It’s April Cools! Last year I wrote about friendship bracelets and the year before about cocktails. This year it’s parenting.

Parenting articles are a dime a dozen and always bury the lede behind a long story. I’ll skip that.

How to think about your child and your role as a parent

These are framing devices. Concrete things to do to work toward these are in the next section. I will refer to the numbers for each action to show what principle it is applying.

1. Your child “has no brain”

This is shorthand for: the things your child is having a tantrum about are illogical by nature and cannot be fixed by reason or negotiation. If they could, it would be a sign of “having a brain.” It’s our job as parents to teach them logic and reasonableness, but in the mean time, avoid treating their problems as if they are worthy of the same effort to remediate as an adult.

2. Your job is to teach your child to think

They don’t know how to think. If they spill milk on the floor, they don’t know that they’re supposed to clean it up, they don’t know what bad thing will happen if they don’t, and they don’t know how to clean it up. It’s a parent’s job to teach them these things, and they need to learn to observe a problem and determine the right course of action to fix it.

3. Your child mirrors your energy

I sound like a hippie, but it’s the best way to put it. When you get angry and yell, your child will be angry and yell. When you are calm, your child will naturally want to be calm. When you are excited, your child will be excited. A corollary is that if you want your child to be calm or excited, you act that way first. This helps you shape behavior, but it requires you to be in control of your emotions.

4. Speech is a stimulant

When your child is having a tantrum, talking only makes it worse, regardless of the content of your speech. We may want to ask what’s wrong, or tell the child how to fix the problem, or try to help them breathe, or gently say, “We don’t do that.” But each one just stimulates the child more.

5. Children want to be like their parents

This means they want to be “big kids” and they want to be together with their family. This means that you are modeling adult behavior for them. If the majority of your interactions are playing with them they will see you as a play-time machine. If they see you reading, working, cooking, or cleaning, then they will naturally want to do those things too.

Actionable advice

Say less

Best way to calm down a frivolous tantrum is to say nothing and wait it out. (4) Remove any physical dangers if necessary. To speak to your child in this situation, whisper. Just loud enough for them to hear. The quieter the better. If you speak in a whisper, they will tend to whisper in reply. (3) This doesn’t imply you ignore them. You can be tender and hold them, touch their face or rub their back, but just say as little as possible.

More generally, parents say too much to their kids. There are good times for it, like when their brain is open and they’re receptive to learning. But too much talking when you want them to do something or behave a certain way is an invitation to negotiate. Don’t ask your kid if they want their sandwich cut in squares or triangles. Just give it to them. If they complain, don’t respond with justification or apologies. If you say anything, say, “Eat it or don’t.” (1, 3) Most of the time my son will complain about what’s on his plate, only to start nibbling on it five minutes later when he sees the rest of the family eating and enjoying each others company. (5)

This also means that when you want to influence your kid to do something, speak as plainly as possible. Don’t say, “Excuse me, sweetie, would you mind putting your shoes on? It’s time to go and we have to get to the dentist on time.” Instead say (calmly), “Put your shoes on.” Or, if they know it’s time to go, just “Shoes.”

Quiz you child on good behavior, and focus on bad outcomes

Instead of telling a child what to do—especially when it’s something that you’d told them many times before—prompt them. Even better, prompt them by spelling out the logical consequence of not doing the right thing and letting them infer the right action to avoid it. (2)

The other day, our family was ready to go out to breakfast and my son was barefoot but otherwise fully dressed. When he said, “Ready!” I said, “What are you missing?” (2) He pointed to his coat he was wearing, a silent “I’ve got everything!” (1) I just stared at him with my eyebrows raised. He then looked down and pointed to his shoes, and I nodded. Then he went to put on his shoes.

This shoe-reminding situation is the end result of weeks of practice, and we no longer require consequence prompting. But when I started this, I would prompt things like, “It’s cold and your feet will get wet,” which I know he doesn’t like. Sometimes I would leave him by the front door alone while I pretended to get some items ready in the kitchen for our outing, so as to reduce stimulants and give him a time to process (4). Other times not putting on shoes was his way of expressing he wanted to stay home and play with me. In that case, I would say, “I’m leaving, so you will be home by yourself unless you come with me.” And for a while it would be screams and tears, and I would even go so far as to start to walk out the door to show him I’m serious (For an adult, I would be asshole, but he is not an adult (1)). Later it became screams because as I stepped out the door he realized it really was time to get shoes on, and he needed me to wait. Now he can anticipate it better.

