Lessons from Home: an Interlude

Though I’m in the middle of writing a longer post on software engineering, I wanted to quickly jot down some unrelated thoughts from earlier today.

My son Jacob is three and a half years old. He’s a great little guy, I love him dearly, and like most three and a half year olds, he can frequently be incredibly, frustratingly difficult. I’ll be trying to get him into his night-time routine, and he’s more interested in running around the room playing a game with rules understandable only to children under the age of four.

At this point, I have two choices. I can grab him, pick him up, carry him upstairs kicking and screaming into the bathroom, and try to force him to brush his teeth and pee (for those keeping score, this doesn’t work). Or, I can sit down, and in a neutral voice tell him – repeatedly, until it sinks through – that we won’t have time to read stories if he doesn’t go upstairs and go to the bathroom himself.

Escalating to a physical confrontation always, ALWAYS ends up disastrously, and why wouldn’t it? He’s upset, my wife’s upset, I’m upset (and feeling guilty and defensive), and I’ve just taught him that physical strength is a valid tool for forcing someone to do something they don’t want. Lose, lose, lose, lose.

On the other hand, I can help him to understand the natural, inevitable, and entirely deterministic results of his actions. It has nothing to do with me – this is just the way the universe works. He has a choice – he can do X, which is of immediate but passing interest, or Y, which is much more important to him – but to do Y he first has to stop X and do Z. I then refuse to validate his manipulative comments and attention-seeking behavior (those of you with young children know exactly what I mean – those without can look forward to these wonderful parent/child moments).

There are a couple of key elements in making this work:

  • Value – something he cares about is at stake
  • Agency – I simply explain the way the world works, and let him make his own decision
  • Refusal to escalate – I don’t escalate the situation, and by ignoring his provocative statements and actions, I don’t allow him to either
  • Consistency – I have to follow through with the promised outcome, even if I’d rather not (i.e., I want to read him stories, but won’t if he runs down the clock)

Sometimes I can defuse the situation. Sometimes he goes so far out of bounds that he needs to be put into a time out. But this needs to be my rational decision, not an action taken in the heat of anger.

In the end, you can’t control other people. You can’t force them to act in a certain way, to change, or to believe what you want. What you can do is to choose how you’ll react to their irrational or destructive behavior. Whether at home, or work, or in the world, action is a choice. Identity is a choice. Other people can only change you if you let them – you have the power to decide who you are, how you’ll act, and whether to let someone else set the terms of a conversation, interaction, or conflict – or whether to take your own path, and act in a way consistent with your goals and values.

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