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Parenting and the Principle of Least Astonishment


"[A] program should always respond to the user in the way that astonishes him least." - Geoffrey James, The Tao of Programming

ChildTossI'm trying to be more predictable.  In my words.  In my actions.  Because my children deserve nothing less.

As a professional computer programmer, one of the ideas that is always at the forefront of the software I'm designing is something called the Principle of Least Astonishment (POLA).

If you have ever used some software and intuitively understood what to do, or what action a particular button performed, then you've experienced POLA in action.  For example, in your email program, there is probably an icon with a trash can.  It doesn't surprise you in the least that clicking that icon deletes a draft email.  But imagine you were in the middle of writing an angry email to your boss, thought the better of it, and then clicked the trash can icon.  Suppose the software instead used the trash icon to indicate that the email should be sent instead of deleted.  I can assure you this discovery would certainly bring with it a sense of astonishment—and likely unemployment.

In a word, if software is designed well, it should match the expectations and mental models of the user.

I've come to believe that not only can I not be a good programmer if I violate POLA, much more importantly, I can't be a good parent.

Consider how our children view us.  If they tell us they have failed at something, or fallen, or succeeded, or triumphed, what can they expect from us?  Do they expect a parent who is overjoyed at their accomplishments?  Do they expect a parent who is willing to forgive every fault?  One who catches sight of them even while they are "still a long way off"? (Lk 15:20)  That is what they ought to expect.  God forgive us if they are astonished by what they do find from us.

Imagine our children having an expectation of a loving parent and being astonished by the way we behave to them.

While our children may not always know exactly what our response will be, they can feel confident that they won't be astonished why we are doing it: love for them.

Now, it is certainly true that children may be surprised by our exact actions—children often do not understand that medicine can be bitter.  However, in cases like these, it is all the more important to help them understand that our actions to them are being done, not from a lack of love, but out of an abundance of love.  In this way, our children will learn that while they may not always know exactly what our response will be, they can feel confident that they won't be astonished why we are doing it: love for them.

For a child, I believe there is nothing more important to them than knowing what to expect from their parents.  Once the child's expectation is broken, there will always be an unease in the next interaction with their parents.  This can eventually lead to children who no longer go to their parents because they simply don't know what to expect.

Software developers create patches for bugs.  In some sense, patches are implicit apologies: it is a recognition by the person of their fault, and an attempt to fix what is broken.  The same must be practiced by us parents.  When we fall, we must be willing to tell our children that we have fallen short of their reasonable expectations.  For it is one thing for a child to be told by us parents that we are human and can (and do) make mistakes, but it is another thing for a child to believe that their expectations of a loving parent were wrong to begin with.

To prevent this latter case, what is required—to heal what is broken—is an apology to our children, an affirmation of their expectations, and a pledge to strive to meet their expectations in the future.

And so, I'm trying to be more predictable.  So that when my children are with me, they won't be astonished to hear me tell them "you are here with me always; everything I have is yours."  So that even if they are a long way off, they'll expect to be seen, and run to, and embraced.  For while we ought always to be filled with astonishment by the love of a parent for their child, we should never be astonished that there is love.  In fact, nothing should astonish us less.



TimClarkTim Clark. "Parenting and the Principle of Least Astonishment." Between The Paws (Juy 10, 2022).

Reprinted with permission from the author. Image credit: Photo by lauren lulu taylor on Unsplash.

The Author

Tim Clark received his bachelor's in philosophy from Christendom College, and his master's in Computer Science from George Mason University. He lives with his wife Yvonne and their eight children in Virginia.

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