Updated 5/2/17 to reflect a writing style less influenced by a desire to meet a self-imposed deadline!
From employees to children, we have to take any opportunity to get out of the way if we want them to achieve their full potential. A tree can’t grow if the pot is too small. A muscle can’t develop if it’s never tested its limits. A mind can’t flourish if it never has to think.
In the past few weeks we have been exploring methods to help you unlock your own potential. Now we will turn the tables and focus on how you can best help others. Helping yourself is important but helping others unlocks exponential gains. At the very least we will help inform the structure of effective parenting.
Tim Ferriss’ 6th question in his “Testing the Impossible: 17 Questions That Changed My Life” from Tools of Titans explores his role as a boss.
“What if I let them make decisions up to $100? $500? $1000?”
He presents this in the context of his past realization from question 5 that he was the bottleneck in his company’s workflow. As it’s owner and founder, he knew knew the right way to deal with any situation. Therefore he set himself up to be the only one able to make decisions. It worked but at a terrible cost to him. The cost was so much that it threatened to squeeze the life out of his company. He was the head and the head was dying.
Tim realized the fix was to release some of the control. As he does, he started with small experiments: give them total control over $100 with the edict “make our customers happy”. Sure, losing $100 many times could sink a company. However it would be difficult for that to happen. He had run the numbers. Losses in $100 increments didn’t kill the company. Nor did $500. Nor $1000. Soon Tim saw his role dwindle. His baby learned to walk on its own.
Parent like you are running a business?
There is a great analogy between a business leader and a military leader in war. I won’t do it justice so I won’t try. Instead I will tell you to immerse yourself in Jocko Willink. Do it all day. From 4:25AM until you pass out on your bed.
I will however talk about being an effective parent. As a child psychiatrist I have some relevance. That said, I will offer complete transparency: everything I know about parenting I learned from Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. Best behavior modification coach in the world! My use of an indirect muse shouldn’t be a surprise given that I learned more about psychotherapy from The Tim Ferriss Show than I didn’t from 5 years of psychiatry residency.
The first step in effective parenting is releasing yourself of the guilt of creating adversity in your child’s life. You absolutely must regularly be the vector of challenge. I am not saying you should abuse your child. In fact I argue that it is possible to effectively raise a child without ever creating physical pain in the child’s life. Pain creates change by emphasizing that the consequence of a behavior should be feared. An effective parent never uses fear as a motivator. Rather you should motivate your child by helping them access positive reinforcement through achievement. The promise of reward is always a more potent motivator than the fear of consequence. Overcoming challenge is the water your plant needs. You have to give your children water every day.
This was Tim’s ah-ha moment in his company.
“People’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”
The same is true of children. Any lesson they can teach themselves is infinitely more valuable than a lesson you can teach them. That same mantra is the basis of good psychotherapy. There’s a reason for that. Buy it and make it the backbone of your system.
Take advantage of humans’ natural design
Maybe we should start with a conversation about child development. I think it’s important to analyze our pre-cognitive phase to understand the prime state all humans share.
Everyone’s life begins with one consistent experience- trauma. It’s brief but it’s the first time. Prior to that point, our lives have otherwise been a climate-controlled day at the spa. Then we are squeezed or pulled out into life.
The next thing we do is breathe. There are many ways to analyze the first breaths of life. While not all babies’ first breath is a cry, it often is. One may see that breath as a reflex designed to give us a string of really solid, high-quality oxygenation. Another theory would say the cry is a vestigial reflex from our primitive lives when “hey, don’t forget your baby” may have been an important communication. Regardless of why it happens, what seems certain is that the cry will happen until they newborn perceives that it has returned to an attachment similar to its prior uterine state.
This attachment doesn’t have to be to mom. We assume it to be so based on some studies. We also prefer it be so, thus making it important to maintain that narrative in human culture. However there are studies where it is shown that the newborn may only be looking for attachment. Even if it is a faux-momma chimp made of blankets. Regardless, after leaving the wonderful confines mom’s personal day spa, Utero Relaxo, the newborn want to get some of that back NOW!
To further emphasize my point here- our very first act of life involves being taken away from comfort, then using crying to get back to it. File that away for later.
After some modern luxuries like a bath, Apgars, and umbilical snip we recover from our first trauma. We don’t respond again until our next built-in need goes unmet: food. Remember we just spent 9 months at an all you can eat buffet. This going-without thing is not cool. Again, to get what we need we use the only communication tool we have. We cry. It works. We eat (hopefully).
