Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Knee Jerk NO

Before I begin, let me say that I started writing my NYC post again, and Blogger randomly lost about two hours of writing.  Not the whole post this time, just back a day's writing, but what is going on?  I am beyond frustrated.  I don't know how many times I can try to recreate that work and not go insane so I may have to scrap it.

Some people don't understand why I don't just write blog posts on my desktop and then copy and paste when I'm ready to post, but there's something irritating about that that is hard to describe to someone who doesn't blog.  It's not like regular writing.  It's more immediate and I want to arrange something as I'm thinking about it in the format where it will live.  I've started copying and pasting from Blogger to email as a backup in addition to hitting the ineffective "save," but I still don't understand why now I have to do that.


The other day when we were all in the car together, Ian was telling a story about how in Iraq there was a point where he and another officer were in charge of a group, and the other guy was the picture of a big tough military guy, and Ian by comparison was not imposing.  But Ian was the one everyone considered the hard ass really in charge because he was the one who would say, "No."

I laughed and said, "Which one of you was the parent?"

There is a lot of knee jerk "No" when you are a parent.  More than there should be, and I make a conscious effort to stop and reassess before I simply say "No."  Many times when my kids make a request and my first instinct is "No" and I take a moment to really think about it, I wind up saying "Yes" instead.  Because many times the request is harmless.

I think the automatic "No" comes from exhaustion.  There is so much responsibility and so much to get done in so little time that deviating from whatever plan is in action feels like one thing too many.  And so much of parenting, particularly of small children, has such a meandering pointless feel about it that it can get frustrating.  Adults usually like to feel they are accomplishing something.

I remember very clearly one day walking with Aden around the block when she was about 18 months old.  Or, at least, I thought we were walking around the block.  That was the plan when we headed out the door, but then in front of the house there were ants.  Aden had to stop and study the ants.  I found myself feeling annoyed and at first tried to hustle her along so we could "accomplish" our walk around the block.  But then I caught myself and realized how ridiculous that was.  There was no point to the walk around the block to begin with, really, other than being outside together.  Looking at ants still accomplished that.  As soon as I realized I was being silly by sticking to the "walk around the block" idea as if it mattered, I let it go and felt better.  We had a great time looking at ants.

Most of the time "Yes" leads to so much better stuff than "No."  I honestly often wish that my kids would take more initiative in suggesting deviations from whatever arbitrary path we're on.  I'm the one who usually points to a random restaurant and says, "Maybe we should try that instead!" or who wants to turn left instead of right and see something new. When I ask the kids for ideas about what we could do together on an occasional day off, or what kinds of things we should plan as a vacation sometime, they aren't sure.  They are happy to follow my lead and just do what I suggest (even a Mold-A-Rama road trip), but I'd like to be surprised by their interests more.  I want more chances to say "Yes" even as I know my knee jerk response is "No."

Different people have different thresholds for sticking to "No," though.  For instance, Quinn popped his head in our room this morning and asked if he could have some "big sandwich" for breakfast.  The grocery store sells these giant subs that Ian picks up every time he knows the kids will be on their own for lunch at home, and today we both have a lot going on so he'd stuck a big sandwich in the fridge.  My first thought was "No" because it was for lunch.  I know a lot of people who would stick to that "No."  But does it matter?  To me, not really.  Ian simply said, "Yes" and Quinn happily ran off to eat.  There is now almost no big sandwich and we are a long way from noon, so the kids will have to get creative around lunchtime.  I'm not worried.

There is a cousin to the knee jerk NO that I think of as the automatic STOP.  I'm embarrassed by how often my initial reaction to my kids being happy makes me want to tell them to "Stop."  That one is almost entirely related to noise, though, and there are times noise is annoying, but it pays to qualify it. 

Last night when I went to use the bathroom around midnight I realized Aden was still awake in her bed and on her computer.  Normally the kids aren't allowed to have screens upstairs, but Aden's been home sick the past couple of days (thought it might be strep, glad to find out it wasn't) and I let her take her laptop in bed with her.  She was making sounds at first that I thought were crying, so I called out and asked if she was okay.  She apologized for making noise, but she was watching some internet something (I think she said a re-re-re-translated version of a Last Airbender clip) and it was absolutely cracking her up.  My first instinct was to tell her to put it away already and go to sleep.  But why?  It wasn't a school night, her siblings sleep through everything so she wasn't bothering them, I couldn't hear her all the way from my room, and she was happy.  Happy is good.  I try to leave happy alone.

