Tag Archives: parenting

Multifinality, Commander’s Intent, and My Household Chores

Sometimes, in solving social problems, the how doesn’t matter so much.

But you wouldn’t know it by our advocacy.

We spend so much time arguing about the ‘how’.

I’m not going to assert that the way in which we arrive at a particular conclusion is always immaterial, certainly. I mean, if we want to prevent unintended pregnancies, universal sterilization gets us there, right? But no one’s going to argue (I should probably check NCSL’s updates on state legislatures before I go out on a limb there) that that’s a good approach.

But, at the least, there is usually more than one viable path to a particular policy outcome, which means that it would make sense to spend at least as much energy debating those desired ends as the means, especially since there’s a value in trying multiple roads.

  • Reducing child poverty? The Earned Income Tax Credit helps, but so do generous parental leave policies, improved access to affordable childcare (so parents can work more and at better jobs), guaranteed child support, living wages, and child allowances.
  • Increasing college attainment among targeted populations? We know financial aid makes a difference, but so do college retention programs, high school reforms, and even requiring students to apply for college before they graduate high school.
  • Closing the educational achievement gap? It means addressing equity in school finance, for sure, but what about adult education programs, teacher training, and testing reforms?

My favorite social work theory concept is the idea of multifinality, that there are multiple ways to reach the same desired end.

Embracing that truth could revolutionize the way we approach policymaking, by requiring us to focus on where we want to go, instead of putting all of our eggs into the ‘how we’re going to get there’ basket.

Imagine a state legislative session that featured lengthy discussions about the different ways to address a need for health care among low-income children, for example, instead of a protracted and often nasty fight about this or that particular tactic (different kinds of provider licenses, different reimbursement rates, streamlined eligibility determination, more outreach investment for Medicaid…).

The authors of Made to Stick refer to this as the Commander’s Intent, a military practice of spelling out a concrete goal and then letting the process unfold, in terms of how we arrive there.

It’s strengths-based, in that others are empowered to shape the journey, as long as the destination is fixed. And it’s consistent with how we understand people to be motivated, and with how we know that systems work, too.

And, I was reflecting the other day, it’s how I parent, too, especially when it comes to getting the kids to help around the house.

See, it is completely ineffective for me to tell the kids exactly how I want something done. They’ll usually either refuse to do it or give up in the face of daunting instructions. Either way, I lose. Instead, when I can present them with a vision of what it needs to look like, and emphasize the freedom they have to figure out how we get there, their circuitous paths usually end up delivering us right where we need to be.

The parallels to the legislature are obvious:

“You all need to clean up this mess. How do you do that is up to you, but it must get cleaned up.”

Where do you see multifinality at work in your practice? And how do you signal your Commander’s Intent–in your organization, in your advocacy, and in your life?

Parenting and Dead Ideas

We’re all affected, perhaps infected (?) by dead ideas.

It’s almost eerie, really, when you stop to think just how little we think about how things could be different–really, radically different–instead of just slightly modified.

And when you realize how imperceptibly dead ideas infiltrate our way of seeing the world.

Because they’re in my parenting.

And they’re impacting my kids.

  • The idea that school funding should be local, which not only traps some kids in really ill-equipped and under-funded schools but also creates a climate in which my children grow up without a full understanding of how we all share responsibility for the education of the entire populace. The truth? That real autonomy–read: the power to educate our children as we must–only comes with the robust resources and collective commitment that would accompany a more centralized financing.
  • The illusion of upward mobility for future generations, and my realization of its falseness, and how that means that my husband and I are trying to prepare to shelter our kids from the unknown ravages of a future economy. It also affects how we live pretty modestly, so that our children do not become accustomed to goods that they don’t need and may not be able to secure. But it surrounds us, still; our local high school had new fewer than three screenings of Race to Nowhere last year, since so many parents are so eager to make sure that their children’s educations prepare them for ever greater career triumphs. And I find myself daydreaming, every once in a while, about what my kids might be when they grow up. And it’s something satisfying, which, because of how our economy is structured, means fairly prestigious.
  • The myth that the ‘company should take care of you’, and the disinvestment in any alternative retirement or health care systems, which means that, on a very practical level, I could not afford to do what I do–teach and consult and take on work that fascinates me–if not subsidized by my husband’s company, and privileged by the status our marriage gives me. It’s odd, then, to tell my kids about my work and know that they can’t see the ways in which it is subtly gendered, or know how precarious our lives could be without a corporate safety net that is increasingly tattered for so many people.