Let’s say at this point we are 1 hour into the first day of our life. Already we are 2 for 2. In terms of productivity and efficiency, we are the best there is in the world. We needed two things and we got them. We used crying to get both of them. The ROI on this engagement is infinite.
This dance of having needs met via crying will continue for days and weeks after. Crying will likely not be beaten as an effective tool for many months. Maybe even years depending on a parent’s degree of patience. Imagine if I gave you a tool that offered 100% efficacy in goal achievement. Then in 6 months I told you, stop using it and didn’t explain why. You might have a problem with that. You SHOULD have a problem with it because to this point you have not been shown a reason to abandon crying.
Human culture has assigned a negative value to crying. It shouldn’t happen. It is regressive, child-like, not ideal. However if there were an annual conference of the Society of Newborns their keynote speaker would likely be extolling the virtues of crying. “It’s the best! Do it all the time. If you need something, let if fly.” The audience would be raucous with cheers (or cries I guess. That’d be a fun conference.) To your child, at that moment in life crying is the absolute best thing ever. It will continue until you teach them otherwise.
The process of unlearning crying is the first real rearing moment a parent is tasked to perform. Our initial engagement of the less is to give into the cry. Food, diaper, sleep, snuggles. Whatever. Our darling child gets it ALL on demand. It is actually an important dynamic because it teaches nascent human what it feels like to go from A to B. They see that change is possible. One can go from upset to okay. It shows that the concept we later will call wellness is achievable and discomfort isn’t permanent. It’s almost like a mini-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy session. Problem occurs, create intervention, observe change and decide if you want that to happen again.
At the end of your first day of life you have been shown that perfection is possible but it will end. However imperfection is not terrible and you have ways of intentionally getting back to something similar. You now know what sour and sweet taste like and how to get either predictably.
The next global phase of our behavioral maturation involves many years of the child trying to find applications of this first-day lesson. However that requires testing. We call it the Terrible Two’s. Fresh off their landmark birthday win, toddlers are on a mission to see if it is repeatable. If you’ve ever used a VR headset you know what they are going through. Any of the 5 senses that can be engaged will be as much as possible. Any limit must be challenged. No cupboard can be unturned.
However their small size and limited mobility keeps them from truly testing our ability as parents. By and large we are capable of exerting our will upon them. This makes us happy and we can tolerate much of what they do. Plus we don’t expect much of them. “Oh well, they are babies” we will say when they get into the pantry and spread flour all over the house.
Then a funny thing will happen. They will grow. They will use words. They will get faster and stronger. More importantly- they will look more like us and they will enter into a phase in life that we still remember from our own past. This creates a very dangerous but valuable judgment: expectation. From this point forward we have a script they should follow. We expect them to shed their infantile behaviors and show us they are moving toward our way of life. The crying, pooping, sleeping and eating tenant has been served an eviction notice. This building will only house mature humans henceforth.
However, while we were born with some instinctual script on how to get through our infant stage, we have none to guide us through this adulting thing. Our only guide, the guide every mammal uses, is to learn by example. Unless we see it or discover it by trial and error we will NEVER learn it.
Luckily, we are blessed with the best central processing unit in all of life. We can take in any data, analyze it, and convert it into consequent action. FAST! Be it the creation of a memory, the execution of a voluntary or involuntary physical action, or the generation of an emotion, if we can experience it our brains can handle the data and respond. It is the main function of our design.
This should allow us to efficiently develop through trial and error. It just would take time. Unfortunately we don’t have the time necessary to allow natural selection to work. From that first day we have about
18 25 35 years to learn to man the ship on our own. We cannot wait for the average Homo sapien to figure it out. We need them contributing to the tribe as soon as possible.
Humans also are the most social animals on the planet. We don’t want our fellow Homo sapiens to suffer. It wouldn’t fly for trial and error to be the only means of learning how to be an adult. That is mainly because such would mean those with more error than trial would die. We can’t allow that.
So it is that we developed the longest rearing phase of any species. There are no angsty 17-year old orangutans telling their parents they hate them but refusing to go hunt for themselves. We are unique. We are in it for the long-haul because we have decided that a parent is the best source of life training.
Here you are, parent, tasked with the most important job you will ever have. A job for which you have no training other than that whole learn-by-example thing again. It’s fine though. No single moment will define your success at your job as a parent. But then again a single moment can totally impact the rest of your child’s life. No pressure.
