The Magic of First Principles Parenting

Raise Ready Kids
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When facing real-life, tough parenting situations, how do you reconcile conflicting parenting advice and figure out what to DO? Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk’s approach to first principles thinking can help you find the right answer — and more sanity.

First, identify the most fundamental truth

A first principle is a basic, foundational truth that does not depend on other assumptions.1 When you engage in first principles thinking, you go back to fundamental truths and build up to your solution or decision from there. No shortcuts allowed. You’re not following other people’s advice just because they’re “experts” or because “things have always been done that way.”

You’ve probably heard of Tesla, the electric car company. When Elon Musk started Tesla, people told him he’d never be able to make batteries cheaply enough to mass-produce electric cars. To prove them wrong, Musk went back to first principles.2

“First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world,” he told Kevin Rose in an interview. “You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’ … and then reason up from there.… Somebody could say, ‘Battery packs [have historically cost] $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.’

“With first principles, you say, ‘What are the material constituents of the batteries?’ … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation, and a seal can.… If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange, what would each of those things cost? It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Introducing first principles parenting

Elon Musk is an inventor dealing with physics and batteries. Parents are decision-makers dealing with emotions and exhaustion. Let’s tackle a parenting challenge with first principles thinking.

Consider a stay-at-home dad of a 20-month-old child. The kind of destructorama boy who likes to climb on furniture and jump off and see what happens. It’s exhausting.

Our dad is attentive and engaged with his child, but he has to keep his eyes on him constantly. By mid-morning, he needs a break. He needs to take a shower and have just a few minutes to himself, and then he’s recharged and ready for more time with his kid.

The only thing that keeps this child’s attention for the 30 minutes he needs is the TV show Barney and Friends on Netflix. His son likes to watch the same awful episode over and over again. But our dad knows what the American Academy of Pediatrics says about TV for kids under two: No TV at all is the recommended amount.

So what should our hypothetical dad do?

Love grows brains

Let’s help him with some first principles thinking. Let’s start with what we know to be most fundamentally true about parenting and child development:

Love grows brains.

We know this to be deeply and fundamentally true, even more true than “no TV for kids under two.”3

When we pay close attention and respond to our children’s emotional cues, their brains are growing. Every warm interaction we enjoy together is like Miracle-Gro for their brains.

Clearly, our hypothetical dad will be much better at doing these things if he has a break now and then. Sure, in a perfect world, he could heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and not expose his child to TV at all. But he does not live in a perfect world. We don’t live in a perfect world. Dads and moms everywhere have to deal with trade-offs.

The bottom line: “Love grows brains” is a more fundamental truth than “No TV for kids under two years old.” Using first principles parenting, we can trade off conflicting values and make the right decision for our children and ourselves.

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The Magic of First Principles Parenting
  2. Thank you to James Clear for bringing Musk’s story to my attention. The video of Musk describing first principles thinking is at
  3. Thank you to Ellen Galinsky for this simple and powerful phrase, which I found in her book Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.