Family & personal development

StPauleTheHermitWithStAnthonyTheGreat


“Freedom… is the opportunity for self-discipline”

~ attributed to a French person by Dwight Eisenhower

2016 makes my 10 year wedding anniversary and that marriage is the central pillar of my social identity. It is where family and friendship coincides, and the basis upon which the meaningful relationships I have are developed.

I thought that having children would make me more selfish, because I’d be focusing my efforts and attention on propagating my own genes rather than considering humanity as a whole. I realise, however, that being a parent makes me a role model, and this encourages me to become a better person. It means that when I see distant tragedies I feel greater empathy than I did before.

I also thought that the circle of life meant that I care for my children because my parents cared for me. And then my children would care for their children and so on. Upbringing passes from one generation to the next, with the gift of “becoming a grandparent” being sent back in return. That’s not really a circle though, more of a straight line. Indeed recently I’ve seen how much support and care my grandparents required, and how your duties as a child revert back to your parents when they age. Providing grandchildren isn’t your ultimate gift to your parents; it is being there.

I believe that the thread of ancestry to descendants isn’t self-involvement, it’s self-realisation, and this essay discusses some of the books that I’ve read in pursuit of being a better father, husband, and son. As I move through the 4 stages of life the content will develop.

I. Father

“There are parts of the cultural heritage of a society that are more effectively transmitted through the family.” FA Hayek, 1960, p.90

Both of my children have turned three which seems to be a real turning point in terms of their development. At three they can (by and large) – talk; talk to adults; sleep at night; dress themselves; feed themselves; go to the toilet by themselves.

When they were growing up I organised photos of the kids into these categories: Newborn (birth – 2 months old); Baby (2 months – 1 year); and Toddler (1 year – 3 years). When they both turned 3 I went through those albums and made them a printed collection.

When they were younger, my job was to keep them alive. To survive. But increasingly I understand that physical development (i.e. weighing, measuring, testing) has taken a back seat to their emotional and mental development. It’s incredible to watch this all happen on a daily basis. It frightens me that my daughter’s problems will soon go from “Daddy I banged my knee” to “Daddy my best friend has spread a rumour about me and people are calling me names”.

Before having my own children I adhered to Bryan Caplan’s “selfish” school of parenting (which ties nicely into free range kids). The idea is that:

  • Not being stressed is the biggest gift you can give your children
  • If you’re the type of parent who worries about good parenting, you’re probably a good parent
  • Most of the factors that drive children’s future prospects are outside of your direct control

Tim Harford’s Messy has a great chapter on openness and adaptability, with plenty of lessons for parents. I particularly like the comparison between ladders and climbing walls. Because ladders have rungs in the same direction and an equal distance apart, they stop out thinking. This is why climbing walls – or better still trees! – are so much better. They are messier, and more dangerous. But children adjust for risk.

When the kids are getting fractious with each other it can be very hard to encourage them to play nicely together. One strategy that I take is to interject myself as a nuisance, and provide them with an even bigger problem. Since goal harmony beats team harmony, their behaviour improves. Give children shared goals and watch them prosper. Team building is overrated.

I also think it’s dangerous to view your role as a parent in terms of a debate between the forces of nature and the forces of nuture. Really, it’s neither, because:

“we can be active agents who in part control how those interactions play out…it is the individual who is the agent of action” (Mischel, p.278)

Whilst Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am”; we might say “I think, therefore I can change what I am” (p.278). This ties in nicely with my article, “Only Individuals Choose“.

So I believe in self-improvement, and want to cultivate that in my children. But I also recognise that reading to them of an evening is largely for my benefit, and my love of books and reading is part of a far broader set of abilities that will impart themselves on my kids in various multifaceted ways…

We should strive to simplify childhood.

And I don’t feel ashamed of “Dad jokes”:

The sibling relationship is an important one, and only superficially amounts to bullying. I see it more as a form of testing boundaries of love and engaging in counter signalling.

  • To our friends we are nice (with signals such as ask them how they are, share our food etc).
  • But with our close friends we take the piss, trip them up, because only friends would find that funny.

Teasing with siblings is the ultimate bond of security and love because only a confident peacock can cut off their tail. It isn’t that we can “be ourselves”, but that we can test elements of ourselves in a safe environment.

