ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 23: RUSSELL'S TEAPOT

As a person with no children, I learned long ago that when people with children are talking about parenting it's best not to participate conversation. I used to take the "Just ask questions" approach but I found myself on the receiving end of too many rants. Unfortunately my new strategy doesn't work well in one-on-one situations. Recently I was getting the "Parenting is overwhelming" speech from someone I know pretty well, and I was at a point where I needed to say…something. I thought it would be safe to mention a few things I've read about the Parenting Guilt industry – you know, those commercials and "news" stories about how you're hurting your baby unless you do/buy X, Y, and Z. A lot of new parents live in fear that if they ever feed their child something that isn't certified organic quinoa with fresh kale, Junior is going to get cancer or, I don't know, burst into flames on the spot.

She indicated that she was worried all the time about saying the wrong thing to her child, and I said, "It's not like one wrong word is going to turn your child into a serial killer." I was trying to be sympathetic, or something. She responded not-jokingly, "How do you know that?" Silence returned. I mean, I thought it was self-evident that saying, "Stop that! You're driving me nuts!" to a child is not going to scar him for life emotionally or turn him into a deviant. But hey, I can't prove it, so certainly my theory is invalid.

In 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote the following regarding the existence of god:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell was talking about religion specifically, but he raises a broadly applicable point about the burden of proof – which rests on the party advancing an implausible hypothesis – and the difficulty many people seem to have distinguishing between validating A and being unable to invalidate it. The fact that I can't prove to you that there is not a teapot orbiting Mars is not evidence, either logically or empirically, that there is. Not surprisingly, this kind of argument is quite popular. After all, if you can't prove me wrong then I guess I can keep the status quo! Win.

This is similar to argument from ignorance, which we've already covered. But that was back in 2007, and I like Russell's imagery enough to give it a post of its own.

And seriously, you can give your kid a damn Whopper or swear in his presence on occasion. It's not going to kill him.

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47 Responses to “ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 23: RUSSELL'S TEAPOT”

  1. Jo Says:

    Well, yes. Of course it's a logical fallacy. I am someone with children who has done my share of yelling at people who don't have any for daring to express an opinion on anything remotely related to children, and I'm going to try to stay calm now. The fact that it's evident that one is not going to turn a kid into a serial killer by snapping at it when it's obnoxious is obvious even to people with children. I think what you're seeing here is an expression of the anxiety that parents feel due to the fact that the price of mistakes can be so high. It's kind of like Pascal's wager. I know that's a silly reason to believe in God, but nevertheless, given that you don't actually know whether whatever your friend is worried about is going to scar her kid for life and you can't prove that it's not, it strikes me as likely that she's acting rationally in the face of the fact that there is no limit to the pain and damage that can be caused by being wrong about how to raise children. Infinitely negative expected value for some series of unknowable choices changes what rationality looks like. If you don't have children yourself you don't have skin in the game being played so your theories about it will continue to piss off people who do have children. If this doesn't make sense it's probably only partly because you don't have children. I'm also quite loopy from my kids screaming all day.

  2. Middle Seaman Says:

    My kids went on to great careers. We never really fought, they didn't give me the finger and the one who drank and used drug in HS ended up hard working, successful, wise and savvy.

    Why? My best answer is shear luck. They raise their kids based on what I did right, what I did wrong and adjust to the life around them. They are better parents than I was, but still it's mostly the luck of the draw.

    Can I give advise? Of course, take it easy, keep the volume low, don't force your kids to do things that don't want to, you are not the boss, they are and listen.

  3. Quaestor Says:

    Guilt is exactly why there are so many parenting books on the market (as well as special toys, diapers, and everything else supposedly designed for the benefit of the child). I don't think there is anyone on earth as fearful about the consequences of their actions as new parents. Okay, at least MANY new parents.

  4. S Says:

    Jo, one problem with Pascal's wager is that it works in two opposing ways at once: I can make up a highest power who hates it when people believe in the Christian god and will punish anyone doing so to eternal hellfire. Thus, by Pascal's wager, it is rational to /not/ believe in the Christian god. Things are similar with respect to not snapping at a child: I can make up a theory according to which /not/ snapping at a child will make it into a spoiled brat with an inflated ego and a completely undeserved sense of entitlement (and eventually a serial killer). Thus according to the logic that led you to the conclusion that one should not snap at a child, I arrive at the conclusion that one /should/ snap at a child.