Let Them Fly
Today somewhere in Redwood National Park a momma bird is holding court over her nest high above the ground. Her skill and ability as a bird and homemaker have allowed her to place her nest higher above the ground than any other bird momma. Up here, her babies are at less risk than any other babies in the forest. They are quite privileged and lucky to have a mom able to offer them this opportunity.
However, today is a different day. Today is flying day. Mom is going to get this show on the road. Baby bird A and B have got it. They’ve been doing some flutters into the air and down the branch their nest sits on. Baby C, not so much. Mom doesn’t care. A, B, and C are all going to get a nudge over the edge today. She has to. Momma bird’s one goal is to advance her genes through the gene pool. Her actions are those of a species trying to filter the strong from the weak.
Of course our society can’t and shouldn’t work that way. We have created enough survival privilege that our genes don’t need to be filtered that way. Healthcare, education, government assistance. We have developed systems that allow us to support all members of our species. Who knows, maybe Baby Bird C would have become the best bird in Redwood National Park history. Mom’s impatience may have prevented that.
However despite our innovative advantages we should not think that our methods of individual development have changed. We still learn from challenge. Baby C would certainly have never learned to fly if Momma Bird had decided “it’s not right for me to let Baby C die because he can’t fly yet, I’m going to move this nest to the ground”. What’s worse, if she did that Babies A and B would likely have seen their flying gift diminish for lack of need.
If Momma bird wanted to develop her child rather than fly-or-die she would need to recognize Baby C’s deficiency and devote more time. Take it slower. Smaller. Clearer. Get Poppa Bird to take A and B out for the day while she put in some quality time with C. Of course in this survival-of-the-fittest world of hers, she can’t afford to devote that kind energy to a single offspring. Especially when the next batch will be due next year. Imagine if all reproducing females had a child (or 3) every year. We’d have a very different society.
When Tim Ferriss decided to test the waters and give his employees more responsibility, he was engaging this dynamic. He chose to sacrifice his ego for the good of their growth. He created challenge and decided to absorb the responsibility of teaching.
However, this step also required him to be adept at the most effective ways to modify behavior and lead his team.
Don’t tell your child to “be careful!”
This phrase and a few like it have always bothered me. “Be careful” offers no instruction. It is vague and useless. Unless you have sat down and delineated what a careful way of being looks like you have done nothing to help your child. Instead it acts as a marker for your child to engage anxiety. How many parents have said “be careful” and then noticed their child looking at them from the jungle gym as if to say “is this it, is this careful?”
That moment is very dangerous for child development. When a child stops trying to make its own moment-to-moment assessments it has leaned on an unsustainable resource. You won’t always be there. You shouldn’t. You can’t. “Be careful” sends a message “you are close to making a mistake, luckily I warned you.” Over time that message gets consolidated to “my parents know when I’m about to screw up, I don’t, I need them around to be sure to tell me what to do.”
There are a number of similar phrases. “You’re not listening” asks a child to read non-literal communication. Thanks. “What are you doing” asks them to understand a rhetorical question. Imagine their confusion. “Pay attention” asks a child to adhere to a verb that doesn’t have meaning to them and an action that can only be internally derived. Would you ever tell a kid “be happy”? No, you’d say “smile”.
Don’t become white noise
While it may seem trivial, these are the micro-manager analogues everyone hates in our adult lives. “Do a good job”, “be a better teammate”, “show people you love them”. Super low yield if not stifling in their ability to create growth. When a child is consistently exposed to this kind of ambiguous direction they may move those words, and you, into the white noise realm.
Imagine I take a child to the playground. While there I tell the child to be careful every time peril is near. They climb high up,”be careful”. They stand near a ledge, “be careful”. They run from point A to B, “be careful”. Two things have happened.
One, that child does not have to mentally assess safety at any point. You’ve got it covered. The kid has a built-in external alarm system. He doesn’t have to think at all. You will often see this in highly impulsive children. Their external alarm has allowed them to never need to learn internal risk assessment. Particularly because this alarm is always going off!
That brings us to the other function at play. Part of effective interpersonal communication and teaching methods is establishing a recognizable pattern. We use these patterns to understand the meaning behind each other’s subtle variations in tone, intensity and word choice. A parent who uses “be careful” has decided to give up on that phrase having any meaning. Much less the meaning the phrase intends: “DON’T DIE!” In this case pattern recognition will not differentiate your tone of caution from “eat your vegetables”.
It is extremely important for parents to have a way of communicating emergency. “Be careful” parents often will instead use volume, anger, etc to communicate emergency. Those are dangerous but necessary because the simpler forms of alert have been watered down.
