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:

  • Noah Walton

    On kids eating up slack: “The Nurture Assumption” discussed a family in a context mostly not touched by modernity (I don’t remember where / when). The mother left her children to mostly take care of themselves, or be taken care of by older (but still young, probably < 10yo) siblings, soon after breastfeeding.