Bouncing on a medicine ball while loudly shushing, one of us (Leidy) was trying to get his newborn back to sleep. Keeping hold of his crying son, while maintaining the rhythm, Leidy heroically wriggled a hand free to his tablet nearby, where he searched for something, anything, that could help him prevent another sleepless night like this one. Behold! A contraption that could do the shushing and bouncing for him. Part crib and part amusement-park ride, this marvel of modern engineering even offered a figure-eight movement setting—in both directions!
Despite owning two basinets, four swaddling cloths, a custom rocking chair, and a white noise machine worthy of Wirecutter, Leidy didn’t reach for something he already owned that could address his infant’s middle-of-the-night distress. Instead, he decided to add.
If Leidy’s frantic wee hours addition sounds familiar, you are not alone. Solving problems by adding is an instinct in parenting, and in most everything else. Leidy’s research and book, Subtract, describe how when we try to improve things, our first thought is nearly always about what we can add, whether it’s an additional spice for your stew, a new folder for your junk mail, or a $250 sleep contraption. The problem is that jumping right to “more” means we fail to consider “less.” Even when less would be a far better choice.
Jumping right to “more” means we fail to consider “less.” Even when less would be a far better choice.
But shouldn’t parenting and other overwhelming situations naturally prompt us to consider subtracting? It sure would be nice, as well as highly logical, if subtraction got easier the more we felt overwhelmed. If that were the case, parents might be subtraction superstars. Sadly, it’s not. Parents’ tendency to add, and failure to subtract, brings even more stress and overwhelm to parenting, and has implications for child development.
Fortunately, as Yael explains in her recent book, Work, Parent, Thrive, there are ways parents can do less and feel better about it. But before jumping into how parents can get better at subtracting, we need to understand why we default to adding.
In research with colleagues, Leidy has asked people to improve things like recipes, golf course designs, travel itineraries, and bridges made of Legos. Across all these design challenges, participants tended to add, even in the scenarios that were set up with subtraction as the better choice.
The most logical explanation for why so many people failed to choose the correct subtractive answer is because they didn’t even think of it. They instinctively thought of adding, then they added, and then they moved on. This helps us understand why we find ourselves adding meetings to the calendar or extracurriculars to the spring season even though “more” may be the very last thing we, or our kids, need.
The tendency to add seems to grow stronger the more we have on our minds.
What’s key is that the tendency to add seems to grow stronger the more we have on our minds. In one of Leidy and his coauthors’ studies, participants played a laboratory game in which they were instructed to modify grid patterns to be symmetrical from left to right and top to bottom. Again, participants could add or subtract squares from the pattern, but all of the patterns were designed so that the best (fewest clicks) choice required subtracting squares. To add a bit of pressure to the task, some participants were also asked to click a button every time they saw a “5” scrolling by, while also figuring out how to make the grids symmetrical (see image below).
A symmetry puzzle
What’s the simplest way to make this design symmetrical from left to right and top to bottom?
Scrolling digits are less distracting than a screaming newborn, of course, but they effectively do the same thing: increase cognitive burden on whoever is tasked with paying attention to them. Compared to participants who weren’t tasked with looking for “5,” those who had to mentally juggle the pattern and the scrolling numbers were even more likely to add and miss the better choice of subtraction.
The scrolling 5s may be subtle, but the implications are not. If subtracting becomes harder while looking for 5s during an emotionally neutral task, it’s no wonder that we neglect the option when our minds are taxed with sleep deprivation, doctor’s appointments, developmental milestones, and achieving just the right candy-to-guest ratio for the birthday piñata. We succumb to our mental adding defaults. Without bandwidth to think, we add. And having added, we are left with even less bandwidth to think.
So what can parents do when subtractive changes don’t come naturally and things are more likely to pile up the busier we are?
The first step is recognizing our default mental setting to add for what it is—an instinct that doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. Understanding this removes a misconception that less is easy. Subtracting may promise a less effortful end state, but it takes more thinking to notice that subtracting is an option.
The recognition that we neglect subtraction, especially when we are feeling harried, can also motivate us deliberately cue it. Something as simple as a reminder can work. In one study, when Leidy and his colleagues reminded participants that they could “add or subtract,” participants became more likely to do the latter. In the day to day and week to week rush of life, when you start a new activity, use it as a cue to think of something to stop (a “stop doing” list). Developmental milestones can also serve as a reminder for parents to consider what the child should start doing more of—say, their own laundry—as well as what can be taken off the books—perhaps a club or team that they now find mundane.
As Yael explains in her book, exclusively adding to our parental repertoires causes problems for our children, too. Often, a parent’s impulse to do things for their children continues well past the point at which the child might be able to do it for themselves, hampering their learning and independence. For instance, too much parental comforting can result in the child sleeping worse. Adding bouncing and shushing and a machine that can do figure-eights might do the trick temporarily, but the best chance for getting a baby to sleep is stripping away to a simple and consistent approach to bedtime. Even well-meaning actions like opening up toddlers’ juice bottles for them delay development of fine motor skills, not to mention confidence to access a bottled drink without needing to ask a frazzled parent. Research has found that elementary-school-aged children whose parents do all the problem-solving and decision-making end up with lower self-regulation, competence, adjustment, and school grades. And among young adults, overly involved parenting is associated with higher levels of depression and lower life satisfaction.
Subtracting may promise a less effortful end state, but it takes more thinking to notice that subtracting is an option.
There’s one more challenge when it comes to subtraction. As a parent everything might seem important—piano lesson, soccer practice, Russian math, and Pokémon club. So how can you and your children decide what to subtract? Here, a science-backed psychological treatment, acceptance and commitment therapy, offers a guide: clarify your values. Values are the qualities we most want to embody through our actions, and clarity can help us make choices consistent with the kinds of lives we want to be living—particularly when our choices might otherwise be hijacked by our adding impulses.
To get clear on your values, ask yourself what kind of life you want to be building for your family and your child. What do you want to stand for and what matters most (and least) to you? What kind of lifestyle design example do you want to be setting for your children? In phases of heightened overwhelm, it is especially helpful pause to get clarity on what is most important to you and for your family. With clearer values in hand, you can retain what matters most and get rid of what is less important—at least for the time being.
To realize our full parenting potential, and to help our kids realize theirs, we need to judiciously combine adding and subtracting. But to arrive at any kind of balance, parents have to deliberately practice the latter. Even if you agree that subtracting is worthwhile, it will not come naturally or effortlessly—particularly in highly stressful circumstances.