Feedback Loops in Parenting

I recently read a great article in Wired Magazine about feedback loops and it got me thinking about how we can use them in parenting. See excerpt below:

“In 2003, officials in Garden Grove, California, a community of 170,000 people wedged amid the suburban sprawl of Orange County, set out to confront a problem that afflicts most every town in America: drivers speeding through school zones.

Local authorities had tried many tactics to get people to slow down. They replaced old speed limit signs with bright new ones to remind drivers of the 25-mile-an-hour limit during school hours. Police began ticketing speeding motorists during drop-off and pickup times. But these efforts had only limited success, and speeding cars continued to hit bicyclists and pedestrians in the school zones with depressing regularity.

So city engineers decided to take another approach. In five Garden Grove school zones, they put up what are known as dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs: a speed limit posting coupled with a radar sensor attached to a huge digital readout announcing “Your Speed.”

The signs were curious in a few ways. For one thing, they didn’t tell drivers anything they didn’t already know—there is, after all, a speedometer in every car. If a motorist wanted to know their speed, a glance at the dashboard would do it. And the Your Speed signs came with no punitive follow-up—no police officer standing by ready to write a ticket. This defied decades of law-enforcement dogma, which held that most people obey speed limits only if they face some clear negative consequence for exceeding them.

The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit.”

–Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, Wired Magazine


Photo Credit: Flickr User, Pioneer Library System

The speed signs actually initiate a feedback loop for drivers. A feedback loop is like a thermostat, it gets information from the outside (like the temperature in a room) and then regulates itself to fix the problem (turns on the air conditioning or heat) until the desired effect is reached. Drivers are told their speed and then they slow down. The sign, instead of punishing people, helps them self-regulate. Isn’t this one of the most important principles parents try to teach their kids? Parents want their kids to self-regulate bad behavior instead of being punished or told what to do.

A feedback loop is made up of four parts:

  1. Evidence: You must get information or data on the behavior. (This is the driver’s speed with the new traffic signs or the current temperature for a thermostat)
  2. Relevance: The evidence must be presented in a way that it is important. (For drivers they can see their speed is above the posted limit, for a thermostat the temperature is below or above the set temperature).
  3. Consequence: The information has to trigger an internal consequence. (For the drivers they think they might get a ticket or get in an accident on a curvy road if they are going above the limit)
  4. Action: The consequence of the evidence should be enough for the person (or item) to take action. (Person slowing down, thermostat turning on the air conditioning).

The most important part of feedback loops is that we are not trying to control people, rather we are giving them control. This is an essential part of the process for teens and parents. Think of a speed trap versus a traffic sign. With a speed trap the driver feels ‘caught’ by the police. With the traffic sign, we are reminded of a rational goal and our own reasons to stick to it. We want to give teenagers the power to self-correct and take parents out of the ‘policing’ position.

How can you use feedback loops as a parent to help teens follow houserules and self-regulate? One are feedback loops are great in is technology usage. I know many parents and kids fight about how much time they are spending playing on the computer. Typically the child is playing on the computer and Mom or Dad comes in every once in a while to remind them to stop playing or ask how long they have been on the computer. Mom and Dad are police and the child has no reason to self-regulate if they know Mom or Dad are coming in. This is where feedback loops come in great.

Your teenagers are eventually going to be on their own, they also need to be able to self-regulate when you are out all day and they are left to play on their devices without anyone checking on them. If you continue in the pattern of coming in to police them they will spend days home alone playing until their eyes bleed and enter college spending all of their time online.

You can set-up a feedback loop by downloading a program onto the computers that simply dictates the amount of time your teenager is spending on certain activities. An example of a program like this is Stay Focused or Rescue Time which simply keep record of all the time you spend on Facebook or online games and can alert you when you go past a certain amount of hours. This will not work every time–as with drivers, they only slowed down about 14% of the time. But it does take parents out of the policing role and put kids in the self-regulatory role. They must learn how to do this on their own.

There are other products that help harness the power of Feedback loops. The Orb, is a translucent sphere that turns different colors to reflect different what you want updates about. If your GPA goes down, it might glow red; if it rains, it might glow blue. There is also GlowCap which goes on top of a standard pill bottle and pulses when patients need to take medications. It will even begin to play a melody after a few minutes of being ignored. Eventually if it is still not opened, the patient receives a text message or a recorded phone call reminding them to take their pill. This is a great feedback loop.

These devices were also featured by Wired:

  • “Belkin Conserve InsightConserver Better Belkin makes a simple plug-in device that measures the power consumed by any appliance. It then translates that into cash burned and carbon emitted. The idea is to help consumers budget their energy use by showing them how much their electronics cost.
  • GreenRoadDrive Better GreenRoad’s in-vehicle display uses GPS and accelerometers to let drivers spot and correct risky or fuel- inefficient driving habits in real time. Red, yellow, and green lights on the dash warn drivers when they’re making too many dangerous moves—like accelerating into turns or stopping suddenly. (The data is also posted online so supervisors can review employees’ driving and see if certain routes or shifts are more hazardous for their drivers.)
  • GreenGooseLiver Better GreenGoose uses wireless sensors and simple game mechanics to encourage behaviors like brushing your teeth, riding your bike, and walking your dog. Users get points as rewards for their everyday actions and bonus points for consistency. Starting this fall, people will be able to use those points in simple online games.”
It is in our human nature to improve and this is why feedback loops work so well. They tell us what we are doing wrong and how we can do better. Empowering your children to self-regulate and take their progress into their own hands is one of the best skills you can give them.











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