Give me a child for the first seven years, and he is mine for life. —The Jesuits
Raise a child with the Master Question, and he is his own for life. —Sarah and Craig Biddle
During the twelve years we’ve been raising our daughter, we’ve often been asked about our approach to parenting, and we’ve enjoyed sharing our thoughts in countless conversations. Now that our daughter is almost thirteen, we’re happy to present the essence of our approach in the form of an essay. Because we’re only part way through this wonderful adventure, our discussion here is limited to our experiences and thoughts about raising a child through her preteen years.
Parenting is a big subject about which many good books and articles have been written (we recommend several in an appendix below). Our purpose in this essay is not to cover every aspect or area of parenting, nor to restate things that others have stated well. Rather, our purpose is to convey a fundamental principle that governs our approach to the endeavor and to show how that principle applies to various parenting situations and contexts.
In particular, we do not address children’s education in this essay. Although education is an aspect of parenting, it is also a science in its own right, and we think it is best treated separately. For good article-length discussions of education, we recommend Heike Larson’s “The Montessori Method: Educating Children for a Lifetime of Learning and Happiness” (TOS, Summer 2010); and Lisa VanDamme’s “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education” (TOS, Spring 2006) and “The False Promise of Classical Education” (TOS, Summer 2007).
The Master Question
We approach parenting as we approach any major project or undertaking: by first identifying and clarifying the purpose of the endeavor. What are we trying to do here—and why?
The purpose of parenting, as we see it, is not merely to raise a child to be an independent, happy adult. That is a goal of parenting (and an important one), but is not the overarching purpose.
The purpose of parenting, in our view, is to enable a child to learn about the world, to develop his mind and skills, and to make his own choices so that he can live well and love life—not only in adulthood, but also throughout childhood.1 That’s a mouthful. Fortunately, as we think you’ll come to agree, that lengthy idea can be condensed to: The purpose of parenting is to raise a life-loving child.
That purpose, however, is declarative. It states a truth and an aim, but it does not necessarily activate our minds toward that end. To turn this principle into a tool that activates our minds, we convert it into a question: What can I do (or refrain from doing) to enable my child to learn about reality, to develop his mind and skills, and to make his own choices so that he can live well and love life?
The very act of asking this question (or any version of it) focuses our minds on the task of answering it. And by proceeding to answer this question in any given context, we set our minds to the process of good parenting. Because this question is both central and fundamental to our approach, we call it the Master Question (MQ).
Depending on the context, the MQ may be worded slightly differently or more briefly. For instance, if a toddler is trying to fit a piece into a puzzle, the question might be: What can I do to enable him to develop his mind and skills? And the answer would likely be: Let him figure it out on his own. Similarly, if a five-year-old is coming to breakfast, the question might be: What can I do to enable him to make his own choices? And the answer might be: Ask him whether he’d rather have scrambled eggs or fried. The answer might also involve asking him whether he’d like to help prepare breakfast this morning, which would give him another choice to make and an opportunity to develop his skills.
The Master Question applies not only to passing events and minor decisions, but also to long-term planning and major decisions. For example, it applies when parents are considering possible summer camps for an eleven-year-old, in which case the answer might be: Include the child in the research and decision-making process; ask him to help collect information on possible camps; discuss with him logistical concerns and expense limits; ask him to weigh the pros and cons of the alternatives; and let him choose the camp himself.
Whatever the context, the purpose of the Master Question is to help us parents to keep our thinking, our choices, our policies, and our actions in concert with the proper purpose of parenting.
We’ve used this question at every turn during the twelve years we’ve been raising our daughter, and we’ve found it to be remarkably effective.
During the first few years, whenever a parenting situation or alternative arose, we consciously paused and asked the Master Question in our minds or even out loud to ourselves. In time, we automatized the asking such that whenever an applicable context arose, the question arose with it. For almost a decade now the question has been so deeply embedded in our souls that our use of it has been second nature.
The result? We have a wonderful, mutually respecting relationship with our daughter, who has thoroughly loved her childhood and has developed into a thoughtful, passionate, and admirable young lady.
We think that any parents who embrace the MQ as the governing tool in raising their children will enjoy similar results.
To be sure, the art of parenting is highly contextual. Every child is unique, with his or her own temperament, personality, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and needs. And every family has its own broader context to boot. Our aim in this essay is not to address every conceivable situation and variable that parents might face; rather, our aim is to present the general approach that we use and that we think any parents can use with respect to their own contexts and with profoundly positive results.
In short, we aim to show that, in the realm of parenting, the Master Question is a master tool.
Environments and Freedom to Choose
Children learn and thrive by doing—by exploring, experimenting, exerting effort—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing—constantly integrating their experiences, and constantly expanding their minds. Accordingly, they need environments that are conducive to this process, and they need freedom to think, act, try, and see.2
If we continually tell a toddler, “No,” “Stay away from there,” “Leave it alone,” “Don’t touch that,” and the like, then he is not free to explore his world in accordance with his curiosity. Our dictates continually interrupt his focus and redirect it away from reality, away from his interests, and toward an “authority.” We thereby foster in him not the premise that he should explore and try and see, but the premise that he should look to authorities for approval.
Likewise, if we constantly hover over a twelve-year-old, telling her what to do, how to dress, whom to befriend, and generally micromanaging her life, then she is not free to think for herself and to act in accordance with her own judgment; she is not free to explore the world and to learn from experience; she is not free to design and love her life. Our dictates send her the message that she should not use her mind to forge her life, that she should not rely on her judgment to guide her choices and actions, that she should not be the individual she would be if the choice were up to her. Our message to her is, in effect, “You’re not capable of independent judgment. You need an authority to tell you what to think, what to value, what to do, who to be.”
Now, obviously, we parents are authorities of sorts. We possess a great deal of knowledge that our children don’t possess. And we are responsible for using that knowledge to ensure their health and safety, and to guide or assist them in various ways. Parents occasionally must tell a four-year-old, “No—you may not run into the street . . .” or tell a nine-year-old, “Tonight is not going to work for a sleepover. . . .” But even in such instances, we can follow up with positive, thought-encouraging, choice-necessitating alternatives. And, if we employ the Master Question, we will. “Going into the street can be dangerous because cars come speeding down the street. I don’t want you to get hit by a car. Let’s figure out a safe way to get your ball. Would you like to do that?” And: “If you’d like to schedule a sleepover, we can find a date that works well for everyone involved. Shall we look at the calendar?”
Our parental trump card is important, and we occasionally need to use it. But this prerogative does not alter the fact that in order for our children to live well and love their lives, they need to use their minds and make their own choices. Thinking and choosing are the means by which children develop their rational faculties and learn to make good, life-serving decisions. And, as we stress throughout this article, thinking and choosing are also the means by which children love their lives in the here and now.
The Master Question helps us to integrate our legitimate authority and our children’s vital need to make choices.
