A User Guide from My Five Year Old

Help Me Help You Help Me

Nov 21, 2018 · 14 min read
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The Indispensable Document for the Modern Child

I’ve got FOMU. No, you read that right: as a first time parent, and father of a precocious little five-year old, I’ve got a Fear of Messing Up. Is she sleeping enough? Is she playing well and learning at school? How can I get her to eat her vegetables instead of only bread and sugary foods? Why does she keep waking up at 3am with nightmares and will I ever sleep again?

Fortunately, the munchkin is a thought leader! She about a helpful practice being used more and more by managers in the software industry: “user guides” or “READMEs,” which let employees read and completely understand how they need to interact with their direct managers.

In that spirit, she has compiled a helpful Child User Guide for my benefit, and has encouraged me to do the same. Below are some of the highlights of the document (scrawled in crayon on about fifty sheets of printer paper she took down from the shelf when I wasn’t looking) that I received.

Ellie’s User Guide

1. Communication

I’ve found that the vast majority of parenting issues are a result of poor or infrequent communication. It’s important we communicate well and often.

Hierarchy of communication (most→ least urgent): Screaming→ Repeated Verbal Requests→ Handwritten Note→ Email.

I like fast turnaround and acknowledgement on my communication and requests. I like quick “got it” or “on it” type acknowledgment so I know that the demands I’m lobbing from the backseat of the car are being acted on.

I will occasionally make myself available if you need me. I consider my time with my immediate family the most time of my week. If you suggest a one-on-one meeting in my room, or a family discussion, initiate finding time through Mommy or make an appointment on my calendar. If I suggest a discussion, I will initiate finding a time (usually ‘right now’). Don’t say “let’s discuss” without a follow-up of some kind of distraction or change-of-subject that will take my mind off the original issue.

I expect you to respond to everything in real-time, and to close the lid or top on every container I open. If you put it on my plate I probably won’t eat it, and do try to keep the things that you’ve made in separate pots (or whatever management/organization/prioritization system that you use to create transparency in the kitchen) from touching once they’re on my plate. I get frustrated when I have to talk about this twice.

Frameworks and context are critical to sharing my work. I am always interested in the reason why you believe that what I drew or painted, or brought home from school, was amazing or pretty. All of us have a calculus by which we take in information and output a decision or position. Share your logic, particularly as we are building trust. Point to precedent, other children you’ve parented, or if you’re reasoning from first principles, say that (and explain what that means, I’m not 100% clear on what “principles” or “reasoning” are). It’s critically important that you learn how I think.

2. Reporting

Create a regular, systematic, clearly framed written process by which we share my progress against your plan. Collaborate with me on this. Make it as quantitative as possible, perhaps a chart on the fridge or something. Make the line between this, your parenting objectives, and the family objectives clean.

Share this update no less frequently than every five minutes.

I place a high premium on data to describe your results.

3. 1:1s

Maintain a running chart, somewhere at my eye-level and maybe in my playroom, that we can collaborate on.

This is completely your time and your agenda.

I like using 1:1s to check-in on how you’re doing, what I need from you, sibling issues, broad strategy questions that we can seed/discuss, miscellaneous activities like brushing my teeth or cleaning my room, discussing concerns from what you shared in your written progress reports or holes in the reporting, me providing any missing context from the fridge board or elsewhere, and bi-directional feedback. Reviews of results against plan should be in writing and other forums (e.g. Schoolwork Review, Outdoor Time Review, Dental Health Review, etc) as I’m likely one of many stakeholders that’s invested in the performance of your function. I believe accountability to me is more powerful than accountability to Mommy so it’s more important that you create transparency to those affected by your results, in addition to me.

Once a quarter, we will formally document performance.

