What does parenting have in common with Newton’s Laws of Motion and Tzu’s “The Art of War”

In a recent post, we discussed a key principle of Newton’s 3rd law of motion which can be applied to how we approach our children.

Newton’s third law: “When a first body exerts a force F1 on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force F2 = −F1 on the first body. This means that F1 and F2 are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.” Your kids can certainly exert force enough to match your biggest push.

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So how do we discipline our children, teach them life lessons, and try to get them to do stuff around the house? Strategy. And, this is why a review of some battle tactics outlined in the “Art of War” can be very helpful. Basically, we want to get our kids to do homework, chores, etc. while not overtly exerting our will (F1), because our kids (F2) will resist in equal measure.

Please allow for some liberal interpretation…

Tzu said, “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.”  We need to make sure our kids really understand what they must do and how they must do it.

“He who relies solely on warlike measures shall be exterminated; he who relies solely on peaceful measures shall perish.”  A couple of themes come to mind here.  ‘All bark-no bite,’ and ‘all carrot-no stick,’ for example.  As parents, we can not go ballistic on all transgressions, both big and small.  The intended effect will become diluted.  Also, threats and aggressive tone without promise of reward will increasingly become futile over time.



In a way, I think Tzu was so effective because he was flexible in his strategy.  “…when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believer we are near.”

I am not advocating waging mental warfare on our children, and I am not implying that our kids are the enemy.  However, the results we want can be obtained by playing our ‘hand’ differently than predicted.  In fact, the mere fact that we can be unpredictable will give an advantage in procuring desired results.

“Feign disorder, and crush [him].”  Well, we don’t want to crush anybody.  We just want teeth brushed, clothes picked up, back-packs packed, homework done on time, dinner plates cleared, etc.

In my opinion, the key to successful behavior modification lies in the risk-reward trade-off.  As Tzu aptly observed hundreds of years ago, “Rewards are necessary in order to make the soldiers see the advantage of beating the enemy…”  For them, the enemy is chores, homework, going to bed at a reasonable hour, and (of course) constantly being told what to do by general mom or dad…





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