Growing Independence

post by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2020-06-07T20:20:02.805Z · LW · GW · 27 comments

Note: this is based on my experience with my two kids, currently four and six. It may not generalize as much as I think it does.

People start out dependent on their parents for food, changing, contact, motion, and even sleep timing. Typically they end up as adults, no longer dependent on their parents at all. Part of my approach to parenting has been that I want to let my kids be as independent as possible, as early as possible. Not only does it make their lives better, because they can meet their own needs how they want, but it makes my life easier, because they can handle more on their own. Sometimes this involves a bit more effort up front, but I think it's substantially less effort in total.

Examples:

Some common threads:

I have three main motivations here. The first is teaching: eventually they'll need to make good decisions on their own, and the sooner they start the more practice they'll be able to get. The second is a kind of long-term laziness: once they can do things for themselves it's less work for me. And the third is respect: they're people and as much as possible they should get to choose how their lives go.

27 comments

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comment by Raemon · 2020-06-15T22:49:43.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a bit offbeat as a curated LW post, but I felt it was appropriate to curate for a few reasons:

1. It was object level interesting. I felt like I learned a bunch about raising kids, enjoyed learning it, and from the karma of the post it seems others did too.

2. I think there is actually something fairly important about the topic of raising kids, which is relevant to more common LessWrong themes. First, there is a sense in which raising a family is one of the core things humanity is about. Many LW folk don't seem to have kids, and part of me is worried that all our philosophy and strategy is sort of missing something important if we don't have a background sense of "what raising kids is like" subtly informing our judgments.

There is also a sense in which this post is about "how to raise an agent", which I think ties pretty directly into core LW themes. I felt like reading the article fit into my overall worldview that includes robust agents and rationality and learning to think independently. (I think this effect was weaker than the previous “why artists study anatomy” curation, but similar in type)

But... I almost feel kinda bad listing this as the reason for curation, because honestly...

3. I think it's important that people feel not only entitled, but rewarded, for writing about whatever is important to them. Sometimes those post will be niche posts that don't get much appreciation, but I think it's good when one seems to capture a lot of enthusiasm to reward that. I want people reading LW Curated posts to get a sense that sometimes, exploring your own interests will find something that excites people and gets rewarded. 

I suspect that it's best for most curated posts to cleave a bit closer to central LW topics, but think occasional variety is good.

Replies from: johnswentworth
comment by johnswentworth · 2020-06-16T00:24:51.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there is actually something fairly important about the topic of raising kids, which is relevant to more common LessWrong themes. [...] Many LW folk don't seem to have kids, and part of me is worried that all our philosophy and strategy is sort of missing something important if we don't have a background sense of "what raising kids is like" subtly informing our judgments.

+1 to this specifically. Taking an unformed brain and guiding it along a path to become stronger seems like the equivalent of a lab class in rationality.

comment by Alexei · 2020-06-09T03:29:20.831Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’m now a father of a 3 weeks old girl. So your parenting posts are extra useful and appreciated!

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke, ryan_b
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-09T22:25:30.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tip: Take notes of what new things she does every week - or even every day. It is so cool to see one brain module after another come online.

comment by ryan_b · 2020-06-18T15:26:55.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Congratulations! How're the early days going? Does she sleep?

Replies from: Alexei
comment by Alexei · 2020-06-18T22:00:53.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Honestly it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. One month in and it’s getting a bit easier. She sleeps about 2-3 hours at a time.

Replies from: ryan_b
comment by ryan_b · 2020-06-19T14:27:30.512Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No joke! I once got so out of it that I was supposed to be fetching something from the kitchen, went out and wandered back three times empty handed, and then on the fourth try triumphantly returned with a bowl of watermelon I had sliced. That was not what I was meant to fetch.

comment by waveman · 2020-06-08T02:01:25.376Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a great book along these lines, highly recommended: "Parent Effectiveness Training" by Thomas Gordon.

One thing the book emphasises more than OP is letting children make their own decisions wherever possible. This encourages them to take responsibility for their own outcomes and massively helps them to learn. It is important - and empowering - to allow them to experience the consequences of their decisions.

Our daughter picked her own clothes from the age of 8, for example. There were only two instances where we overruled her about her own life choices after she turned 12. We never forced her to do homework. [She ended up with a PhD in a hard science, so yes she mostly did her homework. But it is her life.]

A lot of this seems counter-intuitive to people. Parenthood seems to trigger some sort of authoritarian program in many otherwise liberal people. It may be that you could make better decisions on a given issue than your children, but they lose the opportunity to learn when you do that.

