Instead, focus on trying to control what I think of as the middle territory. I don’t mind losing a few battles on the fringes, if I’m holding my ground in the area that will allow me to respond quickly to problems.

The other night my son and I got into perhaps our eighth fight of the week on the state of his room. The continual explosion makes it hard to walk in there, plus he loses things all the time, which is an endless source of frustration to both of us. I’ve explained that I hate buying replacements only to have them turn up in the morass months later.

So I got cranky and got on his case again, and he felt bad and cried again. When I went to the kitchen to find some calm, I realized that my strategy was all wrong. I was focused on the pawn in the far column of the chess board instead of what the pieces were doing right in front of me.

My thinking then went like this: what is the territory I want to be present in? Continuing the way I was would lead to a clean room, maybe. But by focusing on this flank I was sacrificing control of the middle. Eventually he was going to tune me out because no one wants to feel bad about their shortcomings every day. Is it worth saving a pawn if it leaves your queen vulnerable?

The middle territory with our kids is mutual respect and trust. If I want my son to come to me for help when life gets really complicated, which I do, then I need to focus on behaviors that will allow me to have that strategic influence throughout my relationship with him. Making him feel like crap every day, because his shirts are mixed in with his pants or because of all the Pokemon cards are on the floor, isn’t going to cut it. Make no mistake, seizing the middle is not about throwing out all the rules. This is about knowing which battles to fight, so you can keep the middle territory of the trust and respect of your child.

Inversion

Sometimes it’s not about providing solutions, but removing obstacles. Sociologist Kurt Lewin observes in his work on force field analysis[1] that reaching any goal has two components: augmenting the forces for, and removing the forces against. When it comes to parenting, we need to ask ourselves not only what we could be doing more of, but also what we could be doing less of.

When my friend was going on month number nine of her baby waking up four times a night, she felt at her wits’ end. Out of desperation, she decided to invert the problem. She had been trying different techniques and strategies, thinking that there was something she wasn’t doing right. When nothing seemed to be working, she stopped trying to add elements like new tactics, and changed her strategy. She looked instead for obstacles to remove. Was there anything preventing the baby from sleeping through the night?

The first night she made it darker. No effect. The second night she made it warmer. Her son has slept through the night ever since. It wasn’t her parenting skills or the adherence to a particular sleep philosophy that was causing him to wake up so often. Her baby was cold. Once she removed that obstacle with a space heater the problem was resolved.

We do this all the time, trying to fix problem by throwing new parenting philosophies at the situation. What can I do better? More time, more money, more lessons, more stuff. But it can be equally valuable to look for what you could be doing less of. In so doing, you may enrich your relationships with your children immeasurably.

Parenting is inherently complex: the territory changes almost overnight. Different environments, different children—figuring out how to raise your kids plays out against a backdrop of some fast-paced evolution. Some tactics are great, and once in a while a technique fits the situation perfectly. But when your tactics fail, or your experience seems to provide no obvious direction, a principle-based mental models approach to parenting can give you the insight to find solutions as you go.

[1] Lewin’s original work on force field analysis can be found in Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Roald Dahl’s Heartbreaking Letter About Losing his Daughter in 1962

Roald_Dahl

Roald Dahl, the beloved author of my personal favorites Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The BFG, lost his eldest daughter, Olivia, to measles in the early 60s. It wasn’t until 1988, however, that he penned a remarkable letter that doubles as a plea to parents, urging them to have their children vaccinated.

The letter is as relevant today as when it originally appeared, in a pamphlet published by the Sandwell Health Authority, in 1988.

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.

LET THAT SINK IN.

Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was ‘James and the Giant Peach‘. That was when she was still alive. The second was ‘The BFG‘, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

The Art of Roughhousing

​​“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Does anyone really need permission to play? For a variety of reasons it doesn’t come naturally to everybody. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen have studied the benefits of parents roughhousing with their children, and present their findings in The Art of Roughhousing.

Roughhousing, to be clear, is: wrestling, pillow fights, jumping off beds, sliding down stairs, etc. And there is a philosophy behind all the horseplay.

Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination. Most important, roughhousing is rowdy, but not dangerous. With safety in mind, roughhousing releases the creative life force within each person, pushing us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities.

Rowdy, physical, interactive play is by far the most common type of play in the animal kingdom. It occurs in every species of mammal and in many nonmammalian species as well. We’ve all seen videos of lion cubs wrestling, but you’d be amazed by the vast number of species that enjoy rowdy play—elephants, whales, even ants.

Play is good for you.

Play – especially active physical play, like roughhousing – makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful. … Roughhousing activates many different parts of the body and the brain, from the amygdalae, which process emotions, and the cerebellum, which handles complex motor skills, to the prefrontal cortex, which makes high-level judgments. The result is that every roughhousing playtime is beneficial for body and brain as well as for the loftiest levels of the human spirit: honor, integrity, morality, kindness, and cooperation.

“Sadly,” DeBenedet writes, “roughhousing barely limps along on life support.”

What was once a motto of Safety First has evolved into a fretful new motto of Safety Only. Many parents are more frightened by skinned knees and bruised feelings than life’s real dangers: stifled creativity and listless apathy.

They present an endearing story that Stuart Brown tells in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul about an encounter between a sled dog and a hungry polar bear who become playmates.

Unfortunately, after a few days the polar bear gets hungry enough that his primal instinct kicks in and he eats the dog…but Brown writes, “rough-and-tumble play in animals and humans…is necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism.”

And to take it further, “Lack of experience with rough-and-tumble play hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life.

It sounds like we should all consider taking roughhousing a bit more seriously.

“Active physical play is the best way for parents and children to build a strong, close, lasting bond.”

Surprisingly, this is not just for fathers and sons, but should include mothers and daughters as well.

…make sure your son knows that he has a secure home base and that he can always climb into your arms for a cuddle or a good cry if his body or his feelings get hurt. And make sure your daughter has a chance to test out her strength and power, so that she can step out into the world with confidence.

Perhaps this is all food for thought in the near constant helicopter-parent world we find ourselves in.

Children Should Be Allowed to Get Bored

We’re addicted to novelty.

Education researcher Dr Teresa Belton says:

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

It is this sort of thing that stimulates the imagination, she said, while the screen “tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity“.

Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children

Parents are constantly looking around to beg, borrow, and steal ideas that work for others and apply them to their own lives. As such the rise of books like the

As such the rise of books like the Tiger mom and the French mother should come as no surprise. I have always wondered why no one applied ancient philosophy to parenting before as it offers

I have always wondered why no one applied ancient philosophy to parenting before as it offers time-tested wisdom. Enter Suzanne Evans, the Machiavellian mother.

Newly remarried, with four kids under the age of eight, Suzanne Evans is fed up with tantrums, misbehaving, and general household chaos. Desperate to get the upper hand, she turns to Machiavelli’s iconic political treatise, The Prince, and inspiration strikes. Maybe, she thinks, I can use his manipulative rules to bring order to my boisterous family.

Soon her experiment begins to play out in surprisingly effective ways. She starts off following Machiavelli’s maxim “It is dangerous to be overly generous” and soon realizes that for all its austerity, there is a kernel of truth in it. Her kids do behave when they are given clear limits. From there, she starts tackling other rules—“Tardiness robs us of opportunity” and “Study the actions of illustrious men”—and she is surprised at how quickly her brood falls in line once she starts adapting his advice to child rearing.

As she tries more and more of Machiavelli’s ideas on her family, Evans figures out this secret: You can get more out of your kids, with less fighting, if you figure out how to gently manipulate them to get what you want (and let them think it’s their own idea). But when events in her life start to spiral out of control and some of her earlier techniques are no longer working, she has to figure out her own answer to the ultimate Machiavellian question: Is it better to be feared than loved?

Letting Children Fail Is Not A Dereliction Of Duty

Teacher Jessica Lahey reminds parents that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty.

The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

Overparenting is the new parenting. And Lahey’s not talking about the subset of overparenting that, say, refuses to let kids have sleep-overs or drive cars. She’s talking about the type of overparenting that ruins confidence and undermines education or independence.

parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.”

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn.

You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

(h/t Tadas)