4. First 6 months

I will invest heavily in building a trusting relationship with you in my first six months. Here are some tips for you to reciprocate:

  • Check my diaper plenty of times. If you stop checking my diaper, I will see that as a red flag. Poop will flow from me to you for the first couple years and after that I will expect you to direct my toilet training as I won’t know what context I need that you didn’t provide.
  • This childhood is complex and I can be most useful to you if you are proactive with your learning goals. I want you to help me learn our family’s business, particularly early on. You will teach me about language and human habits and over time, we’ll learn from and teach each other based on the inputs we each receive. It’s very fun when we reach the point where that information flows freely back and forth.
  • Making the prior point another way, if you don’t feel you need me to do your job well for the first 6 months, we will become misaligned as I’ll assume you aren’t working to grasp the context of why you had a child in the first place, or are reacting to the wrong cues. I will be able to help you drown out the noise by screaming as loudly as I can, so we are aligned you’re on the right path. As an added benefit, we will learn how each of us thinks, our proclivities, where and how we disagree, and how we collaborate. It’s important we do as much of this as we can early on.
  • Share your sleep plan. Time your sleeping goals in shorter increments early on so I can see you ramping up. For example, though you’ll have quarterly medical reports, share with me real-time wins/learnings, and as we progress, put up monthly wins/learnings. Soon quarterly wins/learnings will be the guts of our discussions.
  • Show me what I’m learning and what I still have to learn. Share your a-ha moments and outstanding questions. Maybe a scrapbook or something online.
  • It is definitely possible to over-communicate. Do not assume I know what you’re up to (although I’m always watching). But if you’re ever debating including me on a communication, maybe don’t do it.

5. Feedback from me to you

I commit to providing direct, immediate, and unvarnished feedback.

The #1 way to succeed is to make measurable impact that’s in-line with my mission and the family OKRs. I will measure your success by the impact you make on me by the time I have kids of my own. If you’re not sure how your role or work output contributes to impact and/or if it’s not clear how to measure it, wait until I’m 30 and seeing a therapist regularly, and then I’ll let you know.

I try to make a practice of never expressing gratitude. If you’re exceeding my high expectations of you, I will not share that with you either privately or publicly.

On the flipside, I am extremely passionate about my minute-to-minute mission and may come off as combative because I will disagree with you forcefully. Just in case it rubs you the wrong way (which inevitably will happen), it will be because:

(A) I’m so excited by the substance of my mission (ideal; and if our relationship is on stable footing, I suspect you will still get frustrated).

(B) You did something that I felt was poorly constructed, incomplete, inadequate, or otherwise didn’t meet my expectations. We all have triggers that cause us to look unfavorably on our parents and these are mine:

  • You’re giving up too soon and aren’t showing enough grit. I love you no matter what but I will not hesitate to play you off against Mommy, especially if you’re not in the same room.
  • You aren’t showing enough rigor. It’s fine when you tell me that I can’t do something like climb onto the table to get a cookie or cut all the hair off my expensive stuffed bunny. But if you give in even once, then I will always remember and you’ll never hear the end of it.
  • You aren’t giving me cookies or crackers when I ask for them. I’m hungry and I don’t want to wait for dinner even it it’s only five minutes away.
  • You aren’t letting me interrupt what you’re doing so that I can watch a TV show. Know your strengths and weaknesses, understand different social styles, and show empathy, compassion, assumed benevolence, and humanity. I really need to watch some Octonauts.
  • You are shirking responsibility and not acting like a parent. Be an agent for the change you want to make at this family and show fearlessness. Speak your mind when something is broken and pair it with your plan to fix it yourself, immediately.
  • You aren’t letting me go outside in bare feet when it’s raining. A thread that binds us together is curiosity — about our weather, yard, puddles, worms, and perhaps most importantly, about ourselves. I don’t want to wear my shoes and you can’t make me.
  • If you do one of the above that causes me to react negatively, I’ll share my observation of your action, the effect it had on me, ask for your opinion, and then clarify my feedback. I’ll do this either immediately if nobody else is there, or also if someone else is around. If we are aligned about the issue, I expect that you will acknowledge, mitigate and resolve the situation swiftly.

C). I’m frustrated with you because you have done parts of (B) multiple times and now I don’t trust you. If we’re here, I’ll nitpick, find issue with everything you do and it will be unpleasant for both of us. My frustration will be exacerbated because I’ll know it’s your fault, not mine. You are likely seeing this document at a point where we both made what we felt was the best decision with the information we collected during my gestation and made the determination that you, in this role, in this family, were in the right. I emerged without a grasp of my native language or even the ability to physically grasp things, and know for a fact that you are talented and a highly capable parent. If we get to this place, it’s because we’re not a good match. You’ll take responsibility and we’ll either look for a more suitable match or we’ll work on your exit because I hate you and I wish I wasn’t born and I like Mommy better she’s nicer to me.

