Ideal Number of Parents

post by jkaufman · 2019-10-04T20:00:01.371Z · score: 22 (11 votes) · LW · GW · 4 comments

I'll often hear people say with varying levels of seriousness that the ideal number of parents to have is something large, like maybe five. Children, especially infants, can be an enormous amount of work, which is certainly easier spread out among more people. Kids also like getting a lot of attention, can require a lot of money, and, since different adults are good with kids in different ways, can benefit from having a range of adults in their lives. But while having many people involved in taking care of the kids is great, I'm not sure having all of them be co-equal parents is a good approach.

First, a question: why are people excited about putting so much of themselves into parenting, when if you wanted to pay for similar levels of childcare it would be incredibly expensive? Not to suggest that parenting is simply unpaid childcare; thinking about what why these superficially similar situations lead to such different levels of desire helps illuminate what's important about parenting.

Answers will, of course, vary based on individual perspectives and drives. For some people the answer is "I'm not excited about this, which is why I don't want kids", but for people who do want to be a parent I think it's common for things to trace back through two points:

For the first point, the more people you have co-parenting the less say each one has and the harder it is to reach agreement. Parents can have different ideas on what is safe, how discipline should work, how much help to give, how to do food, value of different kinds of toys/screens/games, co-sleeping, night training, potty training, is it ok to microwave baby milk, what rules to have for sharing, how structured the day should be, when they're ready to go outside alone, how to do money, what to do for childcare, when bedtime should be, what's important in schooling, how important is predictability, how to handle various unique challenges most kids have in some form, how to do presents, when to let them try a thing, what medical treatments make sense, how much to let them make their own decisions, whether to let them ask people for things when it's kind of rude, how much to push them, when to encourage an interest, how to build responsibility, and how to balance all kinds of tricky tradeoffs.

For important issues having more people involved in the decision could make it more likely you are to get good decisions, but you need to balance this against how hard it is to get people to come to agreement on things they feel very strongly about. Unless all the parents have an incredibly close sense of how kids should be raised there will be a lot of these, based on different childhood experience, different parenting philosophy, how to weigh different factors, etc. This is hard enough with two people, and it seems like something that gets substantially more difficult the more parents there are.

For the second point, the permanent nature of the relationship allows a kind of parent-child bonding that people are understandably wary of in more temporary arrangements. I care enormously about what happens to my kids, and part of that is knowing that they're my responsibility no matter what. Getting this kind of assurance of permanence with a larger number of parents is legally somewhere between "very difficult" and "not possible" in a society where only some parents will have official status. The legal parent(s) could at some point, if things fall apart, cut the others out. If you think co-parents wouldn't do this, consider how many loving relationships collapse into spitefests in divorce. Even if we fixed the legal aspect, however, the more people you have in parental roles the more likely there is to be some kind of falling-out over the years, and joint custody among large numbers of households wouldn't work well.

Other aspects that could be a problem, however, seem like they could be managed with good communication, good culture, and dividing things. For example, I do the kids breakfast and pack Lily's lunch in the morning (hence the thermos experimentation). I then pay attention to what comes home uneaten in the lunchbox to try to figure out what I should send next time. In figuring out what to send I also pay attention to what she's been eating and not eating at breakfast and dinner. [1] Even if we had several other co-parents we could still divide things up so this was all on one person and avoid having to manage this process across the full number of parents. I do think the ways parenting work tends to drift towards the people who are already doing the most, because they're currently best at it, are more of an issue, but a surmountable one if you're attentive.

Overall I do think something with more parents can work, and I'm excited people are trying out new approaches. I think it could turn out to be really positive for children to have so many adults strongly invested in their well-being. But I think children having one or two parents in a strong and stable community/household of family/friends probably works better than a larger number of fully-equal parents.


[1] I initially tried an approach of asking her each day what she wanted for lunch, but it turns out she's pretty bad at predicting what she's going to want to eat. So my current strategy is that I pack what I think she'll eat, and then if she wants me to pack something in addition she can ask me to and I'll do that as well. I do eventually want to move to her packing her own lunch and getting good at figuring out what she wants to eat, but at least for now it's much more important to me that she be getting enough to eat.

