I think there are two types of parents: the ones who say yes and the ones who say no.
Okay, that's absurdly oversimplified. We all say both yes and no to our children, over and over and over. But I think people tend to have a particular orientation toward kids -- they look for ways to yes, or they look for ways to say no.
I am from a no family myself. I didn't realize it growing up -- it was water to a fish -- but it struck me during a visit to my parents when my oldest son was a baby. He was five months old, reaching for things and stuffing them in his mouth, and my father responded firmly every time: "No no no no no." My sister did it too, albeit sweetly: "No n-no no no," again and again. I asked her why she was saying no and got a preposterous response. He might stick the object in his ear, she said, and puncture his eardrum.
No, I am not making that up.
I was not happy. What if they wounded his delicate sensibilities with all that NO?
(I'm not making that part up either.)
A yes orientation presents its own problems. My MIL is a yes mother, and she has raised children who expect to hear yes when they ask a question. Sometimes this comes across as a winsome confidence. Sometimes, notably in my youngest sister-in-law, who is driving me crazy lately, it seems more like a ridiculous sense of entitlement.
But I remember the first time I thought about being a yes parent, one evening nine years ago when I was visiting my friend from Out of the Ordinary. She was reading a board book to her baby daughter, but the daughter wasn't interested in having the pages turned for her. She flipped to the end; my friend read the last page. She flipped back to the middle; my friend read that page next. She laughed with her daughter, following her lead, instead of attempting to insist that the pages be read in the right order. It was a light bulb moment for me.
I am wondering, as I'm typing this, about your reactions to that story. Some of you are thinking, Duh, Jamie, why would you be uptight about reading pages in sequence to a baby? Others may be thinking, No, you have to teach kids early on to respect books and to follow mom's lead. I just remember how freeing it was to watch them together. My friend was the one who encouraged me to talk to my dad, casually, about his "no no no no no" habit. I told him, "We hope that if Alex hears no less often, he'll say it less often when he turns two." My dad looked surprised, but he said, "Oh, okay."
Last fall I was thinking about this question when the neighborhood kids were throwing the apples from the ground near a neighbor's tree. Reflexively I started to tell them no, but I thought about it for a minute. The woman who owned the apple tree had been letting the fruit rot on the ground -- she clearly didn't have plans for it. The kids were standing in a row on the sidewalk, whipping the apples across the street and watching them splat satisfyingly in the road and occasionally in neighbor's yards. They wouldn't hurt each other, they couldn't throw far enough to damage anybody's house, and I was standing right there to make sure they stopped if a car came. I remembered that it's fun to throw things hard and watch them splat sometimes. I held my tongue.
And then the neighbor came out of her house and held me in a frosty stare. I said, "Would you like them to stop?" She said nothing at first, just kept right on staring, and then she replied, "The neighbors don't want apples in their yards." (You have to imagine the icicles hanging from those words.) I told the kids to stop and pick up the fruit that had landed in other people's grass. I said goodbye to the neighbor, all the while thinking, "I am SO blogging about you," and left, questioning my judgment.
This yes-no parent idea is akin to Barbara Coloroso's brick wall/jellyfish classification. (Brick wall families are too rigid, while jellyfish families don't offer enough structure; if you've never read Kids Are Worth It, go right now and request it from your library.) The goal is to be a backbone family, providing both structure and flexibility. But striking the right balance is an ongoing struggle for me.
I was flipping through Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting again after I mentioned it in a recent post. He says we're preoccupied with having kids who are well-behaved, a term he dislikes because it seems to compare kids with puppies. We fret about kids running wild, he says, but in his view the dominant approach to discipline emphasizes obedience over justice, compliance over thoughtfulness.
Before I actually had children I was an amazing mother. My hypothetical children were flawlessly behaved. They did not question my authority. This was no doubt because they did not exist, but -- details, details. Real life is messier, a web of fine lines. Sometimes I say stop and somebody tells me I'm overreacting. Sometimes I let it slide and hear that I'm negligent.
Recenly Joe occasioned two such mama drive-by moments. I am working on a post about three-year-old boys and the art of teaching manners, but this one is a little easier to write. We're reading E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle right now, and in yesterday's chapter there was a line about "the voice your mother uses when you love her best." I'm thinking about that voice, and about the voice that says shrilly, "How many times do I have to tell you NO?" I'm thinking there's room for more of the former around here.
As I am finishing this up, Pete is sitting at my feet chewing contentedly on a wad of crumpled duct tape. I would never have let my oldest eat used duct tape. Am I comfortably mellow or not vigilant enough? I can't decide. Now he wants to nurse, holding the duct tape. At least this way I can make sure he doesn't stick it in his ear. My sister would be proud.