What does this mean?

How, then, do we resist the pull of dead ideas?

Some of it, as a parent, means encouraging my kids to ask ‘why’…a lot.

It means being helping them to question assumptions and the way things are, and being okay with messy answers.

But, beyond my private sphere, it means challenging myself, my friends, our institutions, and our policymakers. It means pointing out that a school finance approach that expects each to take care of her own only works if you have enough. And being upfront about the privilege that affords me the career opportunities I have. And not falling for the conceit of telling my kids that if they just work hard enough, they can have anything they want.

It means not running on autopilot, even when coming up with new ideas is harder.

Coasting never works well in parenting, anyway.

Shaping our first impressions

photo credit, The Future, by Denkyem84, via Flickr

It’s been more than a year since so many of you weighed in on my struggles around where and how to educate my kids–how I’m torn between the advantages that they may accrue in the public schools where we live now, and my growing angst over the social costs of such a racially-exclusive environment.

And, no, I haven’t reached some happy conclusion.

Really, I’m more conflicted than ever.

I read a disturbing piece of the book Blink about the conclusive psychological research demonstrating how the racial stereotypes we all hold influence even our most subconscious decisions. It’s sobering for us all.

More alarming for me, though, was the research on how we can consciously influence these internal processes, by priming our minds to approach race, and racial difference, differently.

How does such priming occur?

Through intense and sustained positive interactions with people of different races, of course.

And what, precisely, are my kids likely to be denied, at least through their schooling, given the dire demographics?


As a parent, I want to give my children the best.

Not the best toys, certainly (we wouldn’t even know what those are, since we don’t watch TV!), but the best chance–to learn, to grow, to experience a full and wonderful life.

That requires a good school, certainly. But don’t I also want them to have the best chance, at least the best fighting shot at it that any of us can hope for, to beat back the demons of racial prejudice that so plague much of humanity?

It has already started, certainly, the awareness of divisions. My oldest son remarked how one of his friends at ‘nature camp’ (a boy of Indian-American descent) has “darker skin than mine, but lighter skin than Hayden (an African-American friend)…it’s funny, Mommy, because his skin is kind of the same color as Grandpa George’s (my husband’s maternal grandfather is Mexican), but they don’t know each other!”

Indeed, this sophisticated classification of skin tone gradients.

At the same time, there’s a definite opening now, an innate sense of fairness that is part developmental stage and part, I suspect, a product of our influence on them.

I was preparing to go to a pro-immigrant protest, and Sam asked me where I was going.

“I need to stand up against a man who doesn’t like people who come from other countries, to show that I won’t accept that in our community.”

“Why, Mommy?” he asked. “Why am I going?” I asked.

“No,” Sam said softly. “Why would anyone not like someone from another country?”

What’s the best answer, for influencing their minds and hearts so that, in the blink of an eye, they’ll always see justice and fellowship and equality?

Science, and human instinct, tell us it’s a multiracial environment, the likes of which are rare in this highly segregated and stratified society, a search even further complicated because we also want for them a chance to learn the knowledge and skills that they’ll need to succeed.

Gladwell’s book is subtitled, The Power of Thinking without Thinking. But this is one dilemma I can’t seem to think, or unthink, my way around.

