parenting rules

by Dave Orr6 min read21st Dec 20207 comments

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(crossposted from my nascent substack)

Way back in 2012 I wrote up on livejournal (I told you this was a long time ago) a few parenting rules we lived by. This is the one livejournal post I regularly reshare, so here it is on a more modern platform. Our kids are older now (11 and 13) but with one exception I think these really hold up.

That one exception is praise, where the research on praise seemed clear in 2012 and has since largely failed to replicate and certainly doesn’t have the effect size that everyone thought, so that one I no longer stand by.

Here they are:

  • Try never to lie. If kids ask a question and they aren't ready to hear the answer, just tell them that. This doesn't mean you have to go into every gruesome detail, it's fine to couch your answer at the level you think they'll understand and that you have time for, but they're smarter than you probably think.

    This does extend to things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We've told them those stories with the attempt to treat them just like any other fictional story. When Jackson point blank asked if Santa was real, I told him, "No, but it's a fun story and fun to pretend."

    There's a common pattern with kids to tell them things that are untrue but scary as a joke, like "Be careful not to slip down the drain!" Don't do that. Kids have trouble distinguishing fake warnings from real ones.

    However, saying untrue things as a joke is fine in the right context. "Elephant toes" is a fine answer to a question about what's for dinner. (As long as it's not true.) People say untrue things all the time, and taking the time to evaluate whether an adult is telling the truth is a useful skill. But until the kids are good at it, the untruths should be completely implausible, then can get more plausible as they get more on to you. Fun game, actually.

    The most difficult time for this one is when they want something that you don't want to give them. Like if mommy is downstairs and I'm doing bedtime, it's very tempting to claim that Katy is busy doing sometime important that can't be interrupted rather than just admitting she needs a break, or it's my turn to answer the late night call.
  • Remember that every interaction is a repeated game, and your goal is not to win this one iteration, but to win the series. So if a child is crying because she wants something, even though it feels like a win to give in now (she stops crying which is better for everyone, you haven't really given up much), it's disastrous in the repeated game because she learns that she can get what she wants by crying.

    The flipside of that is that you have to let them get what they want in other ways. If you say no and they have good reasons why you should give in, or even an attempt at good reasons, sometimes you have to give in. You want them to be thinking critically and trying to persuade you.

    Here's an example. Katy put down a couple of dollars on the counter, which Jackson took, leading to the following conversation:

    Katy: Jackson, please leave those there.
    Jackson: But this one is mine.
    Katy: No it's not, I just put it there.
    Jackson: It looks just like the one I got last week!
    Katy: It's not the same one, I just put it there like 30 seconds ago!
    Jackson: But money is spongeable.
    Katy: ...
    Katy: Ok, you can have it.

    Because money being fungible is a great reason, even if it's not completely persuasive in this particular instance, and "spongeable" is awesome. If he'd started crying, the answer would have been a much more solid, no-more-negotiation "no."
  • Almost never bluff. This is related to the first two points, but is really more like the second. If you threaten a consequence and don't follow through, they'll figure that out really quickly. Which leads to the following rule: be very careful with threats. If you make them, carry them out; if you don't want to carry out the threat, don't make it.

    Sometimes we violate that. The most common case is when the kid is obviously bluffing. So when we're leaving somewhere and Lucile declares she isn't coming, I raise by telling her goodbye and starting to walk away. So far she's folded every time. Note: I wouldn't do that if it upset her, she gets that I'm not really going to leave her.
  • Praise the process, not the person. We're pretty particular in how we praise our kids. We try to use process praise ("I like the way you made up a story about all the parts of your drawing"), some amount of results praise ("That block tower is amazing! It's so tall!"), and virtually zero person praise ("You're a good artist/architect.")

    This is because process praise is motivating and helpful, and person praise is demotivating. Here's an article on the praise research, or you could go look at it yourself.

    Also try to avoid general praise ("nice job") in favor of specifics, though in practice that's sometimes pretty hard.

    The uncontroversial flipside is that criticism works the same way. Process criticism ("Your elbow is too low when you swing, raise it up higher") is good, limited amounts of results criticism is ok ("I've seen you do better, let's try it again"), person criticism is right out ("You're a bad baseball player").

    NB: I no longer stand by this section. There’s probably something to growth mindset still, but how you give a few words of praise ain’t it.
  • Answer questions with as much detail as they want. I've had conversations with the kids about civil rights, affirmative action, religion, communism versus capitalism, consequences for breaking laws, race, sexuality, and so on. Not because I've set out to teach them that stuff, but because they ask lots of questions and I try to answer them. Kids are mostly concerned with concrete, day-to-day things -- but some of the best interactions come when they are in the right questioning mood, and you definitely want to take advantage of it.

