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Parenting and the Recency Bias

July 31, 2012

I’ve stated before that I’m finding so much of what I read — even if it’s on completely different topics — can be applied to so much of life, though it may not stand out as an obvious area of application. I love reading business books, and seeing how the themes connect with something like religion or parenting; or reading theology and fiction and seeing how paradigms relate to business and anthropology.

What Is Recency Bias?

While reading World 3.0 at the beginning of this year, my husband and I encountered the term recency bias. We hadn’t heard that specific term before, but we sure had talked a lot about it in recent months. Now, we had an official term for something we had noticed occurring in our lives and others. It’s a term used frequently in connection to the forex market, but is also a term used in business in general.

Simply put, and as defined in World 3.0, we experience recency bias when we put “present conditions into longer-term perspective.” In other words, we end up viewing life through the lens of a brief and usually atypical season of life. We see our recent experiences as determining what the rest of our future experiences will be like (and sometimes, we let our recent experiences color our past experience, too). Recency bias is something to note, because it can cloud our perspective and impair our judgment.

Recency Bias in Parenting

Recency bias views life microscopically without ever standing back for the macroscopic perspective. Here are a few ways recency bias gets played out in parenting:

1. We see ourselves as a parenting failure/success based on our most recent parenting experiences. 

Our kids had a bad day. We had a bad day. Or a bad week. And now, our children will surely be incarcerated by age 15. We’ll be the talk of the town as the parents who failed, and it all started when the two year old stuck his head in the toilet three days in a row in 2012. You see your parenting experience as nothing but hard, miserable work, except for maybe a few occasions.

But four days later, he’s cheerfully asking to wash dishes and vacuum with you every time you take on these tasks. Surely, you are now equipped to write a book on parenting even before he’s old enough to apply for college; and when the book becomes a bestseller, you won’t need the funds for his tuition because he’ll, clearly, have already been offered a full scholarship to Harvard. You see your parenting experience as nothing but smooth sailing, except for maybe that one time your son might have…what was it?…put something in the toilet (but you can’t remember exact details).

Viewing life this way doesn’t even see such experiences as a series of ups and downs Instead, we’re forgetting that it’s going to go down, and at other times, we forget it will eventually go back up, too.

To remedy this, we often need to step back — to be thankful and remember in those everything’s-going-smoothly seasons, and to be thankful and remember in those terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad days. Going back and looking at a journal, e-mails to friends, blog posts, or pictures might remind us what life was like last week or last month.

Related to this, we lose sight of the big picture, and focus on events rather than the journey.

For parents of young children, again, this can be another clouded perspective by which to view life. One failure in ourselves or our children, and we fear we have determined our eternal fate as parents.

2. We take on a long-term view of our children through their recent actions. 

In this version of recency bias, we can tend to frame our children by their recent behavior. “My horror child.” “The crazy one.” “My mean son.” It’s damaging to us and them when we frame an entire persona and then project that into how we interpret their every action. It becomes even more hurtful when such mental framing slips out into verbal labeling. It’s one thing to be hurt by being labeled by fellow peers at school or by kids on the playground, but when it’s done by adults and parents, those wounds and labels run deep and can stick for a lifetime.

Understanding personality types is helpful, and, I believe, very important in understanding and parenting our children. But even so, it can be tempting to erect a black-and-white description of our children and stick that to them for life. Whether for good or bad, personality, habits, and character traits can grow and change.

3. Parents of only young children forget that their children are still young children.

If you only have young children, it can be easy to view your oldest young child/ren as being much older than they are. If you haven’t yet experienced the years of grade school, tweens, and teen years, it can be easy to see how much change has already taken place and assume you are further along the road than you may be. I sometimes cannot believe how old my four-year-old is now, and how much she can do. Sometimes that causes me to expect a lot more out of her than I should. She has a two-year-old sister and a newborn brother, and compared with them, she is old and she is big (minus the times she and her younger sister’s growth patterns intersect.)

Thus, sometimes I need to remind myself of how little she is, how little life-experience she has, how much her body and mind still have to grow, and how sometimes it may be painful and frustrating while body and mind are growing. One easy way to remind myself is to look at a family picture of a family with several children, whose youngest child is four or five or six. How young the five-year-old looks in that family! Then, I’m reminded of how little my oldest still is, or how little my two-year old still is.

