Archives for June 2017

High Trust High Investment Parenting

I like labeling myself as an “unschooler”, but often I’m interested in explaining what I’m going for with my parenting to people that don’t already have a detailed and nuanced model of what unschooling is! My best description of what unschooling means to me is  that I’m pursuing a high trust high investment strategy. I think most of my parenting decisions can be derived from those two principles.

High Trust

Unschooling advocates often talk about trust. Peter Grey, who talks abut “trustful parenting” in his book. And John Holt summarizes his approach as “trust children”.

The word “trust” seems to capture a lot of what I care about, but it also requires explanation. When I hear people talking about why they don’t trust their kids, they tend to talk about how kids, especially little ones, don’t understand all the implications of the stuff their choosing to do. Which is totally true! (Of course, neither do adults fully meet this standard, but on average they have a much better model of how the world works.)

The sort of trust I’m talking about is more a characteristic of a relationship than a characteristic of a person. If a friend of mine who didn’t know Lydia well asked me “how much should I trust Lydia?” I wouldn’t have a clear answer. I could share a detailed model. I’d trust her to know what’s physically safe for her, I’d trust her not to physically hurt anyone. I’d trust her to give accurate answers about whether a toy belonged to her or her brother. I wouldn’t trust her to know which direction the playground was. I wouldn’t trust her to supervise her little brother around a dangerous object. I wouldn’t trust her to accurately predict whether she would pee if she sat on the toilet.

But to me, having a trusting relationship with Lydia doesn’t rely very much if at all on tallying up the ways in which I can trust her. It’s more of an attitude that I trust that she’s doing the best to make sense of the world given the constraints she’s experiencing, whether they are legible or not. It means that if she says something is important to her, I believe her, and if she acts like something is important to her, I believe her. Even if she can’t explain it and it doesn’t make sense to me. I trust that there was something important going on in her brain when she wanted to watch videos of people taking toys out of eggs and talking about them, and wanted me to put her toys in plastic eggs so she could take them out. I have theories about what was going on with that, but my trust isn’t contingent on the theories seeming likely to be true.

High Investment

I’ve also committed to using a high investment strategy with my kids. On the most basic level, I stay home with them and hang out with them for most of my waking and sleeping hours, so I’m investing a lot of time. We plan to homeschool, so there will be more of that. I also read books, think a ton about parenting philosophy, and discuss parenting stuff with my friends. I feel committed to working through neuroses of mine that make me a worse parent. (And I’m not claiming this stuff is the best way to invest in kids. Just that these are some ways I’m investing a lot. There are high investment strategies that look different from mine, but I think this stuff is clearer with examples.)

If my kids are doing something that’s inconvenient or frustrating for me, I make sure to consider solutions that involve me changing and doing work, not just solutions that involve them changing and doing work. I’ve been willing to do stuff like sleep with my kids as long as they want, nurse for years on end, carry them around a bunch, and fill my house with toys they enjoy, even though it takes work to organize them and clean them up.

I hesitate to write all that stuff, because it feels like I’m bragging or something. There’s an overall cultural narrative that it’s good to do stuff for our kids. (And naturally a complementary narrative that it’s bad to do too much for our kids.) There are also lots of things I don’t do for my kids. And I expect to invest less time in each kid as they get older. My resources are limited, and I spend some of them on other stuff too! Right now, I’m writing a blog post while they’re both with a babysitter they like, and that seems fine.

But it seems worth mentioning that it seems intuitively correct to me to invest a pretty large chunk of resources in my kids. I also don’t mean that I feel like I’m investing more than people in my rough reference class. I think most people invest a bunch these days. But by historical standards, I think we’re all investing a lot, so I don’t want to take it for granted!

Why these labels?

Articulating my parenting values seems useful for a bunch of reasons, and a big one for me is that it makes it easier for me to have useful and respectful conversations with people who do things differently.

I’ve found that when I’m doing things differently from my friends, lots of the time it’s just because we have different circumstances and comparative advantages. I have multiple friends who feel happier and more energized when they get out of the house with their kids, so they think of fun stuff to do. I tend to feel more sane if my kids and I spend a lot of time at home, so I try to think of ways to make staying home fun. I have friends that have done soul searching about how to support their kids when they want to do physically dangerous things. I tend to be encouraging my kids to try things that are a little outside their comfort zones, because so far I’ve had pretty cautious kids.

But sometimes things really do seem to boil down to value differences, and the ones I’ve listed above are the ones I’ve encountered and recognized most often. For example, there’s a paradigm that seems coherent to me where at younger ages, the parent prioritizes the kid obeying and submitting more than trusting. There also seems to me to be a coherent position where people think there’s something unbalanced and bad about investing as much in our kids as modern society seems to encourage.

So, if I have a deep disagreement with someone about parenting, the two values I listed seem like the most fruitful areas to explore.

ETA: link to Facebook comments

Instrumentally Caring Intrinsically

A way of thinking that I’ve been using for a few years now, but I don’t think I’ve ever written up, is the idea of instrumentally caring about things intrinsically.  

Caring about something intrinsically is often very useful for coordinating with others.

When you care about something for its own sake:

  • It’s easy to strongly and coherently signal that you care about it.
  • People (rightly) expect that your caring will be fairly stable.
  • Your intuitions, aesthetics, and gut feelings will be aligned in such a way that you can act on your caring in realtime.
I remember being an overly analytical kid who wondered whether there was something fundamentally incoherent about caring about things other than my own sensory inputs. I’ve now come around to the opposite idea. Intrinsically caring about only my sensory inputs is incoherent–there’s a lot of utility that caches out in the form of cool sensory inputs that you can only unlock by intrinsically caring about things other than sensory inputs.

I see a lot of conversations break down when people can’t, or won’t, justify why they care about something. And I think there is something that can be a little “off” about trying to come up with justifications for intrinsic values, and in my experience it can actually mess up people’s epistemic to try. Then again, if the things you care the most about become semantic stop signs, I believe you’re leaving a lot of value on the table.

Instead, when these types of conversational roadblocks come up, I recommend people shift to discussing what’s good about caring about something intrinsically. 

A while back, someone on my facebook feed stirred the pot by doing a cost benefit analysis (IMO reminiscent of David Friedman’s stuff) of whether to call the cops on a bike thief. He got some pretty strong pushback from people who implicitly rejected his frame and said stuff like “fuck bike thieves”. 

According to me, the right way to continue the conversation at that point is to ask how the world looks when we do cost benefit analyses of reporting bike thieves vs. how it looks when we become morally outraged when we see bike thieves. This way, neither party is required to directly invalidate their sacred values by the things they protect at the object level, and the people can actually exchange information about their worldviews and whether they disagree with each other’s.