I made my 5-year-old daughter cry.
I told Penny I wasn’t going to ask her to do anything anymore; I was just going to tell her to do it.
These days, any request I make is met with a predictable “no.” Why bother? Sometimes she is polite, other times defiant, but the message is the same: I’m going to keep doing what I want to do, and maybe I’ll get around to your thing later (but probably not).
I get it. She’s her own little person and is exploring boundaries. But it is pissing me the eff off! I can not deal with all this negativity! No more ‘no’s! I say, “no mas!!!”
The funny thing is: the “no” surprises me almost every time. I’m an optimist, I guess. Or a sucker. Or maybe I just expect my sweet little girl to be sweet. I usually follow up my initial request with a firm, “please, honey” and then a “Please. Penny. Honey. I’m asking nicely.” Truth be told, by this point I’m probably starting to get rankled and am likely “asking” through gritted teeth.
I don’t want to have to order her around, but when I ask her for help I expect a certain amount of, well, compliance … and a cheerful smile, dammit! It’s not like I want her to lift the couch while I vacuum under it. I just need her to pick up some toys, or watch her little bro for a couple minutes while I’m busy in the kitchen. I’m really only asking her to be polite. I’ve always tried to speak to Penny like she’s a person and that is how people talk to each other. There is a societal expectation that when someone asks you to perform an easy but essential task, you say “sure, no problem.” Clearly, Penny did not get the unwritten memo. I guess in Obama’s America, the post office doesn’t deliver unwritten memos to 5-year-old girls. Thanks for nothing, Obama!
The question remains: Where does Penny’s negativity come from? It may be her age and I’m sure it’s just a phase, but sometimes I worry that I am the root cause. Maybe I’m the one saying “no” too often.
Don’t! No! Stop! Don’t touch that. Or that! OR THAT!!! I said, STOP!!! You can’t! We can’t. No Simon, that’s daddy’s beer. Gah! Get away from the knives! I’m sorry Penny, we don’t have time. Not today. Or tomorrow. Nope. Nah. No. No! NOOOO!!!!!!
When did I become that guy, that dad, who says “no” to everything? I always thought I’d be the dad who would be cool with his his toddler chugging a cold one while juggling kitchen shears. Funny how life changes you. With a two year old and a five year old at home, sometimes it feels like half my day is spent telling them what they can’t do. It bums me the hell out!.I’m sure it’s no picnic for my kids, either.
I don’t know if I’m to blame for my daughter’s steadfast resistance to pretty much everything, but I don’t think I’m helping.
Saying “no” is easy. It’s all comes down to Newton’s First Law of Motion: an object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest. (I blinded you…with science!) It’s simple inertia.
When I ask Penny for help, she is already doing something. Saying “no” allows her to keep moving in her present direction. Saying “OK, dad” means not only must her activity come to a grinding halt, she must undertake an entirely new enterprise. So, I become the pain in the ass that is forcing her to exert all that extra energy. The nerve of some dads! Similarly, telling Simon not to touch the oh-so-enticing-objects he has business touching is easy. It means those dangerous, valuable, or not-yet-organized items remain undisturbed (and, ideally, he keeps his grubby little hands off my beer). But he is on the move, too. He needs something to throw, color on, or destroy. It’s up to me to think of and provide a reasonable alternative for him. Sounds simple, but it takes so much more effort than just saying “no.” At least, initially.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Crap. Now I’m boring you…with science! Bear with me. Leading Simon to play with parent-approved objects and engaging with him may require (what feels like) an infinite amount of energy, but once I get him away from the things that can potentially kill him or that I just don’t want him messing with, my frustration disappears and is replaced with fun. The initial action is tedious, but when he reacts in squeals of delight, instead of screams of defiance, the exercise feels effortless. For Penny, despite my threat, I know I can’t just tell her what to do. She’ll still say “no!” She needs options, too. This morning, for instance, I gave her a choice, “brush your teeth or get dressed first.” She was still a little slow to change course (in this case, hiding under a blanket and pretending she was invisible), but getting to choose the activity she deemed easier got her going in the right direction.
I’m not sure if that has anything to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion. That one confused me. Anyway, I think that’s quite enough science for one parenting post. Maybe I should get political again.
Barack Obama implored us all to “be the change you want to see in the world.” I’m going to take that advice to heart, at least on a small scale. I am going to “be the change I want to see” in my house. I have begun concentrating on staying positive and saying “no” less often. Maybe, just maybe, President Obama’s inspirational words can make up for that damn undelivered memo.
Dave Lesser is a New Jersey-based member of the NYC Dads Group and a stay-at-home dad.
He writes the blog Amateur Idiot/Professional Dad, where a version of this post first appeared.