My dad only ever spanked any of us once, and that was when one of my brothers was in bed and could not stop laughing.  There was company downstairs and my dad was agitated by the noise from the bedroom and kept telling my brother to stop.  He finally got so frustrated he gave my brother a whack on the butt, and I think my dad regretted it to the day he died.  He told us later he could not believe he laid a hand on his son for laughing.  He couldn't imagine after he did it what had come over him.  He wanted his son to be happy, so why would he react like that?

My dad was an incredibly decent and kind person, so that even he could lose it like that is a testament to what the continual stress of parenting can do to a person.  It's a struggle sometimes that is hard to explain, even to ourselves.  We all lose it at moments that don't seem to make any sense or that look out of proportion.  And we forgive and we love and move on.  My brother never held resentment toward dad for that spanking, but my dad bore the weight of that moment forever.  I think of that often.

I thought of it last night when my instinct was to tell Aden to stop laughing.  Why would I want her to stop laughing?  Other than to exert power to create arbitrary order I couldn't think of a reason.  I told her I loved her instead of telling her to stop.  I went back to bed glad she was happy.


  1. I am a master of the knee-jerk no. Or the stop. But I'm also realizing, like you, that the power to stop that when it is nonsensical is totally within me. I try to employ it whenever I can. When the kids are doing something I want to say stop to. When they're asking to do something I want to say no to. Why am I saying either of those words? Usually the answer lies with some perceived effect on me: stop being loud so I can read in peace or no we can't go to that place because I don't feel like driving. But like Aden in bed, where is the true harm in saying yes when we can? (You also made me think about how "rules" can be transformed as we parent. My kids aren't allowed to have screens in the bedroom either (including TVs), but every now and then, there will be a Kindle or Nook taken to a bedroom chair and considering the time, the day, or just the kid, I will sometimes overlook it.

    1. I think it's always healthy to reexamine rules based on context. Consistency is fine, but being reasonable and able to honor a higher good is often better. There's something kind of adorable about turning the chance to read on a Kindle in a certain chair into something a bit rebellious!

  2. I very much agree with this --in fact, Emma and I were just talking about this the other day. I think it's a rare parent who gets past the knee-jerk "no" when they have multiple kids, because that adds a layer of chaos in comparison to raising one --at least that's how it feels when I compare my own upbringing, with three siblings, to raising my daughter as an only. I suppose economics probably plays a role as well --parents who are poorer are often also more stressed. I think it's a lot easier to take the time to think about why your reaction is "no" when you're less stressed :-)

    1. I agree. I believe that with one child there is enough flexibility that you can afford to ask him or her about what they want and be able to cater to it, but with more than one kid you stop asking and start telling, because there is rarely consensus and it makes more sense to simply decide things for everyone.

      And I think you're right that stress is a huge factor, and economic insecurity can cause a lot of that. One of the things I like about when all of us go to the cottage is that the only thing we ever have to decide anything about is what to eat at some point. It's "Yes" to pretty much everything when we're at the cottage because there is nothing to be stressed about most of the time. (I love it there!)

  3. Hmmm. I am terrible about knee-jerk no and the stop, too. (Stop ALWAYS has to do with noise for me. I hate noise. This is in direct conflict with my desire to have happy children. I have no idea how to solve this short of getting custom earplugs!) Anyway... Thanks for the reminder to reflect s little before I say no, before I say stop. I tend to be firm and not back down much and it's not my favorite quality as a parent. There is room for flexibility in life and I'm trying to learn it.

    1. It's hard to let yourself appreciate the noise. Sometimes I DO put in earplugs because it's so wonderful that they are happy and want to laugh together and have a dance party in the living room but I just want quiet. There's something to teaching them appropriate times not to disturb others, and they do their best not to make noise if we're trying to sleep or if they know I have a headache, but normal happy kid sounds in the day... I do my best to let it go even if I have to grit my teeth a bit.