Developing Object Permanence Around Flinches

Many years ago, I did an exercise where I made a list of thoughts that I flinched away from. Then, I made spaced repetition cards with the thoughts.

The cards were statements like: “As of March 2009, I am currently uncomfortable with the idea that quitting my job might be the right move.” (Totally fake example to communicate the format.)

I think it was a really useful exercise, and it’s pretty easy to implement, and I basically recommend it to people.

I don’t think the part about spaced repetition software specifically was all that important–I think the idea was that I developed something like object permanence around these mental flinches of mine, and that was the way I accomplished that.

If you try this, I wouldn’t try to force yourself to consider the uncomfortable thought at the object level. I would try to internalize that you are in fact uncomfortable considering it at the object level, and maybe meditate on possible cognitive chilling effects of that situation.

Because, in my experience, human brains are pretty good at back-propagating these flinches, and that can cut off a lot of otherwise useful thought. (The linked article is very good, but includes a framing and approach that are, IMO, importantly different from what worked for me. YMMV.)

Musings on Parenting and Slack

Epistemic status: Post that has been sitting in my drafts folder that seemed worth publishing even though I wish the ideas were more precise. I’m pretty sure I’m saying true things here, and I imagine this is also a useful framework for people who think like me.

Zvi wrote a post on slack that I loved. I was already a big proponent of slack! But Zvi laid it out clearly enough that an additional chunk of my brain gets it. So I became more aligned inside, which is always excellent.

I’ve also been thinking about about unschooling lately, both the actual practice of it and the way people write and talk about it. Unschooling is about giving kids slack. There’s more to it than that, I suppose, but that’s quite a lot of it. As I see it, trusting someone and handing them slack are, if not the same thing, pretty darn close.

For the parents of course, having kids tends to eat up slack. Probably that’s always been true? But I’m confident it’s true these days. Often it’ll be obvious, like when you haven’t gotten enough sleep for a month or a year. And sometimes, kids eat up slack in areas that you weren’t even tracking. Like when I read a news article about how hospital patents recover more quickly when they get quiet time and I started crying because I realized I need silence too, and hadn’t been getting it. Or when I get touched out for the first time in your life.

I think some of pregnancy and newbornhood are supposed to be hard mode. I also don’t think that having young kids is supposed to be permanent hard mode, mostly on the theory that nothing is supposed to be permeant hard mode because it’s bad, far all the reasons Zvi explains.

When Lydia was a mobile baby and young toddler, I used to get all tangled up inside trying to figure out what to do about all the inconvenient but possible things she wanted to do. Should I let her play with the toilet paper? Toilet paper is pretty cheap, and it’s not that hard to clean up. She wants to go downstairs and play, but I really want to stay upstairs for a reason I can’t articulate, even to myself. She wants to play with my nice thing that she probably won’t break and is in theory replaceable, but I don’t really feel like letting her do it.

Many parenting gurus advocate consistency. I wasn’t sure I was behind that idea, even in theory, but in any case, it seemed to assume I had access to an efficient ruleset that, as I saw it, hadn’t even been computed yet. How was I supposed to decide what to be consistent about? My endorsed best guess at the time was to engage in a messy process where we tried to elicit relative strength of preferences.

The unschooling gurus, at least superficially, seemed mostly to be saying to push myself to give my kid what she wanted. And there did seem to be something virtuous about that…

Eventually, I found consistency of a sort. I started asking myself “If I always say yes to things I felt this stressed about, how will that go?” And yes, Lydia’s strength of preference was still relevant. So it was actually more like, “If I always say yes to things that she wants this much and I feel this stressed about, how will that go?” (Later I switched to assuming some measure of all this was counterfactual, but that’s a different story.)

And so I learned to do something more like making an ordinary effort, most of the time.

But if I had to steelman the part about pushing yourself to do what your kids want… At its best, pushing yourself is an investment in both self-awareness and getting to know your kid. And arguably your prior, at least in the early years, should be that these factors are in fact the bottleneck.

That still doesn’t mean you should be trying to make an extraordinary effort most of the time for all the reasons that’s bad. But I think if you start asking yourself questions like “if I pushed myself to try to gain awareness every time I felt this much like I don’t feel like it, how would that go”. And then you calibrate and push things around in the system so that you’re still making an ordinary effort overall.

Because this business about effort is fractal. There will be some minutes in a day where you are putting in extraordinary effort. But most days should still be ordinary effort overall. There will be some days in a week where you are putting in more than ordinary effort, but most weeks should still be ordinary effort overall. There will be some weeks a years where you are putting in extraordinary effort, but most years should still be ordinary effort overall. There will be some years where you are putting in extraordinary effort, but most decades should be ordinary effort overall.

There’s a point that feels important here that I feel like I mostly got from Christopher Alexander. He says that alive things produce natural variation and fractal self similarity. Dead things produce sameness. Healthy complex systems are anti-fragile when they are made of components that are alive and become brittle when they have parts that are too dead.

Unschoolers who write about unschooling are big on joy as a optimization target, and one thing I like about that plan is that aiming for joy seems like a good way to produce healthy living systems with fractal slack.

