Figuring out when (and when not) to say “no”

Late on Sunday afternoon, at the end of a weekend that featured Downton Abbey, Spanish brunch, and coq au vin, Caroline and I lay on the living room floor while the boys played and the sky faded to a somber Michigan twilight.

Jay sat at his small desk, using a pair of pinking shears to dismantle an empty cereal box—“Cut it into as many pieces as you can,” I’d told him, trying to bide time until dinner—while Wally crawled around at his feet.  He placed one hand on the seat of Jay’s chair.  Then the other.  Then he pulled himself up to a position of full-equality with his brother, who seemed no less stunned than you or I would be if tomorrow morning two suns appeared in the sky.

Caroline remarked: “There’s our gross motor child and there’s our fine motor child,” which is true.  Wally’s on pace to be doing somersaults by May; Jay, who never crawled and never pulled up, could pull the legs off a centipede with a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the weekend Caroline and I talked about “no”—as in when to say it to Jay and when not to.  This has been something I’ve thought about since a day shortly after Jay was born when a father in Rittenhouse Square told me that he didn’t believe in saying no to his infant daughter. That seemed a little extreme to me, but at least it raised the issue as something to think about.

On Friday afternoon the four of us were driving home from Caroline’s office.  Caroline and I were trying to talk about Stephen Colbert’s very funny interview with Maurice Sendak, but we didn’t get far: “What you talking about?” Jay kept interrupting from the backseat.

This is an increasing problem.  Jay has a lot to say and he doesn’t like to be left out.  Those are good qualities, all told, but they also mean it’s hard for Caroline and me to have a sustained discussion in his presence.  Usually we either let him hijack the conversation or end up yelling at him in frustration.

On Friday, though, it occurred to me that there was a third route: We could tell Jay that Mom and Dad are talking right now and that if he’s quiet, he can have a chance to talk in a few minutes.

This was an obvious move but a liberating one, too—it was nice to remember that we could say “no” to behavior that makes our lives harder, like when Jay interrupts our conversations or asks for another cup of milk after he’s already had one and been put to bed for the night.  I think Jay’s self-esteem is strong enough to absorb the knowledge that as one person in a house of four, his desires don’t rule the day.

But there are other times when I can’t decide whether it’s appropriate to say “no.”

Here are two examples from this morning.

I made Jay an English Muffin and offered to serve it to him with peanut butter, jam, or peanut butter and jam.  He replied, “I want peanut butter aaaaand butter.”

“No,” I said. Because obviously peanut butter and butter don’t go together. And it wasn’t one of the choices I offered him.   But afterwards I was conflicted.  It wouldn’t have been any more work for me to serve it to him that way.  And was it necessary for me to impose a somewhat arbitrary culinary norm on his open-minded toddler tastebuds?  At the same time, I don’t want Jay going out to eat with his in-laws when he’s 30 and ordering an English with “PB and butter.”  So, there’s a balance between necessary socialization and encouraging creativity.

The second example: After breakfast Jay started to move the recycling container from the kitchen to who knows where.  I stopped him.  I didn’t want dirty food containers moving around the house. For a moment I felt like a prig for letting my concern for dirt override whatever grand plan Jay had in mind for the trash. But then I thought, whatever.  We need rules.  And clean carpets.  He’ll find something else to do with his time.

There’s a third category of interactions, though.  This is the one that’s been most on my mind: times when I say “no” to Jay out of habit or laziness and really wish I hadn’t.

A month ago he started playing “mechanic” on his fire truck with his plastic tools.  Two weeks later he started asking me to get him the “real screwdriver” which he knows we keep in a pathetically small box of tools in the basement.

Then a week ago he put the two together and asked if he could use the screwdriver to unscrew the battery compartment on the fire truck.  “No way,” I thought to myself. “The batteries are going to get lost.  He’s not going to be able to do it.  Plus, we only open that compartment when the batteries actually need to be replaced.”

But then I thought:  Will the batteries really get lost?  And maybe he will know how to do it, especially if I show him. And who says we only open the compartment when the batteries actually need replacing?