Just before Hope’s 5th birthday I attempted to do the classic Marshmallow Test (see The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel). Interestingly, I failed! I found it too difficult to leave her on her own, and stopped it after just 5 minutes. I then set up a camera for Tate (he’d turned 3 a couple of months before) and managed to get to 10 minutes. The kids seemed better at it than I was! The test is as follows:

  • Set them up in a quiet room with a bell, a plate with 1 marshmallow on it, and a plate with 2 marshmallows on it.
  • The instructions are: If you want to eat a marshmallow you need to ring the bell to call me back into the room. I will be close by and we can stop whenever you want. However if you don’t ring the bell, and wait until I come back into the room myself, you can have 2 marshmallows.
  • The standard test is for 20 minutes. As I said though, without a monitoring device I found this unbearable!

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 19.59.00The “test” is one of self-control, which is an important prerequisite for independence. But the purpose of the experiment is not really to categorise your child. It’s not about trying to measured the extent of their self-control. It’s more about seeing how they cope with situations that require self-control, and then using that as a basis to develop their skills. (Note that like many seminal psychological studies the marshmallow test has failed to replicate. Variables such as household income may underpin self-control and later performance, and in certain situations (e.g. low household income) a focus on present resources is perfectly sensible. I don’t think this undermines the usefulness of the test, merely shows that we should exercise caution before making too many causal claims).

Generally speaking, self-control is easier when we cool the present and heat the future. Being hot makes us react quickly to emotional stimuli, and triggers our feelings. Babies are often “hot” in this sense, responding to immediate and stressful conditions. And from an evolutionary perspective this was very important for dealing with danger. The cool system is slower to operate, more reflective and aids rational and strategic thinking. It is only fully developed in young adults, and is not the natural way to deal with pressure. But in situations where you want to exercise self-control, the crucial thing is to recognise the need to move from hot to cool thinking. Mischel mentions how:

  • Create a distraction (my daughter did this by finding a notepad and drawing a picture)
  • Make the focus of your attention more abstract (i.e. think of the shape, or colour, rather than the feel or taste)
  • Imagine that you’re looking at a picture, rather than the real thing
  • Ask what someone else in your position would do
  • Sing to yourself
  • Have a mantra

Ultimately what these have in common is that you’re generating cognitive distance between yourself and the temptation. You can heat the future by imaging the pleasure you will get from achieving your goal. (Another option is chunking. Split an extended commitment into smaller periods with rewards at whichever intervals required to keep on track).

Young children do not have well developed causal reasoning, and this is perhaps why negotiations are so fraught. I try to make clear “If/Then” scenarios (e.g. “if you don’t eat your dinner then you won’t get any pudding”, or “if you eat your dinner then you will get pudding”) and then follow through. I find that if a threat isn’t credible (e.g. “if you don’t stop crying then I’ll leave you here” or “if you don’t tidy your room then we won’t go to the zoo”) your bluff will be called. Writing down an “If/Then” scenario makes me more likely to follow through, and generate credibility.

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Do our children see us being hard on ourselves and exercising delayed gratification? It’s hard, because a lot of our gratification (in my case a glass of wine and a boxset) comes when they’re asleep. But we should demonstrate it. Indeed the main objective is to make good behaviour an intrinsic goal, so we’re not rewarding behaviour but seeing that behaviour as a reward in itself.

“If you aren’t consistent and are tough on your children but lenient with yourself, there is a good chance they’ll adopt the self-reward standards you modelled, not the ones you imposed on them” (Mischel p.225)

Don’t hot house but do provide a focal point for learning. It’s your job to ensure it isn’t stressful but give them an attainable target and watch them flourish as they rise to meet it. Kids love a goal. 

Make sure you set tasks that get progressively harder. Yes, it feels good to iron your shirts for the week and you deserve a beer at the end of it. But are you improving? (No!) This is why playing a musical instrument is such a good means of development – as you get better it doesn’t get easier. The same thing applies to games such as Lego.  Do things that have the potential for unlimited growth. Then you can avoid the Narcissism Epidemic by focusing on the pursuit of success and not protection from failure

Teach kids about moral dilemmas, which “arise when two legitimate moral values clash” (Brooks 2015, p.258). They are not mere dilemmas.

If you have a mere dilemma, however, and can’t decide which option to take try to pre-live them both. Our instinct is to favour our present self’s opinion of what ones future self should want to do. Rather, we should recognise that our future self will be pretty similar to our present self, and if something wouldn’t be enjoyable today, we shouldn’t commit to doing it down the line. “When my graduate students are fortunate enough to have more than one job offer and are tortured about their decision, I suggest that they imagine, as concretely as they can, living life in each job, one full day at a time, as if the job were happening now” (Mischel, p,133). If the prospect of doing an activity in a few days time doesn’t excite you, don’t commit to it in the distant future.

I have two concrete examples of advice I acquired from having read Mischel.