    The problem is that according to that logic (and Pascal's wager), you and I are allowed to make up any hypothesis and belief in it until proven wrong. Quite obviously, this leads to inconsistent conclusions. Ed's mentioning of the implausibility of the hypothesis therefore points to the core of the problem: Not all hypotheses are created equal, since we know something about the random occurrence of teapots, and we also know about the occurrence of serial killers — neither pop up a lot, so neither the orbit of the sun nor the snapping at children is likely to produce either teapots or serial killers.

  5. Denny Says:

    I come at this from two directions (as someone with two kids ages 10 and 15) the first is the way that many, new parents especially, treat their children/babies as if they are made of fine china and will break at the slightest bump – my reaction to that is that if human babies were indeed that fragile that we'd have never made it down from the trees; not to say that one should not protect their kids – I can certainly be ferocious in that regard, but just don't sweat it if they do get the little bumps and bruises.

    The other direction is the one alluded to by Jo; I'm not so worried about turning them into a serial killer or the like, but even in my lifetime, especially with the hollowing put of the middle class and the narrowing of options the stakes have gotten unimaginably higher than they were when I was going through primary/secondary education. I worry that something I do that does not give them every possible advantage or conversely unrealized by me deprives them of an advantage will markedly impact their future options.

    Kids are the ultimate take-home final exam – the killer is that you won't know whether you passed or not until they are grown and out on their own and even then you can never be quite sure.

  6. wetcasements Says:

    I'm 38, and my father was pretty much the antithesis of what I see in parents today. Basically he, and to a somewhat lesser extent my mother, were completely hands-off.

    Want to go outside and climb that tree? Sure, go for it. Fall out of said tree and require medial treatment? Sure, we'll drive you to the hospital and pay for the treatment and, on the way home, maybe give you just the mildest hint that you shouldn't try and climb that tree again you fucking imbecile.

    And I'm grateful my parents came from a generation that believed in kids learning by making their own stupid, horrible mistakes. Everything from alcohol to sex to school to money — my parents trusted me enough to understand that you learn from doing and, often, failing. Those are the lessons that stick.

    Thanks, Dad, for never having read a single goddamn parenting book. Thanks, Mom, for having a career and while sometimes being a bit guilty about not spending more time with me and my sister, knowing that you set yourself up as a great role model — work hard, be kind, and don't take shit from anybody.

    And yes, I'm the cranky guy who truly believes that we Americans/first-worlders in general are raising a generation of hopelessly dependent wimps.

  7. LK Says:

    I was going to write a long, detailed comment about raising children, with examples from my own experience and various debating tricks, but that's not what this post is about.

    I think, Ed, you are wrong on two counts with regards to this conversation: you expect people to think and act logically and rationally, and you expect human language (and spoken language, at that) to be an accurate (and logical) medium of relaying information between parties.

    On the first count, Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal (Robert Heinlein, ca. 1953). And there's no reason to believe this is ever going to change (we use reason when it's necessary, because we are capable of it, but there's no evolutionary pressure towards rational behavior in social life). In Russel's example, if I take as an axiom (or a Bayesian prior) that the teapot does indeed exist, no amount of evidence will be strong enough to prevent me from finding a work-around ("you're faking it" is my favorite). And parental fears and worries are indeed amplified beyond reason- the offspring of those parents who didn't worry enough simply didn't survive (they were also less neurotic, but it appears neurosis was never a barrier to procreation).

    On the second count, your statement in general would be pretty accurate (there is a very very small chance of a single word turning an otherwise normal kid into a serial killer), but a parent would perceive it in a much broader context. What if it's "one more word" instead of one word? What if it's one more word every week, or every day? What if I've been doing a really lousy parenting job up till now, and my kid is on the brink of turning psychotic? All of these questions have no hint in your statement- they exist solely in the parent's mind. But they are the backdrop of how they are hearing (and processing) the conversation, and their response is colored by them. There are also other issues at work here (like our bias when dealing with very low-probability events, read Kahneman and Tversky), but the basic issue still applies.

