Optimizing vs. satisficing in parenting

I was surprised to see a friend say that “One of the key points of the rationalist community is to learn to “optimize” rather than “satisfice” things.”

For me, the take-away from the optimize/satisfice concept was to optimize fewer things. It helped me start satisficing on unimportant things that I used to spend lots of time on, like sorting the recycling (and worse, sorting other people’s recycling, which can take basically infinite amounts of time). It was a big relief to realize that it was okay not to try to optimize everything.

One of the major problems for me in parenting has been figuring out when to optimize and when to satisfice. Having a toe in the waters of the rationality movement has swayed me in both directions. On the one hand, there is this strong drive to optimize the important things—and surely your child is important. On the other hand, people point to the research that children’s outcomes are mostly determined by genes and non-parental environment (their friends, teachers, etc.) So trying to optimize your child, instead of just trying to do a good job, is likely to be a waste of effort.

The child psychology field has been fighting this battle for a long time. From the Wikipedia entry on D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough parent“:

The idea of the good enough parent was designed on the one hand to defend the ordinary mother and father against what Winnicott saw as the growing threat of intrusion into the family from professional expertise; and on the other to offset the dangers of idealisation built into Kleinian articulations of the ‘good object’ and ‘good mother’, by stressing instead the actual nurturing environment provided by the parents for the child.

The idea is that a too-perfect parent will shield the child from all difficulty and frustration, setting them up for failure when they encounter the real world. I’m not sure how this could ever be a problem, given that the most attentive parents still can’t prevent their child from suffering from indigestion and so forth. All babies get upset and cry, no matter how well you care for them. But I still appreciate Winnicott standing up for “the sound instincts of normal parents,” as he put it.

I thought it was going to be great raising a child in a household that includes two social workers, a medical student, a midwife, and an early intervention specialist. Actually, it turns out to be pretty stressful being surrounded by experts. I envy people who get to parent without knowing or caring that their child should already be saying ‘m’ and ‘b’ sounds in her babbling.

I thought I could accept any amount of information and advice for my daughter’s sake, but actually I get as defensive as the next mother. Someone else trying to optimize your child is really hard to take.

I’m also really questioning the status of the expertise out there. Child care books by different pediatricians cite different expectations for developmental milestones like smiling and crawling, and none of them cite their sources. (The pediatrician/author my parents swear by, Dr. Spock, doesn’t even put one of those tables in his book because he says it just makes parents anxious.)

I’m also aware of the research that a lot of this stuff is genetically pre-programmed. Intensive developmental interventions do speed up children’s progress – for a while. Children who grow up in neglectful environments and then get adopted into nurturing families can catch up on their development to a large extent. But it’s generally considered that the heritability of IQ increases with age. In other words, a baby or young child’s IQ depends mostly on her environment (quality of parenting, preschool, nutrition, etc.) But by age 18 your IQ is much more correlated with your biological parents’ IQ (even if you were raised by someone else).

I wonder about this with milestones. Yes, I can see that if your child isn’t speaking or interacting at an age when almost all children are doing that, they should get professional help. But is it worth getting worried if your child is a month late in rolling over? Is there any adult with some kind of disability whose parents lament not getting help with her rolling-over skills at six months? I know children and adults who are pretty clumsy, and they might well have been physically uncoordinated as babies, but it’s hard to imagine that early intervention would have actually changed any kind of long-term outcome.

My take-away message from this week’s tribulations in child development is that my daughter’s development matters, but my sanity also matters. I should save my optimizing for the cases where it can actually make a significant difference. The rest of the time, we can relax and have fun together.


3 thoughts on “Optimizing vs. satisficing in parenting

  1. detteyoung

    Hear hear!!!

    At the moment I try quite hard *not* to worry about the timeline on which R’a milestones are happening. I’m interested by them, but mainly from a point of view of keeping up with her, and adapting our play so it’s interesting for her.

    I am finding that, as with many things, people want something to talk with you about regarding your baby, and questions like ‘is she doing X yet?’ seem common, but after a while can make me wonder if I should be worried. I try to remind myself they are just interested, not experts. (Except for a work colleague who looked at R and commented ‘”oh, she can’t focus yet”. I was tempted to reply with the truth – “she can, it’s just that you’re not terribly interesting to her!”) I imagine that living with interested experts must get wearing, hopefully not too often!

    1. morah c.

      I often wish I could go back and find the experts — and non-experts– whose opinions had me so worried when my first child was a baby. I spent so much time feeling like an inadequate parent because I wasn’t giving her the “right” kind of stimulation to ensure that her physical and mental development would stay on track. And this was long before the internet began bombarding us with more information and opinions than can possibly be good for us!

      If I could find those people, I would direct them to the author of this blog: an intelligent, accomplished woman of excellent judgement, whom I am proud to call my daughter. She is the infant I fretted over all those years ago! She is living proof that children grow up to be *themselves* and are not controlled by charts and checklists.



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