Leidy Klotz, a professor of engineering and architecture at the University of Virginia and father of two, and Yael Schonbrun, a clinical psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University and mother of three, have been paying less attention to their kids lately. And their kids, these parents are convinced, are better for it.

“I try to ignore them for a little bit of time each day,” said Schonbrun, whose children are 5, 9 and 12. “And when they complain that they’re bored, I say, ‘That’s terrific, what have you come up with?'”

By occasionally subtracting their attention from their children, Klotz and Schonbrun are putting into practice a lesson gleaned from research Klotz, whose children are 7 and 3, has been conducting over the past few years: It’s human nature to tend to solve problems by adding, even when subtracting would provide an objectively better outcome.

Klotz and his colleagues came to that conclusion through a series of creative experiments published in the journal Nature, which involved tasks such as fixing a Lego structure (removing a brick was the best solution), arranging a vacation itinerary (more about that below) or trying to make a pattern of squares symmetrical (the key was erasing squares, not adding them). But it wasn’t until he made a desperate late-night purchase of a rocking contraption to soothe his newborn baby that Klotz came face to face with how the tendency affects parenting.

When she heard about the purchase, Schonbrun, who met Klotz through her podcast, “Psychologists Off the Clock,” pointed out that he had fallen into the very trap he had researched: His instinctive approach to solving the problem of a crying infant and tired dad was to add another baby gadget rather than focusing on, say, a consistent sleep schedule.

The fact that parents often do too much at the expense of their children’s independence and a calmer home life isn’t a unique insight. There are less-is-more books out there such as “The Good Enough Parent” or “Hunt, Gather, Parent,” and “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” There are experts who advocate “minimalist parenting,” or tell parents they should give their children less praise, less attention, fewer activities and fewer toys. Research consistently shows a correlation between over-involved parents and young adults with issues such as school burnout, inability to regulate their emotions, and anxiety and depression.

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But Klotz’s research, which is also outlined in his 2021 book “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less,” helps us understand the reasons parents often do too much in a scientific way — and as a natural tendency rather than a parental failing. He and Schonbrun, author of the upcoming “Work, Parent, Thrive: 12 Science-Backed Strategies to Ditch Guilt, Manage Overwhelm, and Grow Connection (When Everything Feels Like Too Much),” also have some granular advice for resisting the urge.

An evolutionary benefit

First, it helps to understand why humans have developed this mental shortcut. One theory is that doing so offered evolutionary benefit — more food, more companions, more focus on children would increase the odds of a family’s survival. And as civilizations developed, “adding has been the better way,” Klotz said. “When you don’t have a road, when you don’t have a building, you don’t have any kind of educational opportunities for your kids, adding that makes sense.”

Schonbrun said that there is also a possible psychological reason for the propensity to add: humans’ eagerness to avoid uncertainty. “When we get really uncomfortable,” she said, “we want to develop a sense of certainty,” which we might try to do by adding something to secure our desired outcomes — whether it’s gathering more food so our children won’t starve or signing them up for more activities in the hope that they’ll get into Harvard.

In addition to evolutionary and psychological imperatives, there might be modern cultural influences at work as well, Schonbrun said. “We’ve really evolved into this culture of more is better … more parenting, more culture, more cultivating your kids’ interests, more activities, more diverse foods, talking to them more, you know, just more of everything.”

Addition in parenting

While being in thrall to additive solutions is a propensity that humans have generally, Klotz and Schonbrun suspect that it’s also one that parents, who are often under pressure and overwhelmed, especially might fall victim to. One of Klotz’s experiments showed that people operating under a heavier cognitive load are more likely to rely on mental shortcuts and miss opportunities to subtract.

When overwhelmed parents can’t see options to subtract, one result is overscheduling, he said. “We so often think of what are our to-dos, what are the things that we should be doing, and very rarely think about what we can stop doing. And so, over time, we’ve just got more and more and more on our plates.”

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This tendency was painfully demonstrated by the experiment in which participants were asked to improve an itinerary for a day trip in Washington, D.C. The itinerary as presented was essentially unworkable because it contained 14 activities that required travel time of two hours (without traffic). Yet only 1 in 4 participants removed an activity.

Whether it’s a vacation or weeks jam-packed with school and sports and activities, “we end up not having a very rich experience at all because we’re stressed out and overwhelmed,” Schonbrun said. “And yet because of that overwhelm and because of that systematic neglect of subtracting … we often find ourselves in that position. That is sort of the plight of the modern parent, I think.”

Tips for subtracting

So what can parents do to arrest this tendency to overschedule their families until they are overwhelmed?

Be aware. “You can’t change a behavior unless you know that you’re engaged in it, because the awareness needs to come first before it comes, especially if it’s something that you’re doing habitually,” Schonbrun said.

Remind yourself that you can subtract. When the researchers instructed some participants in the experiments that they could add or subtract, those participants were more likely to see the advantageous subtractive changes. Once you start looking for them, it’s hard to not see aspects of modern parenting that could be subtracted: goody bags, sports snacks, participation trophies, making lunches, folding laundry, fretting about picky eaters.

Klotz suggests putting reminders into place at the times that you make decisions — about schedules, for example, or household rules. When writing out a weekly to-do list, for example, challenge yourself to remove some of the items, he said. “Then you’re getting past that first barrier of not thinking about subtraction,” he said.

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Keep in mind that saying no is not subtracting. “Even when you say no to something … that’s not relieving your overwhelm,” Klotz said. “That’s just preventing it from being added to.”

Think about your core values when making decisions about what to subtract. Schonbrun says questions to ask yourself can include: “What does this mean to me? What does it stand for? What’s the reason that I do that?” If the activity you are engaging in does not reflect your values and, furthermore, makes your life more stressed and hectic, it may be time to drop it.

Don’t think you can never add. “I think the key thing here is that we want people to consider both options in all cases,” Klotz said. Schonbrun agreed: “Being able to really reflect on should I add or should I subtract given how I want to be building my life is really a helpful thing to be deliberately contemplating.”