Consider our use of this question in setting up a play area for our daughter’s toddler years. Our governing question was not: How can we arrange the area so that she can have fun? That would not have activated our minds sufficiently. A toddler might have fun watching The Wiggles on television all day (not that there’s anything wrong with The Wiggles). Nor did we ask: How can we arrange the space to ensure that she learns? A child is going to learn something from anything she does or is made to do. If we lined the walls with maps and grilled her on geography, she would learn some geography. That doesn’t mean doing so would make for a good space or time well spent. Rather, our governing question was the MQ: What can we do to create a play area in which our daughter is free to make her own choices, to develop her mind and skills, and to love being a toddler?
With this question in mind, we converted a seldom-used formal living room into wonderful exploration and play area. It had a bay window that provided plenty of natural light. The room was centrally located, within our earshot no matter where we were in the house. And it was large enough to accommodate the kinds of objects and activities that the MQ inspired us to make available.
We cleared the room of furniture and objects that would be of no use for this new purpose. We “baby proofed” the area by standard procedure, covering the electrical outlets, ensuring there were no dangerously sharp edges, and the like. We placed a toddler-sized table and chairs at the bay window, lined two of the walls with low shelving and storage cabinets that our daughter could access herself, and gated the doorways. We left a sofa at one end of the room, for reading, fort building, flying experiments, and other necessities of toddlerhood. We left the existing area rug in place, embracing the fact that it would be destroyed over time. And we left the center of the room clear for dancing, playing games, creating air igloos, and the myriad other life-loving activities our daughter would enjoy in this space in the years to come.
As for toys and play objects, we choose these by means of the MQ as well. Because we did not ask myopic questions such as “What toys can we put in here?,” we did not focus merely on toys or even on objects made for kids. Rather, we thought broadly, in terms of the kinds of objects that our daughter might love playing with, and, within that huge field, the kinds of things that could foster the development of her mind and skills.
Thus, we included all sorts of ordinary household objects—pots and pans, wooden spoons and tongs, cardboard boxes, baskets, egg cartons, plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, tape, socks, scarves, and so on. We also included building blocks, balls, PlayDoh, large-piece puzzles, big beads and string, crayons and paper, maracas, a xylophone, finger paint, blow bubbles, and other traditional play objects.
Most of the play objects we included were passive—that is, things that don’t do anything on their own. Active objects, such as iPads, LeapPads, and televisions, can be of great value to a child as well. But, for this area, we wanted passive objects, which foster hands-on exploration, experimentation, effort, and creativity; and which help a toddler develop her fine motor skills and advance her understanding of the basic ways in which things work.
We also included books in this space. We read to our daughter daily from infancy—a soul-fueling, mind-expanding routine we highly recommend—and by the time her face could express pleasure she would light up at the sight of a book. By the time she was a toddler she loved paging through board books and picture books on her own, and shortly after she turned four she was reading. (For good discussions about the importance of reading to young children, see Joan Beck, How to Raise a Brighter Child: The Case for Early Learning; and Dorothy Butler, Babies Need Books.)
That was about it. The space was relatively inexpensive and easy to set up, and it was profoundly valuable to our daughter’s development. She now had an environment in which she loved to explore and play, in which she was completely free to do whatever she wanted to do, and in which whatever she did helped her to develop her mind and skills.
During the next few years, our daughter enjoyed playing and exploring in this space immensely. Sometimes, she’d want us to join her and read a book or build a fort together, or try our hand at finger painting or the like. But, for the most part, when she was in her playroom, she was happy to play alone or with her friends, and she didn’t need us for anything. She loved freely applying her mind and her effort to her chosen goals, and we loved that fact.
Our entire approach to setting up the space was directed by the Master Question: What can we do to enable our child to learn about reality, to develop her mind and skills, and to make her own choices, so that she can love her life? By asking this question about the project, we set our minds to work in the right direction.
Of course, a different couple’s use of the MQ to set up their child’s playroom will not render theirs identical to ours. The MQ is not a tool for cookie-cutter parenting. It is a tool for keeping our minds focused on the big picture while we address and enjoy all of the details as we proceed.
We used the MQ to rearrange our kitchen for our toddler’s use as well. But rather than spell out what we did there, we’ll leave the question to you. Take just thirty seconds to think about an answer to this question: What could you do in a kitchen to enable a toddler to develop his mind and skills, to make his own choices, and to enjoy the space during his toddler years?
Observe that to ask the question is to set your mind to the task of answering it—and that good answers come to mind quickly. Whatever the context, such answers are there for the asking. Of course, in complex cases, full answers may require extensive thinking and even research. But for these activities to be positively effective, they must proceed in the right direction.
The MQ applies to outdoor environments and places beyond the home as well. Here, we’ll consider a progression, beginning with how we applied the question to our backyard and other outdoor areas for our daughter when she was a toddler, and how we applied the question to similar environments as she progressed through her lower-school years and into her middle-school years.
From the time our daughter was born until she was four, we lived in a house with a quarter-acre backyard and a slightly smaller front yard, which ended at a street with occasionally fast traffic. What could we do with this yard to enable our daughter to explore her world freely, to develop her mind and skills, and to love her life?
Working within our context and means, we fenced in the backyard so as to give our daughter fully free rein of that area. We installed a zip line, a toddler-sized balance beam, a small climbing structure, a seesaw, and a sandbox. We left the rest of the space wide open for cartwheeling and somersaulting, spinning and hula hooping, playing ball and catching fireflies. Poison ivy occasionally cropped up in the wooded area at the back of the yard, so we showed our daughter the plant and explained why she should do her best not to touch it. That was about it.
When our daughter was in the backyard, she could enjoy completely self-directed, uninterrupted exploration and play. Of course, we’d occasionally and gleefully join her in games or other activities, and she’d sometimes have a friend or two over for a play date. But she did not need us for anything back there. And we did not need to interrupt her efforts or projects. She was fully free to think, choose, try, and see. She was fully free to engage directly with reality.
Although we did not fence in our front yard, we did apply the Master Question here as well. In this space, with the help of our daughter, we planted blueberry and raspberry bushes, fig trees, and various other interesting plants and flowers. The space was not suitable for a toddler’s unattended play, but it was nevertheless a wonderful place for our daughter to explore and enjoy when accompanied by an adult.
Of course our daughter’s toddlerhood was not confined to our property. We also frequented local parks where she had access to all kinds of swings, monkey bars, and large climbing structures; a nearby swamp, where she could see various kinds of wildlife; botanical gardens; zoos; and many other wonderful environments. The combination was ideal. And it—like all of our decision making with respect to our daughter—was a result of our asking and answering the MQ.
Shortly after our daughter turned four, we moved to a new neighborhood with a substantially different landscape. Our new home was in a small gated community, and our house did not have a private yard. But it had a fenced-in patio covered by a sturdy pergola, which was shaded by the canopy of a large, branchy carrotwood tree—a tree that our daughter would soon discover is ideal for climbing (more on that shortly).
