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4 Quirky Things Your Brain Does That Sabotage Your Parenting Good Intentions (and How to Fix It)

4 Quirky Things Your Brain Does That Keep You From Becoming a Great Parent(This article is part of our series on self awareness)

Do you know exactly what your brain is up to at this very moment?

The more I read about psychology and neuroscience research, the more I realize this — most of us “regular” people know less about all the crazy, quirky things our brains do than an estranged parent knows about what her teenage son or daughter is doing at 10:00pm on a Friday night!

A lot of this complication arises because of the way our brains developed. A part of it is a relic from the early prehistoric days when survival depended on how quick and instinctive our response was. Another part it is a sophisticated thinking machine that takes its time to consider the options and rationally decide our next move. In any given situation, which part of your brain takes over is anybody’s guess.

Today, let’s explore a few of the quirky things our brains do that sabotage our parenting good intentions and find ways to fix them. Here we go -

#1 It Takes Very Little to Make Your Smart Brain Crumble and Give up Self-Control

In a study reported in this Wall Street Journal article, two groups of students were given a simple task of memorizing a number as they walked down a hallway. The first group was given a simple 2-digit number whereas the second group was given a 7-digit number. At the other end of the hall, the students were offered a snack – a choice between a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

The researchers observed that the students who were asked to hold the 7-digit number in their head were nearly twice as likely to choose chocolate cake compared to the students who held the 2-digit number!

The researchers hypothesize that the extra digits of the random number being held in the working memory of the second group resulted in a “cognitive load” on their brain making it much harder for them to resist the lure of a decadent piece of cake. Imagine that! All it took was 5 extra digits.

Now think of a day in your life and mine. As parents, we have a million things on our minds. And we have a million resolutions – stop yelling at kids, be a positive influence on them and so on. But before we know it we are snapping away at our kids and being too critical of them. Perhaps, it is the result of the million bits of information that we trying to hang on to?

The Fix:

Don’t try to hold too much information in your brain. Get into the habit of dumping it onto a to-do list and use this list to guide you through the different things you need to get done in your day. This is in fact one of the first bits of advice that Dr. David Rock, the renowned neuroscientist offers in his bestselling book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long!

#2 No Matter How Strong You are You Cannot Will Yourself Out of a Negative Thought

Let’s try a simple experiment. For just a few moments, let your mind wander and give it the freedom to think of anything in the world. You can pick absolutely anything. The only condition is that you CANNOT think of of a white bear. Ready? Go.

So, did you manage to NOT think of the white bear?

In an experiment that has now become famous as the “white bear” experiment and spawned off a whole field of study on thought suppression, social psychologist Dr. Daniel Wegner showed that study participants who were explicitly asked to NOT think of a white bear couldn’t keep themselves from thinking about it. What’s more, at the end of the thought suppression part, when they were asked to start thinking of the white bear, the number of times they thought of the white bear was significantly higher than the control group who were not asked to suppress the thought first.

Dr. Wegner explained our failure to suppress thoughts as follows – when we try not to think of a specific thought we trigger a monitor process in our brain that comes up periodically to make sure that our brain does not think of this thought, thus ironically bringing up the thought being suppressed to the forefront.

Well, at least now we know why a small negative thought like self-doubt about our parenting skills snowballs into a nasty storm and results in us snapping and screaming at our kids a lot more! Or why once we start worrying about our kids future sometimes, we just can’t seem to stop!

The Fix:

Get into the habit of mindfulness. When a negative thought enters your mind, instead of trying to suppress it, acknowledge it. You are a normal person, and given the set of circumstances you are in, you had a normal thought. That’s that. Observe your thought without evaluation or judgement. When you don’t have to suppress a thought, there is no need for a monitor process in the brain to keep firing up and unintentionally bringing the thought to the forefront.

