#004 Why Can't Science Tell Me How to Parent?
Or, while we're at it: Why can't science tell me how to manage my team?
Hi, and welcome to The Deliberate Practice. I’m your host, Jeremy Barr. This week, we are going to be talking about why it’s so challenging for science to answer questions about parenting kids and managing teams. After the paywall, I’m going to go into some of the specific strategies I use when I’m trying to train kids, team members (or myself!) to be helpful.
Before we had kids, I remember having conversations with already-parent-friends, about what is the right number of kids to have. I’ve heard that “the world is made for families of four”, and I’ve seen that play out in hotels that only allow four people per room. (And no, I’m not booking a second room for that one extra kid.) I’ve heard that the hardest shift was going from two kids (we can play man-to-man defence) to three kids (now we have to play zone defence). But looking back at it, the hardest shift for me was going from zero kids to one kid. That was the game changer.
I mean, I remember times from before kids where we would get home from work, look at each other, wonder what was for supper, and then decide to go to the restaurant because it was too much effort to make food. The level of freedom there was incredible. When we moved over to one kid, a lot of that went out the window. The baby needed to eat when the baby needed to eat, and unplanned trips were tough. Especially in the winter: did we really want to bundle the kid up, get them in the car seat, pack the stroller and the whole bag full of diapers, milk, food, and all that fun stuff, and go to a place where they could end up crying around a bunch of other people?
Around the two-and-a-half year mark, the baby would turn into a toddler, and we would tell ourselves, We’ve got this. We’re experienced parents. We know what we are doing! And decide that the time was right to have another one. And then there would be a new baby in the house, and we would realize, No. It is incredibly difficult to keep a small child alive. And that essentially, one parent would need to take care of the kid, so that the other could focus on making a meal or getting something done around the house.
But the reality was, kid number one set the tone for the house. After that, the routine was set. The second and third kids just had to fall into line with the routine.
The other thing that I remember from that time, was that it takes about two-and-a-half years for it to start getting easier. Below two-and-a-half, it requires constant attention to keep kids alive. After that, once they know the house and everything is set up, we can usually do a little bit of stuff on our own, and trust them to take care of themselves for a few minutes here and there.
That same thought process keeps coming back though: the idea that there has to be an easier way. There’s no way our ancestors, 10,000 or 100,000 years ago, were able to spend so much time chasing after small children, while also working through the day.
It took until COVID hit for me to realize that we needed to do something differently. When we moved to learn-from-home, all of a sudden there were no boundaries between work and home any more. Everything needed to be done, at the same time, all the time. We also lost our support network. We couldn’t see family or friends. There was no asking a babysitter to come help out for a few hours here or there. Everything was gone.
And that’s when I started reading the book Hunt, Gather, Parent, by Michaeleen Doucleff. I’ve mentioned this book in a previous post, but it’s worth mentioning again because there is so much good stuff in there.
“But Wait! Can’t Science Tell Me How to Parent?”
This title, from Chapter 2 of that book, stood out. I love to have research to support my thought processes. In a world of uncertainty, I find it very reassuring to have something concrete to rely on.
With each of our kids, somewhere around when the child turned two or three months old, we started to find it extremely challenging. At that age, the baby is starting to be more alert, is looking for more attention, and is starting to be awake more. All of a sudden, the naps that we used to be able to count on so that we could, well, shower, weren’t as reliable.
So we would look for the strategies that science supports in helping get through these times. We read books, looked for people who had already been there, and tried to figure out what people did to get through raising infants. There is no shortage of books, experts, or consultants (“this is how to sleep-train your child”, “this is how to get the baby to latch”) out there. And at the same time, there is very little actual research supporting these practices.
Here is a quote of the specific paragraphs that sold me on trying a new way to approach parenting the kids1:
Time and again, the evidence-based strategies weren’t of much help. Shocker, I know. Sometimes the strategies worked for a week or even a month, but the effect always faded, and we found ourselves back at step one.
