What's in my Child's Future?

Are you curious and open to an uncertain future?

Posted Nov 23, 2011

During a recent coaching session with a parent of a three-year old, the mother shared the following:

"I thought we had seen the worst of my son's behavior, but I got a call today from his preschool.  They told me to come pick him up because he had punched another child on the playground. If he is acting like this at the age of three, I can only imagine what this means for him later in life."   

These words from a client illustrate how we construct mental simulations of our child's experiences.   Something happens in the present moment and we think about what this means later on down the road.   It starts early.  We make predictions about when our babies will start walking based on their strength and agility when they are an eight-month old-"She'll be walking in no time!"  We discuss what they will be when they grow up based on their skills, interest and abilities now - "Look at her hand-eye coordination.  She'll make a great surgeon."  They misbehave and we think of the lasting impact it will have on their adolescent and adult development- "She's gonna be a handful as a teenager."  We want to know for certain, what this all means for the future. 

What is the value, if any, of looking forward?   Martin Seligman and other luminaries in the field of Positive Psychology have developed a science predicated on being pulled by the future, leading to a Flourishing life.  At a recent conference at The University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Seligman spoke about prospecting  and the fact that human beings not only have a more sophisticated brain structure in the development of the frontal lobe, but we also have a more advanced operating system.  Scientists have observed a default function in the brain when, even in states of mindfulness and meditation, consistently think about the future and action-consequence tendencies. Simply stated, human beings repeatedly think about "If X then Y" and make mental simulations of the imagined future.   Being pulled by the future and remaining open and curious about the possibilities of what could be- whether positive or negative - is very different from the certainty that lies within being able to predict or control the future.

Dan Gilbert , author of Stumbling On Happiness writes that at some point between our high chairs and our rocking chairs we learn about "later".  Sometime over the last three million years, as homo sapiens evolved from primates to protohumans, the human brain doubled in mass over a two million year period, growing from a brain weighing one and a quarter pounds to the three-pound Homo Sapien brain.  The bulk of the growth settled in the front of the head, in an area known as the frontal lobe, which is the powerhouse of future-thinking.  And why does the future matter?  Human beings want to predict and control the future because we want to know the likelihood of something happening so that we can do something about it.  Our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.  That is the purpose of our frontal lobe, endowing us with the ability to look into the future, so that we can make predictions about it, so that we can control it. Exercising control is gratifying because it is fulfilling a basic human need of autonomy. 

But what are the drawbacks?  When predicting the future, people experience illusions of foresight.  We are not skeptical enough of the future and we inaccurately predict how we will feel when the future becomes the present.   Our forecasts can be "fearcasts" whose purpose is not to predict the future, but to prohibit it, leading people to engage in preventative thinking.  As Gilbert says, "We sometimes imagine a dark future just to scare our own pants off." Think about the experience of welcoming your first child.  Most parents imagine an uncomplicated pregnancy, a smooth delivery, a healthy baby, and a natural transition to parenthood.  What actually occurs in real-time with each of these experiences can be quite different from what we had predicted, showing that our future thinking can be faulty. 

What affect does predicting the future have on overall well-being and happiness?  The need for control and certainty dilutes our sense of curiosity and openness.  When we seek certainty or predictability, we seek closure or finality.  When we explore and discover, we seek novelty, uncertainty and unpredictability.  The process that Todd Kashdan describes in his book Curious is that curiosity leads to exploration, which leads to discovery, which leads to further exploration, which leads to building skills and knowledge and expanding ourselves, which ultimately fulfills another important psychological need- competence.  Conversely, being in control and predicting the future leads to stagnation and rigid thinking.  Curiosity leads to expansion and certainty leads to finality. 

Will my client's three-year-old end up in jail for aggravated assault?  Probably not, especially since my client is reaching out for help now, but who knows?  As a curious explorer, I'll say that parents like my client who are guided by the goals and values of their desired future will make deliberate and conscious choices now that engender the resilience and flexibility that it takes to live in a dynamic world.  Parents who are pulled by future possibilities will realistically forecast positive and negative experiences, adopt an extensive and expansive view of parenting and realize that the best thing they can do for their child's future is to be flexible and adaptive in present-day experiences.