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Parents As Rulers

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What do you think of the "parent as ruler" model?
Elliot: It's awful. Bad for parents as well as children.
Caeli: Why do parents do it if it's bad for them?
Elliot: Because they don't know better.
Caeli: What are the bad effects?
Elliot: An unhappy child who is thwarted from doing and getting things he wants. A stressed parent who must constantly watch his child to enforce the rules and make decisions before the child does. Worse decisions about the child's life because the parent often doesn't know what's best for the child, because he doesn't know the intimate details of what the child wants.
Caeli: Don't parents usually know what's good more than children?
Elliot: In general, sure, but they can convey this information as advice. But what I mean is parents don't know the personal details of their child well enough: what mood he is in, what he's trying to accomplish right this second, what has struck his interest, and so on.
Caeli: Shouldn't a good parent know those things?
Elliot: Sort of. Parents should be paying attention but it's not possible to know those things with perfect detail. And in fact parents are often quite mystified by their children. They often don't see what makes them tick.
Caeli: I guess that's especially true for teenagers. Parents don't understand them at all.
Elliot: Yeah, but young kids as well. Consider the "terrible twos" where a child might bang pots and pans. Parents sometimes say he is trying to annoy them, but that is mostly just bitterness talking.
Elliot: Parents primarily say things like "that is just how children are" and they say it's natural or genetic. That is a retreat from explanation. They are saying they don't know why, it just is. So they really don't understand their child's motivations very well.
Caeli: Isn't it kind of obvious? He's interested in the noises it makes, and the feelings of hitting things together which makes them vibrate.
Elliot: That could be it. Most adults have been bored with things like that for many years, and because of their parochial mindset, they can't imagine that anyone else would be interested in them.
Elliot: But it also really can be an attempt to hurt the parents. The classic psychological explanation for this would be that the child does it to get attention. That is possible. But also, parents treat their children badly in a variety of ways, and they don't know this, and the child doesn't know it's wrong, but he may know he's unhappy.
Elliot: And as is somewhat well known, family dynamics get set up where the people habitually poke each other. Each person, when poked, reacts badly, upsetting the other, and thus causing him to do more poking. It's a cycle.
Caeli: Poking?
Elliot: It's a generic word for doing something to something. More concrete examples include banging on pans for children, or leaving toys on the floor. And for parents, there is yelling at the child for the pans and other things, getting frustrated/upset and blaming child for the toys, or being annoyingly over-protective and nagging.
Caeli: Aren't there good reasons to leave things on the floor? My floor isn't empty. For example, it has table and chair legs on it. Also some books, a frisbee, some clothes, some boxes.
Elliot: Very good. The way of dividing up which things are allowed to be on the floor is parochial. It says that toys are "a mess", but chair legs are so normal people don't even think of counting them. But why is that? For example, with proper design chairs can be stacked and put in the corner or closet, or folded up, or paired to take half as much space. Why shouldn't they be put away?
Caeli: Because they are used so often, and it's too much trouble to put them away.
Elliot: Correct. But the same can be said of a child's favorite toys.
Caeli: Right. There are good reasons to leave toys out. So why did you list it as something children do to poke their parents?
Elliot: Well, parents habitually get mad about it. Sometimes children throw a bunch of toys on the floor just to poke their parents. In many cases, children believe the false theory of what a clean room should be, so they would clean up if they weren't acting irrationally and in a cycle of fighting with their parents.
Caeli: How can people get out of a cycle like that?
Elliot: The cycles only work so long as the people are not self-aware enough to notice what's going on while it's happening. If they are, they can just stop doing it. Revenge is pointless, poking the other gets them nothing useful and is bad for the poker since he does live there.
Caeli: Why is revenge pointless?
Elliot: It doesn't make your own life nicer to have hurt someone else.
Caeli: How is it bad for the person who does the poking, precisely?
Elliot: It's bad for everyone when any family member is upset. Conversely it's good for everyone when that person is flourishing.
Caeli: What are some ways it is good/bad?
Elliot: A flourishing family member will find new music and TV and share it, and write nice dialogs, and bring over interesting guests, and help solve any interesting problems that the others around him have.
Elliot: An upset family member will ask for help (but not of the person who hurt him), and be less creative and therefore less interesting.
Caeli: How does one become more self-aware?
Elliot: By thinking carefully.
Caeli: Is that brief answer a sign that you don't know how to explain it?
Elliot: Maybe. I might know if you asked a different question.
Caeli: Wait. You aren't sure if you know how to explain it?
Elliot: Right.
Caeli: How can that be?
Elliot: Why would I know? No one told me.
Caeli: The thing under discussion is ideas in your own head. No one needs to tell you. Don't you know what's there?
Elliot: I don't know all of it at once. But even if I did, that wouldn't help. Consider a sprinter who knows how strong his muscles are. Can he win a race? He may not know. Even figuring out what time he can get would take a lot of physics calculations.