So I let Jay open the battery compartment.  I showed him how to find the right-sized Phillips head.  I taught him, “Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosey.”  And then, once we’d opened the compartment, I showed him the essential relationship between the sound of the fire truck’s siren and the three double-A’s nestled in its undercarriage: He pushed the siren, quickly took out one of the batteries, and just as he did, the siren stopped dead.

Jay understood what had happened immediately.  His face lit up.  He laughed out loud.  He put the battery back in and wanted to perform the magic trick over and over again.

Later that night, after Jay had gone to bed, I realized that in the moment Jay figured out what batteries do, the world became a bigger, more interesting place to him, and he become a bigger, more interesting person to himself—someone newly capable of understanding how the world works and influencing its course.

Far be it from me to say “no” to that.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Daddy (and Mama) don’t play

What it might really mean to learn to be a parent


“We embarrass ourselves into banality”

Earlier this week I compared Jay and Wally to the indefatigable honey badger. That post was picked up by a father who keeps a blog called Letters to Noah.  He took my point in a nice direction .

In his view, the unwillingness of toddlers to conform to social norms is an essential part of what makes them such dynamic learners: by never being afraid to get something wrong, they give themselves a lot of trial-and-error opportunities to get it right.  This echoes the point I made in in October in “Jay: my cognitive inferior for now at least,” where I wrote “I think Jay’s biggest advantage, though, is that he rarely doubts his ability to learn something.”  Here’s what Letters to Noah had to say:

On a related note, one of the big points being made in the Diane Rehm interview [on language, music, and the brain] was that children tend to be better at learning languages not because their brains are necessarily more plastic or because they are more open to it, but because they don’t understand the idea of self-censoring. They have no switch that tells them, “you’re doing this wrong, you look like a moron,” and so they are very willing to keep playing the same 3 chords completely incorrectly until they click. They are willing to try new languages and pronounce things completely incorrectly, and they don’t worry if they’re not hyperpolyglots in a matter of months. It’s fascinating to me that one of the ways we shut down our own learning capabilities is by forcing ourselves to fit the norm we desire to show others – we embarrass ourselves into banality.

I think that has been one of the most fascinating parts about parenting – watching this little curious baby (you) interrogate EVERYTHING. Ask, in your own way, “what’s this? How does it taste? Can i bang it on something?” There is nothing that embarrasses you, slows you down, causes you to pause. There are not items too big to stick in your mouth, no windows too cold to lick, no amount of falling down that will stop you from climbing back up. There is little evident frustration, little anger, little worry. You just try.

Baby boom

When Jay was born in May 2009 Caroline and I were only the second couple among our extended group of friends to become parents.  In world-historical terms 28 wasn’t young to be having a first kid, but in our peer group it felt a little like we’d taken to the frontier.

Things have changed since then.  A couple months ago I spent a weekend in South Carolina with some college friends.  Our first night there we were out at a bar, playing pool and drinking pitchers of Dale’s Pale Ale, when one of the guys gathered us all around to announce that his wife was pregnant with their first kid, due June 3.  Euphoria ensued.  Then when things had settled down another guy said “Actually, I have an announcement, too.” Pause. “June 2.” Pause. “Twins!” Pandemonium.

So, 2012  is shaping up to be a bumper crop of babies in our social circle, which for comparative purposes, is comprised almost entirely of white, college-educated people born in 1980 or 1981 (making them 30 or 31 today).

With Caroline’s help* I put together a graph showing the percentages of our friends with kids by age.  Out of 45 friends, only three people (6%) had kids by age 28.  Five people (11%) had kids by age 29.  Then a big jump at age 30, when 6 people had kids, bringing the total number of parents to 11 (24%). I didn’t include age 31 in the graph because the year is still in progress.  But we have several friends who are set to deliver their first kids at age 31 and several more who have told us they’re trying to get pregnant- so if anything, age 31 stands to be an even more fertile year than age 30.