Just beyond the patio was a common area with a sport court surrounded by greenbelts and walkways, and adjacent to those was a fenced-in swimming pool. Beyond this common area were other homes flanked with walkways leading to the rest of the gated community, including a road. Given this environment, what could we do to enable our daughter to learn about reality, to develop her mind and skills, and to make her own choices?
When our daughter was four or five, she needed adult supervision to play outside our fenced-in patio. By the time she was six, she was ready for free rein of the sport court and common area visible from our patio gate, as long as we knew she was out there and could check on her periodically. By the time she was eight, she was free to leave that area on her own and to walk or bicycle throughout the gated neighborhood, providing she let us know when she was leaving, carried a walkie-talkie, and checked in with us periodically. By the time she was ten, she was free to visit nearby parks outside the gated community, providing she went with at least one friend, carried a walkie-talkie, and touched base now and then.
Our aim at all turns was to grant her the maximum developmentally appropriate freedom to make her own choices and to direct her own life. By having firm policies about where and when she could roam—and by providing her with clear, understandable reasons for these policies (see “Reasons for Everything” below)—we gave her freedom to direct her own life fully to the extent that she was developmentally ready to direct it.
And direct it she did. She might as well have personally owned each space in which she was free to travel. She let us know when she was going outside, carried a walkie-talkie when necessary, and checked in periodically. But while she was out and about, what she did was up to her. We did not need to interrupt her playing, and she did not need our permission to act. Again, we’d sometimes join her in an activity, and she often played with friends. But with the exception of an occasional grumpy neighbor, no adults told her what to do or not to do. She was free to explore her world and love her life.
Among the countless discoveries and decisions she made on her own during these years was her realization that the carrotwood tree on our patio was effectively made for climbing. At the time she noticed this, she was seven and still too short to reach the first branch. She asked if we could tie a rope around it so she could get off the ground. We did, and this intricately branched tree became her doorway into a new world of wonder. She (and occasionally some friends) spent countless hours exploring this space, swinging from branches, developing coordination, and creating stories and characters inspired by the setting. Eventually, she discovered that she could step off the lower branches of the tree and onto the pergola, which she could then traverse to the roof of our single-story house—which she promptly claimed as a new land in her elevated world.
This marvelous environment came almost ready-made; all we had to do was ask a question: What can we do to enable our daughter to learn about reality, to make her own choices, to improve her skills, and to love her life? Our answer in this case was that we could assess the risks of climbing the tree and walking on the pergola and roof, discuss those risks with our daughter, talk about reasonable safety precautions—and let her thrive.
The confidence she gained and the joy she derived from mastering this tree—and the value of the solitude she enjoyed spending time alone and as she saw fit in this wonderful multifaceted space—cannot be overstated. Whether she needed to wind down after a difficult day at school, or wanted peace and quiet after a hectic play date, or saw fit to perch herself on a chair of branches and write a story, she’d climb the tree and disappear into her own private world. Sometimes she’d make like a monkey. Sometimes she’d dangle like a bat. Sometimes she’d walk the pergola as if on a tightrope. Sometimes she’d lie on the roof and gaze at the stars.
What can we do to enable our child to have such rich and meaningful experiences throughout his or her childhood? That, in effect, is the Master Question.
By continually asking and answering the MQ, we continually reassess our child’s developmental stage and the entire relevant context, and we adjust our policies and expand her freedom accordingly. Because it infuses the proper purpose of parenting into every thought process it directs, the MQ always leads us to make decisions that enable our child to think, to choose, and to thrive.
Where else does the MQ apply? It applies to every environment in which our child might be—from grocery stores to shopping malls to ski slopes to swimming holes.
What can we do . . . at the grocery store with our six-year-old? We can mention that we need some milk and a bag of carrots and ask whether she’d go get those. What can we do . . . at the mall with our eleven-year-old and her friends who want to shop on their own? We can agree on appropriate perimeters and ask our daughter to text or call us now and then to touch base. What can we do . . . on the ski slopes? Whatever our child’s age, we can give her maximum freedom to ski the slopes within her level of ability. And so on.
Whatever the place, whatever the context, we can always find a way to enable our child to make her own choices and guide her own life—if we ask the question that activates our minds toward that end.
Using the Master Question to think about our daughter’s environments has helped us to maximize her freedom as a matter of course. We’ve employed the question in regard to myriad environments throughout every stage of her development, and we—and she—are delighted with the results. We suspect you and your child will be similarly delighted if you give it a try.
Let’s turn now to how the MQ applies to a child’s personal values.
Values and Freedom To Choose
We’ve heard arguments from parents to the effect: “Look, we made our child play the violin even though he didn’t want to, and things worked out great. Now he’s an adult, he plays the violin, and he enjoys it. So, clearly, we did the right thing.” But this is not sound thinking.
Part of the error here is a failure to grasp the purpose of life and the role of choice in good living. The purpose of life is not to become an adult who plays the violin and enjoys it. The purpose of life is to choose and pursue the values that are meaningful to you, the individual; to develop your skills and abilities in the areas of your choosing; and to enjoy the process of designing your life in the image of your values. This is the purpose of life not only for adults but also for children.
An adult who plays the violin because he was forced to play it as a child may enjoy playing the violin. But he is not enjoying the activities he would be enjoying if, as a child, he had been free to pursue his own interests rather than required to engage in those foisted on him by his parents.
In fact, his life today is not at all what it would be if he had been free to choose his own values and thus his own course. Nor will he ever know what that course would have been or what he is missing. The life he would have created if he had been free to create his life in the image of his own values will never be. We see that as a tragedy.
Another aspect of the error in the claim, “We forced our child to do x and now he’s happy so we must have done the right thing,” is that the claim is a patent instance of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The fact that an adult appears to be happy—or even that he is happy—does not mean that the way he was raised is the cause of his happiness. Countless children have been raised in horrifically bad ways—neglected, belittled, browbeaten, physically beaten—and have managed to cope in life and to achieve happiness as adults. Their ability to cope and to achieve happiness speaks to their resilience and fortitude, not to the virtue of their parents’ methods. There is no logic in pointing to a happy adult and saying, “Whatever approach his parents used in raising him must have been good because, look, he’s happy.”
There are good and bad ways to raise a child, and the standard for evaluation is not parental opinion or adult outcome but the factual requirements of human life and happiness—as dictated by human nature.
Human beings have free will: the choice to think or not to think, to exert mental effort or not to do so, to pursue a given value or not to pursue it. This is what makes us human. It is precisely by using our reasoning minds and pursuing our chosen values that we live proper human lives. Children not only need practice in thinking and choosing so that they will be able to think and choose well as adults; they also need freedom to think and choose today in order to love their lives as children.