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comment by Alicorn · 2019-10-06T02:51:24.643Z · score: 26 (8 votes) · LW · GW

We've got multiple parents for ours - we sort of fell into the arrangement (one moved in with us when kiddo the first was a few weeks old, it gradually became obvious that if she ever left he was going to take that like a divorce and we should be thinking about how to keep her around, eventually she added her primary partner in the manner of a stepparent). But only I am primary caretaker (everybody else has a job), so while I rely on the others for advice and discuss things with them, what's sustainable and practical for me tends to trump - if I cannot be around some noise a toy makes, the toy does not get to have batteries, etc. We agree on the broad strokes of what considerations are important in general, and implementation details are just a thing the kids will learn vary between people - for example, there are a lot of things my son is only allowed to do if he can locate someone who is willing to supervise the activity and be responsible for any cleanup (today this was "eat shredded cheese", which usually winds up all over the floor, but a roommate who isn't even one of the parent collective was up for helping him with that this time).

comment by Viliam · 2019-10-05T19:36:29.170Z · score: 22 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think the optimal number of parents is probably two, more or less because of the reasons you mention: who has the power to make the big/final/meta decisions. On the other hand, I think that more people than usual could be involved in roles equivalent to grandparents / aunts / uncles.

When good friends with kids of similar age live close to each other, a good strategy is to put the kids together, one day at one home, another day at the other home. Kids interacting with each other will remove some burden from the parent/babysitter (yes, sometimes you have to resolve conflicts among them, but it is still a net win), and getting free time in return for extra babysitting is a great deal. Similarly to how having two kids is actually not twice as difficult as having one, because the two kids sometimes interact with each other instead of requiring your attention 100% of time, and taking two kids to a playground or making a meal for two kids is about the same work as doing it for one kid.

How much of agreement do you need to have with people in the "babysitting" roles? Seems to me that kids are able to learn that different rules apply in different places. (I see my kids behave differently at home, at kindergarten, at grandma. Kids often take an afternoon nap at kindergarten, even if it's voluntary, while refusing to do the same at home. Grandma is more fun, but she can use the threat of "I'll send you home if you misbehave".) So the question is where the difference is okay, and where it is not acceptable. For example, if you don't want your kids to get hurt, you will require the same (or higher; that's okay) safety standards from anyone else. On the other hand, it is okay to have different toys at different places (not just in the obvious sense, but even with rules like "no watercolors allowed in this house").

Parents can have different ideas on what is safe, how discipline should work, how much help to give, how to do food, value of different kinds of toys/screens/games, co-sleeping, night training, potty training, is it ok to microwave baby milk, what rules to have for sharing, how structured the day should be, when they're ready to go outside alone, how to do money, what to do for childcare, when bedtime should be, what's important in schooling, how important is predictability, how to handle various unique challenges most kids have in some form, how to do presents, when to let them try a thing, what medical treatments make sense, how much to let them make their own decisions, whether to let them ask people for things when it's kind of rude, how much to push them, when to encourage an interest, how to build responsibility, and how to balance all kinds of tricky tradeoffs.

With my wife, we can agree on most of this easily, the major disagreements being about discipline. Yep, adding more people with more opinions would make the conflict resolution much worse.

On the other hand, grandma has different opinions on multiple things, but in practice the differences don't matter much. If she thinks different toys are better, she is free to buy them and have them at her home. Kids sleep at home, so her opinions on bedtime are irrelevant (and when the kids sleep at her place, it's "her place, her rules"). She thinks kids should not read and write before the school age, so she does not do these activities with them (though she was pleasantly surprised to receive an SMS written in ALL CAPS and without spaces one day); that's perfectly okay because there are many other things to do. I suppose we do not have substantial disagreements on things that actually matter.

I suppose the lesson is that there are differences that cannot be overcome (atheism vs fundamentalist religion, anti-vaxer vs pro-vaxer, etc.), but smaller differences can be easily solved by having "different house, different rules". Within a house, there should be an agreement on rules. The parents should be one house. This is why increasing the number of parents makes things complicated, but increasing the number of houses does not.

comment by MakoYass · 2019-10-06T03:58:14.102Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

[silly joke comment]

For example, I do the kids breakfast and pack Lily's lunch in the morning (hence the thermos experimentation). I then pay attention to what comes home uneaten in the lunchbox to try to figure out what I should send next time.

That's how you get survivorship bias, you have to look at the lunches that don't make it back, not the ones that do.

I'm struggling to figure out which module of my brain is misfiring right now. I think on some level I might have just not internalised an essentialist enough account of survivorship bias so all I have are analogies. Anything resembling planes coming back to base with damage on them will set off the alarm.

comment by jkaufman · 2019-10-06T10:56:28.844Z · score: 18 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So far the lunchbox has always come back. While normally I treat individual foods failing to come back as a good thing, if I packed something that resulted in the whole lunchbox failing to come back it would be important not to count that as a massive success.