It may also be that you would not actually make better decisions than your child. Conjure up in your mind a 16 year old dressed for a party a) in clothes of their own choosing, b) in clothes chosen by their parents. Who did the better job?

Replies from: jkaufman, romeostevensit, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2020-06-08T12:56:09.928Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing the book emphasises more than OP is letting children make their own decisions wherever possible. This encourages them to take responsibility for their own outcomes and massively helps them to learn. It is important - and empowering - to allow them to experience the consequences of their decisions.

I don't know how much my view differs from the book here, but practice making decisions and seeing how they turn out is definitely really important, and features in I think the majority of the examples above. It also is a natural part of doing things independently, since doing anything involves making lots of decisions!

Our daughter picked her own clothes from the age of 8, for example.

Our kids pick which clothes to wear that day, but Julia picks what clothes are available in their drawers. As they get older buying clothes will move to be their responsibility.

Picking what clothes to wear goes back to before they could dress themselves ("papa, I want you to put my bow dress on me")

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-06-08T06:17:01.398Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

+1 and the parent's role comes in the form of helping to make complicated and noisy feedback for decision quality more legible since the meta skill of doing that for yourself is something even many adults don't have.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-08T11:14:37.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the topic of parenting books there is also Kazdin's Everyday Parenting Toolkit [LW · GW] (one of the few evidence-based books on parenting).

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-08T11:22:00.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One thing that I have not yet figured out is how to teach delegation. Being very independent myself, I took very long to realize that I achieve more by delegating or working together on topics. Many friends esp. in manager roles love to delegate tasks while I enjoy figuring things out myself. I really have no solution. Maybe it is also a question of interests and talents - but then how do you know your kid has the talent to delegate and organize?

comment by Richard_Ngo (ricraz) · 2020-06-07T22:44:19.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't thought much about parenting in general, and don't have kids. Overall this seems like an interesting and probably valuable approach. But it also feels very individualistic, which would make me concerned in applying this myself. I expect that most Westerners, and especially Americans, are already too individualistic, and that it'd be useful for them to think of families and friendships more as cohesive units - as opposed to combinations of individuals, which is what it seems like your approach pushes towards. The two most salient examples of this for me:

Often they wanted me to lift them or support them in their climbing, and I wouldn't.

and

I told her that if she left the trike it would be available for anyone to take. And that I would probably take it, but it would then be my trike.

This sort of distinction between parents' property and children's property seems strange to me. What would be the consequences of this becoming your trike - especially given that you bought it for her in the first place? Apparently it worked in this case, but still... idk.

Replies from: ksdale, jkaufman
comment by ksdale · 2020-06-09T17:33:09.882Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jeff's approach to parenting is shockingly similar to mine, and I actually feel exactly the opposite regarding individualism (at least insofar as individualism is equated with being antisocial). I am perfectly willing to help my children with any number of things, but I want them to *understand* the cost to other people when they need help or when they make a mess they're not willing to clean up.

It feels more prosocial (to me) for them to understand that other people are people too, with their own needs, rather than to operate under the belief that they are entitled to someone's time and effort simply because they want it.

I also believe it's prosocial to give our time and effort where we can be helpful, and I try to teach them that as well.

The result is that our family is very cohesive, everyone sincerely grateful for help, and similarly more inclined to help because it feels like a gift we are able to provide for each other, rather than an obligation.

comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2020-06-08T02:30:13.450Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Those two examples actually feel very different to me!

In climbing, they have a desire to be up high that, if I don't get in the way, they'll use to learn how to climb up and down. If I step in, either by prohibiting climbing or by letting them get the benefits without putting in the work, that keeps this from working.

With the trike, if she chooses to bring the trike away from the house it's her job to bring it back again. I wouldn't want to get into a pattern where we leave the house with all her stuff and then she expects me to pack it back home again, especially if both kids might expect me to carry their things (trike + bike could be a lot for me!) If she had decided to leave the trike, and I'd brought it home, I hadn't thought about what I'd do next. I probably would have put it in the basement. At some point she would probably ask for it back, and then maybe I would have offered to sell it back to her for a few weeks worth of her allowance? This sounds a bit weird and maybe mean, but compare it to the alternatives of (a) the child can at any point abandon their things and expect the parent will handle it or (b) the parent forces the child to bring their stuff home.

As for what it would mean for it to be "my trike", the idea that some things in the house belong to different people is pretty normal to them: they know I'd be grumpy if they used my toothbrush, they each have some toys that are theirs (along with a lot of others that are communal).