    Saying all that- I really liked the teapot story, and thanks a lot for sharing it (I'm ashamed I didn't know it already). Good stuff.

  8. Fiddlin Bill Says:

    LK, oddly, resorts to logic and rational argument to make his point.

  9. Zebbidie Says:

    As a parent of four, and a grandfather, let me tell you have not very much influence on them at all. You can see their little personalities showing through at a few months, and they keep them all their lives irrespective of what you think you are doing. You are a temporary care-giver at best.

    I suppose like all things, it is possible to fuck something up if you really try. But you have to really try. Benign neglect isn't enough.

  10. Suttree Says:

    All of my friends know that when they are telling me about their kid/children that I care about what they are saying/going through. I love them and by proxy their children. Somehow there is a clear understanding that I am just listening to them and they are not expecting me to give them advice/solutions to whatever problem they are having. I attempt to be as understanding and empathetic as possible. Strangers on the other hand, I tend to divert the conversation towards the amazing blacksmithing techniques of Samuel Yellin and Albert Paley. In the hopes of them realizing that I care just as much about junior's math test as they do about my esoteric pursuits.

  11. Alex SL Says:

    Parenting is one of those things where you wonder why people are assumed to be able to do it without ever being taught how to. It is no surprise that this approach will result in some parents being very bad without ever realizing it and others doing fine without realizing it. I guess it worked better when our ancestors were living in a roving clan or three generations together on the farm as opposed to a nuclear family, but well, there we are.

  12. Anonymouse Says:

    Denny writes: "The other direction is the one alluded to by Jo; I'm not so worried about turning them into a serial killer or the like, but even in my lifetime, especially with the hollowing put of the middle class and the narrowing of options the stakes have gotten unimaginably higher than they were when I was going through primary/secondary education. I worry that something I do that does not give them every possible advantage or conversely unrealized by me deprives them of an advantage will markedly impact their future options. "

    This, exactly. I think a lot of the anxiety is coming from the disintegration of the safety nets. You can't even count on being able to take a child who fell out of a tree to the hospital, because your crappy insurance needs you to call a 1-800 number and get authorization first, or the $10,000 bill is all on you to pay. Free-range summer kids? It's illegal to leave young children home alone, and the summer day-camps fill up in January, so if you work and you don't have a place for your kids to go by February, you're SOL.

    I think this is why parents are less rational and more, well, crazy, now. You get the feeling if you're not hyper-vigiliant and completely bonkers, you've already lost the race. I say this as a parent.

  13. c u n d gulag Says:

    I'm not a parent, and never have been.
    But when I wasn't as handicapped, I was a terrific Uncle.

    And being an Uncle is great!
    You get to play, and spoil the kids, and do goofy stuff with them.
    And when the kids start to get tired and cry, or get hurt doing the goofy stuff, you hand them back to their parents.
    THAT'S what's great about being an Uncle – if they start to cry, you get to hand them back! Most times, anyway…

    And when my sister or brother-in-law used to look at me when I handed them back crying, like I'd broken my niece and/or nephew, I'd remind them that I was babysitting for free, and if they wanted better caretaking, maybe they should pay for someone else!

    But the kids didn't want anyone but me.
    So, how bad could I have been?

    PS: So far, they've turned out terrific, despite my efforts to spoil and 'break" them. My nephew is in his 2nd semester in college, studying engineering, and my niece is in a Doctoral program, studying music.

  14. Talisker Says:

    @Jo:

    If you don't have children yourself you don't have skin in the game being played

    Not so. I have a strong vested interest in having a sane and functional younger generation to look after me when I'm old and feeble. Not to mention, y'know, wanting not to be dismembered by a serial killer.

    there is no limit to the pain and damage that can be caused by being wrong about how to raise children

    Yes, but the upbringing of serial killers tends to be along the lines of "horrifying daily abuse" rather than "innocent parenting mistake".

