4 Computer Science Principles That Can Help You Parent More Effectively
Between Google, Siri, Alexa, and Roomba, you pretty much allow a computer to control 90 percent of your life. And you might be tempted to cede that last 10 percent, because according to computer scientists (and, frankly, your children), the current way that your clunky human brain is doing things is less than optimal.
Brian Christian, co-author of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, says that despite your fleshy fallibility, if you start applying these computer science concepts, you’ll end up with a few shortcuts to be a better parent and person. It has less to do with cyborg upgrades or building your own annoyingly self-aware robot, and everything to do with applying some basic, logic-driven concepts to your decision making. Here are 4 examples you can rely on more than your gut because, honestly, have you looked at your gut lately?
The Explore/Exploit Tradeoff
What It Is: When things are new and there’s a lot to explore, there’s a net benefit to trying everything. After a while, as your overall experience increases, it makes more and more sense to stick with stuff you know you like, because there’s a diminishing return to finding something even better. The Explore/Exploit Tradeoff is a continuum and your kid is at the very beginning (you, on the other hand, are very far down the other end. Because you are old).
What You Can Do With It: “This time should be a period of wild exploration,” says Christian of childhood. “If this is year one out of 80, you should be in the mode of randomly trying stuff out.” So yeah, as a toddler your kid really does need all those toys to figure out if they’re more of a LEGO or a glockenspiel kind of kid. Meanwhile, you can feel good knowing that your insistence on going to the same restaurant every date night isn’t a lack of adventurousness — it’s efficiency.
What It Is: According to Sorting Theory, the only reason to sort something — and, in this example, the thing you would sort is that disaster you call a kitchen/garage/home office — is to save time when searching for something. If it takes more time to get organized than you would save by being organized, you might want reconsider those Sunday afternoon spring cleaning plans.
What You Can Do With It: “If the answer is [it takes more time to get organized], then it’s not only easier but better to be messy,” says Christian. By all means have kid clean up their LEGOs — it’s better than stepping on them — but that pile of papers on your desk? The heap of yard gear in the garage? The … whatever that is in the back of your closet? Let it be. “We think of computers as the paragon of absolute order,” he says, “when in reality it gives us a powerful articulation for how mess can be a good idea.” Honey, science said the garage is fine!
What It Is: Overfitting describes when a data model is too precise to explain a set of data. And data modeling, like your kid running around with their underwear on their head, can’t always be neatly explained.
What You Can Do With It: Basically, ignore the herd. “In parenting, there are weirdly fast-developing trends, like everyone you know is using some specific toy or parenting strategy,” says Christian. Don’t feel compelled to jump on every one — chances are it’s wrong anyway. “The idea here is jump toward the bandwagon, but don’t jump on the bandwagon. You’re probably better off moderating,” he says. Score one for human judgment.
What It Is: When your computer is unsuccessfully trying to perform a task, it waits a half-second before trying again. Then a full-second. Then 2. Then 4. Then 8. And so on until you throw it out the window. This is called exponential backoff, and it staggers the flow of data in order to not overload the system.
What You Can Do With It: You can seen this principle applied in criminal justice, but it’s exponential in reverse. In this example, the criminal is your child, and the crime is aggravated whining. Instead of incrementally getting off their case, you’re ramping up. The first infraction you let off with a warning. As the crime keeps being committed, the severity of the punishment increases with the crime. “The idea here is that you can give a person an infinite number of chances and the punishment can increase with each chance,” he says. Essentially, they’re just making it harder on themselves, and they may not like it, but who are you to argue with math?