The other day he was running around with a bagel with cream cheese, dropped it and got cream cheese on the floor, and then picked up and continue to run around. My wife then said, “Oh no! There’s cream cheese on the ground!” (2) This was a prompt for him to think about why that is bad. He mostly ignored the prompt, and then she said, “I hope I don’t slip on it!” Still nothing. I chimed in, “The ants will eat it!” And finally he said, “I’ll clean it up!” And ran to get a towel.

Finally, my son has recently started to understand the concept of death, and while it makes my wife sad for him to inquire about death so often (“When will you die, Dada?”, “What does it feel like to die?”, “Do you know anyone who has died?”), I embrace it so that I can say, “If you run into the street and a car hits you, you will die.” This is a particular concern in my family because me, my father, and my grandfather were all seriously injured by being hit by cars, and my grandfather died from it when my dad was only 16. I call it the family curse. Cf. the later section on monsters and stories.

This pattern of focusing on the bad outcome has a double benefit for parents: if you can’t think of a logical “bad outcome,” then you may realize your request is unreasonable.

Do your own thing, and let your kid participate (but never force them)

One of my biggest stressors was that my kid demanded playtime all the time. This meant I couldn’t take care of the house or myself, or my hobbies, because I felt I constantly needed to entertain my child.

I have since abandoned this mentality. I get a much better balance of parenting and personal life by limiting the amount of explicit playtime (where I do whatever my kid wants, like play Frozen or build with blocks with him) and otherwise doing what I would have done if he were not around, while my kid amuses himself in the background. I work in my woodshop, I read a book, I go shopping with him coming along, I cook and clean. My wife gardens. The only thing I can’t seem to do is work on the computer, but that has also been healthy for me because it forces me to do more physical-world activities.

A key ingredient to this is letting your kid participate when they get curious. (3, 5) More often than not, he eventually wants to join in my task, and so I give him a little job that is relevant to what I’m doing. I show him how the bar clamps work and he squeezes the trigger (then later at dinner I say, “If you’re not strong you won’t be able to squeeze the clamps!” and he says, “I’ll eat all my meat!” (2)). He sweeps while I’m cleaning the counters, then I hold the dust pan for him and he brings it to the trash can. He mixes an undressed salad, peels carrots, and pours pre-measured ingredients (all poorly). When I’m reading, he sometimes sits next to me and asks me about a word, and if I’m not in the mood to pivot to reading practice, I give him an age-appropriate book to look at and he reads beside me. Or, in all of these situations, after an initial hurdle of, “No really, I’m not going to play with you,” which I phrase instead by stating, “I’m doing X right now,” (2) he will just find something to play with- scrap wood in the woodshop, a spatula in the kitchen, his toys in the living room.

Previously I tried more rigidly “encouraging” my son to participate in my grown-up activities. By which I mean effectively forcing him to be next to me and help cook. That rarely worked. It required me to talk more to give him instructions (4) which gave him opportunities to negotiate, complain, or resist. Just quietly working and waiting for him to engage first works much better. Sometimes I would lightly encourage them by excitedly saying, “Are you going to be a big-kid chef?” or, “Are we going to cook together as a family?” (3, 5) But if they don’t bite, I just ignore them and continue my task.

Use monsters and stories to drive values

There’s an urge to teach a lesson in the middle, or right at the end of, a tantrum or bad behavior that sparks a meltdown. But that’s the worst time to do so (4).

When you spot bad behavior, wait until later to try to teach them how to behave properly, and reinforce the right behavior with a made-up story. Set up a fictional situation with made up characters. Prompt your child for what he would do in that situation, (2) and focus on the bad outcome if he picks the wrong answer.

For example, I did a story with my son about how he hit another kid who (my son said) he saw hitting a third kid. We did a story about two Jedi (my son loves star wars) who saw a pirate bullying a group of kids, and when I asked my son what the Jedi should so, my son said, “they should cut off his arms because he didn’t listen when they said stop.” I was alarmed, but told him about how bad guys can choose to be good guys, but if you hurt them so bad or kill them (again, he’s fixated on the idea of death right now), then they never get a chance to be a good guy again. It also helps that we did some stories where the good guy becomes bad, or vice versa, to emphasize that people can change. Eventually we settled on, “one Jedi should help the bullied kids get away, and the other should go find an adult to come help.” Then in the story the two Jedi got a special reward for solving the problem without fighting: a plate full of tamagoyaki (my son’s favorite sushi).

