How to (Ethically) Experiment on Your Family During Quarantine

The conditions of social distancing also happen to be perfect for changing up family dynamics.

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I’ve worked from home, with my kids around constantly, for years — it used to be a relatively unique set-up. And in that time, I’ve conducted parenting experiments on my family. It sounds way more sinister than it is: Basically, I’ve changed how I interact with my kids, in a measured, strategic way, for a week, and reported on the results. No beakers or lab coats needed. A parenting experiment can be as simple as ignoring a whining child for a week or adding a 10-minute family walk to the daily routine.

Sure, I’ve wrestled with feeling a bit like Dr. Moreau (the Brando version), but mostly I’ve thrilled at seeing my kids react positively to me saying “yes” or meditating with them, or tactically ignoring them like a French dad for a week.

Many parents are now working from home, with kids around constantly, and, while for many, this new reality means a lot less time and patience, the conditions of social distancing also happen to be perfect for experimentation. Free from outside influence, parents can employ new tactics and observe the effects in real time. If you’ve always wanted to try out a new way to interact with your kids, or a new routine or ritual, the world has given you a golden opportunity. There are a few guidelines that I’ve found help make these technique trials effective.

Know the Exact Behavior You’re Trying to Change

You can’t run an experiment to simply make your family happier, or your child nicer: you won’t be able to control for all the variables involved. Specificity is key. For instance, you could run an experiment to get your child to interrupt you less, or to reduce sibling fights related to television shows. You can run an experiment to get kids outside more often.

The trick is finding a specific behavior to change, preferably one that you can observe and measure. There’s no need to be too strict with measuring the outcomes. Most parents will be able to know if things are getting worse or better. You just need to know what you’re looking at.

Define Your Experimental Condition Strictly

Once you know the behavior you want to change, figure out exactly what you will do to try and change it. Again, specificity is key. “Talk more and yell less for a week,” is too broad. You’ll need to be stricter here because you need accountability for the experiment to succeed, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep yourself accountable to broad conditions — the edges around “more” and “less” are far too ambiguous. So, instead, you might commit to counting to 10 every time you feel like you’re about to yell to see if it reduces time spent in conflict. The condition is very specific. The outcome is observable and measurable.

Communicate What’s Happening

Unlike big-brain, double-blind experiments with placebos and one-way mirrors, home experiments require that everyone knows what’s going on. Kids prefer stability. Many kids don’t react well to change, especially if they don’t know the change is coming. For every experiment I do, I have a “Let’s Try” meeting: During dinner or before storytime, I will sit down with my family and propose the conditions of the experiment.

“Hey guys, let’s try going on a hike every day and see what happens,” I might suggest. This gives everyone time to get adjusted to schedule changes and ask any questions about how the whole thing is going down.

This isn’t as necessary for experiments involving your own parenting behaviors. It would have been wildly difficult to explain to my kids that parenting like a French dad would mean going around with a laconic lack of concern. They don’t know what laconic means. But also, if I were able to explain it, they probably would have fought me and called my bluff. That said, I did need to communicate my conditions to my partner. She had to understand why I was ignoring the kids and smoking Gauloises indoors.

Be Willing to Bail

The point of experimenting is to find ways of improving. But if it becomes clear that your conditions are making things worse, cut the experiment short. There’s no need to “power through.” That said, a little grumbling is to be expected. Change is tough. But if kids or parents are melting down after three days with no change in sight, pull the emergency brake.

Take Notes

Commit to journaling the experience. Don’t think you’ll just be able to remember what all went down at the end of the week: Seven days is a long time in parenting. Keep a notebook by your bed, and before you go to sleep, jot down your experience that day. Remember the times in which you applied your condition and think about how your kids reacted. Be precise and pragmatic. You’re not writing a memoir.

Be Honest About Your Data

At the end of the week take an honest look at how things have changed — if they have changed. At this point, you have some things to mull over: was the result good enough that you’d consider changing the routine permanently? How much energy did the conditions require and are you willing to spend that energy into the future?

Talk it over with your partner. You can even talk it over with your kids if it’s appropriate. They might have insight into what it felt like to go on a hike every day, for instance. Then, with your data collected, you decide if you want to abandon the conditions or keep them going. The best part is, if you decide to keep them going, you have a week of practice. You’re ahead of the game.

With several weeks or more ahead of us in isolation, there’s plenty of time to make some change. It’s time to experiment and come out the other side of this pandemic a stronger, probably happier (and maybe even more French) family.

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