How to teach Careful
The process of learning how to teach careful is beautifully wrapped up in Tim’s idea to release control over his employees. As with everything I talk about on this blog, you have to start with slow, comfortable increments toward a larger uncomfortable goal. That was Tim’s choice to start with $100. Let it go and see what happens. Know what your markers are that the experiment has failed and be ready to jump in if necessary. If failure does occur, regroup and plan again. Next time make the step smaller.
Field Test: Find your Closing Speed
I recommend finding a place to take your kid that you feel represents safety. I really like large, open, grass fields for this so I will use it as our example. Take your kid to the center of the field. Put them down and let them do their thing. From that point forward your goal is to not use sound to guide your child and protect them from danger.
Many parents call this “zone defense”. You let your kid do their thing while you stay within “closing distance”. It’s derived from sports where a few people can be used to guard a large area. You never let your assignment get far enough away you can’t close.
This does require you to know your “closing speed” and your kid’s “escape speed”. If “escape speed”>”closing speed” we have a problem. I recommend using our field test to find your answers. Let your kid go and chase them down. Over time you will develop a natural sense of when YOU need to “be careful” and move closer to your kid. You will develop an intuition of when a given distance FEELS too far.
Field Test: Know Your Angles
In most sports there is an objective assessment of the individual’s skill at the discipline. A basketball player’s shooting skill. A pitcher’s arm strength. A sprinter’s speed. There is also a deeper understanding of their grasp of the process of their sport. This tends to be an “it” factor. Something that is not often taught due to the abstract complexity of the content. Some will talk about it being a god-given talent or natural ability. I will argue there are no significant god-given talents. “It” factors can all be learned.
The analogue to use here is shot blocking in basketball. To steal from Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the fixed mindset is going to say that being tall and jumping high are the essential components to shot blocking. However the growth mindset will say that those qualities should not be the focus. Rather the teachable quality is what is important. In shot blocking that teachable quality involves angles.
The great shot blockers know how to unconsciously assess a shooters position and body language to know the most likely shot vectors. The elites take it another step and learn how to use their own body to influence the shooter into vectors that are weaker for the shooter and stronger for the blocker. If I am a right-handed blocker defending a right-handed shooter I want him to take left-handed shots to my right side all day. In a moment I will use my light speed mental processor to guide him toward the baseline (where the bounds line can act as an extra defender). However I will also leave enough space that he THINKS he has room to get off an easy left-handed fade. That is until he realizes that I have been studying his left-handed fade for a week and know that he always shoots it as a cross-over from a right-handed dribble. The second I see his right hand crossing the ball to the “open” left I gave him, I am closing on the angle to start my block at the point of attack I know works best for me.
I should mention I have never intentionally blocked a shot in this manner in my life. I learned about it by reading about shot blocking. Not because I’m ever going to block shots. Rather to learn how to plan for effective parenting. Value in metaphor.
Now let’s turn this into some direct parenting technique. I’m going to use my kids’ favorite place as our basketball court: the fountain at Broadway’s Plaza in Walnut Creek.
As you can see there is a lot to love here. A fountain. A circle (perfect for running around). Benches (perfect for racing toys across). Stairs (perfect for climbing). There’s also bus that comes by designed to look like an SF Cable Car (as we do here) which they love.
Parents will see something different. Water in which to drown. A sidewalk with nothing barricading it from the street. Cool stuff on the other side of the street. It’s a darting and dashing nightmare. Right?
Wrong. Let’s break it down to unearth the game plan and find our vectors. The two biggest vectors of harm are the fountain and the street. Let’s start with the fountain. The water is about 12-18 in deep and maybe 6-8 in below the edge. This single spot is the location of the most “be careful” parenting in all of downtown Walnut Creek.
It is not a vector of harm. My toddlers will not drown in it. They may fall in. They may get wet. That will suck. 24 hours later it will all be fine. So we remove the fountain from our minds. It is Shaquille O’Neal at the three-point line. It is Tim giving his employees control over $100 decisions. I did my field test. I know my rate of closure. I know if they go in I will be there fast enough that harm will not occur.
Now I am left with one vector of harm and one angle I need to be able to attack- the street. Streets are a big one as they are probably one of the most significant vectors of unquestionable harm possible. As such, my wife and I have spent a good deal of time training to streets (remember the analogy in basketball of watching tape of a shooters habits?). The kids now know “yellow bumpies” mean “stop”. They don’t need to be told.
