Cumulative Effect

Updated: Nov 29, 2020


One of the building blocks associated with the critical shaping years is a principle I call the cumulative effect. I developed this construct after several encounters with teenagers when my girls were still very young. For those teens, whom I had limited interaction with, I believed I gave sound and timely guidance on a given topic, but the advice did not resonate. There could have been several reasons for the advice not to stick, but to me it was because the teens did not internalize the points I was making. Therefore, it did not inherently affect their decisions, opinions, attitude or actions when applicable. Because of this I was determined to avoid single instances of advice that was “too late” for my girls to absorb and subsequently apply.


As such, when my girls entered the shaping years, I began in earnest to teach them lessons that I knew would be built upon over the years. The key part of this approach was not necessarily the what, but the how. I did have a list of some core topics I wanted to cover, and I talked about some of them in a previous blog post (Make the Plan). But the point of the cumulative effect is to introduce a given subject early in your child’s life and build upon it over the following decade or so.


The subjects can vary from critical life lessons to nice to know information, be applicable as a young adult or in retirement, be a characteristic you want attained or skill you want applied. Whatever the subject, introduce it, explain it, create experiences associated with it and reinforce whenever possible. Be deliberate in how you explain it, including the setting – in the car, at the dinner table, in the evening or a weekend morning. As they experience different things, if such an experience is related to a previously taught lesson, highlight how that applied, discuss how it was handled and why that was a good or bad way of dealing with a given situation. Every few years, if the topic is important, reflect on the last time you discussed it with your children and re-introduce while staying consistent with the desired takeaway. Lastly, there is no such thing as “beating a dead horse,” especially if the lesson is important. Talking about more should mean the kids recognize its importance, and as they get older better appreciate the value. You may want to nuance the approach, but don’t assume if it was already taught there is no need to talk about it again. That is contradictory to the cumulative effect.

Despite all of that, you still won’t know to what extent it is internalized. You may see instances as they get older, or may not fully recognize the impact. But multiple iterations over 10+ years has a higher possibility of being learned then a single instance when they are a teenager. That is why I did what I did, and what I offer to any parent who is early in their parenting adventure.

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