Fab Fridays 103: Mental Models for Parents
The nature of mental models, how to integrate them into our daily lives, and four specific examples relevant to parents
We often talk about the power of mental models in business, investing, and career decisions. But there’s another area where mental models are especially effective: Parenting.
But before we dive into specific mental models for parenting…let’s recap:
What are mental models?
Mental models are general rules of thumb about how the world works. Every discipline has them: biology, physics, economics, psychology, etc. They’re the most basic ideas from each discipline that we can use to understand the fundamentals of life.
Consider the idea of critical mass. In nuclear engineering, it means the smallest amount of uranium needed for a chain reaction. But this idea applies to other things, too:
the smallest number of customers for a business
the smallest number of lessons to learn math
ideas can attain critical mass
As investor Charlie Munger says, we need mental models because if the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in usable form.
“Mental models are critical for anyone interested in thinking clearly, rationally, and effectively” —James Clear
With mental models, parents can recognize patterns in their kids, get clarity about what they’re facing, and make good decisions about how to effectively partner with them.
To unpack how mental models work, let’s look at the story of Darlene, a NICU nurse.
One day, Darlene walked past an incubator and noticed the baby inside. The monitors showed normal vital signs, but the child's skin didn’t look right, its belly was distended, and its heel still bled from where they had pricked it. Darlene felt like something wasn’t right…
She immediately requested antibiotics. The doctor wasn’t too worried, but they trusted Darlene, ordered the medicine, and ran tests. As it turns out, the baby was in the early stages of sepsis, a potentially deadly case of whole-body inflammation from an infection.
Darlene recognized the sick baby faster than anyone else because she used a mental model to make sense of all the facts. She had an image in her head about what a healthy baby looks like. And when this baby didn’t fit that pattern, she knew to take decisive action.
Just like Darlene used a mental model to improve a child’s physical health, we can use mental models to improve our kids’ emotional, social, and intellectual health. Let’s look at four examples:
4 Mental Models for Parents
The psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail."
It’s very easy for parents to fall into this trap. We learn one tactic and start to see every problem in that light. When our kids misbehave, maybe we think they hadn’t had enough punishments, need more rewards, more well-behaved friends, or some other pat solution.
The truth is that when kids start acting out of character, they probably need something new, not more of the same. Each stage of their young life is unique. They’re growing, developing, changing, and facing new situations. We need a variety of tools at our disposal to meet kids where they are and help them adapt to their latest challenges.
People are like bars of soap: the harder you squeeze, the more likely it is to slip away. In the same way, the more we’re pressured to do something, the less we want to do it. We might enjoy running, but as soon as our PE teacher makes us run, it feels miserable. Psychologists call this reactance.
Humans naturally want choice and autonomy–and that goes for kids too. If you really want your child to do something, but they continue to fight against you, ask whether you’ve given them a choice at all.
It’s counterintuitive, but giving them autonomy to participate is often the fastest way to a positive solution for both of you. I wrote more about the importance of autonomy in the article: The Psychology of Screens and shared some ideas for how you can give your kids more autonomy in the article: Engaging Kids without Rewards.
Typically, when we want our kids to change their behavior, we feel like the first step is to convince them of something. Maybe we want them to eat healthy food, so we talk about the importance of fruits. But talking about a healthy diet isn’t enough. We also need to partner with them to design an environment where it’s easier for them to make the best choice.
Social scientists call this a nudge: a simple change in the context that makes good choices easier than bad choices.
For example, you might ask yourself, “How can I make it easier for them to reach fruit instead of candy?” By making apples and bananas more accessible, you can help them choose natural sugars over processed sugars.
Now, the topic of your conversations with them is different. You’re not simply saying that fruit is better than candy–you’re also talking about how they can help themselves develop better life-long habits. You can discuss with them the benefits of making fruit easier to reach than candy so that when they grow up, they have the skills to set themselves up for a healthy life.
When kids face a crisis, it’s often an issue of framing. They’ve framed the problem in a negative way, but with a new perspective, they can see the positives
Maybe they’re sad because they can’t spend the night at their grandparents’ house, but we can help them look at the situation from a different angle. We can encourage them to use that evening time to write a letter for them or make a craft and surprise them the next day. With the extra time, we have a chance for a new creative project.
Author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg calls this reframing in his book, What’s your Problem?
Reframing gives us a way to help kids realize that they often can’t control life–but they can control how they respond to it. Kids can choose to be sad or seize the day and turn the bad situation into something good. (I wrote more about this idea in the article: How to Develop Character with the Stoic Framework)
Here is another example of how we can reframe the learning process so that kids don’t concern themselves with failure: The Super Mario Effect
Building Your Own Mental Models
Together, these four mental models can help parents make sense of complex scenarios. When things get chaotic with kids, we can ask:
Am I trying to use the wrong tool here? (Maslow’s hammer)
Am I trying to force something onto my kids without giving them a voice? (reactance)
How can I encourage them in the right direction? (nudges)
Or maybe they need me to help them see the situation from a different perspective? (reframing)
These models are only four of hundreds of other tools parents can use to help them raise their kids. Let’s look at some other tactics and resources to help build out your own mental models toolkit.
First, check out Farnam Street. This is a company run by Shane Parrish, focused on helping people learn and utilize the best of mental-model thinking. They offer amazingly helpful resources on their blog, their book, and in their course on mental models for parenting.
Second, read Superthinking. This is a book written by Gabriel Weinberg, the founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, and his wife Lauren McCann. Together, they walk through well over one hundred mental models and how they apply to real life.
Third, start practicing. To use mental models effectively, it’s all about practice. When you see your child act a certain way, ask whether you’ve seen this pattern before. Try to connect the dots, make generalizations with other things you’ve experienced, and see if any commonalities exist.
Fourth, keep a journal. It’s helpful to have some documentation to reference with your child. Take a few minutes to note the things you realized, and what happened as a result. This will give you a resource to refer back to and allow you to find some of the longer-term patterns with your kids. Over time, this will also help you develop some mental models specific to your children.
Fifth, use checklists. Even when we recognize common patterns, it’s hard to remember the right actions to take. Try testing out some checklists. For example, when your child refuses to go to bed on time, you might create a list of things to try. With enough experimentation, you can find the tactics that work, keep using them while they're effective, and update them as your child grows and develops new patterns.
Despite their usefulness, mental models are rarely taught in school. Imagine if kids learned about these ideas from a young age? They would be better decision makers in all areas of their lives.
This is one of the many reasons I love Synthesis. Kids practice solving problems together and using mental models to create solutions when there’s no easy answers. They learn how to create a mental picture of a situation, which becomes a model that they can later apply in similar real-life situations.
With mental models, we can reduce the complexity of parenting. We can use a few rules of thumb to organize our experience, give us insight, and map the right way forward.
What other mental models are useful for parenting? Would love to hear from you!
Until next time,
Ana Lorena Fabrega
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I enjoy your articles a lot. This particular one has exposed me to a new dimension to parenting even as I prepare for marriage.
Thank you for always dispensing profound knowledge Ana.
With Love from Nigeria.
I like your article. Your thoughts and ways to understand kids are beyond my experience, so it helps me a lot. Thanks