parenting rules

(crossposted from my nascent substack)

Way back in 2012 I wrote up on livejournal (I told you this was a long time ago) a few parenting rules we lived by. This is the one livejournal post I regularly reshare, so here it is on a more modern platform. Our kids are older now (11 and 13) but with one exception I think these really hold up.

That one exception is praise, where the research on praise seemed clear in 2012 and has since largely failed to replicate and certainly doesn’t have the effect size that everyone thought, so that one I no longer stand by.

Here they are:

  • Try never to lie. If kids ask a question and they aren’t ready to hear the answer, just tell them that. This doesn’t mean you have to go into every gruesome detail, it’s fine to couch your answer at the level you think they’ll understand and that you have time for, but they’re smarter than you probably think.

    This does extend to things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. We’ve told them those stories with the attempt to treat them just like any other fictional story. When Jackson point blank asked if Santa was real, I told him, “No, but it’s a fun story and fun to pretend.”

    There’s a common pattern with kids to tell them things that are untrue but scary as a joke, like “Be careful not to slip down the drain!” Don’t do that. Kids have trouble distinguishing fake warnings from real ones.

    However, saying untrue things as a joke is fine in the right context. “Elephant toes” is a fine answer to a question about what’s for dinner. (As long as it’s not true.) People say untrue things all the time, and taking the time to evaluate whether an adult is telling the truth is a useful skill. But until the kids are good at it, the untruths should be completely implausible, then can get more plausible as they get more on to you. Fun game, actually.

    The most difficult time for this one is when they want something that you don’t want to give them. Like if mommy is downstairs and I’m doing bedtime, it’s very tempting to claim that Katy is busy doing sometime important that can’t be interrupted rather than just admitting she needs a break, or it’s my turn to answer the late night call.

  • Remember that every interaction is a repeated game, and your goal is not to win this one iteration, but to win the series. So if a child is crying because she wants something, even though it feels like a win to give in now (she stops crying which is better for everyone, you haven’t really given up much), it’s disastrous in the repeated game because she learns that she can get what she wants by crying.

    The flipside of that is that you have to let them get what they want in other ways. If you say no and they have good reasons why you should give in, or even an attempt at good reasons, sometimes you have to give in. You want them to be thinking critically and trying to persuade you.

    Here’s an example. Katy put down a couple of dollars on the counter, which Jackson took, leading to the following conversation:

    Katy: Jackson, please leave those there.
    Jackson: But this one is mine.
    Katy: No it’s not, I just put it there.
    Jackson: It looks just like the one I got last week!
    Katy: It’s not the same one, I just put it there like 30 seconds ago!
    Jackson: But money is spongeable.
    Katy: …
    Katy: Ok, you can have it.

    Because money being fungible is a great reason, even if it’s not completely persuasive in this particular instance, and “spongeable” is awesome. If he’d started crying, the answer would have been a much more solid, no-more-negotiation “no.”

  • Almost never bluff. This is related to the first two points, but is really more like the second. If you threaten a consequence and don’t follow through, they’ll figure that out really quickly. Which leads to the following rule: be very careful with threats. If you make them, carry them out; if you don’t want to carry out the threat, don’t make it.

    Sometimes we violate that. The most common case is when the kid is obviously bluffing. So when we’re leaving somewhere and Lucile declares she isn’t coming, I raise by telling her goodbye and starting to walk away. So far she’s folded every time. Note: I wouldn’t do that if it upset her, she gets that I’m not really going to leave her.

  • Praise the process, not the person. We’re pretty particular in how we praise our kids. We try to use process praise (“I like the way you made up a story about all the parts of your drawing”), some amount of results praise (“That block tower is amazing! It’s so tall!”), and virtually zero person praise (“You’re a good artist/​architect.”)

    This is because process praise is motivating and helpful, and person praise is demotivating. Here’s an article on the praise research, or you could go look at it yourself.

    Also try to avoid general praise (“nice job”) in favor of specifics, though in practice that’s sometimes pretty hard.

    The uncontroversial flipside is that criticism works the same way. Process criticism (“Your elbow is too low when you swing, raise it up higher”) is good, limited amounts of results criticism is ok (“I’ve seen you do better, let’s try it again”), person criticism is right out (“You’re a bad baseball player”).

    NB: I no longer stand by this section. There’s probably something to growth mindset still, but how you give a few words of praise ain’t it.

  • Answer questions with as much detail as they want. I’ve had conversations with the kids about civil rights, affirmative action, religion, communism versus capitalism, consequences for breaking laws, race, sexuality, and so on. Not because I’ve set out to teach them that stuff, but because they ask lots of questions and I try to answer them. Kids are mostly concerned with concrete, day-to-day things—but some of the best interactions come when they are in the right questioning mood, and you definitely want to take advantage of it.

    You have to be age appropriate—when talking about where babies come from, I don’t talk about penises in vaginas to a 5 year old—but they can handle a lot more than most adults give them credit for.

It’s amazing to me how often we get strange looks or pushback from other parents about these. People thought we were ax murderers for not teaching our kids that Santa is real.

If I had to sum all these up, it would be this: raise kids for the long term. The reasoning behind all these choices is that we want to produce competent capable adults, and solving short term in-the-moment issues, while important, isn’t the goal.