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Have you ever found yourself staring up at the night sky and trying to make out the constellations, like the ancient Greeks? Maybe you can figure out where Orion and his belt is or tried to figure out which stars make up the Big Dipper. Perhaps you’ve cloud watched with your kids and pointed out rabbits, castles, and other strange shapes? Or maybe, you’ve spotted the man in the moon looking down on you?

We all have. But the stars that make up the constellations aren’t actually connected to each other or sometimes even near each other in the dark reaches of space. The clouds are really just dry air mixed with water drops and ice particles that happen to look like something familiar. And, of course, there is no man in the moon.

Yet, we as humans are drawn to create patterns even where there is none. We do this when we see Kate Middleton’s face on a jelly bean or create the mythos of the Bermuda Triangle (did you know that statistically there have been no more disappearances in that area of the world than any other? We have a natural need to create order in our lives because it helps us move about the world and make decisions.

As parents, we do this constantly. We look at our children’s behavior and attempt to analyze it, find patterns, and draw conclusions from it. It is almost a desperate need to see connections, even if there aren’t any.

Why Do We See Parenting Patterns?

Humans have an almost innate need to see meaning in the seemingly random. We make assumptions about what we think might be happening and our assumptions are often wrong. Guessing about what might happen may have kept us safe from lions in the African savannah millennia ago, but it causes problems for us now.

The problem is that we’re not good with probability. We see meaning in abnormality rather than assuming that it is just a bunch of randomness. This is why we get so excited when one of our kids suddenly does his chores without being asked or remembered to bring home her lunch box when neither of these events ever happens with any frequency. We start thinking about what we did differently to create this circumstance and then try to recreate it. Yes, a new system might be at hand, but it’s just as likely that the lunch box came home because the teacher put it in her bag.

Problems with Probability

Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote about how Israeli generals during the Yom Kippur War desperately wanted to understand why one squadron of planes had been more successful than others. The generals proposed a crazy variety of potential reasons from the color underpants the pilots wore to the amount of time that they had seen their families. The problem was that the difference was as likely or even more likely to just have been random chance.

At the end of the day, we do a lousy job of figuring out things like frequency and probability which means we often make the wrong assumption about things. It’s why the shuffle feature on your iTunes music isn’t actually random because if it was, the likelihood exists that you could listen to Baby Shark over and over again instead of it appearing only once in a while.

Questioning Parenting Patterns

So, how do we know if, to paraphrase Freud when a cigar is just a cigar or when it means something deeper?

Many times, we just don’t. Pointing out these clustering illusions, as coined by psychologist Thomas Gilovich, is often best done by another person which means we can fill this role for our parenting partners and friends. Finding parenting patterns when there may not be is something that we need to be aware of.

It also means we can serve that role for our children as well. When they end up in tears because a friend didn’t sit with them for two days in a row, we can carefully challenge some of their irrational assumptions by being aware that streaks and clusters appear in random distributions. We can help them look for data that kicks them out of negative thinking and moves them into more rational thought.