Second Order Parenting

“Perhaps the most important thing is supporting a kid’s sense of autonomy.” – William Stixrud

Peter Attia wants to be an Olympian. When he’s 100. When Attia first explained the idea, he worked backward. What should someone do now if they want to do something else later? If you want to be able to go to Disney World with your grandkids you better be able to walk eight miles now. Or some such thing.

Working backwards is a nice tool for solving problems. I want to get to n so first I need to get to n-1.

A similar approach is advocated in the book, The Self Driven Child. In that book William Stixrud and Neil Johnson ask parents to consider their future eighteen-year-old. Then, like Attia, work backwards and consider what a child needs to do at twelve so they are successful later.

Stixrud’s and Johnson’s ideas come down to four pieces of advice for parents:

  1. Offer help, not force 
  2. Offer advice, it’s their choice  
  3. Encourage children to make their own decisions
  4. Have kids solve their own problems, as much as possible 

It’s not so much about ice-cream for dinner, but it’s about setting some (wide, but safe) boundaries for children to operate within.

This has been hard because parenting is a bit of a wicked problem. There’s a lot of showy things a parent can do but might not necessarily be that helpful. Once a child is mentally and physically safe, what’s the next clear thing?

In the ERE book, Jacob Fisker shares a reverse fishbone diagram to show ‘net’ effects. The aim is to end up above the horizontal line. Eating a candy is a positive first order effect, it tastes good. But a negative second order effect (low nutrients, high sugar), and maybe even more (bad habits).

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Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.

There are many things with negative first order effects (difficult conversations, certain exercises, working late/early) but which have positive n+1 effects and so they are worth doing. Personal finance follows this diagram for example. Parenting according to Stixrud and Johnson follows it too. It might not feel easy and it might violate the actions=progress maxim, but it’s difficult non-actions that help kids the most.

One personal instance is schoolwork. We’ve been distance learning and I’ve played a large role from checking work to answering questions. And, sometimes just telling my daughters the answers. Like junk food it’s easy at first but it violates both the fishbone approach and the self-driven child advice.

How much to change, I don’t know. But this isn’t baking. Like over-price or over-rated or over-indexed, the direction for gains is clear: my kids have to learn to live their own lives and it’s my job to support them.

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