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Why is Systems Thinking So Important for Parents?

by | Oct 26, 2020

Most parents agree one of the absolute best parts of being a parent is seeing your child reach new milestones and develop new skills. Sometimes these things seem like miracles, but they’re not. Most parents just aren’t trained in systems thinking. We’re generally not attuned to recognize the myriad patterns, cycles, and influences that shape our children’s development.

Imagine if you were trained, though. Imagine if you understood the relationship between your own choices and behaviors as a parent and the cumulative effect they have on your child’s ultimate success in life.

It would be like being given a detailed road map to a destination you always hoped you could visit but never really knew how to reach. In this article, we’re going to look at one such road map and see how using systems thinking as a parent can totally transform your approach to raising your kids.

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a powerful way leaders assess the interrelated parts and pieces of their organization. It’s a method of analyzing the overall success of a team by taking a bird’s-eye view of behavior patterns, repeated cycles, and relationships that make things work smoothly (or not).

You are a family leader. Your family is your organization. Your success as a team and as individuals is guaranteed when you, as the family leader, have an appropriate perspective and strategy for being intentional and proactive in as many ways as possible. 

When you apply systems thinking to the maintenance of your family’s overall well-being, raising strong, resilient, capable kids suddenly doesn’t feel so overwhelming. 

Examples of Systems Thinking in Our Normal Life

Systems Thinking and Weightloss


On paper, it follows that if you use more calories than you consume, you will not gain weight. We know this. And yet, dieting is a multibillion-dollar industry. Countless hacks, coaches, apps, books, blogs, influencers, meal planning, and meal delivery services exist to try and overcome the fundamental human desire to eat all the yummy goodness and sit on our rear ends all day.

Anyone who has successfully changed their physical appearance and sustained that transformation knows that it does not happen by strictly focusing on calories in versus calories out. There is a whole nother systematic process involved to maintain a significant change in your habits.

Muscle strength, hydration, flexibility, mental/emotional balance, stress management, bone mass, gut biome, and how you generally feel in your own skin are all significant measures of a person’s total health. Given those parameters, it’s much easier to see that skinny does not mean healthy.

“Weightloss” for most people is not really about a fixation with a number. It’s about feeling a certain way.

Establishing a realistic purpose for the change, looking at total health instead of weight/BMI, making your home a place of strength and support, finding the right community resources, engaging with that community, and even finding a mentor to guide your efforts are all a part of a systematic approach to becoming healthier and maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

Learning to Ride a Bike

I have zero recollection of my parents helping me ride a bike. I vaguely recall my neighbor with flaming red hair pushing me down the street at seven or eight years old on a sparkly blue beach cruiser with a white banana seat. My son, however, has been happily riding on two wheels since he was three and a half years old. That skill did not appear out of nowhere. There was a method for teaching him.

For my child and many others, it was about early exposure to a balance bike (not a tricycle!), then developing specific motor skills through other age-appropriate means like swimming, running, and toddler gym activities.

Learning to ride a bike for him was much less about mastering the mechanics of balancing and pedaling at the same time as it was about focusing a whole host of physical and mental skills into a complete behavior.

The Advantage of a Systematic Approach to Raising Kids

Whether we’re talking about managing time or finances, interviewing for a job, or even feeling confident in the ability to make good decisions, many of life’s most important skills come from persistent preparation and practice. They don’t just appear the day your child turns 18.

Being aware of your values and goals as a parent and learning all the ways you can systematically teach your children important life lessons early in life means your kids can master basic self-sufficiency before they really have to and do it relatively easily.

In other words, instead of struggling through their 20s figuring things out the hard way, they can move on to greater pursuits and pleasures and take the utmost advantage of the one resource we all have the exact same amount of—time. 

Moreover, when you understand how systems thinking applies to your family well-being, parenting suddenly doesn’t feel so scary. You can more easily filter the tips and tricks of parenting, keep what you know aligns with your values and purpose, and pass on the rest.

With time, you’ll have a clear picture of the myriad influences on our children’s understanding of themselves, their family team, and their place in society. Most importantly, you’ll have a plan for how to organize and harness the power of those influences.

Elements of “Family” Systems Thinking

Each element below works together with the others and helps parents understand how the small interactions of today impact the people their children will become in the future. When parents are aware of those factors, they can intentionally create the necessary environment to achieve a thriving family team.

Systems Thinking: The Family Well-Being Index and Purpose

01 – Understanding Our Purpose as Parents

Why did you become a parent? What are your values? Would your partner say the same? What do you want your children to be capable of when they are adults?

To answer these questions, we look at the big-picture relevance of parenting to guide our thinking. Establishing our purpose as parents gives us a framework on which to base all our other tough parenting decisions.

Systems Thinking: The Family Well-Being Index and Purpose

02 – Prioritizing Total Health

Health is not just a matter of weight. Total health includes a collection of habits and behaviors that include mental, spiritual, emotional, financial, and physical health.

Parents need to know that the amount of attention and care we give to our own total health, the activities we choose to engage in, the knowledge and wisdom we choose to impart about the aspects of total health, and the coping skills we help our children develop are informed by how we define our individual purpose as parents.

Systems Thinking  - the Family Well-Being Index and the Home Environment

03 – Creating the Optimum Environment

Our homes are made up of not only the physical items in our space but also the emotional temperament we set. The way we keep our homes has a huge impact on our own and our children’s mental and emotional welfare.

The way we decorate and maintain our home, the level of independence we allow for in our young children, what we stock our fridge and pantry with, and the extent to which we involve our children in the maintenance and setup of our home is all informed by what our values are and our awareness of how total health is impacted by the home environment.

Systems Thinking - The Family Well-Being Index and Community Resources

04 – The Use of Community Resources

These include the free and paid services and amenities our families have access to. They include both people and physical locations like parks, beaches, playgrounds, libraries, schools, museums, and much more.

How we as parents interact with and speak about our neighbors, school teachers and staff, local businesses, local leadership, and the like will impact our child’s perception of their place and connection to a larger community of people.

Systems Thinking - The Family Well-Being Index and Engagement

05 – Practicing Meaningful Engagement

Engagement is the frequency and manner in which we interact with our family and community. In practice, it is how we verbally put our lives and experiences in context for our children.

Our understanding of meaningful engagement will inform the way we spend money (primarily on things or on experiences) and impact the way we communicate with our children to foster healthy relationships, support their curiosity, and maintain their mental and emotional health.

Showing Affection and Family Values

06 – The Value of Mentorship

Our role as a parent changes over time, including periods as managers, leaders, and mentors. Our lives are made easier by connecting with someone who knows just a bit more than we do.

We can make someone else’s life easier, including our adult children, by learning to become hands-off mentors, engaged grandparents, advisors, consultants, and volunteers in our communities.

Maintaining Your Family Well-Being

We all have enormous hopes for our children. We have goals for them and for society in the future. But as Antoine de Saint-Exupery famously wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

While we cannot possibly have a plan for every problem our children will face in life, we can absolutely help them develop the mindset and skills they need for a successful life by doing some systems thinking.

With guidance, we can intentionally address our purpose and values as parents and consequently examine the example we set through our total health, the nature of our home environment, how, when, and why to access community resources, how we might practice meaningful engagement in an attuned and purposeful way, and our own evolution as parents to become a supportive mentor to our children as they mature into adults.

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Somer Loomis

Somer is the Chief Content Officer at Raising Families living in Southern California with her husband and five-year-old son. She spent 10 years in the architecture field as a designer and medical planner and now applies her love of integrative thinking and big-picture planning to her family and career. Read full bio >>