This is not to say that we should permit our children to do whatever they want to do. No rational parent would take such a position. Rather, it is to say that because our children’s use of their faculty of choice is what enables them to live proper human lives, we should enable them to choose their own values within the range of reasonable, life-serving, developmentally appropriate alternatives. This is the realm of optional values—values that a person might choose and could benefit by pursuing (e.g., violin, sailing, sewing) but that are not fundamental requirements of human life (e.g., reason, honesty, political liberty).
Naturally, the range of optional values includes some of our own values and interests—some of which we might regard as wonderful potential values for our children. And exposing our children to our own values and interests is not only fine but positively good—as long as we do not force our values on them.
The reason the Master Question contains a clause about choice is that the MQ is simply the purpose of parenting converted into a question to guide our thinking. And the purpose of parenting is not to mold our children into the image of our optional values. Rather, the purpose of parenting is to enable and encourage our children to design their own unique lives by pursuing values of their own choosing.
When our daughter was born, our personal hobbies included ballroom dancing, country-western dancing, rock climbing, and snow skiing. Naturally, we thought it would be wonderful if our daughter came to love some of these activities, too. What fun it would be to dance together, climb together, ski together! We also envisioned the possibility that she would learn to play a musical instrument. Our preference here was violin or piano. We envisioned all sorts of values that might be part of our daughter’s life. At the same time, we knew that her life belongs to her, not to us.
Because we embraced the MQ, we never asked ourselves: Which sports or hobbies will we have our daughter do? Or: What can we do to ensure that she embraces the optional values we embrace? Instead, we asked: What can we do to enable her to choose her own values and thus to love her life?
Our answer was straightforward: Expose her to a wide range of values and activities, let her pursue the ones she finds interesting, and encourage her efforts to make her life in the image of her values.
We took our daughter rock climbing a few times, and she liked it but didn’t love it. We showed her videos of children ballroom dancing, and she was impressed with their dancing but not interested in trying it. We took her skiing, and she loved it—it’s now one of her favorite sports. And we let her know that if she ever wants to try a musical instrument, we’ll happily pay for some introductory lessons; she has not taken us up on that.
We’ve exposed her to countless other sports and hobbies as well, and she has tried many of them, including ice-skating, horseback riding, Krav Maga, drama, swimming, archery, and surfing. Although she has enjoyed some of these and even stuck with a few for a while, she did not develop a deep or enduring passion for any of them.
In the midst of the aforementioned samplings, however, she did zero in on a number of values about which she became passionate, and some of these have proven to be profoundly important and pivotal in her life.
One such value—or, rather, thread of connected values—which has substantially defined her childhood, germinated in her mind when she was seven years old, during a visit to Barnes & Noble. At the time, she was an avid reader, she loved stories about interesting and quirky characters, and she was always on the lookout for books in that vein. But on this particular day we had not stopped to shop for books. We were at B&N just to buy a magazine and go. Even so, for the few moments we were perusing the magazine rack, our daughter saw the spine of a book titled The Knitted Odd-bod Bunch.3 She pulled it off the shelf and began paging through it. It was full of creatures—or, as the subtitle put it: “35 unique and quirky knitted creatures.” It contained beautiful images of odd creatures of all shapes, colors, and sizes—plus descriptions of each creature’s personality, likes, and dislikes—plus instructions on how to knit your own creatures. “Daddy, look! A book about how to make creatures . . . Can we buy it?”
It was the best $20 we’ve ever spent.
Although the knitting instructions were far too advanced for a seven-year-old, the “Odd-bods” and the author’s beautifully written character descriptions set our daughter’s imagination on fire. She examined the creatures at length, repeatedly read their accompanying descriptions, and desperately wanted to make her own.
We pulled up Amazon.com to look for a similar book with instructions suitable for her age. We quickly found a book from the same series, titled Make Your Own Misfits: 35 Unique and Quirky Sewn Creatures4—which fit the bill. We had the book in hand the next day (Thank you, Jeff Bezos!), and our daughter started creating creatures immediately. First a goldfish (“Goldie”), then three worms (“Bernie,” “George,” and “Denzil”), then a slug (“Dave”)—and she gave each creature its own personality, likes, and dislikes.
The more-complex creatures in the book required more-advanced sewing skills, so our daughter soon asked if she could take sewing lessons. We signed her up for a local sewing class in which children learned how to make clothes for American Girl dolls, and she was off—creating creatures and now clothing from scratch, using her mind, her imagination, her hands, and a sewing machine.
Several weeks after she began the sewing lessons, she had occasion to use her new skills to make a gift for her father’s birthday. The creature, whom she named Om Nom (after the Cut the Rope character), was half-moon shaped, sage green, and velvety soft; he had a squiggly antenna atop his head and two short arms just below his huge smiling mouth, which was filled with big pointy white teeth for crunching his favorite food: candy. As the kids say: Best. Present. Ever.
And our daughter was just getting started. She began making “Om Noms” (now also a generic term for her creatures) of various sizes and colors and giving them as gifts to friends and teachers. Soon she was taking orders and selling Om Noms: $3 for small ones, $5 for large ones, and customers could choose their preferred fabric from a set of color swatches. Our then nine-year-old had started a business.
By this time, the evolving character description for the original Om Nom included the fact that he had emancipated himself from anyone’s ownership, so he was free to go everywhere our daughter went, and he did. Whenever people asked her about him, our daughter proudly told them that she made him, asked whether they’d like to order one, and pulled out the swatches. She had taken up aggressive marketing.
After making and selling Om Noms for about a year, she decided to stop taking orders so she could put her time and effort toward other things. One of those other things, however, was a further extension of this same beautiful thread.
By this time our daughter had fallen in love with the art of writing—a passion substantially inspired by the personality descriptions of the creatures in the aforementioned books, and by the many personalities and character traits she had given to the creatures she had made herself. She would now focus primarily on writing—which has remained her number-one passion throughout her preteen years to date. She writes regularly in a notebook and on her laptop. She has authored scores of stories and is writing a book. She constantly thinks about plots, characters, story lines, and themes. And when someone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says, “I’m a writer.”
Will this particular thread continue? What will she choose to do next? We don’t know. But that is not our concern. Our concern is not in what she does but in that she thinks for herself and chooses her own course. Our concern is expressed in the Master Question, which here amounts to: What can we do to enable our child to design her own awesome life? And our answer amounts to: We can let her choose her own values, we can encourage her efforts and pursuits, and we can refrain from pushing our values on her.
Our daughter currently has several other major passions as well, including aerial gymnastics, a sport she discovered on her own; line dancing, which she and her friends recently took up; the British television series Sherlock, which she adores; and a number of things she’s asked us not to mention here. The one thing that all of her values have in common is that she chose them. They are hers.
Embrace the MQ and let your child design his own life. If you do, he will.
Reasons for Everything
So far we’ve discussed the use of the Master Question in regard to environments and values. Here we want to consider how it applies to requests and policies.
