A Logic Lesson for Parents

There is a REALLY common logic fallacy that is very popular today (which is also another logic fallacy, but that is for another post).  The Latin name for it is post hoc ergo propter hoc. Literally, that means “After this (post hoc), therefore (ergo) because of this (propter hoc).”  It is essentially confusing chronology with causality.  In other words, just because something happened after something else, doesn’t mean that the first event caused the second (unless there really is a causal link).

A Couple of Examples

Johnny and the Cookie Jar 

Suppose little Johnny goes into the kitchen.  You hear a crash and investigate and find the cookie jar on the floor.  You may be tempted to conclude that it is Johnny’s fault that the cookie jar fell.  That would be a fallacy without other evidence.  It is also important to note that if it is his fault, shame on you for having a cookie jar out where little Johnny could reach it!  What we don’t  have here is a causal link.  What knocked the cookie jar over in this fictitious example was the cat, startled by Johnny entering the room.

Improving Schools

This is not a home example but it is a recent one for us, and alarmingly popular so I thought I would share it.  Schools want to boost their scores because that is how we measure how effective the learning is.  Toward that end they make their curriculum harder in order to achieve that result.  Low and behold, each year their scores do go up (and they will, by the way, but not for the expected reason).  It would be easy to conclude that the more difficult curriculum did the job.  The kids are learning more and it is showing on the tests. However, there is no causal link here just like in the cookie jar example.  More than likely the children that were pulling the test scores lower, left the school because it was crushing them. 

To truly measure the effectiveness of the teaching, you need to approach this much more scientifically: 

  1. Take an exam on a set of material. 
  2. Teach the material. 
  3. Take the same exam with the same kids. 

Viola! (how about that – 3 languages in one post!)  This way you can measure the knowledge of the students before they were taught and then measure the mastery afterward to be able to measure what new mastery they have after the teaching.  Those of you who are scientists, will no doubt have a dozen additions to improve the method, but this is sufficient for you to get the point.

The reality is, no school (that I know of) does that.  Instead they are measuring the mastery of the students annually and that only reflects the pace of the school.  In other words if I teach the material before the other schools, my students will score higher because they have been exposed to new material that the other students haven’t.  Therein lies the subtle and dangerous fallacy. 

I am not maligning hard work.  I would just rather see the schools do what they want the students to do:  THINK.  I can bail water out of a sinking boat with a cup, or a bucket.  I will work a lot harder with the cup, but that doesn’t mean it is more effective.  Yes, you can build character with hard work, but you can also crush spirits with too much of it.  More effective learning should be the goal, not more work.  We want to help them build a better boat, not bail faster!

Okay, enough examples, how is this relevant to parenting.

Think about our Children

Parents are always trying new things with their kids.  That is a good thing.  Don’t get complacent.  Your children are always changing and your parenting needs to mature with them.  Don’t conclude just because you tried something and received the immediate result you wanted, that the reason the child responded was because you did what you did.  Or more importantly, that the lesson you wanted to teach is the lesson the child actually learned.  If you getting angry at the child for some behavior, and you do something stupid as a parent, the lesson learned might not be, “don’t do that”, but rather, don’t make Mom or Dad mad.  Right result – behavior has changed, wrong lesson – you didn’t really change their hearts, you just showed them you are a hypocrite.

Children are complex little people and sometimes the lesson they are learning is not the one you wanted to teach.  I have had a couple of conversations with the older children (Coco and Princess) and they had a few stories about situations where Beautiful and I thought we were so clever in how we handled a situation and it turns out the lesson learned was utterly the wrong one.  Not because we got angry and did something stupid, but because they learned about how we operate, not the moral lesson we wanted to teach.

You cannot completely avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in parenting because we cannot see inside their heads or hearts to know exactly what is going on.  If we could the “whodunit” conversations would be a lot shorter!  Instead, we need to be vigilant to see if the children are growing and maturing and keep adapting to provide the right nutrients for their precious little hearts and minds.  Children learn how to “play” their parents early so don’t expect that to go away just because they got older.  Think and pray and ask good questions.  The children will help you help them if you give them that respect.

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