To put this trend in context, here are some statistics for the US as a whole:

It’s too early to say how my friends will square with these statistics but if I had to guess I’d say that they’ll become parents later than national averages would suggest.  This seems particularly likely since only 42% of my male friends are married. Among my very closest friends, however, the story is a different.  I lived with five other guys in college.  Four of the six of us will be parents by this summer.  It’s a small sample, but I think at least to some degree fertility has begotten fertility- you see someone you know well raising kids and you think, “I could do that, too.”

*I should note that Caroline’s involvement in this post is limited largely to helping me figure out how to use Excel.  She’s not at all complicit in the methods I used to construct the chart, which are not quite up to snuff in the eyes of a demography PhD.

Jay and Wally: Two animals who just don’t give a…

At brunch last weekend conversation turned to the honey badger.  You might remember him as number one on the list “6 Animals That Just Don’t Give a F#@.”  To earn a place on the list, an animal has to have proven itself willing to pursue its desires with single-minded focus, consequences be damned.  Members of the list include the undersized wolverine which thinks nothing of attacking a black bear and the open-minded cane toad, which has been known to carry on amorous relations with the corpses of animals from any number of species.

Neither the wolverine nor the cane toad hold a candle to the honey badger, though, when it comes to complete disregard for good judgment or social convention in pursuit of what it wants.  Watch this video of the honey badger wreaking havoc in the African plains. It climbs a tree to catch a cobra; starts to eat the cobra; falls into a coma from the cobra’s venom; wakes up and resumes eating the cobra.  It burrows snout first into a hive of African Honey Bees, ignores the swarm, and eats their larvae.  You get the point.

You probably also see why, following this conversation, it occurred to me that Jay and Wally and little kids everywhere are basically tenuously-domesticated honey badgers.

Not in the sense that they’re willing to endure extreme pain in the pursuit of insect eggs. Rather it’s their utter lack of self-consciousness (which I wrote in “Life with no backstage”) and general disregard for the good opinions of others.  Jay doesn’t care a whit that I think it’s disgusting when he rinses his cheesy fork in his cup of water and then drinks his water, as he did last night while we were eating pasta with blue cheese, arugula, and grapes.   He’s still going to rinse that fork.  He’s still going to drink that water.

What makes little kids so captivating is the contrast they cut with the rest of us, who care a lot more about how we’re perceived by other people.

My little brother wears his hair in a mop because all the other boys in his school wear their hair in a mop because Justin Bieber wears (wore?) his hair in a mop.

I want a new car because I feel self-conscious driving around with a cracked bumper and a missing hood ornament.

Caroline and I want a third child because…well, we actually haven’t figured that one out yet….though one completely self-destructive motivation is the desire to stay one kid ahead of our friends who just announced they’re having twins. (We’re trying very hard to suppress this impulse.)

The point, which is an obvious one, is that early in life just about everyone starts to shape at least some of their preferences in relation to outside influences, many of which are petty, superficial, or just plain arbitrary.  At the same time, babies and toddlers basically never outsource their value systems.  This is what makes them so charismatic.

The same day as the honey badger conversation Jay and Wally each did something that brought this point home to me.

That night Caroline went into Wally’s room to give him a “dream feed,” which we’ve introduced recently to cut down on his middle-of-the-night wake-ups.  Caroline rousted Wally from his crib and held him in her arms to eat.  He ate for about five seconds and then rolled over, threw his head back, and went soundly to sleep.  Caroline tried a few more times but it didn’t matter—a swarm of African Honey Bees wouldn’t have been able to wake him either.  In true honey badger spirit, he’d made up his mind he was going to sleep and there was nothing more to say about that.

As for Jay, every night at bedtime he and Caroline read two books and then Jay comes and finds me and tells me it’s time for the three of us to lie together on his rug.

Except he doesn’t tell me it’s time to lie on the rug. He says, “It’s time for the bunny,” by which he means it’s time to place his large stuffed bunny on the floor so that he, Caroline, and I can lay our heads on it for a few minutes before it’s time for the crib.

Last night I was sitting in my office when Jay came bounding in. “Daaaady,” he cried, “Time to do the bunny.”  Then he stood in the middle of the room and waited for my response.