“Accidental Social Working?”–Only Fools Rush In

My husband and I are big “Baby Whisperer” fans. Well, OK, we were, with our first son, and then when we had twins we fully embraced the whole “do absolutely anything that seems to work in the moment” philosophy in order to manage life with 3 kids aged 2 and under. But, in my rare moments to reflect on parenting, I still think that the Baby Whispering advice makes sense–basically, take time to know your baby, to figure out what is really going on with him/her, and be purposeful and present, emotionally as well as physically, in order to develop healthy patterns of interaction and help babies figure out how to comfort themselves. The whole idea is to avoid what she calls ‘accidental parenting’, where, in an attempt to rapidly fix some problem, we end up missing the bigger picture.

That’s a big part of the way that I parent, really, which is somewhat surprising, perhaps, given that, before I was a mom, I tended to rush through life, making decisions on the fly and managing crisis after crisis. As a parent, soon to be of 3 toddlers, I think that the idea of hanging back a bit, diagnosing before acting, and trying to get to the root of problems is what has helped my kids to adjust to the world as well as they have (not that I haven’t succumbed to the ‘just give him children’s Tylenol’ temptation at 3AM before!).

I thought of Baby Whispering in class the other day (it’s funny, sometimes, how much my mind jumps from Mommy to social work mode, and back). In the global poverty course, my students were working through a poverty simulation exercise that I developed to help them understand a bit more intimately the problems that people around the world face as they attempt to survive in the current global economic order. I broke them into 3 groups of 4, and each group was assigned to read through one of the family case scenarios–Ohio, Mexico, or the Philippines. They had to answer a series of questions and also make decisions, given the real price information that I included. Students certainly took it seriously, and the feedback that I received was pretty positive–they did feel that it helped to personalize somewhat our earlier lecture and discussion regarding the nature of poverty in the global economy.

But what I observed, and what made me think of baby whispering, was the way in which all 3 groups, independently, tended to jump to judgment about the families and their actions, and tended to immediately look to micro-level ‘solutions’ to deal with some of the symptoms of the problems. For example, the group talking about the Marshall family from Ohio focused in on how the family might trim its grocery bill with some more selective shopping, what might help Todd better deal with his decimated financial position in order to get his drinking under control, and how to counsel the family to adjust their expectations in line with their reduced economic position. Certainly some of those interventions are valid responses to the Marshalls’ very real, very urgent pain, but none of them begin to discuss what is causing the Marshalls’ hardship or how, indeed, those root causes are threatening the very existence of the middle class in much of the United States. Kind of like putting your baby in the swing for yet another nap, because at least it gets her to go to sleep, even though you still haven’t figured out why she hates that crib that she needs to learn to sleep in.

I think that social workers are often ‘guilty’ of this. We want to fix things, and the root causes are often much harder to fix, so we zero in on that which brings some quick relief. We are attuned more to the pyschological impact of poverty and discrimination than the political and economic conditions that contribute to them. We focus on individuals, the level of intervention where we feel most comfortable, rather than social structures, where the real problems are.

As I circulated among the groups, talking with students, I found myself probing in ways not unlike the Baby Whisperer. She had a catchy acronym for it: STOP: Stop, Listen, Observe, What’s Up? I encouraged them to take a step back and ask critical questions about the families’ situations and the conditions that contribute to them, before trying to intervene. I challenged them to really listen to what the individuals involved were saying about their circumstances, their fears, their goals, their very real anger. And I insisted that they examine the injustices at work, the structural reforms needed, and the role that they as social workers could play in pursuing such radical change, before they applied more micro-level interventions that, while often a component of how we render aid (just as I don’t believe in just letting a baby cry and cry), will at best fail to prevent the same problem from recurring and at worst will mask the true structural violence of a system that creates crises.

Just as, in those weak moments in the middle of the night, as a parent I tend to reach for whatever I think will make the crying stop, so, too, do we as social workers sometimes grab desperately (in the dark!) for something to stop the bleeding, so to speak. But it is my hope, in this class and as an instructor more generally, to give my students some of the tools they need, in the light of day and with a more well-rested perspective, to work towards new systems that will help all of the vulnerable people we serve sleep easier.