As parents, we continually ask or expect our children to take certain actions or to uphold certain responsibilities—from cleaning their rooms to feeding their pets to doing their homework to checking in with us when they are out and about. And our children continually ask for or expect things from us—permission to have a sleepover, help buying a computer, tennis lessons, and so on. In the parent-child relationship, requests and expectations abound in all directions.
What can we do in the midst of all of this to enable and encourage our child to learn about reality, to exercise her mind, and to love her life? Part of our answer is: We can provide her with reasons for everything we ask or expect of her.
Obviously, given our respect for our child’s mind, we would never give her non-reasons such as “Because I said so” or “Because if you disobey me, I’ll spank you.” Appeals to authority and appeals to force are not appeals to the mind. When our child asks “Why?,” we give her real reasons.
But we don’t wait for her to ask “Why?” We go a step further and preemptively provide her with reasons for everything we ask or expect of her.
Of course, the reasons for some requests are too obvious to warrant mention (e.g., “Please pass the salt”). And, once the reason for a particular request becomes perfectly clear to our child, we don’t continue stating it (e.g., “Please close the door so we don’t waste electricity” becomes “Please close the door” or simply “Door”). But insofar as we think the reason for a given request or policy may not be clear to our child, we provide her with the reason.
We do this for two reasons:
1. We want our child to know how the world works and that our requests and policies are grounded in rational, life-serving aims (e.g., saving money). In other words, we want her to know that the world makes sense and that our requests and policies make sense with it.
2. We want our child to form the conviction that all requests and policies should be backed by reasons—not only our requests and policies, but also those of her friends, her teachers, other adults, boyfriends or girlfriends, employers, politicians, everyone.
A “reason,” in this context, is a kind of purpose; it is an answer to the question “Why should I?” or “What for?” or “What’s the aim?” And a valid reason is an indication of the legitimate, life-serving purpose of the request or policy in question. A valid reason is one that integrates with and serves the factual requirements of life and happiness.
If a child asks, “Why should I brush my teeth?,” a valid reason might be: “Because brushing them regularly helps maintain healthy teeth and decreases the chances of expensive and painful visits to the dentist.” An invalid reason might be: “Because Santa delivers toys only to good boys.”
Providing a child with invalid reasons is problematic because it severs his mind from the relevant facts. And providing a child with non-reasons or mere commands is problematic because it encourages him to focus not on reality but on authority.
The purpose of giving a child reasons is to enable him to keep his mind connected to the actual and relevant facts of reality regarding the request or policy in question.
“We need to leave the pool in ten minutes” may be a fact. But, if a child does not know why we need to leave at that time, then the statement in his mind is a mere assertion from an authority. “We need to leave the pool in ten minutes because it’s five now, and we have company coming for dinner at six” includes a reason. And, because it includes a reason, it enables the child to connect the assertion to reality—to a life-serving aim that he can understand.
When our child repeatedly sees that we have reasons for our requests and policies, she comes to see that we are reasonable people—that we think and act in terms of how to live well, get things done, and make life great. She sees through experience that our explicitly rational approach leads to good living. And, over time, she is likely to draw the conclusion that this is the right approach to life—that everyone should think and act in terms of reasons. This, of course, is what we want.
A huge part of the answer to the Master Question is: We can provide our child with reasons for all that we ask or expect of her.
Providing our child with reasons typically takes only a few seconds longer than not doing so would take:
- “You may not get in the pool yet” versus “You may not get in the pool yet because it is still adult swim.”
- “Please put away your blocks” versus “Please put away your blocks so you’ll have a nice clear area to begin your next round of construction.”
- “Please lay out your clothes tonight” versus “Please lay out your clothes tonight so you’re not rushed or late for school in the morning.”
- “Please turn out your lights at nine” versus “Please turn out your lights at nine because when you’ve gone to bed later than nine in the past you’ve been groggy at school the next day.”
We can give understandable reasons for our requests and policies to any child who has reached the conceptual level. Taking into account our child’s context of knowledge, and focusing on the essential points we want to convey, we can usually come up with an age-appropriate reason that enables him to make sense of our request, and we can usually do so in short order.
The goal is not to give a perfectly worded reason every time. That is impossible. Rather, the goal is to give a reason that indicates the life-serving purpose of our request or policy by tying it to a relevant fact that the child can grasp.
For instance, suppose a four-year-old wants to play with his brother’s truck and resorts to hitting his brother to get it. Rather than say to him merely, “You may not hit your brother” or the like, we can say something to the effect, “You may not hit your brother—because hitting hurts, and it stops discussion. But I see that you want to play with your brother’s truck. And I know how it feels to want something you can’t have. Would you like to talk about how you might be able to persuade your brother to share his truck with you? Or would you rather play with your own toys for now?”
Right there, in a few seconds, we’ve indicated in age-appropriate terms why hitting is unacceptable, we’ve acknowledged our child’s feelings and empathized with him, and we’ve given him alternatives that enable him to make a choice and move forward.
Of course, a child does not fully integrate such issues in one fell swoop. For a child to fully grasp ideas such as why hitting is wrong and how to pursue his desires takes time and repetition, and there is no shortcut. The point here is not that giving a child reasons will enable him to fully integrate the issue in question right then and there. The point is simply that we can give a child reasons—real reasons—for our requests and policies, and that if we do so in developmentally appropriate language, he can understand our reasons sufficiently to expand his mind, to improve his skills, and to live better both now and into the future.
A child who is provided with reasons for what is asked and expected of him is generally happier, more focused on reality (as against authority), more peaceful, less whiny, and less argumentative than a child who is given orders.
Granted, a child might not accept a given reason as a good reason. Provide it as we may, he might try to poke holes in our reason or work around it to get what he wants. But this is all good. It means he is exercising his reasoning abilities and trying to out-reason us—a practice worthy of encouragement.
For instance, to expand on an earlier example, if a nine-year- old asks whether she may have a sleepover tonight, and if we’ve had a crazy busy week and are just not up to the extra noise and extra responsibility, we might reply, “Not tonight, Sweet Pea. We’ve had a hectic week, and we need quiet time.” Now, Sweet Pea—having been encouraged always to think for herself, to fight for her values, and to speak her mind—might counter, “I don’t understand why your hectic week should disrupt my Friday night. I want to play with my friend, and the weekend is practically the only time I can . . .”
In such a case, depending on the context, we might choose to strike some kind of compromise, or we might use our parental trump card. For instance, we might say, “OK, you may have a sleepover, but only if you and your friend promise to play quietly, to be self-sufficient, and not to make special requests of us. We want down time. So this means: no leaving dishes in the sink or toys on the floor or the like, and no asking us to take you to the pool or to a movie or anywhere else. Agreed?”
