Parenting is exhausting marathon, from the early, sleep-deprived days, to the nonstop grind of elementary school extracurricular activities, to the stress of college admissions. These pressures are very real, and not to be underestimated.
Paradoxically, our reactions to parenting stress can often pile on more of it. (The kid is constantly bored or underfoot? More extracurriculars!) Instead, you should think of ways to solve parenting problems by subtraction, rather than addition, which will often yield solutions that are equally effective.
Why we tend to solve problems by adding, not subtracting
When we encounter problems, “our brains are more wired to think about an additive solution,” said Yael Schonbrun, a psychology professor at Brown University, and the author of Work, Parent, Thrive. As Schonbrun notes, for most of human history, the main problem of raising kids was dealing with scarcity, which required additive solutions: more food, more shelter.
In a world where typically we have enough to meet our basic needs, problems can look quite different. “That kind of solution doesn’t work as well in modern life, so we have a mismatch of our brain biology to our culture,” Schonbrun said.
This idea, of problem-solving through subtraction, was originally proposed by Schonbrun’s collaborator, Leidy Klotz, an engineering professor at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on subtractive problem-solving. In a series of experiments, published last year in the journal Nature, Klotz and his collaborators were able to show that although subtraction is often an effective way to solve problems, we tend to default to additive solutions.
Although Klotz specializes in studying problem-solving by subtraction, which includes writing the book “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less,” when it came to the chaos of parenting, he also found himself defaulting to solving problems by adding, rather than subtracting. This led him to team up with Schonbrun, so they could combine their respective expertise.
The higher the stress, the more likely we are to add, rather than subtract
As Klotz’s research (and personal experience) shows, the greater the amount of stress we are under, the more we neglect subtraction as an option for solving our problems. In the research world, this is called “cognitive burden.” In the parenting world, this is called being exhausted, frazzled, and overwhelmed.
“The tendency to neglect subtraction grows even more when we are under [stress],” Schonbrun said.
As Klotz recently told the Washington Post, “We so often think of what are our to-dos, what are the things that we should be doing, and very rarely think about what we can stop doing. And so over time, we’ve just got more and more and more on our plates.”
This tendency to add, rather than subtract, when we are stressed, is one of the reasons why we find ourselves coping by signing our kids up for more lessons, getting them more toys or buying a complicated sleep device, rather than thinking about what we can take out.
With subtractive parenting, this could be in the form of letting our kids learn on their own, having them play with their existing (but boring) toys, or finding ways to let them cry it out while falling asleep.
How to put this into practice
When it comes to putting all this into practice, it’s important to recognize that it takes a lot of work. “We have this idea that less should be effortless, but it’s actually the exact opposite,” Schonbrun said. “It takes a lot of effort to get to less, because our brains are not wired to default to considering subtraction as an option.”
How this will look will vary depending on your family’s individual wants and desires. However, there are a few guiding principles that has helped Schonbrun put this into practice in her own life.
Think about your values
When it comes to the decision to either take something out or keep it, this needs to be intentional. Schonbrun’s advice is to think about what your values are as a family, and to use that to make your decisions.
For example, Schonbrun made the decision to swim with her kids, rather than signing them up for swim lessons, as she enjoys that time with them. Although they would learn more technique in formal lessons, she has decided spending that time with them was more valuable, and less stressful.
Aim for a mixture of addition and subtraction
Although subtraction can help ease the stress of family life, this does not mean cutting out everything. Instead, it’s about subtracting the lower-value items and activities that are using up more time and energy than they are worth, while adding in what really matters.
When it’s appropriate, additive solutions can be quite effective. The key is making sure that whatever you add in is right for you and your family.
“We need to make a balance,” Schonbrun said. “We need to be more judicious about the balance of adding and subtracting.”
It’s okay to be uncomfortable
As Schonbrun points out, subtractive parenting can be deeply uncomfortable, whether it’s letting your child cry while falling asleep, or letting them whine of boredom, rather than packing their schedule full of lessons and activities.
For example, when it comes to get your child to sleep, “what the research shows is you should do less,” Schonbrun said. “The parents that are taught to do less, their kids sleep better.”
This is also true for a number of other scenarios, whether it’s monitoring your kid’s homework, or handling sibling rivalry. As Schonbrun points out, this can be incredibly hard to do when they are screaming at each other or when you get a phone call home from the teacher.
However, as uncomfortable as it is to step back, doing so will help them in the long run, while also saving your sanity. “Let them make a mistake,” she said. “That’s actually how kids learn best.”
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