Successful Mentoring on Parenting, Arranged Through LessWrong
In June 2021, Zvi posted The Apprentice Thread, soliciting people to offer, or request, mentoring or apprenticeship in virtually any area. Gunnar_Zarncke offered advice on parenting, as the parent of four boys (incidentally, true of my grandmother as well) between the ages of 9 and 17, with the usual suite of observational skills and knowledge that comes with being a regular on this site. I responded with interest as my first child is due in November.
Gunnar and I are sharing our experience as an example of what a successful mentoring process looks like, and because his key points on parenting may be interesting to current and future parents in this community. I had several breakthrough-feeling insights which helped me to connect my LessWrong/rationalist schema to my parenting schema.
Gunnar and I began by exchanging messages about the parameters of what we were getting into. I was interested in his insight based on these messages and other comments and posts he had made on this site about parenting. We arranged a Google Meet video call, which confirmed that our personalities and philosophies were compatible for what we were undertaking.
We did not have a structured reading list, although I investigated resources as Gunnar suggested. As we went along, Gunnar translated into English samples of notes taken by his children’s mother throughout their childhood and shared them with me. She had also systematically described the daily and weekly tasks a parent could expect in various development phases of the child’s life. I was an only child and have not parented before, so I found this extremely educational.
We had several video calls over the next few months and discussed a wide range of parenting-related topics. Gunnar also suggested this post, to report on our experience. I drafted the post, and Gunnar provided comments, which I merged, and after he reviewed the final version, we published it as a joint post.
By call number two, I was realizing that parenting was never going to be the sort of thing where I could read the “correct” book for the upcoming developmental stage, buy the “correct” tools, and thereby maximize outcomes. Instead, it would be a constant process of modeling the child’s mind, providing new inputs, observing behaviors, updating the model as needed, researching helpful tools, and iterating more or less until the kid is in its 20s. At first, this was intimidating, but I’ve come around to understanding that this just is the parenting process. This synthesis eventually gave me additional motivation and optimism.
These calls gave me great comfort against anxiety about parenting, confidence, and a sense of human connection, all beyond what I expected.
Our first call was within a week of Zvi’s post. We described our backgrounds as people who were parented. Gunnar came from a large family; I came from a small one. We discussed how our parents nurtured positive traits in us and also touched on what our parents did that didn’t work.
For example, my parents would frequently observe when other people were acting in ways consistent with the values they were trying to teach me, in addition to praising or otherwise rewarding me for acting that way myself.
Gunnar’s mother was mostly trusting of her children and “went with the flow,” following her intuitions. His father was very fostering and offered a lot of practical education. He consciously created a safe environment. He said he learned this approach from his parents, who came from different backgrounds. Gunnar’s grandmother came from a liberal Scandinavian family, and his grandfather came from disciplined Prussian family. His grandfather embraced his grandmother’s liberal norms, which seems to have created a reliable high-trust environment for his father—despite difficult times during and after World War II.
Gunnar segued into discussing general strategies for supporting children’s development. Highlights:
“Salami tactics”: Allow them to learn new behaviors and situations incrementally rather than all at once.
Developmental diary: Once a week, or more often, write down notes on what happened with each child during that period, what was effective parentingwise, what wasn’t. This was something that Gunnar came back to consistently. However, he is not confident that it is right for everyone, just that it was for him. I plan to do this as well.
Lessons to carry from one child to the next
The saying goes, “Small kids, small problems; big kids, big problems.” But the pattern goes like this:
With small kids you have a lot of very small tasks and problems: How to diaper. Why is the baby crying right now? Let’s try this 5-minute game. Let’s go to this 30-minute baby swimming class. We have to rock the crying baby for an hour until it finally sleeps. Oh, the baby is interested in this thing—oh, it’s already gone. Why does X no longer work? Oh, Y works now.
As they grow older this switches to: Will they find friends at the new school? Taking the kid to soccer games every weekend—and staying there for cheering, photos, and small talk. Practicing math for hours before the exam. Working again and again on some fight between siblings. Helping to renovate the room. Talking for hours about some conflict or problem.
Be alert to opportunities for teaching based on the child’s interests.
Model the behavior of conceiving and running experiments
Organize activities around projects (for example, in the garden)
Gunnar recommended several texts during this call and in a follow-up email, including:
Hodgkinson, The Idle Parent (closer to Gunnar’s sympathies)
Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (neither of us has read it, but by reputation, it’s a resource for intensive parenting)
Reading about the Polgar children
van de Rijt and Plooij, The Wonder Weeks (for general information about developmental timing and milestones, although their model may be somewhat overfitted)
Kazdin, The Everyday Parenting Toolkit (practical evidence-based advice on managing behavior)
We covered many topics in later calls, organized below by subject rather than chronology.
