There is something of a baby boom happening in my circle of friends right now, and since I am a mile or two farther down the bumpy road of parenthood — my son is six years old, divorced, and has a couple of arrests on his rap sheet — a few of those friends (by which I mean none of them) have asked me if I have any parenting advice. I am in no way a perfect parent, and my ongoing failure to get my boy to eat anything that’s not a bread product makes me suspect that I am a bad one, but I do nonetheless have one thing I would share with new parents looking for guidance.
After the joy and anxiety of the first couple of years, when the kid is cute and quiet and pretty much any problem can be solved by whipping out a nipple, things start to change. The kid doesn’t want to eat. Or, the kid doesn’t want to eat anything but Lucky Charms. Or the kid doesn’t want to go to bed at bedtime, or take a bath at bath time, or put his shoes on when it’s time to leave, or put his coat on when it’s cold, or get into the car seat when it’s time to get in the car, or pull his pants down when he has to pee, or point his little pecker at the toilet instead of the floor, or wipe his own butt when he poops, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. (times ∞).
Worse, they begin to develop language skills, so not only do you have to say “No” 500 times a day, the kid starts to construct surprisingly well-reasoned arguments and counterarguments to make his case. He starts to remember things you said in the past and use them against you. You gradually begin to realize that your baby is now a kid, with a mind of his own and his own set of priorities. And that’s when the yelling begins.
So much yelling. I hate the yelling so much, and yet I don’t seem to be able to stop myself from doing it because the boy is just relentless when he wants something. The phrase “won’t take no for an answer,” I am now convinced, was coined by the parent of a 5-year-old.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been torn between two competing parenting Prime Directives: To Do The Right Thing, and To Keep The Peace. In the beginning, it’s easy To Do The Right Thing. They ask for something, you say no, and they shrug and move on.
But as they get older, it gets harder to keep the corrosive influence of the outside world, and worse, other parents, from your little angel. They go places, they see things, they taste things, they want things. It is your job, as a parent, to deny them those things, which is in direct contravention of Prime Directive #2: To Keep The Peace. Telling a preschooler who’s screaming for Honey Nut Cheerios, or screaming to watch one more video on the computer, that they can’t have what they want is a terrible strategy To Keep The Peace. And yet, we have To Do The Right Thing. How do we do both?
I have developed a quick and easy way to steer clear of this conflict, in the form of a unifying Prime Directive that supersedes the other two Prime Directives: Everything Is A Precedent.
Would you rather not spend every evening for the rest of your life arguing over whether your precious child can have a bowl of pretzels right before dinner? Then never, not even once, not even on his birthday, not even if he was chased into the house by wolves, give him a bowl of pretzels right before dinner.
Do you feel that reading a book to your young friend at the dinner table will only slow down an already endless dinner-to-bed process? Do not read the child a book at the dinner table, ever.
Would you prefer not to be pestered to play video games every waking moment of every day until the kid goes off to college/trade school/juvenile detention? Don’t buy a video game machine.
It sounds simple, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. More than likely, you and your spouse have fallen into a good cop/bad cop dynamic, which is a nice way of saying one of you is softer than the other. The soft parent will buckle when she (or he, but let’s be real, she) hears that the kid is hungry, or if she thinks there is some kind of educational value in what the kid is asking for, or, most insidiously, if she thinks it will get this little pest off her back for 15 minutes. Who cares about a few pretzels before dinner? Why not read him a book if he promises to eat his dinner while we do it? What’s the harm in letting him watch two hours of videos on Sunday morning? What’s the harm? WHAT’S THE HARM? EVERYTHING IS A PRECEDENT.
The child does not understand “just this once” or “special occasion” or “don’t get used to this.” He will nod eagerly and say he understands, but it is a lie. In his little mind, if something is okay once, it’s okay, full stop. Much like a terrorist or an NRA member, the child deals only in absolutes. There is black, and there is white. There is no gray. If he gets it today, he’ll want it tomorrow. It is your responsibility as the grown-up to stay strong and say no! You’ve got to think about the long term effects of your parenting decisions, and by that I mean the long term effects on you. If YOU make the wrong choice, YOU will have to listen to a child screaming “BUT YOU GAVE ME ONE YESTERDAY!!” or “IT WAS OKAY THAT ONE TIME!!” or “YOU LET ME LAST WEEK!!”
Everything is a precedent. Unless you want to do it every day, SAY NO.
Be strong, my friends. If you need any more parenting advice, you can find me locked in (but probably not using) the bathroom, with toilet paper wadded into my ears.