'Because I Said So' - Unreasonable Parenting
Just the other day I had the most bizarre existential crisis as I experienced a tear in the time/space continuum. My seven year old and eleven year old daughters decided, completely out of the blue, that they didn’t like the movie ‘Princess Bride.’ That alone would be reason enough to question my own existence but wait, there’s more: they had never seen the movie.
And if you think THAT’S what blew my mind, you’d still be wrong. What was crazy was that, in a moment of weakness, I decided to engage my girls in an entirely unreasonable debate over the qualities of the movie that, again, they had never seen. And in that moment I had a flash back to a startlingly similar debate I had with a friend in college. They both went something like this:
Me: “You don’t hate it (him).”
Girls (friend): “Yes I do! I’ve always hated it (him). It (he) is stupid and boring.”
Me: You’ve never even seen (met) it (him)! It (he) is actually terrific and hilarious! You’ll love it (him).
Girls (friend): “No way! Never! I’m going to sit in my room (throw up in a trash bin and sleep on the bathroom floor).
My girls and my friend were struggling with the same issue: limited cognitive reasoning skills.
The girls were limited because their brains are still developing the capacity for abstract thought.
My friend was drunk.
And that’s when it hit me - trying to convince young children that doing something concrete will have abstract benefits to their lives is like trying to convince your drunk suite matethat he shouldn’t beat up your friend because he spells his name wrong.
And yet parents take the bait all the time. I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of times I’ve watched a mom or dad try to explain why behaving well is a ‘good idea’ to their kids. I understand the draw towards a kinder and gentler parenting style and don’t disagree with many of today’s higher standards for discipline. That the parenting styles exhibited by Adrian Peterson are widely decried as far too violent is a very good thing, but we’ve mistakenly taken ‘kindler and gentler’ a step further than appropriate and are unintentionally inflicting mental and emotional distress on young children.
Let’s take the example of a four year old who wants to play with his mom’s make-up.
If she sternly says to her four year old ‘how do you think it will make mommy feel if you break that and I can never use it again and I’ll have to buy a new one?’ she is asking her child to do something he is likely entirely incapable of doing: hold and consider five abstract concepts, resolve them, and give an answer that will appease his biological overlord. Those five concepts in this example are:
1. The child’s potential perception(how do you think)
2. Someone else’s feelings (I’ll feel)
3. Conditionality (‘if’ you break it)
4. Future conditions (won’t be able to use it again)
5. Consequences (I’ll have to buy another one)
One abstract concept is challenging enough for a young child to deal with, though they should begin toying around with them as early as age 3 or 4. To force a child to attempt these cognitive gymnastics will, undoubtedly, result in the child becoming frustrated, angry or even scared. And being the concrete critters they are, they’re likely to respond concretely. As in, laying on the concrete kicking and screaming or throwing broken pieces of concrete at your head.
An example of a single, abstract concept appropriate to our example would be ‘No, you might break it’ or ‘No, I’ll be angry’ or, the classic go to, ‘No, because I said so.’
Hearing that as a kid drove me nuts. Now I realize that my parents were doing me a favor. Like any kid I wanted a reason ‘why.’ But my parents had learned along the way that giving a reason to a mind developmentally incapable of reasoning is like giving a drunk friend the key to your dorm room. Both are going to make a giant mess and pee in your bed.
I know it feels rude to say to your child ‘because I said so’ and because we are in a kinder and gentler age of parenting we want to soften their disappointment by providing a reason for our insistence on a certain behavior or action. Reasons, however, only satiate reasonable people. And until they are able to reason, kids simply aren’t reasonable.
I propose ‘because I said so’ as a good option because it retains a real concrete object in the mind of the child and reinforces a sense of authority in the parent. For sure when we say that, we become the bad guy - but at least there is a real object for the child’s anger and we have illustrated an absolute power that can be useful for their protection. A child that is accustomed to a conversation as to ‘why’ they should or shouldn’t do something is far more likely to continue to run into a busy parking lot. After all, their parents have did not explain why they should ’STOP!!’ If that same child has experienced the power of ‘because I said so’ thousands of times, they are far more likely to stop when it is shouted by mom or dad BECAUSE they say so.
As children age and their cognitive abilities progress, this dynamic certainly will shift. In my next post I’ll talk about how to recognize that shift and how to adjust your parenting style not only to employ their increased cognitive abilities but to also invest in them.