Occam’s razor is the philosophical theory of parsimony. In Latin it reads, “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” which loosely translates to, “don’t assume anything extra must exist.” It is, as William of Occam put it, to take a razor to the problem and shave off the unnecessary bits.
In short, keep it simple.
Here’s an example: If you’re in the house by yourself, and you hear the creak of a door, it’s probably not an intruder or a ghost or your own psyche but, in fact, the cat. The most obvious and lesser of all evils is usually the answer.
As an adult and educator, Occam’s razor made complete sense to me. It’s how Sherlock Holmes solved every mystery. It’s how investigators in real life (NCSI doesn’t count) solved crimes. It’s how the operations of the natural world work in order to keep the steady flow of life moving along in a manner our brains can understand. Fall follows summer. Thunder follows lightning. It is how we keep from being perpetually surprised by life’s events.
But as a mother, I couldn’t make it stick. With three kids under three and all of us operating on two-hour increments of sleep, I was lucky if I ate a sandwich, much less thought through the reasons why the world felt like it had toppled off its axis. As I said to my spouse more often than not, I just needed a minute to get myself together.
Now that the kids are a little older, Occam’s razor and its straightforwardness has saved my sanity more than once.
When all three kids (and me) are screaming half an hour before dinner, it does not mean that I have failed as a mother to civilize my children. It does not mean that every night will be a total dissolution into chaos and that we’ll be lucky if they all make it to 18. It just means we’re hungry. Maybe pack a snack next time we go to the park.
When the youngest has a temper tantrum in Target, wailing and leaning over the edge of the cart like Juliet weeping on her balcony, it’s not that she feels neglected and unloved, or that I haven’t done enough to make her feel secure. It’s that she really, really wanted that Paw Patrol nightlight, and we shouldn’t go shopping without solid ground rules.
This also works in my relationship with my spouse. When we don’t have some form of human contact – a kiss, a hug, a passing hand on the shoulder blade before we separate for the day, I catch myself snapping at the kids, at the traffic, and at him when he gets home. But it’s not the world that’s at fault, and our marriage isn’t falling to pieces. I just need a little love.
The simplest answer is usually correct.
Try as we might to circumnavigate our kid’s minds like amateur shamans, we often overcomplicate things. We read more into their actions and words than is necessary or healthy. Of course it’s good to come at a problem from every angle, but sometimes a temper tantrum is just a temper tantrum. It needs to pass like the storm it is, and we need to let it without adding our own layers of guilt or inadequacies to the mix.
In practical terms, Occam’s razor keeps the daily machinations of life simpler, too. I am a morning person. My husband is not. So, I get the kids up and dressed and fed. He does pajamas and bedtime stories at night. To insist on equal participation in both events would make all of us miserable.
The same goes for dinner. I cook one meal. No substitutions. If you don’t like it, breakfast will be served in the morning. My kids know this. They still say certain things are gross. They still refuse two-thirds of a meal on occasion. But life moves on. And it keeps me from feeling like a fry cook at a diner dishing out orders.
Laundry is also its most basic around here. I do two loads – one for the grownups and one for the kids. Grownups get the “normal” cycle, and kids get the “heavy wear.” There will be no separating lights from darks, and we do not buy anything for the kids that necessitates an iron. We’re just fine over here in our elastic shorts and poly knits.
We also still have naptime even though the oldest has “aged out” of it. After lunch, we take an hour, each of us to our own for downtime, alone time, or sleep. Whatever we need, we go seek it. This hour is sacred. To give it up is to ask for a whirlwind of trouble from 5 p.m. onward.
Even if friends mock us for our stodginess, we protect this time because it works for us. Paring down our days rather than filling them to the brim has kept our family functioning smoothly. So the hour remains a non-negotiable.
To parent with Occam’s razor in mind is really to parent with self care at the forefront. It reminds you to be kind to yourself and your kids by simplifying your lifestyle in a world that wants to amp it up. It’s made our house a less anxiety-riddled one. I do not question every decision I make and every reaction they have. It has given me permission to be the parent I am and also the adult I need to be.
It’s simple and it works.
*This article originally appeared on Parent.co.