Or we might say, “Having your friend over for the night would be an extra responsibility that we just don’t want tonight. Sometimes things don’t go your preferred way, and this is one of those times. We’ve given you our reason, and we understand that you disagree. Because tonight will not work for a sleepover, would you like to look at the calendar and find a date that will?”
A policy of giving reasons for everything is not a policy of giving unarguable reasons for everything. That is not possible. The aim is not to make our child agree with our reasons. The aim is to enable her to see that we have reasons, that our requests and policies are grounded in life-serving purposes of some kind or other—and that this is our MO. This policy helps to foster in her mind the conviction that requests and policies in general should be supported by rational, life-serving justifications. And this is a vital conviction if ever there was one.
To the extent that a child forms the conviction that all choices and actions should be aimed at life-serving purposes of some kind, she has embraced the fundamental principle of good living. This conviction helps her to navigate her life now, as a child, and later, as a teenager and an adult.
If a child forms this conviction early and strengthens it often, what is she likely to do if her friends decide to do something stupid—say, breaking and entering, or drinking and driving? What kind of person is she likely to find attractive when it comes to romance and dating? What is she likely to do if a boyfriend wants to have sex before she is ready? What kind of career is she likely to pursue? And what is she likely to do if she finds herself in a job she doesn’t love or a marriage that isn’t working?
A child raised with reasons for everything is likely to live a long and happy life, using her mind, making good choices, pursuing her values, and loving her days and years from the core of her soul.
Nothing is more central or more fundamental to a child’s success and happiness than her embrace of reason as her guide in life. And nothing is more central or more fundamental to our success in raising a child who embraces reason than our embrace—and our explicit modeling—of reason as our guide in life.
What can we do to raise a life-loving child? One vital thing we can do is: Give her reasons for everything.
Pretense for Nothing
A corollary of the policy of reasons for everything is a policy of pretense for nothing.
We do not lie to our child about anything—including Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the like. Our aim, as conveyed by the Master Question, is to enable her to understand reality, and we cannot enable her to understand reality by undermining her cognitive connection to that realm. Lying to a child does just that: It severs her mind from the facts.
We’ve heard parents argue to the effect that lying about Santa Claus and company is OK because children have more fun when they think such characters are real, and because children eventually find out that the characters are not real, so no harm is done. But this is not sound reasoning.
Part of the error here is in failing to understand the nature of fantasy and its role in enjoyment. The purpose of fantasy is to enable us knowingly to enter a pretend world and to enjoy that world while retaining knowledge that the real world exists and is stable, causal, noncontradictory, understandable. We don’t read fantasy novels or watch fantasy movies to be duped; we read and watch them to enjoy them.
Would we enjoy The Matrix or Lord of the Rings more if we believed the characters and events were real? Only if joy is measured in units of confusion and terror. Would we enjoy the The Avengers or X-Men more if we thought those characters and events were real? Of course not. And the reason for this is the same reason we should not assume that children enjoy children’s fantasies more by believing them to be real.
Our daughter loves Harry Potter and Fablehaven and countless other fantasy stories that she knows are fantasy. If she somehow was duped into believing that the characters and events from these stories were real, she would not enjoy them more; rather, she would be utterly confused about the nature of the universe, and she would have good reason to be afraid of the world at large. The reason she loves these stories is (a) that she finds them wonderful and fascinating, and (b) that she knows them to be fantasy, not reality.
Young children enjoy Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy not because they believe these characters are real, but because the characters are fascinating and are surrounded by fun stories and traditions. The fun is not diminished for children because they know the fantasy to be fantasy; on the contrary, the fun is heightened for them because of this knowledge. Free from the lie that Santa is real, children can have unmitigated fun with the absurd and contradictory nature of the story rather than be confused or frightened by it.
For instance, if a child knows that Santa is make believe, then when he sees presents “From Santa” under the tree, he can enjoy the fun of guessing who the present is actually from. “Wow! A Lego fire truck. Who might have given you that?” Children love such guessing games. And they love to thank people who give them presents. Why rob children of these joys?
The same kind of reasoning applies to the whole raft of lies that comes with the whopper that Santa is real. If a child believes the Santa story is real, then he is necessarily confused by the “facts” that reindeer can fly, that a man can make it all the way around the world dropping presents off at every child’s home in one night, that a man can eat millions of cookies and drink millions of glasses of milk and not explode, and so on. If a child knows that Santa is make believe, he can ponder without confusion the wonderful silliness of how reindeer can fly; he can have fun developing theories about how Santa makes it to every house in one night; he can laugh at the thought of what would happen if someone ate millions of cookies. And so on.
When a child knows that fantasy is fantasy, he is at liberty to fully indulge in and more deeply enjoy the fun. When he is misled by adults and thus is under the misapprehension that fantasy is reality, he is necessarily confused about the contradictions involved, he is unable to fully indulge in the fun, and, when he figures out that he was lied to, he has good reason to distrust those who lied to him. (Not to mention the fact that those who lied to him have no grounds to expect him to be truthful with them.)
Another part of the error in the claim that such lies are OK is that it ignores the potential long-term philosophical and psychological consequences of such lies. If a child is convinced that a stranger named Santa is magically keeping an eye on him, judging his every move, keeping tabs of his “good” and “bad” behavior, and preparing to dole out presents for the former and coal for the latter—what else might the child be convinced is true?
All lies sever a child’s mind from reality, and that is bad enough. But lies that also work to convince a child that impossible things are possible are substantially worse.
What can we do to enable our child to understand reality, to exercise his mind, and to love his life? One crucial thing we can do is refrain from lying to him.
Facts about Feelings
Except for a child’s faculty of reason, nothing is as consistently present in his mind as his emotions. And nothing is more vital to his success and happiness than understanding what these things are, where they come from, and what to do with them.
From desire to frustration to anger to joy, a child’s emotions are ever present in his life and ever pressing on his mind. His positive emotions are delightful for him and for us. His negative emotions, not so much. But all of his emotions are real, and all serve a vital purpose.
A child’s emotions reflect his thoughts, beliefs, and values in relation to his experiences. If he values Legos and thinks he might get a set for Christmas, he feels anticipation. If he gets a set for Christmas, he lights up with joy. If his dog chews some of the pieces, he wells up with tears. If his sister takes a piece and won’t give it back, he gets angry. If he thinks he should act the way he feels like acting, he might hit her. If he does hit her, and if she tells his mother, he might feel resentment. If such resentment builds up over time, his and others’ lives may become rather unpleasant.
A child’s emotions are a large part of what makes him human. They can be wonderful—and they can be dreadful. But they are always vital, because they signify important facts: They register what he thinks, believes, and values in relations to his experiences.
As parents, we want our child to learn the nature and source of these things called emotions (or feelings); we want him to learn how to think clearly and rationally about them; and we want him to learn that it is not always appropriate to act the way he feels like acting.
That’s a tall order. How can we do it? That is the Master Question here.
