Teaching My Kids To Gamble

My children are so young not all of them are even in school yet. Whether they're old enough for the classroom or not, these curious little buggers do a damned fine job at picking up life hacks outside the formal education system.

Mom was at work when one of the kids stumbled across my case of poker chips. Within minutes, we were playing a game.

"So the Jack is like an eleven (11)?"

"How can an Ace be both like a one (1) and sometimes better than the King?"

I took up the role of The House. The Bank. Vegas. But unlike a real dealer or pit boss, I talked them through each of their decisions. The assumptions. The risks. The opportunities. The rewards.

I am in many ways a tinkerer. An experimenter. A generalist. A strategic thinker. A forecaster. A non-linear mindset kinda guy. The more I read up on others who have either been labeled as or self-describe in those ways, the more value I place on those traits. As such, it only makes sense that I want to nurture the same in my children.

One of my roles as police officer is as training coordinator. It's a position that gives me plenty of opportunities to learn about educational research, trends in classroom teaching, the future of human growth & development. In a nutshell, it's figuring out the links between what we do (or don't do) as teachers...and the result it produces in our students.

My unorthodox work schedule allows me to be home when many parents are at work (and vise versa). I spend time in my kids' classrooms, chaperoning field trips, talking to teachers, helping with homework. I try to be aware as possible of the learning culture at their schools.

It's become very clear to me that schools excel at teaching our children how to operate in specific environments. This is not a knock at formal education; this is merely an opinion on where they do a great job.

Consider Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework:

Formal schools do a tremendous job at operating in the Obvious domain. (My kids are just too young for me to opine on how they do in the Complicated domain yet.) Much has been written and argued that formal education is terrible in the Complex and Chaotic domains.

In addition to the four Cynefin domains, I often use other terms to identify systems, environments, and functions:
  • Linear: known, step-by-step "recipe" checklists
  • Non-Linear-Closed-Loop: like a flowchart with limited, known/predictable variables
  • Non-Linear-Open-Loop: many unknown and unknowable options and effects
I've recently been reading more about James Carse:
  • Finite Games: known rules; specific endings with winners/losers
  • Infinite Games: unknown, changing rules; perpetually played 
So whether you're married to Cynefin, (non-)linearity, (in)finiteness, or some mashup of all three (3) like me, I hope you're seeing where this is going...

Back to school... I'm not limiting this critique to elementary grades either. The same debates tackle the purpose, strengths, and weaknesses of college and advanced degree programs. That brings up the question:
What do we expect our schools, teachers, and professors to do for our kids (or in higher education...adults)? 
I can appreciate the limitation of the school system. I'm generally OK with it being restricted to operating in the Obvious, Complicated, Linear, Closed-Loop, Finite world. Teachers have done this job well. (Some argue too well...) The current approach gives our students practical skills, tools, and knowledge.

Likewise, we can't fool ourselves into believing it is preparing our kids (and ourselves) for success in the Complex, Chaotic, Open Loop, Infinite world. This requires a set of skills, traits, personalities, and values that is maybe better off left to those other than formal teachers and professors. [NOTE: I'd really enjoy your thoughts on how sports coaches, club moderators, music teachers, or private/religious school teachers may fill this void on values and beliefs! Post to comments below.]

So what will prepare them (or us) for the uncertain future?

How do I as a dad factor into the learning equation?

How will my kids grow their curiosity, values, mindset, mental models, creativity, and risk-taking?

I see myself taking up a vital role, much like my mom and dad did. For me, they helped us link the objective knowledge, facts, and data that I learned in school...with the subjective values, tradeoffs, dilemmas, challenges, and opportunities found in real life. These were lessons in dad's workshop, the kitchen, sports, and disputes between neighborhood kids.

It's now up to me as a parent to help my kids make those connections for themselves....not to make those connections for them.

In many ways, it's how I approach my role as a workplace trainer and supervisor - helping street cops figure out how to better operate in the Complex, Chaotic, Open-Loop, Infinite world. I realize that my philosophy on workplace "training" and supervision is unique. It's less about mindless, standardized solutions and more about intentional, creative interventions.

As for my kids, the decision-making "soft skills" required to succeed in life are being practiced in low-stakes, high engagement, and fun ways...through games and projects around the house. And through really tough, impromptu conversations about risk, luck, priorities, faith, boundaries, feedback, and adaptability.

They don't know it yet, but my booger-picking, LEGO-building, Crayola-coloring kids are learning about Boyd's OODA Loop, feedback loops, Snowden's Cynefin, and Carse's Infinite Games!

Playing card games with observable, emotional consequences is just one part of the endless scheme of learning and parenting.

And if down the road, I end up bailing any of my kids out of gambling debt, kindly remind me of this epic failure of encouraging them to be excited risk-takers at such a young age. The conversation about how casinos are funded will have proven lost.



When Stacking the Deck isn't Cheating is about designing systems and tools so we can better respond to (& maybe even anticipate) the unknown future.

Eight Lessons in Critical & Adaptive Thinking from Playing Cards at Grandma's House outlines some lessons I learned by playing card games, such as risk management, strategic thinking, and statistics.

The Routine Traffic Stop: Why There is Such a Thing & Why Cops Should Embrace the Term is a longer blog where I piece together routineness, environments, normalcy bias, baselines + anomalies,  Left of Bang, pattern recognition, and more...applied to police traffic stops.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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