This type of recency bias is especially common when a new baby arrives into a family with a sibling. It’s easy to use our recent experiences by which we view our other children. A newborn baby can make a 18-month-old seem so huge. “He’s practically ready for grade school!” But by contrast, a six-year-old can make an 18-month-old seem like such a little baby. “Is she crawling yet?”

Several years ago, I read that a specific Hebrew word for “child” was used to describe breastfeeding infants through age five, and children under five were, in essence, viewed as babies. This stood out to me, since in our culture, breastfeeding even to a year is commonly viewed with suspicion, and I have reminded myself of this as my children have grown. (On a personal note and bit of a rabbit trail, breastfeeding my youngest daughter at 23 months certainly made me see her as being younger at that time, and I wonder if our push for so-called “independence” so early in our culture leads us to forget how “little” and dependent our babies still are.)

Just looking back at last summer’s pictures, I’m amazed at how tiny my own children seem, when last summer I thought they were so old and so big. But right now, they seem so big. Next summer when we’re looking back at this year’s pictures, though, they’ll seem so little again.

4. Sometimes we internalize our current season so much that we fail to realize how atypical it is.

This, I think, can be a sort of instinctive survival mechanism that gets played out in how we are sometimes able to adapt to our circumstances. Such behavior can be good and can be bad.

Positively, it helps us cope and get through the season in the midst of it. Looking back on the experiences, we may then reflect, “Wow. I had no idea that we were so tired at that point in our lives!” Or, we may express personal disbelief in the fact that things didn’t seem so difficult at the time.

As an example, a friend recently relayed to me her experience. After several years of pregnancies, breastfeeding, and miscarriages, she had a season without any of those. She was amazed at the amount of energy she had in the new season, but had not really realized how very much she had been lacking during the previous years.

Negatively, we can deny or be less aware of physical, spiritual, or emotional alarms that are directing us to make change and improvement. (Or if the circumstances/season of life is better than the norm, we can take it for granted.)  Also on the negative aspect, we may also end up viewing or judging others by our specific set of life circumstances, rather than realizing another family is making alternative choices simply because they are in an entirely different season of life or set of circumstances.

5. We fail to remember our present, difficult circumstances may be just a rather quickly passing season.

Having a baby who is teething for a 7 days may make it seem like you’ve been dealing with a rough teething phase for months…even though you’re on day 6 of that week.

You might feel discouraged and disappointed in yourself when you think it’s been “forever” since you’ve woken up a couple of hours before the kids to go running. Then you realize you’re 2 weeks postpartum, and if you were to go running now and lose sleep at 5a.m., it would actually do more harm than good. (There’s a reason you’re so tired, and it’s a good one!)

A week of late bedtimes, and we feel like we are failures because we can’t even manage the simplest of routines. Waking up to a messy house, and feeling from the very beginning that we can’t have a good day.

Or, you’ve just moved (or gone through some other major life transition), and the entire family is high on emotions and low on manners. But, maybe in the busyness of everyday life you’ve forgotten that you’ve just moved. Or just had a baby. Or just got back from weeks of traveling, holidays, and crazy schedules. We’re eager to get back to normal, but we forget that a transition time is needed.

Needing Perspective

Sometime when going through a difficult season — in parenting, or otherwise — it makes it easy to think our entire life has been awful. Or will be. For the rest of our lives. When we feel this way, it’s probably a sign that we need to step back for some perspective. This doesn’t necessarily mean going away to the mountains to meditate for a week, or even an evening. Sometimes we gain perspective by looking over the good memories. Other times, we need need external reminders and help. Sometimes we need a friend who has gone through a similar experience to remind us that they’re still here and better for it. Or we may need an experienced, older parent to remind us that our toddlers will all too soon be teens, and then adults, and then blessing us with our very own toddler grandchildren. In other circumstances, maybe it would help to just paint over the wall to hide the permanent marker scribbles, or clean up the play area.

Often, the most needed perspective is taken by stepping back, resting, and refreshing. Sometimes we just need to wait and see — to pause before reacting. Realizing there is such a thing as recency bias, even if we don’t have a term for it, is helpful in identifying why our emotions, actions, and thoughts might have gotten us to this point.

Other times (and pretty much all the times), we also need a heavenly perspective–reminders that our identity is in Christ, that God’s love is unconditional, that God is giving us good gifts and growing us, and that we’re citizens of another country. As humans, we tend to project our experiences and presuppositions into how we view life. Recency bias is yet another way we do this. Consequently, those reminders are important, whether we’re thinking about recency bias in parenting or in the foreign exchange market.

