What Children Need From Parents II: On Slot Machines and Candy Machines


Do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

It’s not a silly question.

The two machines are rather alike. Both require you to insert some money. Both then demand that you engage the machine, set it in motion. In the case of the candy machine, you press a button or pull a lever to make your choice. The slot machine waits for your follow-through on its lever or “arm,” hence the name, “one-armed bandit.”

That is where the similarity ends and the answer to the question becomes essential: do your kids see you as more like a candy machine or a slot machine?

The reason is as simple as it is important. The candy machine is dependable, reliable, and consistent. Every time you insert your coins and make  the selection, it provides you with the item you have chosen. If, by chance, it should not, you would quickly stop inserting coins because your knowledge and experience tell you that no matter how many more coins you deposit, the machine will not do what you want. It is broken.

The slot machine, however,  is another story. Your knowledge and experience tell you that the machine’s failure to provide you with winnings on one occasion doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be a winner the next time, or the time after that. It might take you a very long period of failure and much expenditure of hard-earned silver dollars before you would come to the conclusion that the machine is broken. The machine, when its working correctly delivers winnings on an intermittent (or inconsistent) reinforcement schedule.

Getting the picture? If your children see you as consistent and reliable (like the candy machine) in responding to their requests and their pleadings, they will know that asking for what they want more than once will do them no good: the answer will be the same on the 10th request as it is on the first. And once they have learned this, they will make very few additional requests of you beyond the first one.

But if they see you as similar to the slot machine, boy are you in trouble! They will keep at you, over and over, because they know that one failure at winning doesn’t mean the game is lost. Perhaps the second try will work, or the fifth, or the fiftieth. They will know you better than you know yourself. Simply put, they will know that they have a good chance of wearing you down so that they can have the toy, the TV show, the attention, or the food they want; they will know that the punishment you are trying to enforce also can be changed, maybe not by pleading their case only once, but by repeated appeals to you. Your goose will be cooked.

Kids, of course, have more energy for this sort of “back and forth” than most parents do, so time is not on your side. And the longer they have experienced your inconsistency, the longer it will take for them to “unlearn” what you have taught them about yourself.

The message is simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Do what you say that you will do. It will easier on you and better for your children. But before you get started, be prepared for the “extinction burst.”

What is that, you say? I’ll cover that topic in my next blog.

The above image is a Slot Machine by Jeff Kubina from the milky way galaxy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Letting Go of Your Children

One of the hardest things a parent has to do for his child’s well-being is “letting go.” The attachment between a parent and child, at its best, is profoundly intense and rewarding to both parties. But, at some point, earlier than most parents think, the tie must be loosened. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first involves the danger of overprotection. While the world is a harsh place at times, children who are not seriously disabled need to begin to obtain some mastery of that world. They will not do so if the parent hovers too closely, watches every move, makes every decision, and doesn’t permit the child to get a sense of accomplishment and independence, that is, to get a sense of their own mastery of the world.

Secondly, if the child is ultimately to break-free, the parent must prepare him and encourage him. Kids will make bad decisions; they will get hurt by life. All that is a part of growing up and, in fact, a part of life as an adult, too. If they are to succeed in life, attach to others outside the family (mate), produce children, and develop a personality that is different from that of either parent, they will profit from the permission and encouragement to do so.

There is no perfect guidebook for how to disengage–how to, little-by-little, give your child more freedom, less oversight. It is easier, of course, if the young one is reasonably outgoing, a good student, and doesn’t get into much trouble with authorities. But even with kids who are having difficulty, micro-management can create resentment and rebellion, while constant criticism can be depressing and efface the child’s shaky self-esteem. A parent needs to know which children need a heavy hand, which a light touch, when to praise, when to correct, and when to punish. No one can provide  precise direction to this in the abstract, because each child is different and each parent is different. That said, here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Don’t try to raise each of your children the same way. While this should be obvious, it rarely is. Some parents even brag: “I treated all my kids the same.” This is preposterous, but, even if you came close, you probably shouldn’t have. All children aren’t the same and therefore require the kind of individually tailored attention that works for them. Why would it make sense to raise an active child in the same way as a passive one, or an outgoing offspring just like an introspective little person? One size doesn’t fit all.

2. Don’t “own” your child’s life. He isn’t you. He needs to have his own ideas, not some Xeroxed version of what you think he should be. He ultimately needs to “own” his direction in life, meaning that the desire to do well in school and in other things needs to be his. If he only does his school work because he is required to, even when he is in high school, somehow the transfer of responsibility from you to him hasn’t been made. You’ve got about 15 years to accomplish that hand-off; after that, demands from parents to “do better” usually generate diminishing returns.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations. Most middle-class folks see their children, at least a little, as a reflection of themselves; someone to carry the family banner into the future. But, you can make yourself a little crazy by wanting great fortune and fame for your kids, and letting them know you will settle for nothing less. Harvard isn’t for everyone and there is no guarantee of a good life that comes with admission to Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc. If your child can make a living, find love in his life, behave honorably, and experience some measure of fulfillment, that just might be quite enough.

4. Don’t make your child feel guilty over leading his own life, not providing you with grandchildren, and not being as close to you as he was when he was little. He needs to break-free and take care of himself. He should (and probably will) want to have you in his life, but don’t be an anchor around his ankle.

5. Don’t live and die with every success and failure on your son or daughter’s path. Easier said than done, by the way. Learn to accept things as they are. Get some distance. Meditate. Get a life of your own. As a famous basketball coach once said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You are going to die a lot.”

6. As your kids move into adulthood, don’t preach and do be careful about giving advice, especially if it hasn’t been requested. Let your children know that you are proud of them. Not because they became captains of industry, but because they are good, decent, and loving people. Give your grown kids support and encouragement. Enjoy them, don’t manage them.

7. Remember that they aren’t you, they won’t always do what you would do, what you think wise, believe what you believe to be true. They might belong to a different political party, root for a different baseball team (God forbid!), change religion or give up religion. They might marry someone you don’t completely fit with. Remind yourself that what is important is your child’s happiness and fulfillment and decency.

8. Take good care of yourself. Find a meaning in life that is not 100% about your adult children. Try to get there gradually, not on his or her 21st birthday.

If you are lucky, your children will turn out well, and be grateful for all you did, and for your wisdom in not “doing it all” for them forever. It’s quite an adventure for the concerned parent, and you will never stop being concerned. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune…” But, with practice, you will sleep at night even on many of the nights that your adult child is having some bumps in the road.

When you look at her, fast asleep in her crib, all of that seems impossible and impossibly far away. But it can happen.

I’ve been there.