Most everyone is familiar with the term Occam’s razor – the assumption that the simplest solution is usually correct. It’s what keeps us from spinning out into every possible scenario and lets us move from one point to the next, solving life’s daily mysteries with logic.
If Occam’s razor keeps you logical, Hanlon’s razor keeps you peaceable.
In short, Hanlon’s razor reads, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In other words, we can’t assume the world’s out to get us, even when it feels like it is, and in parenting, it often does. The origins of this principle are mixed, taking bits from Murphy’s Law and Occam’s razor. It’s the mutt of philosophy, the “devil theory” laid bare, and the truest aphorism for parenting and life. That kicking at the back of your seat in the car is not actually their form of water torture. They just can’t help themselves (most of the time).
The first thing you learn when you get behind the wheel after “check your mirrors” is how to drive defensively. Always be on the lookout for the speeders, the weavers, and the texters. I consider myself a delicately-balanced blend of both defense and offense. I like to nose ahead, but it’s not Days of Thunder out here. I keep it in check. So when I see another driver veering into my lane or making a sudden stop just ahead of me on the interstate and actually reversing up the shoulder so they don’t miss their exit, I try not to think they’re out to get me. I try very hard, with all three kids in the back, to remember that truly, some people just don’t think.
Where Hanlon’s razor becomes startlingly clear is in parenting. How many of us haven’t looked our three-year-old in the eye and wondered aloud if he or she might actually be a sociopath?
My son has a penchant for graffiti – he’ll color every available surface except for paper. He painted the antiqued white legs of our kitchen table blue with scented markers. After an hour of soapy water and Clorox wipes, they are now a grayish bruised color, but they smell lovely.
“Why?” I asked him on my hands and knees just inches from his face where he sat screaming in time out. “Why on earth would you ever?” And I pointed at the table.
He wiped snot on his hand and then on the floor (a discussion for another day) and said in all honesty, “I don’t know.”
He really didn’t. He didn’t know what devilish whisper steered his hand off the coloring book and down the legs of the table. It wasn’t because he hated the table or me. It was because he’s three.
I guess I shouldn’t take it personally.
It happened again with his twin sister. She systematically tore every single page out of every single book in her room. I found her, after nap, surrounded by piles of pages heaped up like snowdrifts. The book jackets were splayed and empty like dead birds under her windowsill. I couldn’t even find a word to say to her. I just pointed to her and then to the pages and back to her. She nodded. Yes, this is my doing.
Once I made her clean it up and then have a funeral for all twenty books, she turned to me and said finally, “I liked the sound.”
“What?” I said, still not catching her meaning.
She mimed tearing with her two little hands. Oh. She destroyed all her books because she like the sound pfft sound of the ripping pages. Of course.
I think Hanlon’s razor is going to be my mantra when the kids become teens and all their wiser thoughts are drowned in hormones, social media, and body odor. Sometimes, not always, the harsh word, missed curfew, or bad boyfriend or girlfriend is just a lack of insight rather than a master plan. That pre-frontal cortex is still developing. I’ll give them until 25 before deciding they’re out to undermine all my years of parenting.
I know we all have our moments when we wonder if our children are out to get us, when every single parenting trick or bit of sage advice backfires. If Hanlon’s razor is really true, then it’s not always personal, it’s just the business of being a kid.
*This article originally appeared on Parent.co.