    You have to be age appropriate -- when talking about where babies come from, I don't talk about penises in vaginas to a 5 year old -- but they can handle a lot more than most adults give them credit for.

It's amazing to me how often we get strange looks or pushback from other parents about these. People thought we were ax murderers for not teaching our kids that Santa is real.

If I had to sum all these up, it would be this: raise kids for the long term. The reasoning behind all these choices is that we want to produce competent capable adults, and solving short term in-the-moment issues, while important, isn’t the goal.

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Another parenting rule:

Many small steps. An example: Assume that you want that your kid is able to sleepover at a relative. Maybe because you think that is a valuable skill or for other reasons. A good way to do this is by starting small. First, just visit your relatives with the kid. Then let the kid play while you talk in the kitchen. Then let your relatives go outside while you stay there or the other way around. Then stay overnight with the kid. Last the kid stays there for one night.

This way, your kid is always in the Zone of proximal development where learning is most effective and natural.

One important aspect is to back off and retry if one step doesn't work out. The good thing is that you will notice early and there will be only a small difference to overcome. This can be as simple as retrying or figuring out what the problem is (there may be one). Generally, even for voluntary tasks or skills, we require that our kids try out an uncomfortable situation at least once (this is like Comfort Zone Expansion (CoZE, see here, I can't find any better link than that)). 

This has the best chance of working if you start doing these without any imminent need. This is an application of your "play a long game" approach.

We have used this for sleep training up to sleeping over, for the way to the kindergarten (we were the only ones where the kid was going alone there; we were living very close by though). The way to and back from school. For staying alone at home. Doing household chores. Really, there is a pretty long list that we reuse for the younger kids.

I think this has by now become the common method for swimming lessons: First, get used to the water, then dip your head in, then practice the motion on land, then in shallow water... I guess that is because the fear of water can be pretty existential and for parents, the fear of their kid drowning puts a lot of pressure on both and this is a reliable way out. Also, there are many small-step sleep training regimes.

Downside: If you avoid all kinds of difficult situations, your kids may have difficulty dealing with situations outside their comfort zone. For example, I learned very late to recognize when I come close to the border of my comfort zone. 

EDIT: Uh, fixed "with any imminent need" to "without any imminent need".

That's a fantastic one! I totally agree, and we do this as well.

Almost never bluff

You give the example of leaving the house. Some thoughts:

  • I think your own advice applies: Don't bluff if you are not willing to follow thru. 
  • There is a special risk with the leaving house example: This can trigger existential fears pretty quickly. Being left alone at home might not have been in the range of options the kid did even consider possible (esp. if you make up the bluff on the spot). You might accidentally lose your kid's basic trust. If you do this you have to be very careful to provide a line of retreat and make sure that you are calling a bluff and/or that you see that the kid is getting autonomous enough to stay home alone. 
  • If you want to teach that people bluff - a skill kids should learn earlier or later - you can do that in games or other low-stake situations. Kids will learn this from other kids anyway but you might want to have a chance to talk about information asymmetry, trust, and other things.

Newish parent of a 2.5 year old. We are deploying the repeated game, don't bluff, praise the process, and answer the question strategies. I never really bought the growth mindset arguments, but I reason that praising the process will make it more transferable because we break down the steps.

To this we have added parent by example. This is not so much a rule as a natural law: children are constantly observing, and much of what they are observing is you, who they will mimic; the options are to be strategic about this or blindsided by it.

It is trivially the most powerful goad to good behavior I have encountered in my life.

Thank you for writing that down. I would go so far as to argue that these are good rules for interacting with other people, not just children. How well someone does as a parent has a big influence on the children, but even everyday interactions tend to have an influence on other people (and yourself, for that matter).

What makes you now think Praise Research is fake science?

I wouldn't go that far. Instead I would say that it could be right but the evidence is much weaker than I thought it was 8 years ago.

A few things that convinced me:

A slatestarcodex series on mindset:

A large preregistered study on growth mindset maybe showed a small effect but nothing like what proponents claimed.

And generally my trust in the kinds of small n social science experiments that were the backbone of growth mindset research and similar things like priming is just much lower -- my prior is now that those things are mostly noise, and so the evidence needs to be stronger to overcome that, where that wasn't true 8 years ago.