Kids scream in your face, vomit on your top, and stare you dead in the eye as they visibly shit themselves. Then ask for a hug. In any other relationship that’d be enough red flags to turn Earth into Mars. In parenting it’s Tuesday. But bulk fluid ejection isn’t even nearly the worst problem inflicted on carers. Puddles of goo are psychologically simple: you know there’s a problem, and you know the kid didn’t enjoy it either. You’re doing more work but it’s a shared problem, not asymmetric warfare.

The sneakier psychological problem is input lag: when a kid completely ignores your instructions for a while. If an adult just stands there blatantly ignoring everything you say then that’s the superstring theory of calculated insults, gigantically wasted effort on your part with absolutely no measurable results. In professional wrestling someone just ignoring another person means one or both of them are about to be slammed through a table. Infuriation bubbles up below your conscious thought like magma below Pompeii and with similar effects on how nice a day everyone is having.

But here’s the thing: the kid doesn’t know any of those words. The kid’s never even heard of those concepts. The first and most important thing about being upset by a small child is that you’re being upset by yourself, because of all the other pressures and plans your brain maintains as well as the tiny person. You’re losing a battle of wits to someone who hasn’t grown any yet.

Your thoughts are circuitry forged and programmed by decades of effort. Their mental material is still firework plasma. They’re still reacting to everything, everywhere, internal thoughts as well as external factors. Your brain is eighty billion neurons wired into the most sophisticated computation system in the entire universe. Theirs is still eighty billion light switches flicking on and off in the world’s most distracting rave. It can take a while for someone to push through that! But if you start a fight instead you won’t get anywhere. Better to appreciate the vibes while you’re there, that way you’ll get a better feel for how to get through and might even enjoy this free trip through a funner and much simpler world. 

For example: a kid might technically understand the sentence “we have to get ready to go to town”, in that they can repeat those words back to you. But they don’t know why that’s important, or why you need to buy food before going to the office, or why you need to get to work NOW, or at all, or why you’re getting so upset instead of playing in all this awesome mud.

This is the input lag. And it is often lag – it just takes a while to push through to the result. Driving through mud means shifting gear and being more careful, not flooring the accelerator and screaming.

Luckily the solution is the same as the problem: you can think way more and faster than them. That’s meant to be an advantage, not a way of annoying yourself! You already have all kinds of complicated systems running in your head. The whole point of parenting is providing those for a kid until they grow their own. Hopefully helping them grow the right ones along the way.

Don’t treat a delaying kid as a disobedient enemy, but as a cute little alien you find at the start of the movie: talking to them at all is a big deal, take time to encourage them, just stick them in something with wheels and get moving if things are really urgent. And understand that all your patient effort will be rewarded when they later display terrifying new powers.

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