Another way that Dr. Wegner suggests for getting rid of an unwanted thought is to crowd it out. When the participants in a study were asked to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear, they were much more successful in keeping the thoughts of the white bear at bay because they were focused on the red Volkswagen.

Finally, if none of these work postpone your negative thoughts. Dr. Wegner’s research showed that when people set aside a certain time later in the day dedicated for “worrying” they worried a lot less through the rest of the day!!!

#3 Multitasking Makes Your Brain Happy, But Makes You Inefficient

The human brain was not designed for multi-tasking. As this article shows, when researchers used fMRI to study the brains of subjects who were given two simple tasks, each hemisphere of the brain took on the goal of monitoring the completion of one task. When a third task was added to the mix however, since there are just two hemispheres in the brain, the participants started to show inefficiencies even though the tasks were rather simple — they forgot one of the tasks consistently and were three times more likely to make errors compared to dual-tasking.

Another study reported in this article showed that multitasking can muddle the brain significantly indicating that chronic multi-taskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and their brains had trouble filtering these irrelevant information from those relevant to task at hand.

These are just two of the many, many studies in the recent past that have showed that multi-tasking is extremely counterproductive. And yet, we can’t seem to help ourselves from falling into the trap of wanting to do it again. Ever wondered why?

A recent study shows that while multitasking does not make us productive, it does satisfy some of our baser habitual and emotional needs. Based on a study of students who read a book and watched TV at the same time, researcher Dr. Wang said “They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained.” In other words, multi-tasking makes dull tasks more entertaining and fun, and the brain find this “feel-good” emotion satisfying.

Think of it – when we parents feel overwhelmed and start to feel that things are slipping out of our hands, we feel a desperate need to take back some control. Multitasking is an easy habit to reach out to and fools the brain into feeling good because we are juggling so many things at the same time. Never mind that none of those things were done right and may in fact be be causing more work for us down the road!

The Fix:

Acknowledge that multitasking is a bad habit with bad consequence and figure out a way to break free. You could go cold turkey like this guy did, or you could slowly wean yourself off. I don’t think I would last even a single day going cold turkey – just reading the article linked above make me break out in cold sweat (even though it’s laugh-out-loud funny!). For now I’m focusing on chunks of multi-task free periods — for example, no multi-tasking when I write or during family mealtimes.

Another suggested method to stop multitasking is to get into the habit of meditation to improve the ability of your brain to focus on one thing without getting distracted by another. Honestly, I don’t think I’m cut out for meditation. I’ve tried it several times, and failed miserably. My mind probably stays still for whole of 3 microseconds before I’m off planning the next day or dissecting an earlier conversation. I’ve recently started using the HeadSpace app and it seems to be helping. Will let you know how that goes.

#4 Your Brain Seeks More Choice, But More Choice Actually Kills Your Brains Ability to Decide

Let’s say at an upscale grocery store, shoppers are tempted to sample some jams. When some of the shoppers arrive at the display table, there are 6 jams to choose from. With the other shoppers, the display table has 24 jams to choose from. At the end of jam tasting, they are all provided a $1 coupon to apply towards the purchase of a jar of jam. Who do you think is more likely to buy the jam – those who were offered 6 samples or those who were offered 24 samples?

In our modern society, choice is viewed as the proof of exalted levels of the freedom we enjoy. We worship choice and seek it out. But as discussed in this TED talk when Dr. Sheena Iyengar and Dr. Mark Lepper conducted the above experiment, they found that while more people were tempted to stop by to sample the jams when there were more jams – 60% vs 40%, the percentages of people who bought the jams said a completely different story. Among those who stopped at the 6 jam booth, 30% decided to buy a jar of jam. Among the ones who stopped at 24 jams, only 3% did. When people were provided more choice, it turns out they take less action.

Gosh, if you’ve killed an entire hour looking for the perfect wetsuit for your daughter, you know exactly how painful choice overload can be. And at the end of that 1 hour, I still couldn’t decide and ended up buying the exact same wetsuit that my husband had sent me the link to in the first place! (Then I spent the next two hours frantically multi-tasking to make up for that lost hour. Ha!).