Elliot: Now consider puzzles where you are given a situation and some information about it, which is enough to reach the solution, and you have to figure out the solution. What's the point of them? Well, it's not obvious how to get from knowing the resources available to knowing their best use.
Elliot: What a given set of stuff can do, if used properly, is an emergent property of that stuff which can't be seen just by looking at it. So even if I knew all the ideas in my head, that wouldn't mean I'd know what can be done with them.
Caeli: That all sounds right in theory. But I still don't see how you can not be sure if you can explain how to be more self-aware. Don't you just think about what the answer is, and what to say, and either you have ideas about it or you don't?
Elliot: I have ideas. Forming them into a coherent, English explanation is tricky. But there's the further issue of my audience. I want to answer your question. That means, among other things, that I need to know what your question means. If we talk more, I'll learn about what you want to know, and what you do and don't understand, and then it'll be easier to see what would be good to tell you. Giving a brief answer is one way to get you talking, and it also gauges your interest: if you don't ask again, you evidently didn't care very much.
Caeli: I do care; I've just been distracted by this other topic.
Elliot: Oh, I wasn't commenting on you just now, only in general. If you're interested you will ask again. It might be in a month, or a year. Whenever you ask, I'll figure you're interested then.
Caeli: Oh. That's nice of you. Some people would be resentful after a year. They might say, "So, you've come crawling back? Now you want my help? Well too bad."
Elliot: I wouldn't say that. It's cruel and silly. What do I know about your interests? Maybe you've scheduled what to work on perfectly, and it involves asking that question in a year. And why be resentful? You haven't hurt or wronged me if you don't ask any questions, let alone not asking one particular one for a while.
Caeli: Why is it cruel?
Elliot: The crawling part is insulting. And saying too bad is cruel. It's just being spiteful. Trying to hurt the questioner for the sake of hurting him. It's saying he doesn't have any reasons to give for why he won't answer, he's just not going to.
Caeli: Isn't the year delay a reason?
Elliot: Why would it be? Unless he forgot the answer, in which case he could just say that.
Caeli: People don't like to wait so long.
Elliot: But why was he waiting? He should have gotten on with his life immediately.
Caeli: Isn't it better to have a conversation more quickly than that?
Elliot: There are various advantages. But people have other things to do. Sometimes they are important, and take a year, or ten.
Caeli: What are the advantages?
Elliot: Remembering the topic and the context. The full context includes what other things were said recently, and current events, and so on. It makes for a richer conversation more interwoven with the rest of life. And one may not be interested in the topic anymore in a year. Interests often drift a bit, and hopefully move on to progressively more advanced or subtle things, and sometimes they change wildly.
Caeli: Why might they change wildly?
Elliot: A person could convert to a religion, or discover a very good philosopher, or have a mid-life crisis.
Caeli: The conversation could drift to match the new interests. Consider our conversation: it went from parents as rulers to being self-aware to knowing how to explain things to delays in conversations to why it's morally right for Elliot to give money to Caeli.
Elliot: Hmm. Money...?
Caeli: Yeah. Don't you remember?
Elliot: Oh! Now I remember. I was going to pay you $0.50 to pull all the weeds in my garden. And it'd be wrong not to pay you, after you did all that work.
Caeli: I give up. You win. :)
Elliot: So you wanted to know about being more self-aware.
Caeli: Oh, right. I forgot to ask another question. I guess that's a bad sign.
Elliot: I wouldn't worry. You asked other things instead.
Caeli: OK, so, I find it hard to keep track of everything important, all at once. And I have habits and do them without thinking enough and applying all my ideas from other parts of life.
Elliot: One thing that helps is forming good intuitions.
Caeli: Isn't that the opposite of being self-aware? It's acting intuitively instead of carefully thinking.
Elliot: We can't keep track of everything at once. What we need to do is create policies about how to live which we can keep track of. The policy itself can say in what situations to use it, and in what situations you better stop and think carefully.
Caeli: Won't things go wrong if we just follow policies? They won't be right all the time.
Elliot: We can make improvements to them when we find they don't work the way we'd like in a situation. We can think carefully about what policies to have and what improvements to make, so they will be full of our best knowledge.
Caeli: Then what makes them easier to remember?
Elliot: One thing is that there's less to remember: a policy about how to live doesn't have to include all the reasons for why to live that way. You only need to remember your conclusions.
Caeli: You seem to have a really good memory though. Whenever I ask stuff you have answers ready.
Elliot: Your questions remind me. But it's easy to remember stuff when it's interesting enough, and it comes up in context. And in many cases I've thought about how to answer what you're asking about somewhat recently.
Caeli: You've thought about all these things before?
Elliot: Mostly, yeah.
Caeli: How'd you manage that?
Elliot: If someone asks you the same thing next month, what will you say?
Caeli: Oh, I suppose I now know about all the things we've discussed. So I'll say I had conversations.
Elliot: Indeed. So, that's a lot of the answer. The rest is mostly reading and thinking.
Caeli: Cool. I think there are some loose ends but I need to go. Can we finish up tomorrow?
Elliot: Sure. Bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006

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