    What if something else "causes" someone to become a serial killer? Suppose it's the girl who knocked him back when he asked her for a date at the age of 16. Should nobody ever romantically reject anybody else, just in case it results in mass murder? How the hell is that going to work?

    Now, I'm not a parent and don't have the Secret Parenting Knowledge, but two things seem clear to me: 1) a tendency to paranoia among parents is totally understandable; 2) this tendency must be controlled, because being a paranoid control freak is not a good strategy for raising well-balanced children.

  15. Strangepork Says:

    If those of us who by choice or circumstance haven't joined the ranks of the breeding population cannot possibly fathom the anxiety/joy/fear/pressure/whatever else of Parenting and thus shouldn't have our own ideas about it, then respectfully, I would ask the Parents of the world to stop talking to us about it.

  16. Edward Says:

    If I were a parent I would be more concerned with the corporate manipulation of children through advertising and entertainment and the drugs that are given to children.

  17. Crackity Jones Says:

    I never understood why cuss words were a big deal. I mean, racial slurs are the real offensive words. But shit piss fuck et al? My parents cursed like sailors throughout my childhood-at each other, at me, and other people. They were wonderful people otherwise. So I always got in trouble in school growing up. I didn't think fuck was edgy. I just didn't see the big deal.

  18. Doctor Rock Says:

    I'm sympathetic to the fact that my friends with kids have infinitely more experience raising kids (as I have none). Nevertheless, having had two parents, I was on the receiving end of parenting, and I think that my perspective, while it counts for less, is something. My parents raised me under whatever theories were in vogue in the 80s, which are all (whatever they were, they had plenty of books I remember on parenting) probably discredited by now-and even if not, I wasn't coddled or subjected to whatever the new trendy parenting is, and I turned out fine. So if I turned out fine being partially raised during the Reagan years by out of fashion parenting theories,
    I don't think you parents will fuck anything up that bad.

  19. LK Says:

    @Zebbidie: I respectfully disagree. It's true that character starts to show very early (and the more the earlier), but there's a lot you can do as a parent in any possible direction. Put enough time into it, make the effort to think and plan (and coordinate between the various adults present) and you can make environment matter a lot more than genetics. Leave them to their own device, and you will feel (like @Middle Seaman before me) that it's sheer luck.

    @Alex SL: Your "I guess" is exactly the point. "It takes a village" is not just a nice thing to say, it used to be reality, and after that it used to be nostalgia. Urbanization has a lot of benefits, but the break-down of the clan cost us a lot of pain and anxiety as far as raising children is concerned. Look for anthropological studies of (contemporary) hunter-gatherer communities. It's fascinating.

    @Talisker and @Strangepork (and @Jo by proxy): Everyone has skin in the game (part of "it takes a village"), but not necessarily of the same size or location :) if you go out sharing things with people who don't have a proper frame of reference, you should be able to handle unexpected (or even completely nonsensical) replies. If you go out giving advice on something you don't have relevant experience in, you should be well prepared with solid arguments, supporting evidence and examples, and even then you will sometimes be beaten with "you don't know s&!t". And both sides should be fine in both cases.

    @Fiddlin Bill: Thank you. I tried my best, but once children enter the scene, emotions are just too strong. Mine too, but I needed the diversion.

  20. sluggo Says:

    If you have kids, and you are speaking to someone who doesn't and they say an innocent comment that you don't like: get off your high horse and shut the fuck up.

    A lot of us are childless due to circumstances, not by choice. I don't want to hear you say "you would understand, if you only had kids" anymore than you want to hear about failed relationships, miscarriages, infertility, lack of finances or other opportunities to adopt or the other host of issues than can keep someone childless.

  21. Doctor Rock Says:

    @Talisker

    My mother was a bit of a neurotic control freak (like many lawyers I know) while my father was far more lassez faire. I've recognized and worked on the neuroses I picked up, but remember, kids are smart. My mom was always high strung (to be fair, she worked very long and hard) and had hair trigger mood changes, and I could always tell, and apprehension of her mood swings and general tenseness created a lot of anxiety. My father though, taught me how to be calm under pressure (military background) so it sort of was a counterweight.