Ever since my daughter was born, I’ve wasted countless hours browsing Amazon — poring over the reviews and comparison shopping — to find just the right thing that we need, from diapers and strollers to children’s books and birthday toys! If only I’d had the sense to spend that time with her instead!

The Fix:

Be ruthless about trimming down your choices. Avoid comparison shopping if possible — these days I just ask someone I know who has something similar and just go buy what they recommend without worrying too much. If you must comparison shop — here is a neat little trick. Set a timer that indicates a fixed deadline by which you need to make a decision and then as you shop put the first item you like in the cart. As you continue browsing, if you find something else that seems better, replace the item in the cart with this one and so on. When the timer runs out, hit buy and be done with it. No looking back. Case closed.

In Conclusion…

While I was putting together this article I found so many other fascinating studies and research that it blew my mind (no pun intended). I’ll write about it in another article soon. From the self-awareness perspective, these are some of the critical ones and I hope at least a couple of them will help you improve your life in some meaningful way.

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

As always take the next 2 minutes to answer some simple questions -

  • Think of the last time you broke a resolve of any kind. Was your brain overloaded with too much information?
  • How do you normally handle negative thoughts? If you try to suppress them, does it work or does it only make the thought come up more often?
  • How often do you forget something important because you were multi-tasking too much?
  • Are you a sucker for too much choice? How quickly can you make a decision when you are offered a lot of options?

These questions are meant to get you thinking of how often your quirky brain sabotages your good intent. If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to hear how many of these are issues for you. Go ahead, start a discussion in the comments.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Through the rest of this week, let’s make it our goal to create habits that will offset at least one of these quirks. In my case, I will go with the multi-tasking and really try to focus on just one (or at most two) things at a time, as often as possible. Of particular interest to me, is the time I spend writing for this blog and the time I spend with my family.


[* This article contains affiliate links, which means that if you decide to buy something using the link, I get paid a tiny referral fee. If that bothers you, please type in the text of the link into Google and proceed from there - no harm, no foul. If you do decide to buy through my affiliate link, well, thank you! :) ]

4 Quirky Things Your Brain Does That Sabotage Your Parenting Good Intentions (and How to Fix It) by

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  1. Anand Gupta says:

    A very informative article on how our brain functions. So, basically, what we call as stress is nothing but a consequence of either multi tasking or we are replete with choices, which slows down our decision making process. Very good work. Please keep it up.

    • Sumitha says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Anand! It’s amazing how our brain works, isn’t it? You summarized it well… while those two things may not be the only reasons causing us stress, it looks like those two are definitely at the top of the list!

  2. Geeta Krishnan says:

    Hi Sumitha,
    Well done. A very good eye-opening article. I would like to thank you that at the time when I am thinking of working towards becoming a better parent, you are actually confirming that I have been walking on the right track already.

    I did ponder for more than 2 minutes on those questions put up by you. Over the years of being a parent [19 years of parenting and almost 12-14 years of being hands-on aunt to my nieces and nephews i.e. about 30 years of observing behaviour of parents and children ], to some extent, I am able to push the negative thoughts aside and if at all it persists, I use it only to help me in fixing up the loop holes towards achieving the desired results. For example: Even though I had this negative thought that my daughter may not score very well in some of the entrance exams, I focused on applying for 2-3 more colleges, so that she could ultimately achieve through her own merit.

    As regards multi-tasking, it is totally unavoidable for a mother who has to work full time outside home, involving long commute ( 4 hours to and fro office-home) and at the same time fulfill social, family and domestic obligations. That is when your suggestion of noting down /making to do list comes in handy. In fact making of a to-do-list too involves multi-tasking. Nevertheless, multitasking is a strict no-no at meal times with family and friends and during eye to eye contact conversations with children.

