Family & personal development


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.

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)

We should strive to simplify childhood.

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 every night 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 of my kids in various multifaceted ways.

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.

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.

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.1457786562-20160312

Do our children see us being hard on ourselves and exercising delayed gratification? It’s hard, because a lot of our gratification (e.g. a glass of wine and a movie) 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)

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.

If you have a dilemma 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).

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. I think it’s useful to reflect on whether you can find good examples of each

  • 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

II. Husband

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. This 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.

We should also complete the Proust Questionnaire over a nice bottle of wine.

III. Son

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.

Updated: January 2017