By practicing stopping, reinforcing it with positive emotions (the best reward you can give a kid) we showed them to “be careful” without words. Now we can say “stop at the yellow bumpies” and they know how the “be careful”. Over time we lengthened the gap we give them ahead of us when walking. In doing so we never gave them any instructions other than “stop at the yellow bumpies”. We have never let them go ahead of us a distance we haven’t already seen them master.
Initially this gap was always ONLY a distance we knew would allow us to be on them in a few steps. The second we saw their lead foot go off the bumpies and toward the street we swooped. It happened maybe twice. They never actually made it off the bumpies. As Cesar Milan says all the time, if a dog/child makes a mistake it is not their fault, it’s yours. It was your responsibility to be prepared to prevent the mistake using behavior and not words. By reserving our “emergency” voice and behavior for those two moments they understood in a second this was different and learned quickly.
With this information I now know I can stand at the white posts you see in the picture above and prevent any access to our one vector of harm. My angle to the fountain is good. The only escape vectors are the sidewalks in the four corners of the plaza (2 not pictured) on our side of the street. If one of the kids moves toward those vectors I change my angle, shrink the zone, and move closer to that point. I’m constantly looking for a sign one of them will bolt down that pathway. It’s never happened but I don’t assume that will continue.
The caveat here is that while you may not yet intuitively know your closing speed or angles, your kids know it exactly. You probably have seen this in elite form if you’ve ever tried to catch a dog. Both instinctively know how fast you can come and when you can and can’t catch them. Conversely they also use that information to know how far away from you to go. Going back to our field test, you probably can come up with an exact distance where you kid’s internal “too far” meter kicks in. (Hint: the more you use “be careful” the further that distance will be).
In that space if there is a vector you want to avoid, make sure you both start out far enough away that it is not within your kid’s internal “too far” distance. For example, ideally Broadway Plaza is big enough that I actually stand on the other side of the fountain (to the right edge of the picture) so the kids never extend their range of play beyond “too far”. That said, in this case I feel much better standing at the posts- it guarantees my hypothesis isn’t wrong.
Another caveat. All of these ideas are generally based on happy kids with their executive functioning intact. Sometimes all it takes is a skinned knee, a lost car, or a denied ice cream and executive function is out the door. That’s the b-line for the street I want to prevent. Again, it’s never happened for us (they always stop at their “too far”) but we are always ready for it to happen. When emotions are clearly getting high, we shrink the zone and decrease the closing distance. Use body language and positioning to create safety, not verbal language and volume. Like a gazelles on the savanna, when your young are injured, keep them close to the center of the herd. You don’t see momma gazelle yelling, “hey the lion is coming, get your ass over here”. Momma moves into the best position to prevent compromise.
Summary: learn how to parent from animals and athletes.
Effective Parenting is a Commitment
This conversation does require some degree of disclaimer. This is not an instruction to let your kid run wild and free and see what happens. In fact what I am advocating for is actually a more hands-on attentive approach than the “be careful” or helicopter parents achieve. Our kids should never be allowed into a setting where we have not already done the diligence to assess the risk. It is our job to protect them. However, in that voice we must also hear that it is our job to find ways to give them allowable, intelligent risks.
In that way, I do not recommend most people try this on their own. I recommend you seek a Behavior Modification specialist and consult with that person on planning. Don’t trust my ability to clearly convey the point without the opportunity to ask questions. I am effectively saying that you should let your kids walk toward a street with busy cars and not stop them. That’s REALLY dangerous. You have to KNOW your kids will stop because you’ve proven it. In the same way you have to know your kids will leave a party when drugs come out. That they will take an Uber home when their romantic partner decides it is time to show each other how much they love one another. Kids do not get the benefit of the doubt.
To be an effective parent you have to be on point constantly. It is exhausting. You can’t go to the park and check your Facebook feed. You are a professional basketball player in the middle of a game. You can’t take a break to get off your feet while the kids are off playing. You are a field general and it does not relent, ever. Playgrounds become an exercise in observation, prediction and action. Stores become a dance for line-of-sight. Unless you can commit to this, do not consider any of my ideas.
If you can commit to this you will offer your children the opportunity to develop beyond anything you could teach them with words. They will derive their own internal sense of boundaries. They will learn internal cues of safe vs unsafe, right vs wrong. Eventually it becomes second nature for you both and isn’t as difficult as it was in the beginning. You’ll remember the basketball analogy where a shot block becomes unconscious muscle memory. It can happen here too.
Like Tim Ferriss found in letting his employees make decisions in incremental, allowable steps, you can unlock potential and release yourself of the stress of needing to be the external brain. Whatever you do, “just be careful.”