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Book Notes: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

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This was a book recommended to me by some folks at work, and has been popular on tech twitter. I have more kids than the average person (4), and we’ve chosen to have them closer together than most; the title caught my attention.

Below is my summary & thoughts on the book! I hesitate to write anything about parenting, there are so many strong opinions, there’s no perfect right answer, and I’m always learning and changing my views.

Follow the data

Brian (author) uses a lot of twin studies, mostly from 1st world middle-class families with no major trauma (which he calls out as a caveat), to support his arguments.

The basic argument he’s making that if you are a middle-class family in a first-world country, his findings apply to you. Brian’s distilled thesis is your parenting matters a lot less than you think.

I found this hard to accept as I read the book. If you have kids, they are important to you. Probably the most significant thing in your life. You want to believe that what you do as a parent matters. It’s hard to hear an argument that grates against a core belief, even if it could be true. Having a truly open mind is a hard thing.

It’s easy to disregard things that you want to be false.

That being said, without knowing that much about statistics, it seemed like the author too easily extracted lessons from the twin study data. Parenting is a complex problem with many, many inputs and many results. It would be interesting if there was an open source data set with the information he used in the study to poke at the relationships between inputs & outputs in the dataset he used.

For example, the definition of "success" or a "positive outcome" can be modelled in many different ways. Does the twin data change as the definition of these core axioms shift?

Make parenting easy

We hare more tools now than we’ve had in the past. It’s cheaper to buy advanced devices (kindles, robot vacuums, etc). The author makes a strong case for ‘being kind to yourself’ and essentially taking the easy way out.

Why? The idea is we are too hard on ourselves as parents, partly because of the cultural pressure around being a perfect parent.

Benefit to the child is almost the only socially acceptable justification for discipline. As a result, parents use a lot less discipline than they would if they counted their own interests.

This strikes me as true. The "emotion coaching" and "whole brain child" style of parenting engender the idea that kids’ emotions are most the important, and if you don’t remain connected to them and aware of their emotional needs, you’ll cause them trauma that will stick with them the rest of their lives.

There’s a lot of value in being aware of your kids, creating secure attachment, being there for them emotionally, etc. Giving words to what they are feeling and modeling for them how to handle a situation is important. I’ve found wisdom in a lot of these books.

What can be lost in this rhetoric is that the parents matter too. Parents well-being cannot, always, be sacrificed on the altar of the kids.

The shift that this book proposes is ‘cheating’. Making parenting easier on yourself:

  • Supervise your kids less. Let them play outside without watching them (ala "Free Range Kids").
  • Using more discipline to improve kids behavior.
  • Buying your time back with babysitting and generally hiring help.
  • Don’t step in if they are bored. Encourage them to solve their own problems and think of something interesting to do.
  • Pay/bribe your kids to do major chores. Paying people to do stuff models how the real world works:

Why should parents drive themselves crazy squeezing free labor out of their kids? Your boss doesn’t have to nag you to do your job. Instead, he makes you an offer—and if you don’t like it, you can quit.

The argument Brian makes, this is actually better for your kids:

…few consider the dangers of secondhand stress. If you make yourself miserable to do a special favor for your child, he might enjoy it. But if he senses your negative feelings, he might come to share them.

How you parent doesn’t matter

The author has a large chapter dedicated to arguing how little your efforts actually import your kids in the long run. He proposes that you may see changes in your kid’s behavior when they are young, but there is a lot:

  1. Pre-programmed which your efforts won’t change and…
  2. The larger environment has a bigger impact than your parenting.

He does mention that political affiliation and religious affiliation (but not behavior) is something parents can effect. But, who really cares about affiliation? Being affiliated with something if it doesn’t change your core beliefs and view of the world doesn’t matter.

Some interesting quotes from the book:

a large scientific literature finds that parents have little or no long-run effect on their children’s intelligence.

Genes are the main reason criminal behavior runs in families.

Half a century from now, your children will remember how you treated them. If you showed them kindness, they probably won’t forget. If you habitually lost your temper, they probably won’t forget that, either.

Since our kids are almost five times as safe as they were in 1950, parents’ angst should have mostly melted away. Instead, we’ve come down with a collective anxiety disorder.

The chief cause of family resemblance is heredity, not upbringing—and while the short-run effects of upbringing are self-evident, they leave little lasting impression.

I feel a strong resistance to believing these sort of statements. Not being in control of our lives, of that we hold closely, is challenging:

The best explanation is that parents suffer from what psychologists call the illusion of control. Flying is about 100 times safer than driving, but many of us feel safer behind the wheel.

Memories matter

Awhile back, I read Thinking Fast and Slow (wouldn’t recommend it—just read the cliff notes). However, some important concepts stuck with me, including Peak-end Theory. The basic idea being what you remember are the highs and lows of life, most of the day-to-day grind isn’t memorable. This is definitely my lived experience true for me.

Twin and adoption studies confirm that parents have a noticeable effect on how kids experience and remember their childhood. While this isn’t parents’ only lasting legacy, it is the most meaningful.

One thing I’d love to understand more is how the daily experience wires itself into the mind’s model of the world.

My hypothesis is we don’t remember details of daily life much, but the way daily life is lived consistently, over time changes the models and principles that we live our life by. Peak experiences are most memorable, it’s hard to recall the dailies, but both impact how you view the world. This means you don’t have to score 100% on the dailies—it’s more the average experience over time which creates a positive or negative impact.

For instance, as a Dad if you don’t any time with your kids, I’d argue that kids will cement certain "agreements" in their mind that are nearly-impossible to fully revert ("I’m not worth spending time with", "I’m not loved", etc). If you have one of those "agreements", the natural defense mechanism is to over compensate in the other direction and spend too much time with your kids at the expense of other important dimensions of life (which will probably have a ~equal negative impact).

I notice this in my own life in certain strange ways, even though I had amazing parents (who I’m very grateful for). There’s something about consistent "micro trauma" in daily lived experience that shapes how a person views the world in a very sticky way.

I’d love to understand if this is just a crazy theory or if there’s been any research done on this,