I looked him up and down for a moment.  He was wearing blue and yellow striped pajamas with a picture of a construction crane on front, his socks pulled up to his shins, an airplane sweatshirt overtop that he outgrew about two years ago, bellowing with glee about cuddling on the floor with his parents and a very large stuffed animal.

How long until he starts to gain some perspective on himself? Hopefully it won’t happen anytime soon, I thought to myself, as I got up from my chair and he raced towards his room on his short, skinny honey badger legs.

Where Parents Get Their Power

This morning I have an essay appearing on The Millions about the sources of power that parents hold over their kids.  It’s based on The Brothers Karamazov, which I’ve been reading each night for the last month, and it explains how Caroline and I rule Jay and Wally’s worlds through a combination of miracle, mystery, and authority.  Excerpt below. You can read the whole thing at The Millions. 

Each winter for the last several years I’ve read a long a novel.  With one exception they’ve been Russian. Anna Karenina in 2008. Middlemarch in 2009 (which I wrote about here). War and Peace in 2010 (which I wrote about here). This year it’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I had a false start with a decade ago on a beach vacation, and which has been staring at me on our bookshelf ever since. It also bears the potentially significant distinction of being the very last work of fiction my wife Caroline read before we met in 2002.

Last night I hustled my two young sons Jay and Wally off to bed (or at least tried to — Jay, who is two-and-a-haaaaalf, wont be hustled anywhere) in anticipation of reading the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. A decade earlier I’d been assigned “The Grand Inquisitor” as a standalone text in a college class on moral reasoning. Then I hadn’t gotten much out of it. Last night I was excited to see if it had improved in the intervening years.

“The Grand Inquisitor” is a supremely strange chapter — one of the most unique things I’ve read in literature. It takes the form of a parable, told by the atheist Ivan Karamazov to his younger brother Alyosha, a novice monk. The parable is set in 16th-century Portugal and it recounts a conversation between an aged high-ranking official in the Catholic Church known as the Grand Inquisitor and a man who arrives in town performing miracles that give rise to the suspicion that he’s the Second Coming of Christ…[keep reading]

The longest 12 seconds anyone’s ever spent in the men’s room at Whole Foods

This morning Wally woke up early.  I blame it on the cold.*  Zero degrees outside at sunup. When Jay was eighteen-months-old he was waking up before 6am everyday, until we turned up the heat in his bedroom.  Problem solved.  Since then, anytime a baby wakes up early, I say it’s the cold.  My sister, whose 11-month-old son Peter wakes up at ungodly hours regardless of the temperature in his room, is tired of hearing this.

Anyway, Wally was up early, so I parked him on the floor to play with his brother’s toys** and lay down on the couch.   I wanted to go back to sleep but instead I started thinking about an essay I read the day before by mommy blogger Glennon Melton called “Don’t Carpe Diem.”  It’s been circling the Internet over the last week and a few people have sent it to me, saying that it reminds them of Growing Sideways.  I read the essay.  I liked it. I agree.

Melton’s point of departure is an experience in the supermarket that’s common to all parents of young children.  She’s in line with her three young children, who are busy committing all manner of shenanigans, when an older woman comes up to her and says, “Enjoy every moment. It goes by so fast.”

Melton hates being told this.  She says it makes her “paranoid and panicky” because she doesn’t in fact enjoy every moment.  She says those kinds of admonishments make her feel “guilty because honestly, I [am] tired and cranky and ready for the day to be over quite often.”

Two thoughts in reply.  First, I’m with her on the general point of battling feelings of guilt whenever I’m not fully engaged with Jay and Wally.  This morning, two hours after I got up with Wally, I went upstairs to brush my teeth while he and Jay were playing in the living room.  And then, instead of going back downstairs to play with them, I flopped face down on my bed.

Even in this totally exhausted state my brain had just enough juice to perform one last nagging calculation: “Maybe,” it said to me, “There’s a more fulfilling/meaningful/interesting way to spend the next five minutes of your life than with your nose pressed into your duvet.”

“Shut up brain,” I replied, and closed my eyes.

