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.

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