  22. deep Says:

    Jo said:

    I'm also quite loopy from my kids screaming all day.

    Yep, me too… me too.

  23. Jo Says:

    @Talisker; I'm sorry, I didn't make myself clear. The pain and damage I was talking about was to the parent. If there were any parenting techniques that would reliably turn kids into serial killers the US military would be using them on teenagers already.

    As Middle Seaman says, how kids turn out is mostly luck. That goes for Adam Lanza as well as Jesus (pick your own examples). Parents mostly know this on a rational level.

    On the other hand, parents have an instinctual emotional connection with their children that precedes rationality (although parents rationalize it endlessly, which is where I think LK is spot on). This has to be true because kids are so draining that without a prerational instinct the infanticide rate would approach 100% probably.

    One way that this instinct keeps parents caring for their children rather than leaving them on a hillside somewhere works by making parents feel as if everything that happens with their children is their fault. So if my kid turns out to be Adam Lanza, my life is ruined, even if I know rationally that I probably didn't have that much to do with it. Instinct doesn't care that this is bullshit, instinct just wants the kids taken care of long enough for them to reproduce.

    The skin in the game that I'm talking about is this: parents whose children go really wrong, or even just die young, have their hearts carved out and pounded to a pulp because of an instinctual control system that doesn't care about the parent as an individual. Even though the probability of this is vanishingly small, the payoff is so very negative that it still matters. On the other hand, the positive payout from having children, while potentially large, is almost certainly bounded. Talisker, it's nice that you recognize the economic benefits to you of other people's kids, but this stake transcends money.

    There's an interesting example of this in the Feb. 11 2013 New Yorker article about the professor who killed a bunch of her colleagues in a tenure dispute and then turned out to have killed her brother when she was younger. Her mother almost certainly covered up (and continues to cover up) the facts of the killing of her son by her daughter, and the daughter was never charged. When the New Yorker reporter tried to ask the neighbors, and this is decades after the killing, what they thought had happened they often asked her if she had children herself. The point being that whatever that mother is going through having lied to protect her daughter from the consequences of having killed her son, nonparents are not going to understand the choices she's had to make.

    To tie it all up; it's the potential for this kind of thing, which parents are mostly hyperaware of on some level, that causes them to (a) feel so guilty and anxious all the time, (b) yell at nonparents who dare to have opinions, and (c) know that they're being irrational even as they can't stop.

    I'm not saying that nonparents shouldn't have theories and opinions, I'm just trying to explain why it is that parents are so touchy about it to people (nonparents) who probably aren't going to understand.

  24. Jo Says:

    Here's a quick summary: before you have kids your own life is more important to you than anyone else's. This is as it should be. After you have kids someone else's life is more important to you than your own. This is not a choice, it is forced on you by nature. It's impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it and it is a horrifying position to be in and there's no way to undo it and it inverts a lot of what passes for rationality before it happens. Parenthood is a trap, and it must be a bad one since the bait is so irresistible.

    No, I'm not sorry I have kids. But if I were thinking only rationally I probably would be very sorry.

  25. Hazy Davy Says:

    I love a simple smackdown on logical fallacies.

    On the illustrative anecdata, fear is a powerful motivator. Kids (well, my kid, anyway) are learning how to interact with others, with their environment, etc. And when they're very young (the brighter ones, especially, I'd wager), they often do behave irrationally, unpredictably, inconsistently, … and I imagine the fear that your kid *would* become Dahmer, however improbable, is so great (when presented with weird behavior), that you do worry…and when you have rampant reinforcement of your fears (my kid's pre-school told me they found the fact that he chased other kids with his hand making a gun 'very, very troubling'), you can understand how those parents aren't necessarily putting the burden of proof on *you*. They're pleading with you and your powerful intellect to make the argument they were unable to—that things are likely fine.

  26. Dan E Says:

    And if you do give your kid a Whopper, then for the love of all that is holy, don't mention it to any other parents or you will be judged. Harshly and cynically.

  27. acer Says:

    Armchair psychiatrists love this one.

    Stop arguing with me, you sociopathic narcissist!