I think it's important for people to learn how interpersonal boundaries work. Anna could ask me to bring the trike back, and I might decide to say yes to be nice, but I'm not obligated to say yes. I would like to raise my kids to be nice and help people out, but also to know when they're asking for a favor and know what sort of requests they can say no to.

comment by Itsnotme · 2020-06-20T12:32:27.139Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the parenting approach described here is very good and the post is well worthwile. There are a couple of things I’m itching to say, though. I have this itch because I’ve been sensitized by proud parents claiming the good outcomes of their kids to be a consequence of their parenting, while I’ve been doing all the same things without getting such great outcomes, so such posts are a bit painful to read. I apologise in advance.

First, as you probably have heared, parenting style (excluding outright abuse) appears to have little effect on adult outcomes of children, which are mainly determined by genetics and „non-shared“ environment. So if you are a good law-abiding LW reader and you don’t beat or starve your kids they’ll most probably turn out fine. Even better, I think almost all LW readers would do a nice job parenting. This does’t mean that it’s futile to exchange parenting tips, these are often very useful. Moreover, childhood is a large part of one’s life so we’re not only concerned with adult outcomes but also the happiness of the child while she’s a child.

Second, the author has apparently been blessed with two rather sensible kids. All kids, unfortunatelly, are not the same. Some of the advice in e.g. Gordon’s book or Jefftk’s post leaves me thinking that it’s very nice on paper but how would one carry it out in the wild? For example, I never have the chance of giving a lenthy explanation instead of saying „no“. Things happen very fast in my house. When I see my son hurling a heavy object towards his brother, or hacking at century-old furniture with a fork, etc, all I can do is shout „nooo!“ and jump. If I just say „please stop“ calmly, they don’t stop, that’s not their way. I do the explaining later, but they don’t seem to remember very long. And I had no way of preventing my older son from running ahead in the street when he was little. I considered it dangerous, but I just couldn’t catch him with the younger child dangling from my chest, and nothing I said could stop him from running. You get the picture.

Now some people would say proudly: „I always taught my kids to love and help each other, which is why they hardly ever fight!“ Well, I did the same and my sons love each other dearly. It just happens to them every now and then (a couple of times a day) that they get into bitter fights. The problem seems to be that they move much faster than they think, or something. The same with not listening when I ask them to stop: I have introduced Consequences. I’ve given them Me-Messages („when you do X that makes me feel like Y“). I’ve given them Responsibility and told them I Trust them. I’m naturally warm and empathetic, so they love pleasing me. I’ve done everything in the book, but the book isn’t working with all kids.

What I wanted to say is, the genetic background of your kids is likely a better predictor of their behavior than the specific parenting style. Or more precisely, parenting has a stronger effect in the early childhood, but looses it’s power more and more as the child grows. Claims along the lines that „I raised my kid to be independent and now she has a PhD“ make therefore little sense. She probably has a PhD because she’s your child.

comment by Keskiyo · 2020-06-08T05:25:05.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Although the approach differs a fair bit, the intended effect sounds very similar to my understanding of Montessori parenting and education systems. This style emphasizes the child's independence, encouraging children to use real, "adult" tools, such as knives and glass cups as opposed to toy knives and sippy cups so they can learn these skills, and generally are expected to do the things that they are able for themselves. There is a focus on child-led learning, with you providing the things that the child needs to develop. For instance, a child going through a schema where they're refining fine motor control would benefit from being provided with a wide variety of toys and games to exercise this skill, and as their interests shift elsewhere you would shift the toys in their environment to reflect this change. I believe another goal is creating a yes space, where the child is safe to use or play with everything in a given room, even if left unsupervised, from a young age.

There are a few other tenants of Montessori parenting, such as not exposing young children to fictional books before a certain age as it's suggested they may have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality until and an emphasis on filling the child's environment with high quality natural materials like woods, metals, and so on as opposed to plastics, including in the case of toys.

I've not read into it very deeply yet so my description may be inaccurate in places, but I believe that it originated in Italy, as a style of education aimed to help children with mental disorders reach a better level of independence and self-sufficiency.

When the kids started being able to climb things, I would spot them. Often they wanted me to lift them or support them in their climbing, and I wouldn't. They would also want to be lifted down at the end, but the rule would be "if you can climb up, you can climb down."

And this, as well as a few other points you mention, remind me of this documentary about a school in New Zealand with a no rules policy. They allow the kids to climb, but maintain that if they get up on their own, they can get down on their own as well. They also don't seem to intervene unless a child explicitly asks for help, allowing issues to be resolved by the children, potentially with the help of the older children should they desire to intervene.

