Excerpt from YES MOMMY
Listen, I know, things happen. People get busy and forget. People get sick and forget. People have personal crises and forget. People just forget. And some of you have probably totally forgotten to pick up your copy of Yes Mommy: The Mayhem and Madness of Not Saying No. It happens.
And just in case you are on the fence about buying it, here’s a little taste to whet your whistle. Prime the pump, if you will. I hope you enjoy it!
“Stop. Please don’t do that. I said stop. Aren’t you listening, I said no!”
As the parent of a seven-, five- and three-year-old I’m pretty sure I utter those words hundreds of times a day. Some days, thousands. Like today, a day that started like any other day at my house. While stopping my three-year-old from drawing on the hardwood floors with a Sharpie, I had to explain to the five-year-old that sundresses are for summer and not eighteen-degree Chicago days as I tried valiantly (and unsuccessfully, I might add) to stop the seven-year-old from walloping the five-year-old fashionista during a fight over the Wii controller. I’m living the dream!
And it’s not just everyday life either – I recently administered a timeout at Disneyworld after all three children fought over, and ultimately ripped to shreds, a free park map. The sad part is, they all had their own maps, they just wanted the same one at the same time. My kids couldn’t even keep it together at the most magical place on earth.
Maybe it’s me. Perhaps I’m too uptight and I just need to relax and be the mom who lets it all roll off her back. The cool mom who lets them finger paint on the dining room walls and grind Play Doh into the living room rug without fighting off a panic attack that the blue Play Doh is mixing with the red Play Doh. The laid-back mom who lets them play Angry Birds on her iPad without giving in to the compulsive desire to wipe their sticky fingerprints off the screen every fifteen seconds. But come on, those moms are urban myths. No one really acts like that with her own kids. No, the parents I know all helicopter the hell out of their kids, micromanaging their every move so they can be sure their special snowflakes stay on the straight and narrow. And yes, I am guilty as well.
When my son, Jack, gets the look on his face that he’s about to do something premeditatedly wrong, my mothering spidey-sense kicks in to high gear. I can usually spot whatever it is a mile away, and it starts.
“Don’t even think about it,” I say, looking at a large, twisted tree branch on the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street on our way to school one morning.
“What?” he replies, his eyes never leaving the branch, clearly fashioning it into a weapon in his wee mind. It has great potential, all pointed and sharp on one end, as it cracked off during a recent storm.
“I am telling you right now, do not touch that branch,” I say firmly, believing this will be the time he actually listens to me.
And with that, he picks the branch up and swings it around wildly, narrowly missing one sister in the stroller and smacking the other sister in the back of the head. I explode, a stream of words tumbling from my mouth that all break down to the same message: I said no. I now have one crying about getting hit in the head and one crying because he just lost his iPod Touch for the rest of the day. I’m pissed because he defied me and because of that, his sister got hurt. Not to mention the fact I’m annoyed he didn’t just listen to me in the first place. I guarantee you this same scenario played out minutes later with another family a few minutes behind us on its own walk to school because I chucked the branch back down on the grass as I dragged my screaming children down the street.
But what if I hadn’t said no? What if I had just let natural consequences rule? Reflecting on the situation, I probably could have let him pick the branch up and get a look at it. Was there really harm in that? And if he was careless and hit his sister, the end result would have been the same: he would have lost screen time because he hurt someone. Maybe I’m too over-protective, constantly stepping in to try and prevent things from happening. Maybe I should just chill the hell out.
I’ve read all the parenting books. I know How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, employing 1-2-3 Magic so we have Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child(ren) while NutureShocking the hell out of our previous beliefs. I can psychobabble with the best of ‘em, but when it comes to putting it into practice, I have less than stellar results. Oh, I always start out with the best of intentions. I declare this, this, is the parenting technique I’ve been searching for. I start off strong, consulting the book like the Bible. But inevitably, the kids rebel against the new flavor of the week and I end up losing my cool and yelling. I blame the technique, when really I should blame myself, and abandon it because it clearly doesn’t work. A few weeks later, I find the parenting book of my dreams. This one’s going to work for sure! Shampoo, rinse, repeat for the last seven years.