  1. Hope was given a speaking role for the school nativity and expressed concerns about having to talk in front of everyone.
    • I showed her some videos of me doing public speaking and explained the process by which I learnt how to do it (i.e. starting off with similar worries in a similar situation)
    • We practiced in front of a smaller audience of adults
    • We spoke about breathing as a way to remain calm
    • In other words the way to deal with phobias is to allow them to watch someone they trust encounter the problem in a calm, step-by-step manner, and then follow them
  2. Tate would often have tantrums where he’d seem unable to calm down by himself
    • I took a photo of him and asked him to explain what he saw. This provided a little distance and engaged the cooler part of his brain.
    • When it comes to tantrums – don’t isolate or punish just try to talk them down and show them how to calm down.

Finally, Mishel (p.251) provides some dimensions for what constitutes character (what we do when no one is watching, or “an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good (Brooks 2015, p.53)). I think it’s useful to reflect on whether you can find good examples of each of the following:

  • Self-control
    • Focus on the goal – “I paid attention and resisted distractions”
    • Temper control – “I remained calm even when criticised or otherwise provoked”
  • Grit – “I finished whatever I began”
  • Optimism – “I stayed motivated, even when things didn’t go well”
  • Zest – “I approached new situations with excitement and energy”
  • Social intelligence – “I demonstrate respect for the feelings of others”
  • Curiosity
  • Gratitude

In ‘Cinderella Ate my Daughter’, Peggy Orenstein (p.140) mentions a study that compared New Year’s resolutions of girls at the end of the nineteenth century with those at the end of the twentieth century. This is an example from the past:

Resolved: to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wonder. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others

Compared to:

I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can… I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.

I found David Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character‘ to be a useful resource (although I didn’t like feeling as if he was trying to convert me, and I think he uses economic thinking as a strawman – individualism isn’t necessarily atomosing, see my chapter in this). The main conflict of vision that underpins it is whether you believe that humans are risen apes, capable of anything we wish to achieve (and that our pure heart is the best guide to realise what that is); or fallen angels, capable of greatness but constantly having to strive against ourselves.

Our brains evolved for the relevent tasks of survival and the phenomenal pace of technological and social change imply that our instincts won’t always be correct.

  • There’s an elephant in the brain. Robin Hanson’s point is that we are a PR machine for ourselves, attempting to rationalise and explain our behaviour. The “elephant” in our brain is the mental flaws we pretend not to be aware of – the contradiction between what we say about ourselves and our actions. Revealed preference can go a long way.
  • There’s a chimp in the brain. Steve Peters uses a nice analogy of how the “chimp” part of our brain, responsible for survival, can dominate our “computer” and “human” parts. The chimp is geared to quick, clear, emotional decisions with little regard for long term implications. We can tell if the chimp is in control if we’re doing things we don’t want to do or feeling things we don’t wish to feel. The problem is that chimps are quicker and stronger than humans so in real time we can’t wrestle control. Instead, we need to put systems in place that reduce the chimps impact. The chimp isn’t us, we don’t have to follow it.
    • Let the chimp out every now and then, speak honestly and openly in a conducive environment.
    • Box it – rationalise your behaviour and train the chimp to accept the human point of view
    • Reward it – bribe the chimp to let you complete a task with the offer a future treat.
    • Distract it – engage in an activity (e.g. counting to 10) to give your human time to get involved.

According to Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun, there were 6 societal ills:

  • Lack of physical fitness
  • Decline of initiative and enterprise
  • Decline of imagination
  • Decline of craftsmanship
  • Decline of self-disicpline
  • Decline of compassion

Read novels: they refine our ability to understand other people and enlarge our experiences.

II. Husband

Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols. [Leon Wieseltier’s wedding toast to Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power (see Brooks 2016, p.176)]

  • Follow the strengths of your resume virtues
  • Focus on the weaknesses of your eulogy virtues

I’m sympathetic to the concept of the “mental load”, as explained here. The gist is that husbands may believe that they share in the world load by offering to help, but this reinforces the view that it is the wife’s responsibility to organise. But in the same way that free-riding can often be at route a disagreement about the value of the task, we should avoid the assumption that there’s a fixed amount of “work” that needs doing. In other words a prior conversation needs to occur about whether an activity needs to take place. And if it does, an agreement about roles and responsibilities. This is crucial because otherwise an attempt to share the mental load actually duplicates it. The key factors are:

  • Develop better routines – to paraphrase WH Auden, routines are not monotony they are in fact a sign of ambition. They “provide the scaffolding with which you can build your best life” (Tim Farris). 
  • Better communication. Talk about where you are on the love map.