"You're not allowed to drink milk from cows," Jay told his brother helpfully.

My second thought in response to Melton’s essay is that there’s a more generous way to think about what that woman told her in the supermarket.  When people say, “Enjoy every moment” they don’t really mean every moment.  They just mean that it’s really easy to slip into a lowest common denominator state where you let fatigue and frustration and anger and boredom rule the way you experience your life. And it’s worth being aware of that tendency in order to consciously fight against it.  So when an older parent tells me to “Enjoy it because it goes fast,” I appreciate the reminder.

There’s one more thing I want to say about the essay. And then a story.

Towards the end Melton draws a distinction between two kinds of time.  The first she calls “chronos” which she says is the kind of time you experience when, say, you’re up before dawn with a kid and you keep glancing at the clock and it keeps saying 5:48am.  The second kind of time she calls “kairos,” which is meant to describe experiences of complete harmony when, for a moment at least, the tick-tock fades away.  A couple of months ago I wrote about the experience of watching Jay sleep in his crib.  That would be an example of kairos time.

Yesterday afternoon was heavier on chronos.

Jay, Wally, and I were in Whole Foods buying a loaf of bread. Wally was strapped to my chest and Jay was in the shopping cart.  We’d been waiting for a few minutes—the man who cuts the bread was nowhere to be found—when Jay said in about the most urgent voice he’s ever used, “I need to go pee.”

“You need to hold it,” I snapped back at him, just because I was in a snapping kind of mood.

He started squirming vigorously in the cart.  “I need to get down, I need to get down,” he said, utterly panicked.   Oh boy. This is a kid who peed just once on our recent 10-hour car trip from Virginia to Michigan.  He knows how to hold it.  And clearly he couldn’t anymore.  It was exactly the scenario I’d been dreading since we potty-trained Jay back in October.

I dropped my un-sliced loaf of bread on the bakery counter and made a quick U-turn with our shopping cart.  On the way to the bathroom I knocked over a basket of potato chips and upended a chair in the Whole Foods café.  But we made it before anything trickled down Jay’s leg.

“But now what?” I realized as I pulled the stall door shut. Jay is too short to pee in an adult toilet without being held up.  Wally was strapped to my chest (in his bulky winter suit, btw), which made it hard to hold Jay up under his armpits the way I usually would have done it.  And there was nowhere to put Wally down because public bathrooms are disgusting.

By then Jay was knock-kneed and teary.  Finally, I droped his pants and decided to pick him up like he’s a 2×4, completely parallel to the floor.  I couldn’t really see him because Wally was blocking my view, but with my arms outstretched in what I’m pretty sure was a torture position used by the Japanese in World War II I tried to position Jay so that his penis was directly above the toilet.  It wasn’t. We readjusted.

And then that boy proceeded to let out the longest pee of his life.  I’m holding him up in the air and my muscles are dying and I’m thinking he’s never peed more than five seconds in a row ever, but he just kept going and going and going…

*One unrelated story involving the cold.  This morning, around 7:45am, my neighbor came outside and started shooting hoops in his driveway. He’s in his early-twenties and lives at home with his dad.  I see him shooting in the driveway often, usually in the afternoons around about the time we leave to get Caroline at school.  I’ve never seen him do anything particularly athletic, but he’s clearly practiced a lot.  He dribbles well and when he shoots more often than not it’s a swish.  I get the sense that mindlessly shooting around in his driveway is an important part of his daily routine.

Even so, I was surprised to see him outside on what was the coldest morning of the winter so far.  He had on a hooded sweatshirt but no gloves.  I expected him to take a few shots and then run back inside, but he stayed out for nearly an hour.  I kept sneaking glances at him through the window.  From what I could tell, he never cupped his hands over his mouth, or shivered, or gave any sign that the cold was getting to him.  The whole thing was moving in its way.  I figured he had something he needed to work out, and that cold be dammed, playing basketball was the best way he knew how to do it.

**Another theory.  If Wally’s not waking up early because of the cold, maybe he does it to play with Jay’s toys.