I love my friend Warren.
He’s kind. He’s thoughtful. He’s good at his job. He works hard. And he cares. While he excels at almost everything he does, being a limit-setting parent isn’t his forté. And it’s no surprise. He got fucked by a slew of totally inadequate parents himself. And God bless him, he wants nothing more than to be able to love and be loved by his kid. But it’s not going so well. And frankly, I can’t bare to watch it. And while I’m certain a decade or so of therapy and couples therapy would serve him well, in the short term, I think reassessing the way he deals with his son James when he does things he doesn’t want him to do would go a long way.
Every time Warren comes over with James, I know exactly what’s going to happen. While I’d love to be wrong, in this case, I’m always right.
A visit with Warren and James inevitably means I’ll be treated to a non-stop string of “No Sweetie”’s.
“No, Sweetie, don’t touch those frames.”
“No, sweetie, don’t touch the baby.”
“Sweetie? No? You can’t do that.”
“Sweetie? I said no.”
James always responds to his dad the same way: as if he isn’t there.
Let’s say James starts to go up the stairs to the second story of our house. Within seconds you’ll hear it.
“No Sweetie. I don’t want you going upstairs.”
And up the stairs James will continue to go.
“Sweetie! I said no! We’re not going upstairs” Warren will say again, scrambling to follow James up the stairs.
Into a room James will disappear.
“Sweetie?” Warren will continue to call out helplessly, looking for his son.
When James is finished playing upstairs, down he’ll come followed by his sadly ineffective dad. And out into the backyard he’ll finally go—much to Warren’ts relief, as if his “no’s” had finally “worked,” as if it wasn’t just because James now wanted to play in the backyard. James likes rakes and shovels and so it probably won’t be not too long before he’ll spy the pile of children’s garden tools in the corner and grab one.
“No, Sweetie, you can’t dig up the dirt,” Warren will soon be telling James who will continue digging away.
“Sweetie, I said ‘no.’ You can’t dig that dirt. We don’t want to ruin the flowers.”
And so James will continue to dig. If it wasn’t so depressing, it would be funny.
I’ve never once seen James stop doing whatever it was his Dad has told him to stop doing. And while it’s hard to take in the hour-long play-date doses I have to endure once in a blue moon, I don’t know how Warren can just go on living his life like that—without coming up with some kind of plan to deal with the fact that his son never listens to him. As if that’s just the way life is! He says, “No, Sweetie!” And his kid does what he wants. I don’t understand why he even bothers to say “no” in the first place. Perhaps in an effort to show other parents that he at least he doesn’t want his kid to destroy their house?
Yes, while it would be ideal if before Warren said “no” to James, he could show James what he could do—i.e. which dirt it was okay to dig up, after all I don’t keep shovels in the backyard just to yank the kids’ chains—in this case, I think it would be best if a) he didn’t tell him “no” every five minutes, seemingly indiscriminately and most importantly b) if when his son ignored him, he did something about it! This was a dad who had earned zero percent of his kid’s respect.
As a father, Warren had morphed into the ultimate boy who cried wolf. James was doing his job, he was being a willful toddler who tested limits, while Warren failed at his job to set them. For whatever reason, Warren just couldn’t bring himself to set any boundaries. My guess is that he was probably afraid of being seen as an authoritarian “bad guy” dad or maybe because he simply didn’t know how to do it or didn’t realize how important it was to follow through, to let his actions match his word. (And that overly saccharine “sweetie” crap was enough to drive anyone crazy. Did Warren really think it helped ameliorate the bad news? “You can’t go there buddy, but I still love you sweetie!”?)
Warren, my friend. Let “no” mean no. If you don’t want James to shovel the dirt and don’t show him what dirt can be shoveled, take the shovel away.
“James, you may not dig up those flowers. You can either put it down or I’m going to put it away for you.”
Let him scream and cry. And then empathize with him. He doesn’t have to like not being able to shovel but he still can’t shovel if you’ve said he can’t shovel (but please have decent reason for it and let him know what it is.) Believe me, he’ll find something else to play with. My yard is full of stuff.
And Warren, to make all of this disciplining stuff easier on yourself, just don’t say “no” so often. If you are at someone else’s house and they have a shovel out in the backyard and you are unsure of what your kid can and can’t shovel, ask the host. Then you’d have an alternative to offer your kid.
“James, Jennifer has a bunch of shovels and rakes. The dirt and gravel behind the garage is a perfect place to use them.”
If you are at someone else’s house and they don’t have a gate at the bottom of the stairs, but you aren’t sure if your kid can go upstairs, ask the host. And if upstairs is off limits then tell him from the onset.
“James, you can play downstairs and outside. Upstairs is for napping.” That way, he knows the ground rules from the beginning. But to just assume things are off limits that are just sitting their waiting to be explored and then telling your kid “no,” as if he is “bad” for wanting to explore them, is crazy making for him and me.
Consistently follow through on your no’s.
Use them sparingly.
Mean it when you say it and “No” will be your best friend.
And your kid will listen to you.
And respect you.
And feel safe and cared for.
It is not always easy for parents to say “no.”…A parent’s ambivalence, guilt feelings, and areas of confusion in his or her role will be picked up and used amazingly fast by young chilren. They seem to have a sixth sense for it. Any ambivalence from a parent will produce a nagging response.
If not by teaching how does a child develop a conscience? Through consistency. She needs many yeses and a few consistent nos. Consistency means a no is a no whether the parent is in a good mood or a bad mood….
A no is always a no. A child who can easily manipulate his parents may easily lose his base of security. If a child cries, whines or screams, and a parent consistently gives in to make peace, a situation is created where the child feels in charge, while not truly wanting or benefiting from the responsibility. Too much power (having a feeling of control over the parents) may be unhealthy and scary for a child. When he feels to powerful he may feel guilty and guilt can lower self-confidence.