Child Cognition in General
We discussed more cognitive elements of parenting—the extent to which developing brains “need” new inputs and partially “know” what inputs they need but, if overloaded, will retreat to the familiar, and especially to you, and then consolidate. Gunnar mentioned the Big Five as a good shorthand for observing kids’ personalities. He shared the first of the translated parenting documents I mentioned above.
This discussion reminded me of Clark, Surfing Uncertainty, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. After reading that book, I understood intellectually that brains seemed to be prediction/testing machines that thrive on stimulation, but I didn’t see that model as a frame to place over my parenting thoughts until Gunnar spoke about similar concepts in his own perception of parenting. This was a eureka moment for me.
Your kids spend even more cognitive energy on you than you do on them, because their survival depends on it (see also here).
They will notice if you are stressed or worried.
They understand words you’re using before they can use those words themselves.
We discussed various ways to teach children before they are in school, and to augment what they learn in school.
Use homeschooling materials to assist them with their homework. (In Gunnar’s country, homeschooling is very rare; in mine, the USA, it’s a constitutionally protected right, consistent with Gunnar’s claim that the best homeschooling materials are in English.) I might never have considered these otherwise, because homeschooling in the USA is correlated with weird beliefs, and I was subconsciously assuming that homeschooling materials generated by weird-belief-holders would be somehow infected by the weird beliefs. (Gunnar adds: They likely are infected by weird beliefs, but you can just keep the good parts.)
Avoid rote memorization, except where necessary—multiplication tables, for example.
Parents’ and teachers’ incentives are often misaligned (ideal methods for an entire room versus ideal methods for your own child).
Encourage kids to make testable predictions and bets.
At all verbal ages, you can talk to them in a more complex way than they are able to communicate, yet they will still understand some parts of it and absorb context and parts of meaning..
Conditioning works, but only on things you are consistent about. Corollary: if you’re not willing to be consistent on something, leave it out. (My parents used this on me when I learned how to whine. They agreed not to acknowledge anything I said in a whiny tone, and told me this would be their policy. According to them, it worked quickly.)
When the desired behavior is rare on its own, you can “cheat” by simulating the behavior (for example, in pretend play).
Rather than “No,” use “Yes, but” “yes, and” “yes, as soon as”. These are opportunities to show the child that you are also a person with needs, and to emphasize mutual responsibility.
Trust your instincts, yourself, your spouse, and offer the child a lot of trust.
The parent should behave such that the child unconditionally trusts that its needs will be met reliably.
Don’t lie to your kids.
Challenge them, but not so far that they feel physically unsafe.
Parenting is intense and challenging, not least when you are sleep deprived because of a baby’s sleep schedule. Observations:
Cultivate a support network of friends and other parents.
There is probably no substitute for in-person connection and support.
Have a safe place to temporarily retreat to.
Consistently (perhaps a certain interval each day) set aside time for unstructured entire-family time.
The change in the marriage relationship requires focus and time to navigate.
Communicate feelings and stress with your spouse and provide physical support as needed.
Avenue for Neuroscience Research
Gunnar has an interesting, and possibly testable, hypothesis: One effect of puberty is to partially reset the values a child assigns to normative judgments, but not to procedural knowledge about reality. (Corollary: Whatever values you’ve taught your child will be more likely to survive if you’ve given them the information necessary to conclude that the value is correct.) The cascade of puberty hormones could conceivably affect the chemicals in the brain responsible for adjusting weights of priors. I don’t have enough neuroscience to develop this any further, but it’s “common knowledge” that many teenagers think their parents are idiots. A biological explanation would explain how widespread the behaviors leading to this folk belief are.
I am grateful to Gunnar for his time, attention, and “gameness.” I am glad that this entire process happened, starting with Zvi’s initial post and ending with this post. I feel far more prepared than I did at the beginning, and I doubt that a person outside this community would have been able to get me there. I plan to implement is weekly development diary as a way to track trends, organize my own thoughts about parenting, and force myself to really think about what’s going on. Maybe most importantly, I have a role model for thinking hard about what’s going on even with very young children. My only model for that before was cognitive scientists and their informative but ultimately clinical experiments.
I’ll give Gunnar the last word:
I enjoyed the mentoring tremendously. It is very rare to find someone so interested in parenting and taking the preparation so seriously. I felt myself and my advice highly valued. A good feeling that I hope many mentors share. Talking about my parenting experiences and insights also sharpened them and gave me more clarity about some of my thoughts on parenting. I highly appreciate all the note-taking that was done by Supposedlyfun.
One thing that I realized is how crowded the parent education market is and how difficult it is to find unbiased evidence-based material. I have been thinking quite a lot about this and hope to post about it sometime.
We have paused the mentoring for the time being and I am looking forward to how the advice works out in practice. We agreed on a call sometime after the family has adjusted to the new human being.