(D) I am not listening well. If true, I may realize later but definitely won’t apologize, particularly if I put down in writing what you were saying and I refer back and see you were the dummy. I won’t respect you calling me out on this.

(E) I’m frustrated or scared about something unrelated to you, or am otherwise emotionally incomplete and I’m taking it out on you. If true, I probably won’t apologize because I’ll only realize it decades later.

6. Feedback from you to me

Commit to providing me direct feedback when I’m blocking you or Mommy’s success.

I am flawed. I’m not great at process. I can be bursty. I sometimes leap to conclusions then backtrack. I can go into a hole when strategizing or when left outside with a shovel. I put together LEGO frameworks that I don’t hang on to for very long. I’m the opposite of a workaholic and will be awake at odd hours.

Sometimes I’m slow to fully grasp a new point or don’t listen well because I’m stuck on an idea. I can be overly rule-oriented and slow to act on some opportunities and impulsive about other opportunities. I can be too long-winded about ponies and robots. I often get prodded by external stakeholders (parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, classmates, etc.) and may forget to describe the context to any given paranoid moment that I take out on you. I can be stubbornly exacting about minute details that may seem insignificant in the big picture, but to me represent an upholding of my values/standards. The details are indeed insignificant and, as a result, we waste time. My list of flaws is longer as you’ll learn.

I will not try to hold myself to the same standards I hold you to (see 5B). Sometimes it will feel like a double-standard where I expect you to be a certain way but I am not that way myself. I beat you up with my misgivings and seek continual self-aggrandizement but despite my weaknesses, have become more comfortable in my skin as I’ve matured as a child as this confidence helps me go faster. I like when my parents help make me go faster, usually on my bike or sled.

I don’t respond well to feedback. I like yes-moms/dads and after we establish a healthy trusting relationship, you will be rewarded if you give me positive feedback. Our relationship will get better if you do this well.

I encourage you be clear with me on how you can best work for me. Consider writing a user guide like this for yourself as I will honor it (or tell you if/when I can’t). Throughout our relationship, I will work to understand your style and how you’re best supported when you retire. I would be insincere if I didn’t admit that if our friction is sizable, it’s likely that you’ll need to adjust to my style more than I’ll adjust to yours. That said, I recognize this is the first time I’m a child and I am working hard to be better. If I’m the reason for your unhappiness and you don’t sense that I’m unhappy with you, give me a chance to improve. Maybe several chances.

I will do my best to tell you if I’m able to meet you where you are or if I’m lost. Don’t get angry and leave, or let your discontent fester.

I will never be self-aware about my own performance and have committed to my stuffed bunny that I will proactively evacuate my bowels if I have a particularly scary nightmare about a spider (though that may not be your first choice).

7. On micromanagement

I am hands-on, until I trust you. Once I trust you, I’m hands-off 100% I will need you to cook and clean for me and occasionally wipe my ass. Our relationship will feel more like a partnership than parent-child if we’re successful at building trust (though I will still take the child role when needed.)

From there, if I get in your hair again, it’s because I’m losing trust in you or don’t feel like we are making adequate progress on a given topic that just occurred to me five seconds ago, likely because you are not satisfying my need for Communication, Reporting, or are doing things in 5B.

8. Me as a resource to you

Be clear what you need from me for your success. Role, allowance, new siblings or divorces, more chores, more context, more interaction, etc.

Be clear when you need me to do something. Be data-driven about why you need it, gather alignment from the pertinent stakeholders, and show that you’re being cost conscious. I like justifications that include, “this is what [family we’re friends with] does” + “this is the ROI” + “this is what a new toy would cost and if it works, from there I can buy you more toys like it” + “this is the most cost-effective solution for these reasons.” Develop a nose for value but don’t bargain-hunt.

I love to work through problems as long as I get what I want.

