Tag Archives: parenting

Sleep training (cues, backoff, kindness)

The child misses you, her constant companion. One of you is always there. Close in physical touch, near at hand for a fall or a fear or to laugh at a fart. Night comes (sweet one, for us all, sooner than we wish, but prepare thyself for it to take everyone and everything you love; you before them if not them before you. Death comes for us all, oh tiny love, remember that and dance!) and it is dark. So dark. Dark because “dark helps me sleep”, we say, for in truth light regulates the circadian, and oh my sweet thou needst it bright in the morning and dark in the evening. These environmental cues, these rhythms to the day, this is what life is made of. To wake, to see the light, to play and run and fight and scream, to watch the sun descend, to clear the table and prep to eat. To sit with family, to cherish thirty minutes of dedicated togetherness before, yes, before we brush our teeth and hair and go to bed.

But surely we are not just to stay abed, are we? I simply cannot! And you cannot make me!

Yes sweet one, we are to stay abed. Canst thou not lie quietly and go to sleep? This is our mandate from heaven; or at the very least your mandate from me: go the fuck to sleep.

I know, I know. Should I chastise thee? No, anger is no tone on which to bed down sweetly. Entering the dark of the night, from which we cannot know that we are who we were before we closed our eyes, is not something that anyone should ask anyone else to do with heightened emotions. How are we to square this circle? Sweet one, full unknowing of the joys of  uninterrupted sleep, why should you sleep? Why should you stay abed? Why not pile out full of sunbeams and comical utterances, demanding more of the love and attention that otherwise defines every moment of your life?

Because we all must sleep, beloved. We all must build a practice for ourselves (I for you, as with so many things) of winding down to a mood where sleep comes quickly, and where rest carries us deeply through the night. I must sleep. And before I can sleep, you must sleep (motherfucker). Cleaving you from me, and I from you is pain and sorrow. A distance unbearable for flesh of my flesh. I killed alternate selves and sunk ghost ships of my own life to be here for you, in the interstices of other obligations. And to part? To sleep? Intolerable, I know.

How about this, child of mine, love unparalleled: you lie in your bed for a bare thirty seconds, and I’ll come back. I always come back. Watch! I’ll be back in a mere half minute.

Oh dear, you emerged. “Didn’t make it”, did you? It’s fine, expected. In what world, and at what cruel hand would we ever willingly spend time apart? (I tell you, you know it not now, but even our love, tiny one, does not extend to your intruding upon my personal time after you go the fuck to sleep). Come, let me carry you back to bed, tuck you in again. I love you so much! May I kiss your cheek? Hum the refrain to your bedtime song again? Darling, I’ll return oh so soon. Five seconds this time. Something achievable, something you can do. An easy victory, all I ever want for you (at least when we’re working on hard things together…).

Good night my love! I’ll check on you again in, shall we say, seven seconds? Seven arduous, agonizing seconds? Agonizing for you, fraction enormous of your life. No sense of time, it must weigh upon you like a blanket of eternity itself. When will he return? Will he? I hope he does. Will he? Will…he?

Of course I do. See? Goodnight, little one. I love you more than the moon and the stars, more powerfully than the thermocline and the jetstream. I’ll come back and check in on you in thirty seconds this time, do you think you can make it?

And so it goes. Greater gaps every time. If someone has trouble staying in their bed, reduce the gap until you find what they can handle. Sometimes check-ins happen at 5 second intervals while you build trust with the little one that you will return to check in on them.

The gaps naturally extend. They want to build these muscles. As much of a trap as it is, they want to please you (they also want to please themselves, and salve their own anxiety, so love them when they pop out to say hello before your timer goes off). You will get to the point where that first check-in after the door closes is 2 minutes, then 3, then 5, and then ultimately the door closes and they go to sleep on their own.

No tears, no fear, no anger, no yelling, no shame. Just love and sympathy and caring. We always come back, don’t we? It’s a foundational message, and trust never comes for free but is earned through sweat and always following through.

Teaching children tools by building things

I was sorely disappointed by the cardboard cranes out of the crappy magnetism book Cedar and I have been playing with for the past few days, so he and I took a few hours yesterday to build a crane that he and his sister can experiment with. I asked him to draw a crane, and this is what he came up with:

C: “Sorry Dad, it kind of looks like that…hanging thing.”
B: “A gallows”?
C: “Yeah, yeah. A gallows.”
B: “No worries my man, I think a gallows and a crane have generally the same design requirements, just at different scales.”

Continue reading Teaching children tools by building things

Your children aren’t trying to piss you off, they’re confirming that you get pissed off at them

When talking to parents about the universal trials of parenting young children, I frequently say something like “they’re not really trying to piss us off so much as they are doing the things that they know provide them agency in the world, and it’s just a tragic fact that the easiest way for them to soothe their own fears about not having agency is for them to wind us up. The important thing in managing these interactions is that the children understand that there are limits to what they can effect in the world: a hot stove will burn you, if you nag enough at Dad, he’s simply going to switch over into default-no mode, and so on (hard limits and boundaries are critical for healthy adult relationships as well, but that’s a topic for another time).

“Practicing agency and finding limits” doesn’t cut it for me anymore, and this is what evolved my models.