Maybe the answer lies in pulling back a little, letting them figure things out for themselves. I’m sick of yelling, sick of constantly saying, “No, Don’t, and Stop.” And I’m putting my money, err, my words, where my mouth is. Wait, does that even make sense? See, I’m so weary from saying no all the time my brain no longer works.
In a bid to see if my strictness is ruining my parenting, I’m going to stop saying no for a month. Thirty days without “no,” “stop” and “don’t” passing my lips. This might just kill us all. But will this make me a better parent? Will this make my kids better kids? Will it change our relationship with each other? Will they even notice it’s happening? And most important, will I have any sort of vocabulary left without my most-used words spilling forth?
Ever notice how saying a word over and over makes it sound all weird and distorted? You focus on the pronunciation and how the mouth makes a weird shape and the way the sounds reverberate off the tongue and teeth. Soon, you don’t even notice what you’re saying and you’re just making guttural noises and trying not to laugh. That about sums up what it’s like to talk to children. I don’t even realize when I’m saying “no,” “don’t” or “stop,” because I do it so often.
As part of my prep for Yes Mommy, I asked my husband to follow me around and keep track of how many times I said the words “no,” “don’t” or “stop” in a single day. I didn’t want him to tell me when he was doing it or be obvious about it in any way. After the kids were in bed one Saturday night, Josh flipped a small, shiny silver item at me. I caught it on the fly in my right hand and studied it with a puzzled look on my face.
“It’s a click counter,” he said. “I bought it on Amazon. Check your digits.”
I saw the number eighty-seven staring me in the face. I said some variation of “no” to my children eighty-seven times. On a Saturday. I estimate the number would be twice as much on a school day when we need to be somewhere on time with shoes and coats in place. And it hit me – this needs to change. I don’t want my kids remembering me as the no-fun mom who yelled all the time. My urgency for the project ratcheted up even more.
Yes Mommy is the tale of two parents: the Before Mom, uptight and quick to say no, and the After Mom, laid-back and open to anything. Well, not anything. I’m not letting them smoke joints or get stylized sunshine tramp-stamp tattoos. But I am going to spend thirty days trying to be a better mom through the power of positivity.
You Want To Do What?!
“Stop! We do not talk about penises at the dinner table. If I hear it again, you’re both going to timeout in your rooms,” I say with exasperation to my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter one night.
As they cackle with laughter, my three-year-old daughter joins in the inappropriateness and lustily yells, “Poo-poo gaga!” While it sounds innocuous, this toddler version of potty talk makes the older two snort milk out of their noses and it all begins anew.
“No!” I say loudly from the kitchen where I am tearing raw spinach into plastic Ikea bowls. The giggles subside to muffled snorts behind hands and into the crooks of arms. My oldest, Jackson, opens his mouth and I shoot him the evil eye, causing him to rethink whatever it was he planned to say. I sprinkle a few seasoned croutons on everyone’s salad and spoon some sweet Italian dressing out of a jar. I set the bowls down in front of each child and go back to the kitchen to grab some cantaloupe cubes for everyone.
“Hey, Jack, look at me,” my middle daughter, Emily, says. I look over and see Emmie standing up on her chair, her back to the table, flowered skirt around her ankles, mooning her brother and sister. All three start laughing like hyenas.
“No!” I yell. “No no no no no. How many times do I have to remind you we do not show our private parts to other people?”
I grab her from her place at the table and send her to her room while the laughter continues. Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened in our house, and even sadder, it’s not the first time at the dinner table.
“What are you thinking?” I ask her, as I lead her by the hand to the stairs, not using my inside voice. “That is so inappropriate. You go to your room for five minutes and don’t even think about coming down until then.”
“Can I still have dessert?” she asks. Can you still have dessert? Seriously, child? Although this time in her room will likely be less of a punishment and more time for her to think of how she can top her last act with an even more outlandish encore.
Later, as I relate the story to my husband, Josh, he shakes his head and laughs.