  28. Robert Says:

    Both my sons are mentally ill. Not a metaphor; their birth parents (through abuse, neglect, etc) lost parental rights. Then they got to experience foster care. By age five (when we adopted them), they had diagnosed psychiatric conditions resulting in medication and therapy . My husband and I have done the best we could and continue to do so. I do wish, for their sakes, that their birth parents had been more paranoid about not damaging their children.

    my point being, not all parents seem to have these concerns.

  29. Talisker Says:

    @LK: Yes, I'll happily admit that I'm ignorant of the day-to-day experience of being a parent. But as I'm sure you know, the obligation to argue rationally goes both ways. "I'm the parent, I know best!" may work on your toddler, but if you want to convince another adult, you'd better try harder.

    @Doctor Rock: Fair enough, I'm glad you (presumably) turned out OK.

    @Jo: Understood. I know, intellectually, that it's an awesome and terrifying responsibility. I'd be upset enough if something happened to my cat, I cannot imagine what it's like having a child.

    My point is that being a parent includes the responsibility not to get too freaked out by what a huge responsibility it is.

    This is not a new problem, but it may be worse in modern society because parents typically don't have a large extended family to help out on a daily basis and reassure them that they're doing the right thing.

    It's a bit like any other dangerous task. If you're driving a car, mortal terror is a perfectly natural response to the fact that a second's inattention will kill you or others. But being too terrified to think straight will only make matters worse, so you need to be alert yet relaxed. Anecdotally, a lot of modern parents are having real difficulty with the "relaxed" part.

    Talisker, it's nice that you recognize the economic benefits to you of other people's kids, but this stake transcends money.

    I never said it was about money. All sarcasm aside, I want to live in a society of happy and sane individuals, for its own sake and because well-balanced people will be nicer to myself, and my family and friends. What's more, the mental health (or otherwise) of the current generation of kids will have its greatest impact a few decades from now when they have all grown up and are running the world.

  30. ladiesbane Says:

    Love the return of the logical fallacy beatdown. More, please.

    Regarding parenting…sigh. I am told that being childless means I don't get to have an opinion about anything and to keep my mouth shut. A crack whore can have a baby, feed it Mountain Dew, leave it in a filthy diaper, and my opinion is invalid? Alley cats can breed, people. It takes no special genius.

    I love kids, but by and large, I can't stand parents.

    Whether they are hovering, neglectful, using their children as social experiments, or unable to make a Facebook post that isn't archly judgmental of minute parenting differences, they bore me. But if they post about Bullying or Spanking or Filtering or Obscenity or HFCS, I will reply. I did not have kids, but I was one for years and remember it well. If you feel it's really important to exclude certain voices from the conversation, best make it private rather than public.

  31. J. Dryden Says:

    When parents whine or fret or boast or do any one of the millions of things that they do because they are parents, I remind myself of one thing: thanks to them, I do not have to have kids of my own, and the species will continue. Parents have, all of them, taken one for the team of humanity–they've saddled themselves not just with kids (hard enough, those squalling little bundles of needy ingratitude) but with the emotional dysmorphia that attends them–the over-investment that really is essential to the survival of the knockabout know-nothing brats.

    Parents give up their lives for the sake of the continuance of humanity, and for that they have my thanks, and my patience. Parents have to be patient with their kids–we have to be patient with parents. (I have no idea who has to be patient with us, but my apologies, whoever you are.) If the guy we're burning in the Wicker Man for the next good harvest wants to bitch about how hot and uncomfortable he is, let him, and nod, and tell him you're sure he's doing his best. As much as it sucks to have to listen to him, it sucks even more to *be* him.

    Oh, and when the kid screams endlessly on the plane? The parents trying to silence him/her/it? They are just as annoyed and miserable as we are, *plus* they have the embarrassment of knowing that everyone around them hates them, *plus* unlike the rest of us, who will get off the plane and never see the shrieking fiend again, they know that This Is Life.

  32. Jo Says:

    J. Dryden, you are wise and articulate. Thank you.

  33. sluggo Says:

    @ J. Dryden

    or they were just to drunk to put on the condom.

