If You Give a Parent an Algorithm

This classic children’s story takes the reader on a journey of if-thens with a very likable mouse. If you read the mouse a story, he will want to see the pictures; if he sees the pictures, he will want to draw one himself; if he draws a picture, he will first ask for crayons; and so on… One thing leads to another and another, and the young reader will understand that A can lead to B can lead to C. 

That book contains lessons not just for children, but for us, their parents! If we know that certain decisions lead to certain outcomes, we can structure our decisions around playdates, screen time, putting on shoes, doing homework, eating a snack before dinner, NOT making potions out of mommy’s fancy shampoo… to make things easier on ourselves.

Instead of fretting over the best rebuttal when your clever children point out: “You let us do it yesterday!” or “My sister got to go first last time!” imagine calm, soothing predictability. Imagine outsourcing that rebuttal to a series of pre-set rules. If my children do this, I do that. If they say this, I respond with that. Same inputs in, same outputs out, every single time.

Broadly speaking, I’m talking about decision hygiene. Making decisions can be messy, difficult, exhausting, and variable. But we can clean up our decisions just like we wash our hands, using techniques and tools to make them clean, consistent, and yes, easy!

Today I’ll focus on one particular tool – simple if-then rules or “algorithms” – and how to apply them to parenting. Stay with me. Don’t let the word algorithm scare you off!

Let me illustrate: 

Start with “If you give a mouse a cookie, X, Y, or Z might happen.” Now let’s increase the specificity: “If a mouse asks for a cookie at 5:30 pm, then the answer is ‘no’ because it is too close to dinner. If a mouse asks for a cookie before 4:45 pm, then yes, as long as she’s practiced piano.” 

Cookies then become a function of time of day and piano [Cookie=f(time,piano)]. After a few times encountering this if-then rule, the hope is that the child will then answer the question herself.

In fact this now happens in my family. When my daughter asks for a popsicle after school, my response is, “What do you think I’ll say?” She can tell me, “Mama, it’s before 5:30 and I’ve already practiced, so yes!” This algorithmic or rule-based thinking does a lot for our family: 1) it empowers my kids; 2) it gives them a sense of independence and autonomy; 3) it reduces my cognitive load; and 4) it eliminates arguments, at least about this.

Just for fun, let’s look at some common parenting challenges:
“May I stay up late?”

I am pretty strict about bedtime…but I will flex under certain special circumstances. Just defining those explicitly helped me make my if-then rules. Bedtime is essentially a function of whether there is school the next day, whether my child is healthy, and whether we are spending quality time with friends or family (a/k/a framily). And voila, the algorithm behind our decisions: Bedtime = f(school night, health, framily).

“May I play on the computer?”

This one is a doozy. Not all screen time is created equal. There is a difference between watching Netflix, playing a game, and reading NYT for Kids. What we ask in my house is, again, a set of if-then rules: Is there a non-screen version of what you are doing, a printed text? Does it automatically end after 30 minutes? Is my child home from school with an illness? Is the weather nice? If there are alternative ways to retrieve the information they are seeking, then I expect them to start there. Screen time is allotted in 30 minute increments. Extra screen time is allowed only if you are sick. If the weather allows, go outside! Tada! Another algorithm: Screen time = f(printed text, 30 min, health, weather).

I want to note that while these simple algorithms are lovely, adaptive algorithms are even lovelier. Our algorithm around cookies and treats works really well, but what happens if my children develop cavities or quit piano? I need to be agile in my thinking and adapt to our changing circumstances by updating my algorithm.

One of the best things about parenting are the strong emotional connections I’ve forged with my children, which are deeply rooted in love and respect. It is also partly a function of all the decisions I make around their upbringing. By leaning on if-then rules and algorithms, I’m not undermining any of that. Rather, I’m choosing to streamline certain decisions to free up mind-space and even time for the richer and deeper parts of parenting. 

If you give a parent an algorithm, will you free them from a few power struggles? Anguish? Knock down drag outs?

Go have a cookie, and let’s find out!

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