Our answer is that we can talk regularly with our child about his emotions (and our emotions) as though they are the vitally important aspects of life that they are. In so doing, we can help him—over time—to induce the nature, source, and proper function of these complex aspects of the soul.
In discussing emotions with our child, we aim to do four things whenever opportunities arise:
- Acknowledge the emotion in play (e.g., anger);
- Label it for our child (“I see that you’re angry”);
- Empathize with our child, his situation, and his state of mind (“You want your Lego piece back”);
- Connect the emotion he is experiencing to the value and the experience that gave rise to it (“When someone takes something like that from you, it makes you mad”).
We don’t necessarily perform these actions in that order. Nor do we perform every one of them every time we discuss or reflect on an emotion; sometimes the name of the emotion or the value in question is obvious or sufficiently clear without being mentioned. Our goal is not to be regimented or mechanistic about this process; rather, our goal is to help our child over time to make many identifications and connections regarding his emotions so that he gradually induces the nature, source, and role of these crucial aspects of life.
Here’s an indication of how we’ve spoken with our daughter regarding various emotions at different stages of her life:
- To a three-year-old at the park: “You made it to the top of the jungle gym! You tried hard and you did it! How does that feel?”
- To a six-year-old who is mad at herself because she left her book at school: “You really wanted to finish reading that book. Forgetting things can be so upsetting.”
- To a nine-year-old frustrated by complications with a science project: “That sounds frustrating. Your project was difficult even without the extra work. What do you think you can do to move forward with it?”
- To an eleven-year-old who can’t get to sleep because of excitement about skiing the next day: “You really could use some good sleep tonight so you’ll be alert and have energy on the slopes tomorrow. May I make a suggestion about how to get your mind off skiing so you can get to sleep?”
In addition to speaking with our child about her own emotions, we speak with her about our emotions—and, when opportunities arise, about the emotions of others, including those of characters in books and movies.
- “I’m so relieved to have finished that essay. It took a lot more time and effort than I anticipated.”
- “How do you think your father will feel when he unwraps that beautiful creature you made him?”
- “I’m frustrated because the plumber’s ‘fix’ did not fix the problem, and now we have to schedule another round of plumbing, which will soak up more of my time.”
- “What do you suppose went through Neville Longbottom’s head when he stood up to his friends? How do you think he felt about his decision?”
Sometimes we discuss or reflect on relatively trivial emotional reactions, other times more weighty ones. A broad and diverse range enables our child over time to see unity among the differences. It enables her to see that emotions are automatic consequences of a person’s values in relation to his experiences. And this knowledge enables her to understand her emotions, to enjoy them, to analyze them, and to maintain peace of mind even when her life gets intense.
In addition to being a life-serving value in its own right, knowledge of the nature and source of emotions entails a vital corollary. The better a child understands emotions, the better he can understand the difference between emotions and reason. This distinction may be the most vital distinction a child (or an adult) can make in service of his life. A child who knows what emotions are also knows what they are not. They are not his means of knowledge; reason is. They are not his guides to action; reason is. And they are not trivial or insignificant; they are his psychological means of experiencing his values.
How can we help our child to understand this complex and important aspect of reality and life? We can talk with him forthrightly about emotions whenever opportunities arise; we can connect emotions to the values and events that give rise to them; and we can treat emotions as the vital facts of reality that they are.
Causality as Discipline
If discipline is, as some dictionaries define it, “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience,” then we have never disciplined our daughter and never will. We don’t punish our child; we reason with her. We don’t appeal to force; we appeal to her mind. We don’t want her to be obedient; we want her to be thoughtful, critical—even defiant, when warranted.
If, however, discipline is the practice of teaching someone how to choose life-serving values and pursue them with reason and vigor, then everything we do and have ever done as parents may be called discipline. Insofar as we are interested in disciplining our child, this is what we mean by the term.
Children want things—and that’s good. As parents, we want to help them learn how to evaluate the things they want; how to determine whether the things they want, if achieved, would actually make them happy; and, if so, how to go about getting what they want. We are, in effect, trying to help our children transition from being natural-born, de facto hedonists (ignorant pleasure seekers) to being self-made, rational egoists (thoughtful value pursuers).
What can we do toward that end? That is the Master Question when it comes to discipline.
Two vital things we can do are: acquaint our child with the law of causality as it applies to his values, and encourage him to adopt causal thinking as his MO in life.
The law of causality applied to values is: If you want to achieve a goal (an end), you must enact its cause (the means). Or, more plainly: If you want something, you have to work for it.5
The idea couldn’t be simpler. And, to (rational) adults, it couldn’t be more obvious. But children are not born knowing this principle. They need to learn it. The sooner they learn it, and the more firmly they embrace it, the better their lives will be.
How can we help our child to grasp and own this principle? A substantial part of the answer is: We can regularly illuminate or indicate the causal connections between his efforts and his achievements.
Here are some indications of how we’ve done this with our daughter over the course of her childhood years:
- To a four-year-old who cleaned her room quickly: “You cleaned your room in just five minutes. How did you manage that?”
- To a seven-year-old who worked long and hard building a multiroom fort: “You put a lot of effort into this. I can hardly wait for the master tour. I want to see all the features.”
- To a nine-year-old who studied and practiced at great length to memorize her lines and hone their delivery for a play: “What a pleasure it was to watch you perform. All that study and practice paid off.”
- To an eleven-year-old who skied her first black diamond: “That’s what you get for setting reasonable stretch goals and pushing your limits. Shall we ski it again?”
When we draw attention to the cause of our child’s achievement—that is, to the thought and effort she put forth to make it so—we thereby illuminate the cause in her mind and help her to see the connection more clearly. The more clearly our child sees this connection, the more likely she is to form or to deepen the conviction that thought and effort are good and that if she tries at something she likely will succeed.
Understanding the flip side of the causality coin is equally vital. The more clearly our child sees the connection between lack of thought, lack of effort, and negative outcomes, the better. We want our child to see the causal connections on this count, too; but here we want to be extra careful not to deliver our evaluation of her behavior. We want her simply and unceremoniously to experience the natural consequences of failing to think or try.
For instance, when our four-year-old refused to bring a coat to the park and later found that she was cold, she experienced that consequence of her shortsightedness. We empathized with her but let the consequence stand: “I see that you’re cold. That’s no fun. We can leave or stay, but if we leave we’re not coming back today. What would you like to do?” The next time we headed to the park, we asked, “Would you like to bring your coat today?”
Similarly, when our six-year-old left her skateboard (which we had given her as a present) outside one night, and it disappeared, she experienced that consequence of her irresponsibility or forgetfulness. Again, we empathized but let the consequence stand: “That is sad. You liked that skateboard. I’m so sorry you lost it. If you want to replace it, you can . . . but you’ll have to use your own money.”
