Living amid a pandemic has given us all a lesson in managing risk and drawing upon multiple layers of safety. The reality is unless you have a medical-grade air compressor, you can’t ensure that the air you breathe is pure and free from contaminants. So you have to undertake several measures to improve your safety.
Each precaution, such as wearing a mask, disinfecting your hands, or observing a safe physical distance from other people, is not foolproof. They all have holes through with the coronavirus could potentially slip. By putting them together, you’re reducing the odds that the holes align.
This so-called ‘Swiss cheese model’ of safety may have risen to prominence among the general public owing to Covid-19. But it has been used for the last two decades to understand failure in complex systems and manage risk. Those lessons can be transferred to a similarly complex and even more commonplace challenge: safely raising a child in the modern age.
The problems of modern parenting
Simply making a living in today’s world is a significant challenge for many adults. Raising children amplifies that by several degrees. The stakes are much higher, and further constraints are imposed on your flexibility, financial resources, and ability to maintain a good work-life balance.
Even if both parents work, they are likely to find it difficult to earn enough to make ends meet without sacrificing more hours away from home. Career progress is often out of the question.
The alternative is to have one parent, often the mother, shoulder the burdens of full-time childcare. Neither option is perfect. And single parents don’t even have the luxury of choice. Alternatives such as paid childcare come with a corresponding cost.
On top of those considerations, new parents are now facing children’s safety issues that previous generations didn’t have to deal with. These include the dangers of screen time and navigating the internet and social media.
Due to the complexity and frequently shifting nature of these challenges, parenting today can be considered a wicked problem. There is no simple solution to the various issues that may arise. What works for one family may not work for another. And problems don’t stay solved but may crop up again in another guise.
The Swiss cheese system
Wicked problems include some of the biggest issues our society faces today. Global climate change and the effects of environmental degradation, rising inequality, and poverty, trends toward poor health and education all have the same attributes in common.
Such problems are multidimensional, often interconnected, and dynamic. Efforts to solve them by searching for a silver bullet are bound to fail. They can only be addressed with a clumsy, systems-based approach.
The Swiss cheese model offers us a way of understanding how to devise such a system for parenting. Hazards can be prevented from causing undesirable outcomes using barriers. Each barrier has holes, which may open or close randomly. While you can’t completely block out danger, you can put together a system of multiple barriers to screen out adverse events.
Setting up screens
When applying this sort of system to raising children, parents can draw upon several factors to improve the outcomes for their children in different areas. These may range from safety around the home to nutrition, education, and overall well-being.
Often, too much of the burden of childcare in today’s society is placed upon parents themselves. By raising the extended family’s involvement, parents can set up a screen for situations in which one or both parents are unavailable.
The community can also help in this regard. Parents usually consider a neighborhood’s crime rate and access to good schools when deciding where to live and raise their kids. But we can also scout the availability of community-based childcare services in the locations where we intend to move.
Equally, we can look into any initiatives driven by local organizations or sponsored at the municipal or state level, wherein various childcare stakeholders are brought together. Such efforts are an indicator that the community cares and is working to collaborate towards solutions to this wicked problem that go beyond parental responsibility.
The pandemic will eventually recede, as such outbreaks tend to do. But the lessons it offers can inspire us to change the way we approach other problems.
Today, and in the emerging future, parenting looms as a far more difficult endeavor than it has ever been. Instead of bracing themselves to shoulder an impossibly wicked challenge, parents should be looking for the screens they can avail of and avoid truly harmful outcomes to their children.