And so I began to dig into the references in the back of the books I bought. Right away, alarm bells started blaring in my sleep-deprived brain. I may have slept for only about twenty hours in the past week, but my scientific brain wasn’t complete mush. I could still see that many of these studies had major issues, from multiple directions. I started to question many of the findings and doubting that these parent strategies were actually going to work. Can science really help me learn to be a better parent? I wondered. Sure, science can help me to keep Rosy in good physical health with vaccines and antibiotics. But what about her mental and emotional health? Can science teach me how to get her to fall asleep more easily? How to stop her from throwing food at dinner? Or what to do when you awake one morning to see your two-year-old running down the sidewalk, buck naked? Can science tell me how to raise a kind, cooperative kid?
I posed those questions to psychologist Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia. He laughed a little, then made a statement I’ll never forget: “Parenting questions are some of the hardest problems out there for science. Shooting a rocket to Mars is super easy compared to these questions.” Parents are simply asking for too much from science when we want it to solve toddler tantrums or tell us how to get kids to be helpful, he said. Even in the twenty-first century, scientists just don’t have the means to answer such complex questions.
So really, science isn’t going to be able to help us understand parenting because the scope is too broad. It is going to be extremely challenging to design robust, well-powered studies that help understand which strategies will work and won’t work. So Michaeleen suggests another approach: take the time to study cultures that have been raising children generation after generation the same way for thousands of years. Learn which time-tested strategies work, generation after generation.
In March 2020, the conditions were right for me to want to try something new. I was burned out from trying to juggle my work-from-home and the kids’ learn-from-home. Morten Hansen says that:
“A great way to inspire others is to foster both negative and positive emotions—getting people upset about the present and excited about the future.”2
Well, I was inspired. I was feeling negative about the present (“How am I ever going to get my own work done?”, “How are the kids going to make it through school?”), and excited about what this book was proposing: a way where the kids and I could simply get along. It seemed like there was an endless amount of work to do (both at, well, work, and at home), and I was falling further and further behind. So I figured I’d try it.
How Does This Apply to Managing a Team?
Full disclosure: managing a team is in some ways very different from trying to convince little people to stay alive long enough to become big people. But one thing is the same: we are trying to teach the people around us to be helpful, while also learning to be helpful ourselves.
I am a strong believer that the corporate, bossy way of interacting is inefficient and ineffective at home and at work. Unfortunately, many of us (and me in particular) have had this way of interacting modelled for us from the time we were very young: at home by our parents, in school by our teachers, and early on in our careers by our leaders, bosses and managers. Many of these habits, lessons and behaviours have worked themselves into our default behaviours.
The good news is that we can choose to change these behaviours. It’s a lot more work to change the underlying mindset and beliefs (though it can be done with therapy and coaching). But the behaviours themselves are tools that anyone can learn to use. I challenge you to try them, at home and at work. I like to call these behaviours tactics. I’m not sure where I picked this up from, I’m definitely not the person to do this. But the concept of using tactic (“a plan or action for achieving a goal”) is helpful because it is something different than our emotional state. For example, when I am angry, I have a tendency to shut down new ideas, to want things my way, and to be generally uncooperative and unhelpful. At the same time, I know that when I’m angry, I can choose a different behaviour, a different tactic, and get a different outcome. I’ve noticed that my default behaviours when I am angry are generally unhelpful and do not move things in the right direction. Here are some behaviours that do.
Tactic: Give New People Their Team Membership Card
This week’s tactic is going behind the paywall. My objective when I write this is to provide a good amount of value for free. I believe I’ve done that so far in my post. My second objective is to show you the nitty-gritty of how I do things, and what I am thinking while I do it, so that you can problem-solve on your own. If you are frustrated with the way things are working now, I try to offer evidence-supported strategies for a different way to work.
If you find this valuable, please consider supporting this publication. You get the satisfaction of knowing you are supporting all of the free content. You also get the convenience of me reading this for you (the “play” button at the top of this page), so you can listen on the go!