9. Parental Development

I try very hard to imagine choosing new parents that I would like to live with more than you, and are meaningfully better than you at the functions you lead. As a result, it’s unlikely I will be a mentor to you in your role. My biggest value to you is to be a strong vocal advocate for my success, support you in your old age, empower you to live vicariously through my achievements, lead and foster collaboration between you and Mommy to align on a strategy that maximizes my happiness, and surround you with a bunch of hand-drawn pictures and father’s day gifts that inspire you to get a job that pays for private schools and college.

You are the top person in the family in your function and my role as a child can be to:

1) give you transparency into my role if you endeavor to become a parent again.

2) help connect you with parents at other families with whom you can commiserate

3) change your role to help you change/increase your scope of responsibility/influence if you are performing and that is your goal.

4) create an environment where you can perform and feel fulfilled.

I commit to doing all of these and expect you to hold your spouse accountable if you don’t feel sufficiently supported.

I’m highly results-oriented and as a result, it’s not my first instinct to focus on parental development. I will do my best, but it will benefit you to clearly communicate your parental goals and I commit to saying I support you.

10. Having / Adopting More Children

Collaborate with me closely on your family org chart.

Collaborate with me on your new children, particularly age four and under. These are ultimately your decision, but I hold veto power (that I will use indiscriminately). I will want more involvement in your first child, than your second, than your third, than your fourth, etc. One of your most important jobs is to produce incredibly high quality children, particularly at the ages of 4+. These children should be better than you at the function for which you’re having them and in the same way I want to hire parents that I would listen to, it works best when you aspire for the same from your direct offspring.

Share with me your family management system — how you communicate the vision, set goals, create alignment, foster high engagement, and cultural nuances/recruiting practices/performance review processes that are unique to your family.

I’ll push you to push out siblings I don’t like and get frustrated when we take too long to act. Be fair with terminations — take responsibility that you (or your spouse) made a mistake having them, and don’t surprise your other children that they are being let go.

Recognize and support your top children lavishly. Help me help you recognize me as your top performer.

Don’t let your CultureAmp results be a surprise.

Don’t surprise me with parent departures or divorces. We should know about these before they happen.

Pay median allowance, have a good pulse on market tooth-fairy compensation, learn how to communicate the value of equity at Christmas or Hannukah, pay close attention to diversity/inclusion in all aspects of gift giving.

11. Contribution to Strategy

Our leadership discussions are a critical time. Be engaged, don’t multitask, keep up with the pace of the discussion, work to grasp the nuances, and participate actively.

Contribute to the collective knowledge of this family by sharing your thoughts in the play-room or responding to open questions even if it’s uncomfortable to explain to a five year old. It’s important the team feels leadership is engaged in knowledge building.

Be proactive in identifying new opportunities that propel the family forward. It’s not enough to just wear your functional hat in strategy discussions. This is a time for you to take off your functional hat and own the overall family strategy.

12. Logistics

Tell me about your personal space boundaries. I will not respect them.

I like to have open-ended conversations after hours. Between 11pm and 3am is when I like to wake up and talk, so I may wake you up at that time unannounced. If you prefer I don’t have a nightmare, or would like me to check your availability first before getting out of bed, tell me.

I like getting together over dinner after school for longer-form, open-ended discussions.

I try to take two days off on the weekends to recharge (usually Saturday and Sunday), but am occasionally available for a sick day during the week too.

I will talk anytime (24x7) if something is urgent.

When you go on vacation, let me what could go wrong: lots of scary stuff can happen and I need more fuel for these nightmares I am having. It’s unusual when we feel we can leave for longer than 10 days, and I probably will forget what the house looks like if we’re gone for more than a month.

Keep your calendar current, make your calendar responses status accurate (i.e. don’t accept family meetings you can’t attend, say tentative if not sure).

Be punctual.

Thanks to CartyBoston and Camille Fournier


Written by


Lazy programmer, skeptical ontologist, amateur biologist. Read a book about the printing press that changed my life, occasionally does stuff with genomes.


Written by


Lazy programmer, skeptical ontologist, amateur biologist. Read a book about the printing press that changed my life, occasionally does stuff with genomes.

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