The one question that makes me a better parent

Just two little words lead to fewer arguments and more responsibility

Photo: iStockphoto

Sometimes when you read a book, one indelible anecdote strikes you just right and sears its way into your brain.

Years ago, I experienced this reading Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. While I recall it being an excellent book with insights on to how to raise kids in an environment of forgiveness and mutual understanding, the one story that still regularly comes to my mind is that of a boy who wanted to sleep with a chair on his bed.

Yes, a chair. On his bed.

Dad mad at daughter 6 ways to be a more consistent parentThe book describes a strong-willed child who, for whatever reason, felt that the presence of his desk chair on his bed would help him sleep at night. His father saw this as a ridiculous request and categorically refused. A battle ensued, as so often does in standoffs of the will between parents and children. Eventually the dad won. The chair remained on the floor, much to the son’s disappointment.

Later, however, the dad confessed to the author of the book: “I wish I had just let my son sleep with the chair. Really, what was the harm?” His son wasn’t in a waterbed or bunk bed, where the chair might fall off and do damage. Even if the chair fell on the kid, maybe he’d learn the lesson that snuggling with furniture isn’t the best idea. In the end, was it really worth the fight, or the dispiriting of his son, who merely wanted an (very strange) comfort object?

I think of this story often because I, too, tend to categorically refuse my children things I think are dumb, or odd, or simply not what I myself would choose. But when I have the presence of mind to think of the boy and the chair on his bed, it reminds me to ask myself one very important question about my children’s requests:

Why not?

Are my kids asking to do something that’s really dangerous, or will truly put them at risk? Do they want something extremely unhealthy, or that will harm someone else? Are they asking for something drastically outside of our family values system?

Asking myself “why not?” exposes my motivations and enlightens my approach. Considering this question can help me realize that maybe there’s actually no valid reason to deny my kids whatever they’re requesting.

Maybe it’s merely a little foolish and rubs my adult sensibilities the wrong way, or perhaps I just don’t get it. Can I have the generosity of heart to say yes even so? To allow them to be their funny, silly selves? After all, they’re just kids, and kids want weird things.

Like the other day, when my six-year-old daughter found some old health insurance cards in my desk. “Can I keep these?” she asked me excitedly. The pragmatist in me wanted to bluster, “You don’t need those! I was just about to throw them out!” But instead I thought, ‘Why not?’” and said sure. “Yessss!” she whispered under her breath and ran away with them clutched to her chest. Who knows what she wants them for. Is she going off to play “insurance rep” with her teddy bears? Does she want them as bookmarks? Does it matter?

Sometimes my “why not?” is as simple as plastic cards, but sometimes it serves the deeper purpose of allowing my kids to figure out their own mistakes.

My son learned much better by experience than by nagging, for example, when he insisted on taking a walk with his pillowcase over his head. He quickly realized you’re no match for the cactus in your path when you’re wearing an indigo blue sheet in front of your eyes. Had I unequivocally nixed the idea, we probably would have spent the whole afternoon arguing about it. Why not let him learn the lesson for himself?

To my shame, I’ve also come to realize that a frequent motivator behind my “no” to my kids is my own reputation. If my daughter goes to school in mismatched clothes she chose herself, her teacher might think I’m a negligent mother. And you’d better practice that piano, son, so I don’t feel embarrassed at your recital. “Why not?” reminds me that, even at this tender elementary school age, my kids’ lives are their own. How will I ever let them live independently in the future if I can’t give them the freedom to choose their own path in small ways now?

We all value our independence, and no one likes to be shut down—not even adults. While “nos” are necessary all over the place in parenting, considering “why not?” allows me to say yes to my kids more often and more freely for issues large and small. I’m a better parent when I do.

Read more:
How I stopped being the shouty mom
Here’s what works better than forcing your kid to say sorry

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