07/12/2012 11:51 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

The Mathematics of Parenting


As a father of two young boys, I find it difficult to balance my children's physical safety requirements with my own desire to occasionally remain motionless. Yesterday, as I was lying in the hammock, my 5-year-old climbed the ladder of our decaying play set and began scooting across the top of the monkey bars on his butt. I've witnessed him have success with this, so even though it looked harrowing, I was 95% sure he would be fine. That 5% chance of disaster nagged at me enough that I yelled, "Careful up there!" which, of course, served no other purpose but to relieve me of some stress, and possibly distract him just enough to cause a slip-up. Had I noticed him having any real difficulty, I would have focused in and prepared to launch myself should he need me. There's an equation I believe all parents use (albeit subconsciously) to determine whether they're needed in situations like this. Think of it as a Pythagorean Theorem for caregivers.

(LI x SI)/CSC = KC

LI stands for "Likelihood of Injury" Scale - 1 to 100

SI is "Severity of Injury" Scale - 1 to 20

CSC is the parent's "Current State of Comfort" Scale - 1 to 100

KC stands for "Kinetic Concern" which is a variable I've created to measure the degree to which a parent is willing to expend energy in order to help his or her children. Anything above 1.0 should cause the caregiver to go into motion.

Let's use yesterday's monkey bar scooting situation as an example. There was a very low likelihood of injury (LI), combined with an elevated severity of injury (SI) and current state of comfort (CSC). It looked like this.

(5 x 14)/95 = 0.74

With a kinetic concern (KC) score of less than 1.0, it was perfectly reasonable for me to remain sedentary. But what if the monkey bars had been higher off the ground, and I was sitting on a chair instead of lying in a hammock? The likelihood of injury (LI) would remain the same, but with an increased severity of injury (SI) coupled with a decreased current state of comfort (CSC), the kinetic concern (KC) value would be much higher.

(5 x 17)/55 = 1.55

This is a clear call to action, and everyone knows it.

There is one frightening and common situation in which this equation fails us: when our children are out of our sight and very quiet. I'm not good at algebra, but here's what that equation might look like.

If LI and SI are both unknown, and only CSC is observable, can we still solve for KC? Let's try.

(LI x SI)/75 = SYNTAX ERROR - VC Required!

Don't panic. According to Dr. Spock, VC is an acronym for "Verbal Confirmation." In this case, the course of action is still relatively simple: Yell, "It's awfully quiet down there. Is everything OK?" If you don't receive a VC after three attempts, assume LI is over 80 and SI is at least 18. This means that even with a CSC of 100, the KC will be over 1, so you should leap off the toilet and make sure the kids aren't in the gross part of the basement playing with a bow and arrow.

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