It's an interesting policy, and one I appreciate, effectively providing children with an adventure playground on school property. I remember seeing something to the effect of children who are given the opportunity to take risks and test their limits with a large degree of freedom will develop a better understanding of their limits as teenagers and into adulthood, allowing them to take more calculated risks than their peers, who would be just starting to build this life skill. I wish I knew the source for it, but it certainly rings true of my own personal experiences working with children.

comment by Hazard · 2020-06-08T01:17:11.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for a big list of concrete examples from your life! I find stuff like this really useful/insightful.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-08T10:54:06.198Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The general approach of teaching vs helping goes is the same directions as "say yes, but" in this post I wrote some time ago, more examples (esp. for older kids) can be found there:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/DEsgKpLJ9LvTRuDh7/soft-paternalism-in-parenting [LW · GW]

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-08T09:37:09.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My father-in-law said: "I'm not here to make you happy but to prepare you for life."

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-08T10:56:30.691Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that if your goal is only that it can lead to a lack of trust that comes from unconditional support. I think kids should receive quite a lot of unconditional support and love. As always the trick is to find the right balance.

Replies from: ryan_b
comment by ryan_b · 2020-06-18T15:23:14.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would argue that giving your kids unconditional love and support is one of those things for which a person should be prepared in life. Of course, I see discipline and independence training as complimentary to this objective.

I feel like a big trick to parenting so far has been trying to find the angle from which these look the same, or at least harmonious.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-18T16:40:22.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I feel like a big trick to parenting so far has been trying to find the angle from which these look the same, or at least harmonious.

This!

comment by TemporaryPseudonym · 2020-06-09T21:45:29.260Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

.

Replies from: jkaufman, Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by jefftk (jkaufman) · 2020-06-10T01:12:08.332Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your children are young and thus have had a very limited time to gain knowledge of language and of the world and are thus incredibly inarticulate with respect to you.

I'm actually quite lucky here, in that I happened to have two kids who are very articulate. They're really very good at explaining why they want to do things.

Because they are so inarticulate it is easy to default to a patronizing response when they ask for help. When Lily adamantly desires a haircut, perhaps consider why rather than discarding it as the nonsensical whims of a child.

I'm confused why you're saying this? As I wrote in the post, when she wanted a haircut I didn't stop her, because it's her hair. Letting kids do what they want, as long as they're not going to get hurt, do something they'd really regret, or cause problems for others, works well here. They don't have to convince you why they should be allowed to do the thing if the default is "yes".

We wear shoes so our feet can't sense what is below us, we have homes where we decide the temperature so we're never too hot or too cold

https://www.jefftk.com/p/still-barefoot and https://www.jefftk.com/p/how-we-cool-our-house, but point taken ;)

Scraped knees are a good thing.

I think I disagree there. Letting kids do things where they might scrape their knees is important, but if we could magically have knees that were more resistant to abrasions that would be a good thing!

your daughter falling and hurting herself may be a positive in the long run

Again I disagree; I think she was much to young to get anything out of it. And even if it had happened today instead of years ago I still would think it wouldn't have been worth it.

Replies from: TemporaryPseudonym
comment by TemporaryPseudonym · 2020-06-10T02:18:29.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for dunking on me! I can tell you have a far superior understanding of the world than I.

"I'm actually quite lucky here, in that I happened to have two kids who are very articulate. They're really very good at explaining why they want to do things."

I'm sure your children are brilliant but I am certain they are less articulate than you. I think when we use comparative words like articulate we are implicitly saying that someone is better with respect to their group. Your 4 year old is articulate with respect to other 4 year olds (and don't say it is because of luck as that undermines your whole ideology) but I think my statement stands unless you are genuinely arguing that your child speaks as well as you.

I concede: your daughter falling and hurting herself may be a positive in the long run.

I now realize I lack the knowledge of how the brain works, especially at such an early age, to make such an argument.

Upon rereading the hair example I see my judgement was flawed. I am really nitpicking now but I think being Socratic (in the sense of imploring her to defend her original statement) rather than just explaining the world as you see it would be a superior rhetorical strategy.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2020-06-09T22:23:45.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
That said, your daughter falling and hurting herself may be a positive in the long run.

I am also of the opinion that we should let our kids take some real risks (at least those without long-term health consequences). And risk here meaning that some of these risks do lead to getting hurt. getting bruises or even broken arms or teeth. This way the kids can calibrate how dangerous (or not dangerous) the world really is. This way, when they grow up, they will a) have more options to choose from and b) avoid options dangerous options they didn't know were dangerous.

My go-to-example is a toddler who jumped out of his high-stool head-first because he genuinely didn't know that was a bad idea. My boys knew that certain heights are bad ideas because from early on when they were crawling toward the edge of our bed we would let them 'fall' down, i.e. let them slide down head-first and just make sure they would land just gently enough (by holding their leg) that they would learn "this is uncomfortable and probably not a good idea this way".