Parenting is inherently difficult. As parents we operate in an emotional setting, dealing with a high volume of unknowns. This is a formula for complexity.
By its very definition, complexity leads to greater variation in results. If we could consistently obtain an optimal result, the system would be resolved; it would no longer be complex.
Yet, here’s the rub; as parents, we want to produce consistent, quality outcomes for our kids. We want to know that our actions predictably lead our kids in the right direction.
So how do we resolve these two competing forces; our desire for predictable outcomes, in an inherently complex environment?
Introducing Mental Models for Parenting
I routinely deal with complexity in my work as a psychologist as I seek quality outcomes for patients.
Just as psychology has therapeutic models (such as Cognitive behavioural therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, etc), I find mental models to be particularly helpful in my life and parenting.
What are Mental Models?
The world is complex. The sheer volume of information we need to process is literally unmanageable. Whether you know it or not, your brain already uses mental models to manage and process this volume of data. Mental models are higher order representations of how things work. They help our brains simplify the complex.
Being aware of mental models, and applying them proactively, can assist us deal with complexity, reduce risk associated with decisions, and equip us with more options.
12 Mental Models for Parenting
Below I introduce 12 mental models that I frequently use, particularly when parenting. They help me frame challenging situations. By “invoking” certain models, it helps me overcome overwhelm, keep perspective, and often derive a better outcome.
- Pareto’s Principal: Pareto’s Principal is the 80/20 Rule. It essentially states that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. This is super handy! I use this model when I’m juggling numerous competing priorities (most of the time!) and feeling overwhelmed (frequently!). So yes, I use it a lot!
To use it, I ask myself, “of all the things I need to do, what are the 1 or 2 most crucial things that will produce 80% of the results required?” This simple exercise helps me immediately identify and focus on just one or two things, to the exclusion of the others (for the time being), that will produce the greatest result.
- Inversion is the process of “flipping the problem.” It’s a really great way to remove obstacles to success. We often think through problems linearly from beginning to end. Inversion entails flipping that and thinking from end to beginning. For instance, if we want to achieve a certain outcome for our child, we usually think of all the factors that combine to make that outcome happen. However, with inversion thinking, you could think about the things that impede that outcome being achieved. Often times, brilliance is just not doing something dumb!
- Occam’s Razor. As parents, we can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to resolve how and why things happened. It can be very stressful. Occam’s Razor is a great thinking tool to mitigate much of this stress. It states that “the simplest solution is usually the correct one.” By employing Occam’s Razor you can minimise a lot of second guessing and ruminating.
- The map is not the territory. A map is a reduction of the real thing. It is not the real thing itself. Maps help us navigate by making complex things simpler. For instance, think of financial statements for a business. They distil the complexity of thousands of transactions into a few lines. In parenting, I use this model in several ways. Firstly, I use it to identify when I need to get more granular with a problem. For instance, at times I may be prone to minimising (mapping) an issue that is clearly of emotional significance (the territory) for my child. Acknowledging this, I know I need to slow down and take the time to provide assistance commensurate with the level of emotion my little person is feeling. Secondly, I use it to reframe my thoughts and self-talk, as well as that of my kids. The model frames that our thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings. It gives permission to take our thoughts with a grain of salt. We can then become curious about them, evaluate them, and even change them if they are not serving us.
- Circle of Competence. In the practice of psychology, our aim is to always best serve our patients. That requires knowing where our competence begins and ends in respect of our patient’s needs; and referring on as required. As parents, we’re required to perform in extremely diverse domains. In some, our performance won’t have significant implications for our little ones. But in others, it does. Knowing this difference is key; and the Circle of Competence mental model is the tool I use to differentiate where I’m competent from where I’m not. Knowing where I’m not competent allows me to fill that gap, by either improving or “referring.”
- Second Order Thinking. Second Order Thinking is thinking further ahead. Instead of just considering the immediate consequences to an action, we consider subsequent effects of those actions as well. I think of it like a chess game. If you only think of your next move, you’re not going to win much! You need to be thinking several moves ahead. In parenting, as we’re required to make many decisions, it’s extremely helpful to apply this mental model, allowing us to consider the consequences of our decisions (their “ripple effects”) into the future.
- Probabilistic Thinking. Probabilistic Thinking is one of the best tools we have to improve our decision making. As we’re required to make so many decisions, often under pressure, our brains “assist” us by reducing complexity to binary terms (black or white; yes or no; all or nothing; etc). Probabilistic Thinking forces us to think about things in “probabilistic,” statistical terms. For instance, I often use it when intervening in sibling arguments. Kids tend to blame in black and terms, such as “he hit me.” “I hit you because you stole my car.” In this scenario, you could discuss with the children how their respective actions contributed to the situation; rather than attributing blame wholly.
- Hanlon’s Razor. Hanlon’s Razor states that “we should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity.” While I find the use of the term “stupidity” a little abrasive, the intent behind the model is powerful. It reminds us that people make mistakes; and it demands that we ask if there is another reasonable explanation for the events that have occurred. The explanation is often the one that contains the least amount of intent. Hanlon’s Razor also highlights a common cognitive bias, in that we tend to over-defend our own actions, whilst attributing error to the failings of others.
- Red Queen Effect. The Red Queen Effect is taken from biology. Essentially, as species evolve, they need to “keep up with Joneses,” else they fail as a species. When one species evolves an advantage, a competing species must respond, or it will fail to survive. Standing still can mean falling behind. We’re constantly dealing with this challenge as parents. For instance, how can we ensure our kids are not alienated from peer groups, whilst also ensuring their self-esteem is not attached to externalities?
- Incentives work, no doubt about it. But the incentives we use can have vastly different outcomes. The mental model of incentives helps me consider and differentiate between healthy and not-so-healthy incentives. For instance, frequently incentivising your child to complete their homework with a sweet treat is not necessarily a healthy use of incentives. When I use incentives, I often ask myself “what behaviour does this incentive optimise for?” In the treat example, the incentive is probably going to optimise for eating more treats (not completing the homework to a competent level).
- Feedback Loops. The mental model of Feedback Loops helps me maintain impartiality in my decisions. Without this model, I can become too directive and my decisions too asynchronous. It forces me to reflect on the decisions I make and the subsequent outcomes of those decisions. In effect, it forces me to think about decisions as experiments. By applying the model, I actively monitor for feedback loops, adjusting decisions as necessary. This means decisions don’t need to be steadfastly followed and can be adjusted to produce more optimal results.
- Bottlenecks & Constraints. I frequently use the Bottlenecks & Constraints mental model to identify upstream blockages that may be preventing my kids from excelling or causing them issues. It can be applied powerfully alongside Second Order Thinking and Inversion. When our kids face a challenge, we usually only look at the problem at face value. However, the real issue is often further upstream. For instance, my daughter was nervous to read a passage to her class. To help her, I could have had her repeatedly read passages to small groups of people. Applying the Bottlenecks & Constraints model forced me to “look further upstream.” The upstream problem is a confidence and self-esteem problem. Helping her with her reading is only a band aid solution to the real problem (which remains a work in progress, by the way).
Mental models are not silver bullets. Just like everything else, they are open to interpretation and do have their flaws. However, I find they assist me see the bigger picture. This in turn identifies where I need to focus my effort and attention. And for me at least, this helps reduce stress and overwhelm. And at times, this can be a real gift! I hope you find these mental models help you too.