“It’s not funny!” I say, shoving him on the shoulder as we sit side by side on the couch. “No wonder our kids act like this, you’re right there with them.”
“No, you’re right,” he says. “It’s completely inappropriate. But you know how the parenting experts say you should pick your battles? How some smaller things are better off ignored and they’ll go away because you’re not giving them the attention they crave? Maybe this is one of those situations.”
“Or, she’ll just keep doing it and the next time we’re out for burritos at Chipotle, she’ll moon the entire restaurant,” I say. “We need to set limits and boundaries. All those same experts talk about kids craving consistency and needing rules to thrive.”
“No one’s saying we shouldn’t have boundaries,” Josh responds. “But sometimes, someone mooning you at the dinner table is just plain funny. You have to relax a little and laugh.”
A few days later, I am still mulling our conversation. Am I too strict? Are my expectations out of line? Maybe I need to relax, learn to go with the flow a little more. Perhaps dinner-table mooning isn’t that big of a deal. Maybe I need to be like those hippie commune parents who let their kids run around naked outside, because when they’re actually showing their butts all the time, they wouldn’t get such a laugh out of it. Nudity is natural! Who cares? Except we live in the middle of a highly dense urban area and letting my kids run around naked outside would likely draw the interest of NBC’s To Catch a Predator, not to mention Child Protective Services. See, this is why I can’t just relax, why I insist on micromanaging everything from combing their hair to crossing the street – if it’s not done right, someone will die. Well, definitely with the crossing the street, maybe not so much with the combing the hair. But you can never be too careful.
No. Don’t. Stop it. The words fall off my tongue so easily as a parent, I don’t even notice when I say them anymore. And I know if I don’t realize how often I say them, my kids sure as hell don’t hear them. When did I become this person? The one who goes to “no” as the default answer? Oh, right, seven years ago when Jack learned to move, and with each subsequent child who joined the household. No to touching the fireplace, pulling the cat’s tail and Mommy’s hair. No to biting our friends, not taking a nap and throwing pureed peas on the wall. No to getting out of the big-boy bed, writing on the wall with markers and running into the street. No to poking dead rats in the alley with a stick, misbehaving at school and karate-chopping our friends during Tae Kwon Do. And apparently, no to mooning your siblings at the dinner table, although no one has taken that one to heart. I don’t want to be that mom. But I have to be that mom.
Emmie can’t leave the house in the middle of the winter in Chicago wearing a sundress; she’ll freeze to death. Jack can’t climb a tree at the park because he’ll fall and break his neck. Maeve can’t get out of the stroller and walk because she’ll slow us down. But really, wouldn’t they benefit from the natural consequences of their actions? If Emmie chose to wear her pink spaghetti-strap sundress to school in January, she would learn just how cold one could get when the wind whips off Lake Michigan in the eighteen-degree temperatures. Jack falls out of a tree? Bet he won’t climb it again; or if he does, he’ll be more careful. When Maeve insists on walking all the way to the grocery store and back, sure it will take longer, but she gets some exercise. Or maybe she realizes how good she has it being pushed around all day and jumps back in the stroller. Either way, she gets to practice a little independence. And isn’t that what we’re ultimately after as parents? I need to trust the lessons I’ve tried to teach them have worked inside their little brains and they know that the reason I tell them no is to keep them safe. Mostly. Sometimes it’s because I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of whatever mess it would create. Mother of the Year, right here.
How would things get done if I couldn’t say no? How would I get them to behave and listen? I have three kids under the age of seven – without no in my vocabulary, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell we’re ever leaving the house again. What would I even say to them if I couldn’t say “no”? I might not ever speak to them again.
But the more I think about it, the more appealing it becomes. I casually pitch the idea to Josh one night after the kids are in bed.
“What if we never said no to our kids?” I ask him, as he watches a St. Louis Cardinals game on his computer.
“Son of a … That’s the second error this inning,” he yells, without looking up. “Did you say something?”
“I said, what if we didn’t say no to our kids,” I respond exasperatedly.
