Nonintuitive Parenting Advice – A Short List

Nat Eliason recently became a new father and asked for nonintuitive parenting advice. It’s a great question that prompted me to think about the advice I’ve collected parenting four kids. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

  1. “Rewards and punishments are just two sides of the same coin — and the coin doesn’t buy very much.” A terrorist can effectively commandeer a plane with a bomb threat, but he shouldn’t expect to have a good relationship with the pilot after they land. Rewards sound kinder, but it feels like a punishment when it is taken away. What is needed is an alternative to both ways of controlling people, Alfie Kohn explains in his book, “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.”
  2. The more danger you can safely expose your children to, the safer they will be. Sheltering creates fragility, [appropriate] exposure creates antifragility. Read more about this important term coined by Nassim Taleb in his book, Antifragile.
  3. When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” – Alexander den Heijer
  4. “Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work.” – Frederick Herzberg. This insight may have been about employees, but it applies just as well to children and [school]work.
  5. “Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.” – Erich Fromm
  6. Children don’t have a focus problem, the problem is they focus on something different than what you want them to.
  7. You don’t need to orbit your kids, they can orbit you (at least seasonally). This is my paraphrase of Tim Taylor‘s advice.
  8. Distraction & redirection is more effective than discipline. Particularly with young children and toddlers (entice them away from the problem rather than discipline them). Side note: a similar phenomenon is at work in us as adults. “You may think that you control most of your choices, but the truth is that a large portion of your actions every day are simply a response to the environment design around you.” – James Clear, on using Environmental Design to modify behavior.
  9. Don’t rob children of their problems. Once you remove their problem, you take away their ability to solve it. “When we make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them.” – Adapted from Greg McKeown.
  10. Instead of, “No.” try, “Convince me.” It opens up the door to a conversation about the merits of the idea, teaches negotiation skills, and allows your child to gain access to your decision-making process. Then, say, “no” (if they’ve failed to convince you!)
  11. Similarly, avoid saying, “We can’t afford that.” Rather, teach them to dream big and problem solve by having a conversation about what would be required to make it work.
  12. Forcing children to share and/or apologize does not teach them to be generous and polite, it teaches them to maintain a facade of generosity and respect. Children need to receive generosity and care before they are capable of giving it. It’s up to you to model it to them. And don’t worry, there will be lots of opportunities to model apologizing.
  13. Children will reach for the highest branch they can see, your job is to show them the highest branches (by demonstrating what a great marriage, vocation, fitness, etc, can look like).
  14. It’s a tired cliche, but it truly does “take a village.” You can’t give your children everything they need, but you can build a community around them that can. Though you are the best person in the world to be their parent, if you try to be the world to them they will be shortchanged. My four teenagers/adults are wonderful people, and it is because of the investment of our community of friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and organizations like Frontier Lodge.

We need to continually adjust our compass to stay the course on parenting adventures, and we need continual reminders of what really matters. Try adding your ideal principles to an app like Evernote and set a reminder to resurface them periodically, you’ll appreciate this automated check-in with yourself.

What would you add to this list?

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