Remember that romance is cheap. I was reading a list of the most romantic holiday destinations and one mentioned Paris,

… it’s not known as the City of Love for nothing. Grab a baguette, some Brie, and a bottle of wine, and have a romantic picnic by the Seine – yes, drinking outside is legal.

So that was our 10th wedding anniversary, albeit followed by a trip to the Caveau de la huchette.

I think I’m a better husband when I am alert, relaxed, and communicating well. To improve these I find value in the following:

  1. Have sleep plan. Nothing prepares you for the tiredness of being a parent, and when we had two children both under two I felt permanently knackered. Being tired makes one irritable and unable to think clearly. A sleep plan will always be far easier for men to achieve than women (i.e the first responders) but a sleep plan meant that I now enjoy getting up before 8am. It has become a normal part of my routine and this has helped massively.
  2. Mindfulness. The basic principle is highly compatible with being a secular hermit and I try to find time for sporadic meditation. Diet and exercise is also crucial for this.
  3. Susan Cain’s book on introversion has had a big impact on me, and Chapter 10 focuses on the communication gap between different personality types. What I found especially useful is instead of debating which activities to do, talk about what it is about a specific activity you do or do not enjoy. This opens up the potential for modifying an activity in a way that makes it mutually tolerable (or perhaps even beneficial). The example in the book is that Greg is outgoing and Emily is more pensive. He wants regular big dinner parties with lots of guests, and she wants a quiet night in. Their solution is to hold an event only once a month; buffet style food (i.e. not sit down); and Emily isn’t obliged to mingle. A regular date night is a good communication facilitator because it involves alcohol but doesn’t involve children.
  4. Find a vocation –  which is a “problem addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy”. You don’t find that by looking within and finding your own passion, you must look without and consider what life wants from us. (Brooks, 2015 p.266)
  5. Don’t attribute bad intentions.
  6. Time for each other. It’s easy to be busy but being busy is a decision. We make time for priorities (note we don’t “find” time) and should treat the most important people as a priority. Be careful about making your partner the residual claimant for your time. Because most of us run out of time.
  7. Consider accelerators and brakes. Adding accelerators won’t work if the problem is the brake

Be wary of depression, “hunger leads to eating and satiety, fear leads to flight, lust leads to sex. But sorrow is an exception. Sorrow doesn’t direct you towards its own cure. Sorrow builds upon sorrow” (Brooks 2015, p.226). And according to Samuel Johnson, “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment”.

I grew up placing a premium on integrity, and almost seeking situations in which to demonstrate the righteous path. I remember a professional situation where I had a choice to make. One option was to do what I considered to be the right thing. But it would have a negative impact on other people. I chose the former, and commended my courage. However, Brooks (2015, p.160) uses an example from Mary Anne Evans:

Yes, she had an obligation to follow her individual conscience… but it was her moral duty to mute her own impulses by considering their effect on others and on the social fabric of the community…. By the time Mary Anne Evans became the novelist George Eliot, she was an avowed enemy of that kind of stark grandstanding

I used to have a blase attitude towards sin, equating it to doing something “naughty”. But Brooks (p.56) shows a plethora of examples that demonstrate how dangerous our (inevitable) sins are be for the social order. We should also complete the Proust Questionnaire over a nice bottle of wine.

III. Son

Always take your job seriously, never yourself

My parents are fit and healthy and I’m thankful. We go on physically demanding holidays and I cherish my time with them. I have seen my grandparents age, and recognise the closing chapters of a life well lived. That experience made me want to learn more about the end.

I highly recommend Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The goal of modern healthcare is to keep the elderly alive and safe but this is usually because we shy away from difficult conversations about what quality of life is important to them, and what tradeoffs they are willing to make. Because we often delay this conversation until it’s too late, we care for the elderly in an intrusive, expensive, and unsatisfactory way. Some steps to mitigate this:

  • Talk early and often about care home desires (my prediction is that “being put in a home” will become less of a problem over time as the elderly in the future will be more likely to associate care homes with university halls rather than a military barracks)
  • Have a living will or advanced healthcare directive.

There is also good guidance for dealing with trauma (Brooks 2015, p.100):

  1. Show up – provide a ministry of presence
  2. Never compare – this situation is unique, and it isn’t about you
  3. Do the practical things – e.g. make lunch, tidy, get affairs in order
  4. Don’t minimise what is going on – platitudes aren’t necessary, and sometimes things aren’t for the best

The sensitive person: “just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct” (p.101). As Montaigne recognised, we don’t have to learn how to die:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do the job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it

So don’t worry.


Updated: January 2018