Engineering the Kids

Eleven years and four months into being a dad, I think I’ve learned the hardest part about it all — doing nothing.  Doing something is easy.  The baby’s crying?  Change his diaper.  Baby still crying?  Warm up a bottle.  Still crying?  Rock him to sleep.

Still?  Whiskey.  For me.

I also think I’ve learned that the older they get, the more you have to do nothing.  As much as you want to get on that bus with them on the very first day of school just so you can make sure they get there and find their classroom, and then heck you’re already there so you might as well stay for lunch, you have to stand in the driveway and watch that big yellow deathtrap kidnap your offspring.  You have to stand there and watch it drive off into the distance, until in a panic you run to the garage, jump in the car and chase it down, all the way to school, parking across the street and watching to make sure he gets in ok.  Because how do you really know otherwise?

As much as you’d like to pull the referee aside and explain away that traveling call because he really is such a good kid and would never do anything against the rules like that on purpose, you have to do nothing.  Except use it as a teaching moment during the ride home on the occasional unfairness of an otherwise relatively charmed life.

As much as you want to do something, anything for crying out loud don’t just stand there and watch them suffer, you stand there.  And do nothing.

And you learn later, sometimes much later, that they weren’t suffering after all.  They were doing something else entirely — they were learning.

When my wife and I tell people that we’re both employed as engineers, one of three things happens:

  1. They insist that we must have the most efficient, well-run, process-driven household of anyone on the face of the planet, ever.  “I’ll bet you’re never late to anything,” they say.  Or, “Is anything in your house ever out of place?”
  2. They suddenly remember a prior engagement, dinner reservations that they must rush off to, or Fluffy’s appointment with the groomer.
  3. They look at us with pity and mutter, sometimes in a barely audible whisper, “Oh your poor children.”

While 1 and 2 are more frequent, #3 is definitely the most accurate.

Oh our poor children.

Human beings, all of us, are naturally hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, even when none exist.  I had a piece of German chocolate cake at one in the morning, and look at that, I weigh a half pound less today than I did yesterday.  I think I’ve discovered the next diet fad.  We’re easily fooled by coincidence and correlation, looking for singular cause and effect relationships wherever we can and completely missing the larger system hard at work behind the curtain.

When future engineers are learning to be future engineers, this becomes ingrained even further.  Mostly because the seemingly best way to learn to solve engineering problems is to turn them into singular cause and effect incidents.  Make a design change to the widget and run the analysis to see how the stress changes under load.  Tweak the gains in the controller and watch what happens to the response in the signal.  Change a valve position and examine the effects on the laminar and turbulent flow.

So already hardwired to see cause and effect relationships, and trained to look for them even harder and exploit them in the world of levers and pulleys, electrons, and chemical reactions, society somehow allows us to procreate and wreak all kinds of havoc on our next generation.

Oh our poor children.

Surely this happens with other occupations.  Surely accountants help their kids set up spreadsheets to track allowance and expenditures.  Firefighters always on the lookout for safety violations that could burn the house down.  Government officials must spend even more of their time than the rest of us convincing their children that yes, indeed, they really do know what’s best for them.

For engineers, it’s looking for cause and effect.  One evening, I actually heard these words tumble from my own mouth:  “We’ve just got to find the root cause for why he won’t settle down in his crib until he’s been in there for an hour and a half.”

Then we discovered magic — the magic of do nothing.  Quit trying to fix whatever might be wrong.  Restrain the urge to take action, with handcuffs and rope if necessary.

I’d like to say this was brilliance on our part — that we analyzed the system, conducted a thorough fault tree analysis and determined that nothing was the right course of action.  I’d like to say that.  Truth is, we’d investigated everything on that stupid fault tree and were completely out of ideas.  Not to mention exhausted and irritated with each other.  Totally defeated by a 6-month old who just happens to be absolutely reliant on us for his survival, we sat.  And we did nothing.

And the little &*%^ was asleep in 45 minutes.

Then I turned back into an engineer, “You know what this means?  At this rate, tomorrow night he’ll fall asleep in 22 1/2 minutes!”  And we were right back where we started.

We’re still afflicted by this need to fix things, by the urge to intervene and figure out the problem, by the compulsion to do something.  But we’re getting better.  And it’s a good thing we’re getting better, because from what I understand there’s a whole lot of letting go in our future.  Driving lessons.  First dates.  College.  A friend with adult children told me, “Your worries don’t go away as they get older, they get more expensive.”

We go to work and try to make things as perfect as they can be.  To find the problems, analyze the root causes, and fix them.  To make efficient processes more efficient, productive systems more productive.  And then we come home to a happy mess, and try to do nothing.  Nothing, except listen to how they navigated their days, in all their complicated elementary school glory.  Trying not to fix, trying not to suggest alternative courses of action that might’ve worked out better, trying to just listen.  Because we’re learning that they aren’t machines that need maintenance to function at peak efficiency, that they don’t need to produce at 100% accuracy, and that usually they’ve got to figure this out for themselves.

They’ll settle down in their cribs in half the time all on their own, if we just get out of the way and let them.




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