Reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a game-changer for parents and caregivers.

The book shares a radical way of conceiving how we process information, based on decades of psychological research conducted by the author and his partner. The key principle is this: we have two primary ways of thinking: fast and slow.

• Fast thinking is based on schemas we have built in our minds: patterns of what we have experienced and therefore expect, without really “thinking” too much. Examples are: driving to a place we visit often (school, work, grocery store, etc.), brushing our teeth in the morning, or making a favorite, basic meal (pasta or cereal, for example). We can often do other tasks (or think about other things) while we engage in fast-thinking activities. We don’t need to think much about how we do these activities, they are semi-automatic, and we expect the result to be unchanged each time. Fast-thinking also includes attitudes we have about other people in specific situations – stereotypes we carry with us in our minds. We create mental systems: schemas and stereotypes, based on this type of thinking.

• Slow thinking is the opposite: it is new information, careful calculations, that we need to focus on intently. Examples are: processing complicated math problems, navigating a new route somewhere (without GPS assistance), or learning a new program or recipe. We are virtually incapable of multi-tasking when we think slowly, and it is the key way of processing information that will challenge our stereotypes and expectations.

While most reading this book apply these principles to their social or professional lives, I find that parents and caregivers can all greatly benefit from applying the theories to their parenting. Here’s how:

Children are Slow-Thinkers.

Babies and young children don’t have the life-experience to have already established schemas and patterns that they have mastered. They cannot fast-think nearly ANYthing – from toothbrushing to putting on their jackets to eating a full meal at the table. Fast-thinking is based on practice, practice, practice. Children simply lack this practice and therefore take a LONG TIME to do the activities that we adults take for granted. And even once they know HOW to complete the task, they don’t have it mastered so that it’s second-nature (“fast-thinking”).

In reviewing my own personal motherhood experience, I find myself most often losing patience when I don’t “get” why it takes my child so long to complete an activity that s/he knows how to do. The child gets distracted, loses focus, and otherwise fails to complete the activity in the time-frame that a fast-thinking approach would deem appropriate. However, by applying the fast/slow-thinking principles, I am more mindful that children are not simply wired “differently” than me. Or being defiant or flighty. They simply haven’t repeated and practiced these skills enough to be habit and fast-thinking.

And there’s something else, too: slow-thinking is exclusionary. We can’t focus intently on more than one subject at a time. So, if a child is putting his/her shoes on, and someone interrupts him/her with a question, s/he must stop putting on the shoe, in order to answer the question.

So how does this affect parenting?

1. We must help our children focus and give them space/time to slow-think through their activities. We should either be silent or carefully remind them “this is the focus right now, not that” as the situation warrants.

2. We should plan our days accordingly. Slow-thinking takes time, and we tend to dismiss or underestimate the amount of time it takes children to process and/or complete an activity. It’s not just about “being patient,” it’s about planning for extra buffer time.

3. We can recognize our own fast- and slow-thinking patterns and keep ourselves in check. If a child is speaking to us while we are slow-thinking something, we should tell the child “wait, I’m focusing on something else right now,” rather than assume we can multi-task. Likewise, we may fall into fast-thinking attitudes and opinions of our children and should be careful to slow down and consider that children grow and change. What we quickly/mindlessly know our children to like or need today may not be true tomorrow, so we must allow ourselves the time to slow-think and carefully consider our stereotypes of our children as well (e.g. “he’s moody in the mornings” or “she’s terrible at spelling”).

There may be other ways that fast- and slow-thinking affects our children and our parenting – I welcome your comments and suggestions!

(Reprinted with permission from

Kira Nurieli is a certified mediator, conflict coach, workshop facilitator and consultant. She helps clients create breakthroughs in their workplace, classroom, family, and community dynamics.

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