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Nudge parenting - the art of being the choice architect of young children

Ah the joys of parenting. Having children is one of the most rewarding things that could possibly happen. It does of course come with many challenges. My wife and I have two children, aged six and four. Your first child is a game changer; you feel so unprepared. What am I supposed to do?! And this is with pre-natal classes, support from family, room preparation - all of it combines to make you around 1% prepared (i'm being generous). But nothing can prepare you for the moment when you hold your child for the first time. There are no words that can describe the emotions and connection that you feel. It is indeed a wondrous time.

Fast forward six years and there is so much I could share. From the times of frustration to the times of serenity. As I reflect on the last six years and the journey we have been on as family, I know we have all grown together. Our personalities and characteristics have been shaped by being in one-another's company. We do together mold the world in which we live. It is this interaction that is difficult to appreciate as your life moves on so quickly. There can be no doubt that being a parent can bring out the best in you - but it can also leave you feeling frustrated and out of control.

Dealing with conflict

Control. This is the underlying factor which ultimately gets tested to the limit. By nature, we want to be in control. We have established routines, even those of us who don't like routines want to be in control. And that is it. Having a child removes a great proportion of your ability to dictate the direction that you life is going. It is this dynamic that lies at the heart of parent-child conflict. The bottom line is you want something and your child doesn't. There are even times when you and your child want the same thing - but don't want get there in the same way. Take sleep for example. You want to sleep. Your child wants to sleep. But you don't (or one of you doesn't) want to sleep in the same place and/or time. The conflicts are never rational ones. They appeal to our mammalian brain - our automated response systems. This is where the art of nudging can play a major role in shaping your environment; to make your choices lead to less conflict.

In the run up to any parent-child conflict, choices have been made. On reflection, I am sure you would agree that some (or most) of these choices escalated the chances of conflict as opposed to reducing them. Are we bad parents because of this? No! These conflicts arise because the choice architecture around us (parent and child) has not been designed to allow us to make better decisions when under pressure. The solution is to pay attention to this choice architecture; to design it in an informed way to allow for better decisions to be made. I'm not saying this is easy. I am saying that if our environment is designed in such a way to avoid conflict, then less conflict will arise.

Let us look at how a nudge can be used to reduce the chances of conflict. A nudge has to work at a subconscious level. It has to access the part of our brain that is automatic; our mammalian brain. Not the part that has to sit an think about what to do next; our rational brain.

Applying a 'nudge'

Take the scenario of asking your child to tidy away their toys. In this case, let us assume the child is around five years old.

Parent: "OK, it's time to tidy up now."

Child: "No, I want to play"

Parent: "It's time for bed, please can you put your toys away"

Child: "I haven't finished my game"

Parent: "I have asked you very nicely and this is the third time I am asking so please..."

Child: "No, I'm not finished"

[Enter the mammalian brain for both parent and child]

Parent: "I asked you nicely so now I'm doing it myself"

Child: "No, don't take it"

[Escalates into conflict - crying, shouting etc...]

So, let's rewind and look at the choice architecture of this situation. The conflict has arisen, not because of bad parenting, not because the child is misbehaving; but because the environment has not been designed in an informed way. Imagine before the child starts playing that they are given a time limit - let's say twenty minutes. Let us take the example further and imagine that the toys being used have come from specific areas (i.e. cars from a labeled box of cars, Lego from a labelled box of Lego). The architecture has it's foundation - a clear time frame and a clear space. Now imagine that a sand timer is used so the child can keep track of the remaining time. Imagine the parent comes across after ten minutes and asks the child how much time is remaining. Then with around a minute to go, the parent once again asks the child the same question. Now before the process of tidying begins, the child is asked where the toys return to.

I'm not going to say that this is process is going to solve all problems of conflict. It will however, reduce the likelihood and/or scale of conflict arising. Designing the environment in an informed way can allow for you to make better choices and for your children to make better choices. The sand timer and labelled boxes do direct you. They do however, by tapping into your automated mammalian processes. They allow you and your child to react in more productive way. The sand timer and labelled boxes are the artful nudges.


Try it yourself. Think about a time where conflict has arisen.

Could the choice architecture have been designed in a more informed way?

Could our behaviour have been nudged to enable a better outcome for you and your child?

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#parenting #nudge #choicearchitect #control