  34. LK Says:

    @J. Dryden: Amen.

    All the rest: Since the wind has moved on, let's name the "logical fallacy" we are now discussing: "Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in their shoes". I alluded to that earlier (thank you, @Talisker for showing me I wasn't clear enough) but it probably deserves a few more words.

    There is a lot to be said both for and against talking from experience. You have better knowledge (both rational and emotional data) having walked the mile. But you are also more emotionally involved, and less capable of making rational arguments (what with having to shout a mile away and all). In practically any argumentative situation in life, the parties have different experiential backgrounds. When those differences are big enough (parents vs. non-parents is one of the biggest I can think of, probably only second to male/female and 1st world/3rd world) both sides have an obligation to be aware of the differences, at least if they are entering the argument in good faith. It's very easy to snap at the other side, your emotional vulnerability having the better of you. But if it were possible to sit down and relax, and look at things again from a calmer perspective, both sides would have been able to learn something new. Maybe that transatlantic flight _is_ the right time to give the screaming kid his pacifier, even though he should only have it in bed. Or maybe the kid is physically suffering, and the parents are just doing their best trying to find out where and why, in order to be able to help (that is, help the kid and everybody else on the flight). But more often than not, these situations crop up where neither the parent nor the "innocent onlooker" can muster the emotional detachment necessary for this kind of thinking. I don't claim to be much better at it- my wife used to give me the "you should have done X" treatment more often than I'd care to admit. But at least I'm aware of it as a capability that I really need to enhance (and fast), and I'm working on it. But this is the ideal I believe we should strive for- being able to "step outside" of ourselves for a moment, examine our biases and prejudices, adapt our arguments and "supporting material" in a coherent way and step back in with a little less emotional baggage.

  35. Bill Says:

    Kids. Bah.

  36. planb247 Says:

    I'm not a parent, but I am an uncle who spent a good deal of time changing diapers and babysitting my two nephews in their first two years. I'm also a local food person who runs farmers market yet still eats fast food a couple times a week. I got that habit from my parents, no two ways about it. Anyone that, knowing what we now know, takes their kids to McDs or Burger King, should have their head examined. Feed them real food and they will have a lot less physical and emotional problems down the road. Healthy eating starts young. Please don't make excuses for it. Once in a while, fine, but not at all would be much better.

  37. mothra Says:

    Yeah, I don't know why people have children at all anymore. The world isn't going to be able to support them in a relatively short time. So parents do whatever. None of it will matter when your kid is dying of thirst and starvation on a dead planet.

  38. Jak the Yak Says:

    As a relatively recent new parent, let me just say that parenting is different for everybody, and may vary greatly based upon: age, gender, sex, what your parents were like, culture, who the hell knows what else, etc. That is the only truth about parenting: your mileage may vary.

  39. Jak the Yak Says:

    That said, I agree Ed. Kids have survived normal parents for millennia, with too small a percentage of them becoming serial killers for one utterance of any given word or phrase to be responsible.

    I hate the parenting guilt industry, not least because even though I know what it is and why it is best ignored, whenever one of its messages slips through my defensive perimeter, it is still annoyingly effective. Even if I in no way accept the advice, the guilt/fear is quite palpable. Those people are preying on a whole suite of psychological and logical flaws in humans made all the more vulnerable by our natural desire to do right by our kids, and it's pure ugly.

  40. Elle Says:

    There are three groups of parents that I judge harshly. They are:

    1) People who talk about their children or treat their children as if they're chattel. They're diminuitive humans with poor impulse control, not your Porsche Carrera.

    2) People who say, "You can't possibly understand X until you become a mother", for values of X that aren't 'motherhood', but are instead 'Syria', 'recycling', or 'whether that's a ridiculous price to pay for shoes'. You may have needed to create life to find a shred of compassion, fiscal prudence, or common sense, but I already rolled that way.

    3) People who let their children watch TV, futz with their iPads, or play with games consoles on aeroplanes without headphones. You may find your child's inability to complete one level of Mario in seven hours endearing, but I'm ready to cut off its head with a torn up Pepsi can. (Not really, but I will clear my throat in a very disapproving fashion. Just so you're warned.)

