Know When Not to Say No

by Erin Nelson- February 6, 2013 • 4:53 pm

Yesterday my five-year-old daughter said to me screamed at me before slamming her bedroom door, “You are the MEANEREST MOM I have EVER MET!” I had just (for the third time, without raising my voice, which was still tinged with gentle cheer, which took every shred of self-control I had left) told her no, she may NOT wait even one more second to add her dirty clothes to the enormous pile I was staggering under, just so she could instead continue uninterrupted The Very Important Ear-piercing That Orange Kitty Kitty Needs Right Now Before The Ear-piercing Shop Closes, Momma. (No need to call the SPCA—Orange Kitty Kitty is stuffed.) I have to give her props for voicing her priorities. Too bad they often don’t match mine.

I’ve read enough books / websites / forums / columns / newsletters and talked with enough parents / warriors / zombies / worry-warts / sages to know that most all parent-child conflicts are about power. We grown-ups (even the ones that busybodies like to cluck at for letting their two-year-olds “run the show”—which we all do sometimes, from sheer exhaustion) are in charge. And so, asking my daughter to pause her activity of choice to do a quick chore seemed reasonable. To me, that is.

I somehow managed (thank you to therapy, to my supportive and thoughtful husband, and to sufficient caffeination) not to react equally impulsively. (“You get back here right now you don’t talk to your mother like that who do you think you are young lady do you think I do laundry for KICKS?!?” might have run through my mind. Ahem. For example.) Because I realized that she balked not at being asked to do a task, but rather at being asked to do it on my terms. If my husband had said, “I’d be happy to help—give me five minutes?” there’d have been zero issue. But with my little one, I pressed. I wanted her to DO IT NOW. BECAUSE I AM IN CHARGE. I was prioritizing my ego just as she had prioritized hers. And she knew it. And she only wanted what anyone wants: latitude. Agency. So what’s really at stake here? Figuring out how to get her to “snap to it” on MY schedule? Or teaching her (painstakingly) the fine art of conversation, accommodation, communication?

Just an hour earlier I’d been picking away at writing a “parent-child phone contract” for work, a resource for all those grown-ups (it’ll be me, too, soon enough—yikes) getting kids their own first personal, connected gadgets. The idea was to help parents make sure kids know this step is Official and Important and Carries Consequences. Kind of like “the birds and the bees”—but for phones. I’d poked around online and found dozens of templates, but most were little more than lists of NOs: NO texting during dinner, NO ignoring Mom’s calls, NO phone after bedtime. NO NO NO. I didn’t much like them, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I mean, it’s reasonable for parents to set limits. And the specifics will vary from family to family. But maybe the how is more important than the what. Maybe starting with ALL THE TERRIBLE BAD THINGS YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DOING is, um, not the best approach. Maybe assuming that kids will get it all wrong unless parents lay down the law doesn’t give kids much credit. Let alone any room to participate. Let alone to think.

The hard part, whether you’re engaged in the Sisyphean task of getting grade-schoolers to clean up their own messes or attempting to impart subtle lessons in Being A Good Human Being to impulse-driven teens (who now happen to have supercomputers in their pockets, heaven help us all), teaching communication, rather than simply compliance, Takes. A. Really. Long. Time. And a ton of energy—emotional, psychological, intellectual. It’s just easier to hand down orders. But does that work? In the short term, maybe … but it probably doesn’t do much to equip a child to practice having real (read: effective) conversations, in real life, for the rest of their lives. And respect for others’ (read: their children’s, one day) wants and needs.

Once my daughter’s anger had petered out into sadness (because, at five, she can only stand to be away from me for so long) and she responded to my quiet knocking on her door, we cuddled on her bed (with Orange Kitty Kitty, by then sporting a quite fabulous pair of sparkly pink studs) and talked about what it’s like to live in a family. Why it’s important to care for ourselves, and our belongings, and our home. And how our individual duties require spur-of-the-moment give and take, and, if we cooperate, we can get the chores done faster, which means more time at the playground. Even better, we can do little things (like play Disney Princess songs on endless repeat) to make the process more fun. Perhaps most important, I made sure I invited her to talk about why she was angry and what she’d wanted. We came to a good place—together. I even poked fun at myself in the process, pantomiming how silly I must have looked, huffing and puffing under the weight of all that laundry. And she laughed a little about her door-slamming melodrama. Humor is, in this mom’s humble opinion, the most important (and easiest to forget) ingredient of all.

Later, when I returned to my computer (as the now-full washing machine churned in the background, because once our talk was done, we’d dumped in the dirty clothes and detergent—together), I suddenly knew what I needed to do with the parent-child phone contract. It had to be a conversation-starter, not a list of terms. And so I’m happy to share with you Safely’s first Family Phone Agreement, which we hope will help as you prepare your kids (and remind yourselves) to be “good digital citizens.” As we’re all stumbling toward being, together.

Full disclosure: I have yet to parent a teen. I need your help. What would you add? Or change? I may have happened across what feels like a good approach (in a moment of grace amid conflict), but I’m a learning-as-I-go mom (and professional communicator), like everyone. And I’d love to add your knowledge to the mix.

P.S. Lest you think that, based on this one incident, I Have It All Figured Out, check back in twelve hours or so to hear about how I totally lost my cool when my kid pushed my buttons and I had to leave the room and I learned no beautiful lesson besides that being a parent is Hard Hard Hard and that I hope my momentary lapse into yelling and impatience didn’t Damage Her Forever.

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