My son loves these “story games” so much that on our daily walk to his preschool he asks for a new one, so I have ample opportunity to pick stories related to whatever behavior I want to encourage that day. Kids also pay special attention to true stories from your family, so it helps to know those stories and tell them often, when they have a lesson.

A special kind of story are monster stories. Invent monsters that are directly related to the consequences of their bad actions, and use them as motivation to behave properly. For example, we invented the “pee pee monster.” The pee pee monster comes out from the sewer and night through the toilet, looking for boys who didn’t go pee before bed or aren’t wearing their pull-up, and the monster makes them wet the bed. His pull-up is now “armor” to fight the pee pee monster. We reinforce the pee pee monster with stories about fictional kids who didn’t prepare and experienced the consequences of the monster.

While my kid does occasionally get a little scared of these monsters, it’s not very often, and it seems like a healthy motivation. Instead, he’s usually incredibly curious. “What does the pee pee monster look like?” “Does the pee pee monster get you at night, Mama?” He is attracted to the monsters and listens very closely to my instructions for how to stay safe from them. (3) Then in the evenings before bed I say, “What does a big kid do to protect from the pee pee monster?” (2, 5)

A good monster threat is focused on the direct consequences of a bad behavior. A river monster that will grab them and pull them under water if they get too close figuratively embodies the risk of drowning or being swept away by a rapid current. In some sense, the “ants” that will come to eat the dropped cream cheese are also a monster story.

Where did these tips come from?

I didn’t make these up, but I read a lot of parenting books from pregnancy and childbirth1 through Montessori, RIE, the How to Talk books, etc. While some of the advice seemed like it would be useful for an older kid (or even for adults in my life), trying to put the advice into practice, for me and my 2-to-3-year-old, was ineffective or even counterproductive.

But there was one book that did help: Michaeleen Doucleff’s Hunt, Gather, Parent. I hated her pandering writing style, but the advice worked. Doucleff’s book records her travels with her 3-year-old daughter to live with various indigenous people around the world for a few months at a time: the Maya, the Inuit, and the Hadzabe in Tanzania. The core concept is that these people have been parenting for generations, don’t read Western self-help books, and yet their kids are well-behaved and actively contribute to their households from a young age.

There’s a lot more in the book than I can fit in this blog post,2 so I recommend it to all struggling parents of toddlers. The above tips are how I distilled and tweaked her advice into my own particular style. Before that, while I was more than capable or being present and loving—perhaps too much as my son is firmly attached to me to my wife’s chagrin—following much of Western parenting advice set me up for exhaustion. Reading and re-reading dozens of kid books, constantly talking to my child and trying to work though his problems with him, conjuring up an unending stream of “simulating” games and activities, and generally bringing my camp counselor energy to every day was just not sustainable.

What I realized is that raising a child is much easier in many ways when you engage selectively and more passively. It reminds me of Masanobu Fukuoka’s 1975 book One Straw Revolution, which is about how to grow rice using a “do-nothing” method. It’s not actually doing nothing, but rather focusing on cultivating the right environment for rice to naturally flourish, like using the unused parts of last year’s harvest to mulch the next year’s crop, having animals to eat pests and fertilize soil, and adapting any specific practice by closely observing the local environment and seeing what it needs. In particular, rice had been grown for thousands of years before carefully managed rice paddies were invented. As Fukuoka argued, rice doesn’t need extreme engineering to grow.

By comparison, children don’t need a carefully managed “rice paddy” to grow. They need a safe and nurturing environment, good models of behavior, and enough time and patience for them to learn how to overcome their own problems and practice skills and good behavior.

  1. For what it’s worth, Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner was the best book I read about childbirth, if you ignore 99% of the acupressure voodoo (hip squeeze work but everything else is nonsense). ↩︎

  2. For example, there’s a lot in that book about how having more people around (younger and older kids, as well as adults) helps spread the burden and give the child more role models and situations to learn from. These indigenous groups all do this, with new people constantly coming and going, but we in our Western cities are all isolated in our houses with fences ensuring we don’t interact with the neighbors. And there’s advice on how to avoid the isolation by “expanding your child’s autonomous zone.” All stuff I want to work on. ↩︎