  41. Pat Says:

    Playing with fire, Ed. Everyone is completely crazy when it comes to raising kids, and something like 99.999% of the population is incapable of listening to you talk about (a) how you raise your kids without hearing (b) implicit criticism of how they choose to raise their kids. Or how they were raised. Or… whatever; they're just sure it's terrible of you to say so. Google the sad experience of Lenore Skenazy if you need an anecdote that'll make you want to go live on a mountaintop.

    … adding, it's pretty remarkable that we as a species can be so paranoid and insecure about a process that a thousand generations of our mostly illiterate ancestors were able to do well enough to make seven billion of us.

  42. vegymper Says:

    I think it depends on the context… Here in South America below the Equator, where we experiment no frequent relocations and extended family ties are more usual, the pressures a dad/mom will feel of making it wrong on their only try are lesser. Also serial killers not available here… only regular criminal crackheads killing you just for your wallet. It is good to hear from the respected contributors in this blog about the particular facets of living in the US, one of that being the [absolute] lack of reference to "what's going on out there".

  43. being released Says:

    "And seriously, you can give your kid a damn Whopper or swear in his presence on occasion. It's not going to kill him."

    There is another option – the kid will annoy and pester you about it forever. We made the mistake of having desert with dinner once. For the next month my (then) 3 year old said: "What are we having for desert tonight?" fifteen times a night. He still asks occasionally – the answer is always "Nothing."

    The real goal of parenting is not "How can I make my child turn out great," its "How can I keep this kid from constantly annoying me."

  44. fubar Says:

    I think opinions/anxieties on parenting are like assholes, everyone has one. And I inlcude those with no children of their own, because I'm pretty sure they were children once too. Or, they have nephews and nieces and are involved to some degree in seeing them to maturity. So there, everyone has some skin in the game.

    Ed, don't let your friend's anxieties dictate the conversation. And don't feel that you have to help solve their problems or ease their parenting pain. Unless you are a truly evolved being, parentining is as much about adapting and learning as a parent as it is about raising a child. My kids are forcing me to learn and grow as a human and teacher, while I try to provide the best environment I can for them.

    But at the end of the day, I choose my attitude (including anxieties). Show your kids lots of love, grow as a person, and instill self-discipline in them. There is no perfect way to raise a child.

  45. joel hanes Says:

    In my experience, the things we say to kids and the rules and limits we impose matter far far less than the example we set. Your kids will measure themselves against you: they will (probably, eventually) try to be like you in the ways that matter most to them.

    If you have deserved their love and respect, be comforted to know that they will (eventually, probably) seek to measure up to the example you have set.

    If you have earned their contempt and fear, they are likely to replicate that pattern, too.

    And that's the most damnable moment in parenting: when you see the bits of your own character that you dislike, the bits that you're ashamed of, come out in your child's behavior or values.

  46. steve12 Says:

    Great post!

    This is also one of the bedrocks of scientific inquiry – falsification.

    If you were going to investigate the presence of the tea pot, the null hypothesis would be that it is NOT there. Finding the teapot (with a more powerful telescope or some such) would falsify the null.

    The null is not set this way because of bias against the idea being proffered, as purveyors of nonsense often claim. The set up simply reflects the impossibility of proving a negative.

  47. paul from chicago Says:

    I love when people post their parenting credentials! I must be diong something right because Jr is… Refer to cognitive bias!

    I see a different social problem with Ed's friend:
    In my opinion, when you are complaining to someone about your problems, you are welcoming their analysis. I've played the role of the complainer before and have been slapped in the face with someone's logic. It kind of sux, but at least i get to re-rationalize my point of view!
    I recently had an argument, with one of you non-child bearing people, about the lie i tell my kids about santa clause. My friend is in child care and observes a lot of 'bad parenting'. It was a great argument, we yelled, swore, and laughed. I pulled some great stuff out of the argument. I do still lie to my kids, though. I love my own hypocrisy!
    If your friend does not want your input, she should not talk about her problems. Especially to you Ed. Does she even know you?