Children need to understand that a life of happiness is a consequence of using their minds, thinking long-range, and taking responsibility for their values, needs, and deeds. An essential aspect of that understanding is a firm grasp of the law of causality, which here means: If you want something—or want to avoid something—you must act accordingly.
It follows from this very law that if we want our children to gain a firm grasp of the law, we must ourselves act accordingly: We must refrain from distorting our children’s understanding of the causal nature of the world, and we must refrain from distracting their minds from focusing on causal connections.
We parents can err in this regard in several ways. We’ll consider two that reflect the general nature of them all.
Harming by “Helping”
One way we can err is by doing things for our children that they can and should do for themselves. Now, we emphatically do not subscribe to the notion that parents should not do anything for a child that the child can do for himself. A child can cook breakfast for himself every morning (Matilda did!); that doesn’t mean his parents should not cook breakfast for him. Our view is: We should refrain from doing things for our children that they would derive greater benefit from doing for themselves.
If our two-year-old is struggling to climb a jungle gym, and we pick him up and place him higher than he has gone on his own, we are doing for him what he can and should do (or struggle to do) for himself. Likewise, if we “help” him by saying, “You’re too little for that jungle gym. Let me show you the one for you . . .” then we are again doing for him what he can and should do for himself. A child benefits from seeing for himself what he can and can’t do. He benefits from trying even if he fails. Among other reasons, he benefits in the here and now because he gains knowledge of something he cannot (yet) do; and he benefits in the future when he tries again and sees that he has made progress and can now do what he couldn’t do before. There may be a good time to show him the other jungle gym. But that time is not when he is trying to climb this one.
Similarly, if our ten-year-old is struggling with a math assignment, and we “help” him with it by doing part of it for him, we are doing for him what he can and should do for himself. (Of course, we might legitimately help our child with his assignment in ways that do not amount to us doing the assignment for him, but that is another matter.) If instead we complain to his teacher that the assignment is too difficult, we are still doing for him what he can and should do for himself. If a ten-year-old finds a school assignment too difficult, he can and should speak with his teacher about it. There may be a time for us to get involved, but the mere advent of a difficult assignment is not that time.
When we parents intervene in such ways, we are not helping our child; we are inadvertently harming him. We are, in effect, getting between him and the law of causality; we are not letting him see that if he wants something, he has to work for it.
If we want to help our child, we need to foster his relationship with the law of causality, not obstruct it.
Distracting with Praise
Another way we can err in this sphere is by encouraging our child to shift his focus from the relevant causal connection to the distraction of parental praise.
When we praise our child’s achievements, or praise him for his achievements, we encourage him to shift his focus from causality (“My effort made it so”) to our authority (“You did good, says me”). Such praise, although well intentioned, amounts to encouraging our child to become an approval junkie or praise addict.
If we say to our two-year-old, “Look—you’re on the second rung of the jungle gym—good for you!,” we set his mind (at least temporarily) to our evaluation of his achievement. If instead we say something to the effect, “You worked hard and got up to the second rung. That looks like fun. How high will you try to go?” we set his mind to the cause of his achievement: his effort.
Likewise, if we say to our ten-year-old, “You got an A on your math assignment—good for you!” we set his mind (at least momentarily) to our evaluation of his achievement. If instead we say something to the effect, “An A is nice—but what matters more is the understanding it signifies—and what matters even more is your thoughtful persistence, which earned both results” we set his mind to the cause of his achievement: his effort.
If we want our child to thrive in life, we must enable and encourage him to focus on causal connections not parental praise.
This is not to say that we must never praise our children’s achievements. A hearty “Congratulations!” to an eight-year-old who won second place in a spelling bee will not throttle his understanding of the causal nature of the universe. But nor will it fortify his understanding of causality. If instead we take an extra three seconds and add, “Looks like your drilling prepared you quite well,” we thereby link his achievement to its cause and thus help him to strengthen his grasp of such connections.
The point here is not that all praise is bad praise. Rather, the point is that children need to see and grasp the connection between effort and success—and, all else being equal, the more we illuminate that connection, and the less we distract our children from focusing on it, the more likely they are to deepen their conviction that thinking and trying are essential to living well and loving life.
What can we do to teach our child about the causal nature of the world and the corresponding need to act in certain ways and not in other ways? This is the Master Question applied to the realm of discipline. And our answer is: We can introduce our child to the law of causality and refrain from getting between him and it.
Conclusion: The Reward for Everyone
Parenting is a massive subject, about which we will say more in future articles. Our aim in this essay was simply to indicate our general approach to the process.
We’ve employed the Master Question as a matter of course for twelve years, and we’ve enjoyed the journey more than we ever anticipated—even in our most optimistic pre-parenting projections. We knew that raising a child would be deeply rewarding. But we did not know that it would be this deeply rewarding.
We have watched our natural-born hedonist transition into a self-made egoist, one discovery, one choice, one effort at a time. We’ve witnessed her wantings, her struggles, her failures, and her successes. We’ve seen her live the process of loving her life. The credit for who she is and what she has made of herself goes to her. All we did is provide environments, encouragement, and various kinds of support and guidance, enabling her to think and choose and steer her course. But the reward for her thoughtful choices and efforts redounds as much on us as it does on her. We love that she loves her life.
How to raise a life-loving child? The Master Question is the master tool. It’s in your hands.
We’ve found the following books particularly valuable. Although we don’t agree with everything said or advocated in them, we regard each book as quite good for the reasons indicated.
Joan Beck, How to Raise a Brighter Child: The Case for Early Learning (New York: Pocket Books, 1967). A trove of information about how a young child’s mind and brain develop, and what parents can do to foster a child’s conceptual advancement and love of learning.
Dorothy Butler, Babies Need Books (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998). A delightful discussion of the importance of books for—and of reading to—children from birth to six years old. Includes lists of recommended books, with summaries, for each stage of development.
Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine, 2008). Aimed at a wider audience than just parents, this book examines two kinds of mindsets: a “growth mindset,” which is essentially the premise that intelligence and ability can be developed through hard work, including some failure; and a “fixed mindset,” which is the premise that intelligence and ability are innate and static; thus, effort is futile, and you’re stuck with what you have. Dr. Dweck’s research and analyses are profound for parents, especially in regard to the ways in which we can foster in children a love of effort and learning, and a tolerance for frustration and failure.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon Books, 1980). A wealth of techniques for communicating respectfully and effectively with children, sharing feelings and concerns in ways that reach them, and generally fostering benevolence and cooperation in your family.
Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., Positive Discipline (New York: Ballantine, 2006). A trove of information about how parents can establish and maintain respectful relationships with their children while helping them develop self-discipline, personal responsibility, and problem-solving skills.
Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). A delightful and forthright antidote to today’s culture of fear and paranoia about kids and safety. Ms. Skenazy provides sobering information to help parents evaluate risks rationally, encourages parents to teach children how to assess risks themselves, and urges parents to let children do what they are in fact developmentally capable of doing.