When I was in grade school, I remember going to some sort of computer show with my dad, and being fascinated by a demonstration running on a TRS-80. It was a robot fencing game with good-for-the-time crude animations of different positions and attacks. The trick was that you had to program your fencer robot properly to react to or anticipate the actions of the opponent to win. In other words, your superior twitch skills couldn’t win the game; you had to coach a stand-in and then hope it did well enough on its own.
As I’ve grown, I’ve continued to enjoy games and situations where you did everything you could to prepare a surrogate and anticipate its challenges, but in the end some elements were still out of your control. Puzzles like writing a flowchart that guides a mouse out of an unseen maze. The Lego autonomous robot competitions at MIT. The concept of computer games like Black & White. Board games like RoboRally and Space Alert. And it’s not just gaming. Tutoring a high schooler. Teaching a class. Training a sales team. Managing and mentoring an intern or direct report. Those all have given me a form of the same experience.
Parenting is the ultimate expression of this exercise.
Think about it. You’re the nurture in nature vs nurture. If it were a role-playing game, you were just handed a character with some starting stats, and you’re in charge of leveling them up. So you spend days, months, and years of more give than take, making sacrifices, teaching lessons, setting limits, disciplining and rewarding, trying to find out what they’re good at, encouraging and discouraging, and ultimately shaping the behavior of another human being. It’s all out of love, of course. Sometimes you get something back, but if you never got anything back in return, it’d probably still be all okay. But it’s not optional – even if you chose not to get involved, that would still have its effect.
Parents joke about the lack of an instruction manual for their kids. But there’s a more insidious problem related to not definitively knowing what to do. There are very few opportunities for objective feedback. You sort of have a sense of how well you’re doing, just like you might know that the meat you’re grilling is doing okay. Like the grillables, you might not recognize that there’s a Real Problem until it’s too late — and a major kid problem is harder to recover from than scorching your hot dogs. It’s no wonder that parents love seeing their child competing with others, such as in sporting events — what other metrics do you have to know whether your child is doing well? What does “doing well” even mean? Every opinion is subjective, and at the end of a hard day when your wife (and her patience) is exhausted, and the kids are screaming at you because they don’t want to brush their teeth, and you stumble back downstairs to their latest disaster area, you wonder if something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Last night we had parent-teacher conferences for both children. Jack’s 3rd grade teacher told us how great he was doing. His report cards is all pluses and checks (they don’t do A’s and B’s any more. Shrug.) Mr. Lynch told us how worldly he is, with his ability to retain knowledge of what he reads. How aware of more than himself he can be, which is unusual at that age. How well he behaves and listens in what is apparently a pretty tough, distractable, entitled classroom right now. How his biggest challenge is really just staying engaged and interested in subjects (e.g., multiplication tables are hard to learn because they’re just too boring), and not being forgetful. Peter’s kindergarten teacher told us what a joy he is. ”Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” His report card is all T’s (on Target) with one D (Developing). Mrs. McBride talked about the empathy he’s shown, once even asking her if she was okay when she was having a tough day with the kids. About how well he follows directions and pays attention, and takes pride in his work, and is even doing some good reading. About how his only fault, academically speaking, is being too hard on himself when he’s having trouble with something.
I’m the kind of person that always tries to identify areas for improvement. Who probes decisions and options, looking for weaknesses in the hopes of making it stronger. Who worries about what I don’t know I don’t know. None of those personality traits triggered during those meetings.
I walked out of both meetings with basically one takeaway. I still don’t really know the rules of this “parenting” game my wife and I have been playing. But we’re winning.