I’ll put in my usual disclaimer here. This is a tactic that I am still getting better at. I don’t claim to be perfect with it (I’m not). What I am is learning. Learning when things go right, and especially learning when things go wrong. When I try this strategy, and don’t get the result I expect, I take a step back, try to learn from it, and try it differently the next time. This is my experience with what works and doesn’t work for me, so far.
Let’s start with what hasn’t worked for me. Telling people exactly what to do hasn’t worked. It makes sense, because I get frustrated when bosses tell me exactly what to do and how to do it. That hasn’t stopped me from trying it with other people. Actually, let’s start with a counter-example of when telling someone exactly what to do and when to do it does work: in an emergency situation. Kid running across a parking lot? “Come here and hold my hand, right now” is effective. But trying to create an environment where another human being can develop leadership skills? There is no single directive I can give that will help do that.
Another thing that hasn’t worked for me is being too vague. I’ve done this either by not saying enough (not being clear about what I want), and at other times saying too much (again, not being clear about what I want).
With younger kids, I’ve learned to be more simple and direct. “Bring this cup to mommy” works. “Hey, do you want to bring this glass of water to your mom?” doesn’t. I don’t ask for help too often, maybe once an hour. I keep in mind that kids want to help. I’m giving them real work that is actually helpful for our family. This allows them to contribute.
If you try to talk to a team member like you talk to a child, you’re going to have a hard time. (Maybe I shouldn’t generalize here. To be more specific, any time I’ve tried to treat an adult the same way I would treat a child, I’ve had a hard time.) However, human beings are human beings. These strategies that have worked for generations to train kids to become helpful still work, no matter the age. I keep in mind that team members, and especially new team members, want to help. They are here because something in the job resonates with how they like to serve the community around them.
When asking team members for help, I make sure that:
I’m not asking for help too often. The more senior the person is, the less I ask for help. When a team member is new, they need to learn how to be helpful. As a team member becomes more senior, I ask for help less. There are two reasons for this. One, it can be insulting. Once someone is good at what they do, and they already know what needs to be done, asking for them to do something that they already do makes them feel small and makes me look stupid. Two, senior team members already have a lot of responsibilities. If I can ask someone new, then they can start making a real contribution to the business by doing meaningful work.
I’m asking for help doing things as a team. This is the real meaning behind the strategy of giving people their team membership card is this idea of doing work together. A major contributor to people’s work satisfaction is that we are creating real value for the people around us (our fellow team members, as well as the communities we serve). Working together helps build this shared experience. Frequently, new team members don’t know how to be helpful. They do things that seem counter-intuitive. We ask ourselves, why would they do this thing? When we probe deeper, or ask them directly, frequently the answer is that they were trying to be helpful. By emphasizing that we are going to do this together, it helps build that sense of teamwork.
And as the person becomes more and more competent, I start to ask for things that require more skill. I don’t need to be as direct about what to do. Instead of saying, “Create two folders, one with this name and another with this name”, I can say something like, “It’s month-end. What support do you need from me?”
This can be particularly helpful when kids are acting up or team members are being uncooperative.
If a child misbehaves, they need more responsibilities.3
This has been a consistent theme I’ve seen. I’ve seen it in myself. For example, the times that I’ve felt the most “all over the place” have been the times when I’ve either had fewer responsibilities, or that I’ve had responsibilities I don’t like. When my kids misbehave, it’s generally for the same reason. And the times that we’ve had team members create drama or conflict in the workplace, it’s almost always because they haven’t had enough responsibilities, or they haven’t been challenged in the right way.
Asking for help, showing people how to be helpful, is one of the best ways to create alignment, in our families at home and in our teams at work. Our objective in asking other people to help is to:
Create a sense of shared purpose, where we are working in the same direction,
Train them to be helpful to us, and to train ourselves to be helpful to them, and
Show people what the real jobs are that need to be done.
So, that’s it for this week. Let me know if you’ve tried this, as well as what has been successful and … what hasn’t. Not every tactic is going to work in every situation. If you feel like sharing publicly, hit up the comments below. If you’d rather chat one-on-one, reply to this e-mail and I’ll get back to you. See you all next week.