To hell with this goddamn freethought parenting! — Rebekah McGowan
That shocking phrase came hurtling from between the tender lips of the mother of my children as we sat nursing our morning lattés yesterday.
Turns out Becca had spent the end of the previous evening fencing with our nearly 12-year-old son over the appropriate bedtime for a nearly 12-year-old son now that summer has arrived. She was proposing 10pm. He was pretty much proposing dealer’s choice, but willing to settle for midnight, maybe 11:30. With occasional extensions to dawn.
I descended into my latté foam. When I surfaced, she was still there.
I set down my mug and made a conscious decision to leave the little beige mustache where it was, figuring it lent me a certain gravitas. I could feel it fizzing, not unpleasantly. “And this has something to do with freethought parenting, I’m guessing.”
“Yes. He asked why. Why, why, why. Why do I have to go to bed earlier, he said.”
“Mm. And you said?”
“I said it’s not healthy to stay up late and sleep late. And he asked why not, if you’re getting the same amount of sleep? And I said I read that somewhere. It isn’t good for kids.”
Pfft. Where did you read that? I thought.
“And then he said, ‘Pfft. Where did you read that?'”
“Yes! And I said it’s a known thing. And he said he wants to see it!”
The sweater-vested professor in me grinned. Before he gives full credit, my boy wants to see Mom’s citation page. Exterior Guy remained carefully grinless.
I paused, licking off the foam in case I needed the energy for my next move. “So it’s about what’s healthy? I mean, that’s the real reason you…I mean we …want him in bed at ten?”
“Yes! It’s not healthy for a kid to stay up until midnight every night!”
“Okay. So are you going to look it up and show him?”
“No! No, I am not.”
“No, of course not.” I explored the java reef a bit, surfaced again. “And, uh…why is that?”
“Because…well, for one thing, what if it turns out not to be true?”
Let me here confess the crashing unfairness of telling this story. In our marriage, the conversational shoe is almost ALWAYS on the other foot. For all my puffed up blathering about critical thinking and having confidence in reason, Becca’s usually the one talking parental sense into my head. So for me to take one of her rare lapses and sing about it in my blog is just outrageous. It’s just wrong.
Where was I.
Oh yeah: She said, “What if it turns out not to be true?”
“Well, if it’s not unhealthy, and that was your real concern, then you’d have nothing to worry about anymore. What a relief, eh?”
She sat in silence for a moment, then executed a twisting jackknife into her own mug. When she returned, she looked like I usually do in these discussions: moded and corroded. Plus a little fizzy mustache.
I did a strutting endzone dance (uh HUH uh HUH uh HUH). In my head, of course.
Turns out we both want him in bed with lights out at 10, and that neither of us really finds argument by proverb the least bit compelling. Becca has vaguely moralistic reasons — it just seems somehow wicked to stay up late and sleep in late. I agree, for some reason, though I tend to think that’s Cotton Mather speaking through us. As for me, I want sex more than twice a year (decidedly un-Matherish of me). And we both like to read in bed uninterruptedly. Plus it throws off the family rhythm to have one person waking at 11:15 am demanding breakfast. Those reasons are more than sufficient. So we agreed. And at that point, if there are no further witnesses, the gavel comes down.
And that’s the part that’s so often misunderstood when other parents hear that we want our kids to question authority, even our own. Questioning authority doesn’t mean they have permission to DISREGARD our decisions and our rules. It means they are invited to challenge our decisions, to ask for the reasons behind them, to try to change our minds — but at the end of the process, while they are children, we’re gonna win. And if they disregard a decision, there are consequences. Just like in life.
It isn’t a choice between anarchy and fascism. Giving our kids permission to know the (real) reasons behind our decisions and even to question those decisions (1) shows them respect; (2) helps them develop their own reasoning abilities; (3) keeps us honest by ensuring our reasons are indeed defensible; and (4) further defeats and diminishes the ability of later authorities to make them into compliant, unquestioning automatons, voting and spending and acting and thinking as they are told and waving the flags they are handed.
Sometimes there isn’t time to explain. Sometimes I don’t CARE to explain. Sometimes we say, “Because I said so.” The trick is to make these rare enough to actually sound funny to kid and parent alike when they happen, and to know when I do it that it’s an unshining moment in my parental career.
Once we’ve made a decision, our kids can file a minority opinion, or even appeal, if they come up with an even stronger proverb than Mom is using. Sometimes they change our minds. Happens quite a bit. But they know it only works if their reasoning is strong. Whining or raging is a quick ticket to a summary decision by the judge.
Like bedtime at 8.