Surfing Uncertainty passed me by so completely and absolutely because it landed very nearly precisely at the leading edge of the most recent lacuna between my quinquennial reviews of the latest and greatest developments in neurological/cognitive science. Since the women I shack up with seem to be invariably and strongly neurodiverse, a deep dissatisfaction with mainstream interpretations of the neuro/cognitive mechanisms underlying autism and ADHD kicked off my most recent review of the state of the art. Scott Alexander’s review is fantastic (par for his output) and more-or-less forced me to buy and read Surfing Uncertainty (a great call).

Instead of synthesizing the ADHD/autism spectrum notes from Scott’s review (please read the linked review, as I’ve not written my own and he’s a far better/more exhaustive/creative/hyperconnecting writer than I), I’ve got some brief notes on the implications of the Predictive Processing (henceforth PP) model for parenting.

One of the core paradigms of the PP model is that the mammalian Terran deoxyribonucleic lifeform’s primary loop is to wiggle itself around in the environment to generate stimuli for its own receptor networks that it can use to ground-truth and improve its predictions of what the world will throw at it next. Empirical and synthetic breakthroughs in the most recent decade validate this perspective: for example, the fusiform gyrus, commonly known in pop-sci for driving facial recognition has been experimentally shown to be less of a facial recognizer and far more of a predictor of faces in images[1]When, in a brain-imaging study, a specific tone is played before a face is shown to the subject, the fusiform gyrus begins to associate the tone with the subsequent display of a face and so exhibits … Continue reading, and cutting-edge text processing and image recognition machine learning systems are built on a foundation of generating complete texts or images from fragments, and improving the generated output based on correction from subsequent input of complete texts or images.

The adaptive mammalian neurocognitive model of PP goes a step further, suggesting that there’s very little difference between what we’d classically call the outputs of the motor system and the inputs of the sensory system. Rather, the sensori(predicto-)motor system is in a constant loop of self-excitation to minimize errors between the predicted sensory inputs and the actual sensory inputs (for if we did not actively chase new inputs, error minimization would seem to drive us into a dark corner where we could reliably predict inputs with low error and high confidence. If this reads like the depressive loop, I don’t think that you’re far off).

I’ve long espoused that the developing human has one job: to identify, seize, yank on and otherwise twist the various knobs and levers of agency afforded to in the world, and determine what effect they can have on the world. Predictive processing offers a refinement on this.

Kids then, are simply trying to generate stimuli that they can use to fine-tune their predictions about the world. Parents are some of the most influential personalities in kids lives (and one hopes the safest to experiment against), so they are necessarily going to do their darndest to identify the regimes that we kick into and what the children can do to kick us into those regimes.

It’s not that the children are deliberately being assholes, winding us up, making us mad, so much as they are biologically-fated to make predictions about their world and then attempt to get data to confirm and fine-tune those predictions. They know that we, their parents, can move into different emotional states, and so they are going to do their best to predict what those states are and the events they have to emit in order to transition us into the desired state.

A tired child who doesn’t feel loved is going to engage in the easiest possible loop to get the emotional attention that they need. They don’t have the sophistication to understand that a fight is going to suck for hours afterwards and eventually wear down the relationship’s strength (that’s our job as the adult), all that they know is that they haven’t gotten the emotional investment or demonstrations of love that they on a deep level need in order to feel secure, and they’re going to get you to engage with them in any way possible.

This obviously sucks in the evening when everyone is tired and emotional regulation is at its most difficult. This is why it’s so important to have regular evening and dinner and bedtime routines, and to stay flexible with their implementation subject to everyone’s abilities. Sleep schedules are regulated by early morning and early evening light, so sit on the porch together in the morning before school, and take a walk in the sunset together. These regular moments of closeness and being together will feed their need for emotional closeness (provided you stay off your damn phone for the duration. Children are boring, this is the hardest job you’ll ever have, get the fuck off your phone and be present. Future-you will appreciate it, as will the small ones). Children thrive on routine, so make sure it’s the same every day, but don’t fixate on hitting all the marks every day. It’s fine if someone doesn’t brush their teeth some nights. You’ll have a way better relationship if you, the adult, can understand when to insist on tooth-brushing because you can do so in a kind and gentle way that doesn’t escalate an already tense environment, and when to not insist on tooth brushing because everyone’s already on edge and it’s more important to bring the emotional tone down so that everyone’s calm as they lie down in bed! Nothing is absolute, and while having a routine is important, hitting the broad strokes of the routine is vastly more important than every single note. You wouldn’t start a whole song over at the campfire because you flubbed a D-minor, would you? Total buzzkill…

As always, treat everyone with love and kindness. Seek to understand their motivations and empathize with them, so that you can get them what they need in order to be happy people. Folks, including small children, will go out of their way to help you, if they believe that you understand them and are doing your best to help them.

It is OK to get pissed at them though! It’s important to people’s personal development that they understand the impact their actions have on others.


1When, in a brain-imaging study, a specific tone is played before a face is shown to the subject, the fusiform gyrus begins to associate the tone with the subsequent display of a face and so exhibits a higher degree of activity than when a face is displayed without a preceeding tone. Scientists involved interpret this to suggest that the FG is not identifying faces, but predicting that faces will be in subsequent images.