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.

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.

The Heritability of Everything

The gold standard in heritability estimates is the twin study, which involves looking at identical and fraternal twins, raised together or apart. This allows the cleanest test of decomposing the variance in observed traits into genetics, shared environment (factors equally affecting all children raised together), and non-shared environment (everything else, including random noise) contributions.

Generally it is assumed that the effect of parenting is equated with the shared environment, though there is clear evidence that parenting can differ substantially between siblings of the same parents and account for a significant fraction of non-shared environment, and the shared environment by definition also captures e.g. the neighborhood in which you grow up. Generally there are many caveats to apply to heritability estimates, particularly that they are only defined within a given population and may not apply as well in extreme cases, but nonetheless they are our best estimates as to the effects of genetics, and the effect is undeniably large.

An extremely ambitious meta-analysis of all twin studies was published in May 2015, reporting heritability estimates from 2,748 studies featuring over 2 million twin pairs, encompassing virtually every published study to date. The researchers have made a data visualization tool available if you wish to dig down into various aspects of the study, though it’s fairly opaque if you’re not familiar with the field’s jargon.

Across very broad domains of health outcomes, almost everything falls within the 40-60% heritability range, with cancer as a representative example being 46% heritable. Similarly, neurological variables show about 50% heritability (with little shared environment involvement), while cognitive and psychiatric outcomes are similarly heritable, but also have a nearly 20% shared environment component. Social values appeared to be 31% heritable, but shared environment played nearly as big a role at 27% explained. Similarly, social interactions were 32% heritable, with a somewhat smaller shared environment component of 18%.

Drilling down into more specific categories of interest, intellectual functions broadly were highly heritable at 67%, while more specific executive function metrics were 51% heritable with a high 24% shared environment contribution. Mood disorders were highly variable, from bipolar being 68% heritable to depressive episodes being 34% heritable. Height and weight showed 63% heritability, with relatively large 30% and 20% shared environment contributions respectively. The more specific values and social variables were mostly in line with the overall findings. Tendency towards religion and spirituality was 31% heritable with an even larger 35% shared environment component. Basic interpersonal interactions were similar, with 30% heritability but 36% determined by shared environment.

To summarize, basic variables in terms of intelligence, height, and weight are primarily determined by the genetic contributions. Most health and psychiatric outcomes fell somewhere in the middle, but still showed roughly half of variance explained by genetics. Variables relating to fundamental values (e.g. religion, politics) and social interactions (e.g. emotional intelligence, relationships) were by far the most malleable traits, with roughly equal contributions from genetics and shared environment.

Summary of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Can Talk

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Can Talk is a parenting / communication book written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. While this book is specifically intended for parents to have better relationships with their children, the vast majority of the advice contained within applies universally to all interactions, and I have written this summary specifically to abstract away from parent-child relationships. I consider the first chapter alone better at helping people internalize the principles behind nonviolent communication than Rosenberg’s entire book. HTTSKWL is currently by far my most highly recommended communications book, and because it is appealing to parents and children it is a remarkably easy read.

Note that unlike most books, this one contains a very high ratio of exercises and prompts and anecdotes relative to its advice. The authors recommend going through the book slowly, and doing all the exercises. This summary will only contain their explicit instructions – I highly recommend buying a copy of the book and completing it. The many specific example conversations will give a much better understanding of the principles I lay out here than I can convey in a summary.

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Parenting and the Non-Shared Environment

There is a major thread in the parenting literature that claims, in short, that parenting (short of outright abuse) has little to no effect on adult outcomes that we care about. Two exemplars in this category include The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. This claim is largely based on twin and adoption studies, which allow us to attribute the observed variance in traits to genetic, shared environment, and non-shared environment factors. The general pattern is that lots of traits are about half genetic and half non-shared environment, with little contribution from shared environment. There is a major embedded assumption in this line of reasoning: that parenting effects are mainly in the shared environment. It turns out that this assumption is not a particularly good one.

A review article on research into the non-shared environment was released about two years ago, and it provides some fascinating data on this subject. I will quote some sections at length, but the entire paper is worth reading. Here is the first excerpt of interest:

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