    Last but not the least, yes, I agree, the lesser the choices/ options available, the easier to decide and go for it. Over the years, myself and my husband have got acquainted with people from all walks of life right from the cobbler, milkman, tailor and grocer to investment advisors, career counsellors and medical professionals and with their real practical guidance, we never have to do the ground work for any of our requirements. So decision about a choice becomes lot more easier and really saves time on issues about which we are not masters.

    At this juncture, at the cost of a lengthy comment, I would give credit for the aspects such as consistency in terms of residence, job and family values and tradition, simplicity of wants and developing a feeling of contentment helps in living a stress-free life.

    • Sumitha says:

      Thanks for your kind encouragement and the very insightful comment, Geeta!

      There are a lot of nuggets of wisdom in your comment that I really relished, but the point about the value of social relationships you’ve built over the years and how they help you eliminate choice overload really stood out to me. I sometimes struggle with social networking and have started to realize how important it is and I’m consciously trying to improve myself at it now. It’s slow going, but well worth the effort. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Sarah says:

    Dearest Sumitha,
    Thankyou for sharing such a useful insight..i am definitely going to try these methods.. i have been very successful in getting rid of the negative thoughts and am proud to help my friends and family do that too….but i am the worst example of multitasking..
    i have been teaching for the past 10 years and simply love it, yet i have my own set of toddlers, the only way i get things done is by multitasking…i agree its not an efficient way but targets are achieved…how can i tell the brain to relax and concentrate on one thing?!…im always in a rush and everyone who knows me appreciates my speediness……but believe me sumitha,,i know how i get things done,.i want to slow down… especially for my family..i am even multitasking with the ones i love…imagine…

    • Sumitha says:

      Hi, Sarah. I’m so happy to hear that you have been very successful in getting rid of negative thoughts! I would love for you to share some tips with us if you get a chance.

      About multitasking, it’s a hard habit to beat. Even though I’m trying to apply it only in short bursts (only while I am writing, or while I am with family to start with), I still find that the urge to get something done in the background is almost irresistible! I almost burnt our dinner last night because I put the food on the stove to warm up, and sat down at the laptop to “quickly check something” and got sucked in :) That said, if you can overcome negative thoughts, you can beat this habit too… you just need to set your mind to it. I look forward to hearing your success story soon of how you have aced single/dual tasking :) Good luck!

  4. Geeta Krishnan says:

    hi sumitha and sarah,
    It was really nice reading your posts. To get rid of negative thoughts – is indeed a great achievement in itself.
    As regards multitasking – I think it runs in our blood. It does gives us a high sometimes that we have been able to manage many things at a time and irks us to see a person who works slowly one thing at a time especially, when we are at the opposite side of the counter in a bank or at a shop.

    Today I feel the urge to share this with you young mothers – when we rush and speed at the time of nursing a baby or when a baby is down with fever, cough or cold/ sick or when we are all dressed up to leave and the baby has to attend to nature’s call, it really really affects the psychological / emotional quotient of the child. The child does carry the fear that I have to do this fast and soon, recover soon, so that mama can go to her work on time.
    I will not give examples on this issue (it may scare) but would earnestly request mothers all over the world to avoid multi-tasking while attending to new borns and children of all ages. It is their right for total attention from parents, do you agree?

    • Sumitha says:

      Totally agree, Geetha!

      Just taking your example of rushing your kids out the door, what I have noticed with my daughter is (a) if I rush her too much, she would rather not go potty before we leave because the pressure is too much and then I’m frantically looking for a public restroom at the most inconvenient moment or (b) she will get all flustered and *try* to multi-task like I do without actually getting anything done and slowing us down a lot more (it’s both funny and a tad bit sad to watch a 5-year old trying to put on her socks as she is trying to rush to the potty :) ) I wouldn’t be too surprised to find that if we keep pushing them, it will probably start affecting them more deeply at the emotional and psychological levels!

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