FB comment thread:

Honesty and Blogging about Parenthood

The older my kids get, the trickier it feels to write about what’s going on in a way that’s useful and honest. On the one hand, I really do want to share my experiences, at least with those who would choose to read them. I think sharing stories is a great way to learn, and self-expression is important to me. On the other hand, I’m basically not going to write anything negative about anyone I love. 

Even saying the above feels like it requires a (meta-?)caveat. Everything is great with my family! It doesn’t feel like I’m holding bad any big or important negative stuff. We have our conflicts and our challenges, but it’s all good.

And I probably wouldn’t write about it if it weren’t.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t respect those who are more open. I love reading Penelope Trunk’s blog, for example. But that style doesn’t feel right to me. 

Naturally, there’s plenty of good stuff to write about, and I have models to share that don’t depend on personal details, good or bad. And I think my plan is to stick to writing about that stuff. But it feels dishonest to do so without any caveats.

My Friend Bob: A Brief Note on Attributing Ideas

I do most of my thinking out loud with other people, and almost all my ideas come from other people. I tend to be scrupulous about attributing ideas (thoughts, examples, fun stories, etc.). When I’m blogging though, I tend to think that people would prefer to be asked before named on the internet, even when the reference would be positive or innocuous. 

So far, the tension between wanting to cite people and wanting to get their permission to cite them has made writing blog posts feel (a little) harder. My new plan, when I feel the urge to attribute something, is just to attribute it to my friend “Bob”, who is fake.

I picked up the habit of citing Bob from my friend Bob.

I am happy to change Bob to a real name upon request.

If you are Bob, feel free to tell me to change it. If you know Bob and think Bob would want to be cited by name, feel free to ask Bob or ask me to ask Bob. If you have a blanket preference for being named instead of being Bob, feel free to tell me that too!

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.

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.

Discussing Tricky Stuff

When I’m discussing something hard, especially over the internet, I try to be careful about:

  1. Searching for and explicitly talking about tradeoffs, even when one option seems like a clear overall win to me.
  2. Trying to keep the ratio of positive to normative statements very high.

I don’t think these points are either necessary or sufficient for intellectually honest discussion, but I think they help. And when other people aren’t doing these things, I find it harder (in the sense of more cognitively effortful) to learn from them. 

With respect to the first point, I don’t think it’s very helpful, if it all, to emphasize tradeoffs that “seem reasonable”, but that the person presenting the idea doesn’t actually think are in play.

I imagine this post would be better with examples, but I won’t include any for now. My plan is to write some blog posts soon about object-level stuff and try to follow my own advice.


For ages, I’ve been hearing about how important “boundaries” were, and I’ve never been quite sure what people even meant by the word. A while back I went to parenting discussion about boundaries, and I think I finally figured out what the word means! (To me, that is. I’m not sure everyone agrees on how boundaries work.)

The word “boundaries” always bugged me because it was vague, and seemed to include some assumptions that I wasn’t sure I agreed with. One such assumption was the idea that good boundaries were bright lines. (Now I think it depends.) “Boundaries” also sounded like the sort of thing I was supposed be very careful to respect, more so than mere “preferences”, and I was confused about exactly why.

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Some Indian Recipes

These won’t be particularly well-formatted, and I don’t have any pretty pictures to go with them at the moment, but I’ve had a few requests over the years for the Indian recipes I regularly cook, so here they are!

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New Perspectives on IFS

I did some IFS with a friend last night around his nail-biting, an area where he hadn’t gotten much traction working on his own.

Early in the process, when he expressed some judgements about the nail biting, I clarified that I wasn’t interested in getting him to stop biting his nails if we couldn’t first find a better way to meet whatever need was currently being met by nail biting.

I assumed the nail biting was serving an important purpose.

Assuming that neurotic-seeming behaviors may be serving important purposes is part of the IFS instructions, so I’ve been saying stuff like that since I’ve started doing IFS. But saying it used to feel more like going through the motions. I’m not quite sure what I mean, because I really didn’t want to get rid of or change parts without their consent. It feels different now, though.

I trust that people’s internal ecosystems make quite a lot of sense.

On a related note, I haven’t had much desire to do IFS on myself recently. Or to have others do it on me. Mostly because I assume that I’ve internalized these processes enough that if things haven’t found a way to shift on their own in IFS-y ways, there’s a good reason they haven’t.

I’m still very open to conversations where I explore my psychology around a thing, but I want them to feel more organic.

I’m also more inclined to just try to give myself what I want instead of changing what I want, even if I sense that I want it in part because I’m hurt in some way. The example that came up most recently was thinking about how I often get angry after we hire cleaners, since they don’t do it exactly how I’d want them to. I think the getting angry is a bit of my own craziness, but these days I’m somewhat more inclined to actually get what I want anyway, instead of “healing” it.

This shift fits pretty well with the idea that paradigms work best as scaffolds instead of permanent structures. So, my IFS scaffold is pretty dismantled by now.

Probably not my clearest post ever, but I’ll leave it at that.