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  • Johanna Hanson July 31, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Excellent points, Keren. I had never heard the term before, but I do completely see this bias in the realm of parenting. The longer I parent (which, obviously, is not that long yet!), I realize how important it is to see the big picture. This has helped me so much in not coming down too hard on the kids for poor behavior. The are children, after all. Sometimes we confuse childishness for defiance. Trying to step back and see the big picture helps me determine better if it is simply a child being a child. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Keren July 31, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      Very true! And thanks for the many reminders you’ve shared in your writing on stepping back and seeing our children as being children.

  • Christina P. July 31, 2012 at 8:45 am

    Wow. Guilty as charged, especially when I had little ones only. The further out I get, the more I realize how harshly I treated them as babies and preschoolers. Very easy for a young parent who wants to raise her kids good to do.

    • Keren July 31, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Christina.

  • Chelo July 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Wow Keren. This is really helpful for me to read now and I know re-read again later on. Like Johanna, “recency bias” is a term I’d not heard before but like you said it is helpful to identify.

    Also thank you for your final encouragement of pointing to Jesus Christ and keeping a heavenly perspective.

    • Keren July 31, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      I think having a term and then seeing it spelled out, albeit in reference to economics, helped me more clearly see what I’d seen dimly before. Thanks, Chelo.

  • Kim July 31, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for this reminder, Keren.

  • Susanna August 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    This is written so clearly, thoroughly, and wisely. Thanks for taking the time to encourage others with this truth. I’m grateful for this encouragement.

  • Links I Found Interesting: August 7, 2012 | CheloBeazley.Com August 7, 2012 at 1:24 am

    […] TweetParenting and the Recency Bias – Keren Threlfall  Here’s an article I’d like to re-read later on.  I found this one very encouraging and a good reminder to always have the big picture in mind.  I’m often guilty getting so focused on  the “now”. Sometime when going through a difficult season — in parenting, or otherwise — it makes it easy to think our entire life has been awful. Or will be. For the rest of our lives. When we feel this way, it’s probably a sign that we need to step back for some perspective. This doesn’t necessarily mean going away to the mountains to meditate for a week, or even an evening. Sometimes we gain perspective by looking over the good memories. Other times, we need need external reminders and help. Sometimes we need a friend who has gone through a similar experience to remind us that they’re still here and better for it. Or we may need an experienced, older parent to remind us that our toddlers will all too soon be teens, and then adults, and then blessing us with our very own toddler grandchildren. In other circumstances, maybe it would help to just paint over the wall to hide the permanent marker scribbles, or clean up the play area. […]

  • DP August 16, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I did a couple things in my adolescence that were very upsetting to my parents, since these involved the neighbors. My dad took it much better, but then he was in many ways the least invested in what anyone thought, even though he had a loose temper.

    What I did meant very little to me, and I was not driven to do them. I don’t recall feeling much about those things. But, had the injustices in which I was partaking escalated much, I would have been horrified to have caused the then-escalated injustices, especially the one involving the risk of physical injury.

    Some parents are so defensive to preserve their own reputations among other equally defensive adults that all those adults act in a way that has the effect of a conspiracy of deeply hating children as such, and of having a jump-to-judgement hair trigger. Some of the more resilient children may feel little effect, and so be thought of as ‘good’, while some of the less resilient may find themselves despised by parents and siblings alike.

    On a slightly different note, I really hated that scene in the old Swiss Family Robinson movie in which it seemed to me that Ernst’s hurt feelings were simply and happily made light of by the whole family. They continued laughing and dancing as if partly at him, as if suddenly he was not one of them and didn’t mean anything to them except as object of happy derision.

    Of course, there’s sometimes just the more-or-less ‘isolated’ hate-go-round, like ‘the old man who hates kids because they hate him because he hates them.’

  • 6, 5, and 4 Months: Justus | Keren Threlfall December 4, 2012 at 5:03 am

    […] could just be recency bias (or just us doing various things differently), but, of our children so far, Justus seems to be the […]

  • The ups and downs of parenting March 21, 2013 at 2:01 am

    […] all parenting is like this. My friend thoroughly and helpfully explains how recency bias applies to parenting. In a nutshell, we often take one good day and think we are sailing through parenting. Or, we have […]

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