“They would end up on death row in a matter of days,” he replies, eyes not leaving the screen. “Except it wouldn’t be like those death-row cases where some last-minute DNA evidence comes along proving them innocent. In their case, the DNA evidence would come along and they’d be proven even more guilty.”
“Remember when you told me to lighten up a few weeks ago, that I didn’t have to be so strict all the time? Maybe this is the answer.”
Now I have his attention. “Are you insane? Our kids don’t listen as it is, how would you ever get them to do anything? It would be complete anarchy. I think this is the worst idea you’ve ever had. Worse even than letting Emmie find out that American Girl stores existed.”
“Hear me out. Maybe this experiment is the answer we’ve been looking for. Maybe this will make me a better mom. Maybe it will make them better kids. Maybe it will change the way we relate to each other. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn about natural consequences and start taking some responsibility for their own actions and behavior.”
“Amy, they’re seven, five and three. Some of them don’t even pronounce ‘responsibility’ correctly. The entire motivation for everything they do is doing whatever is going to please them at that very moment in time without any consideration for anyone else or any realization of the consequences their actions might have.”
“So they’re a lot like you?” I sweetly ask.
“That’s not funny, but it is pretty accurate. But that’s not my point. My point is they’re going to turn into insane people who stay up all night, eat candy for breakfast and never take showers. And you’ll never have to cook again because they will insist on eating every meal at McDonald’s. In fact, they might just leave home entirely and live at McDonald’s. They will be like that Super Size Me guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month, but instead of becoming fat and sick, our kids will become hyper and crazy. You’re going to undo all the hard parenting work we’ve put in during the last seven years!”
“Listen, don’t you think we should perhaps give them a little more credit than this? Jack actually asks to take showers every night because he likes to prolong bedtime and Emmie sneaks cherry tomatoes from the fridge when she thinks we’re not looking. Sure, Maeve is a little young to know what’s going on, but we barely ever tell her no anyway. That kid is spoiled as the baby of the family. And our kids think the only things they serve at McDonald’s are pancakes and ice cream cones. They have no idea what a McNugget even is!”
Josh looks at me like I have two heads. “If you do this, I’m moving to Canada,” he says gravely. “I’ll have no choice.”
“What does that even mean?” I ask. “Isn’t that what people threaten to do when they don’t like the outcome of a presidential election? What does that accomplish in this situation?”
“I don’t know, but I do it when I don’t like my wife’s outlandish parenting techniques. You can’t really blame me, it’s just my survival instincts kicking in. Don’t you realize they will eat us alive?”
“We’re not going to tell them, silly. We’re just going to do it.”
“So you’re just going to start saying yes to everything and you don’t think they’re going to notice? Hey Mom, can I have candy for lunch? Yes? That’s awesome! Can you buy me a pack of cigarettes? No, not the lights, I prefer menthols. Check out this sweet tattoo I’m going to get on my face, it will really accentuate my nose ring perfectly. Great idea, Amy.”
I sigh and continue presenting my case. “Look, I’m clearly not going to let them do anything dangerous or life-threatening. If anyone gets too close to a tattoo parlor, you can be damn sure I’m going to stop it. I might buy them cigarettes, but I’m obviously not going to let them inhale.” I get a slight smile out of Josh. “But I really want to see if this makes us a different family. I want to see if it makes me a better mom. What we’re doing now certainly isn’t working, so what’s the harm?”
“Damn it!” Josh yells, startling me. He never swears at me.
“What the hell?” I say snottily. “You don’t need to yell at me!”
“Oh, no, sorry. Not you. The Cardinals stranded the bases loaded. No, for you, I don’t care. Fine. Whatever. I mean, I’ll be in Canada. I’ll probably be too busy watching curling on TV. But I get to yell ‘I told you so,’ when they end up hysterical from lack of sleep and sugar-overload and you can’t be mad at me.”
“Listen, I need your support here. You don’t need to be critical when things don’t go as planned. And I certainly don’t need to hear ‘I told you so.’ Besides, that’s my line. You can’t use it.”
“Oh you’ll have my support, because I can’t wait to see how this turns out, but all bets are off when it comes to ‘I told you so.’ You don’t hold the patent on that.”