I don’t have children, so I’m pretty open-minded about offering advice about kids. My theory is this — if you are willing to consider parenting advice from a childless single person, you probably need the help. The most commonly offered piece of advice I give is this: If you can’t outsmart a 5-year old, give it back. (Disclaimer: I also say this about 6-year olds, 8-year olds, and in fact most pre-teens.)
After a certain age, children become little argument machines. It’s an important part of the developmental process, and a necessary skill for navigating through life. However, in order for a child to reach his/her full potential, they need to lose a lot of arguments first. And given what most small children want, it’s usually in their best long-term interests that they lose arguments with adults. Parenting is an exhausting vocation, and I understand how hard it can be to have the same pointless argument again and again. But like an athlete coming in off the bench, I still have the energy to fight, and the cunning to win.
As I’ve mentioned, I used to babysit for my friend’s 5-year old son. So one evening I’m reading the paper and watching Christopher, and before dinner, he comes and asks if he can have a cookie. After pondering the idea, and considering the ramifications of cookie-having vis-a-vis dinner, I told him it was OK. Christopher responded by having a cookie. About 15 minutes later, he wanted another cookie. This time, I told him it was too close to dinner, and that he could have another cookie after he ate.
This did not go over well. He got his face scrunched up into his kindergarten version of menacing, and declared in a loud voice, “I WANT A COOKIE.” Now, I’m nobody’s idea of a fearless warrior, but I wasn’t intimidated by kindergarten kids when I was one, let alone in my 30’s. (Disclaimer: My school district didn’t have kindergarten when I was that age.) And as I said above, if you can’t outwit a 5-year old, give it back. So I looked up from my paper, and said in the most understanding voice I could muster, “I know you want a cookie.” Then I went back to reading the paper.
A few seconds later, I looked up at Christopher, who was standing there in stunned silence. He had that look on his face that I call “dog with a slide rule”. I could almost read the thoughts going through his little mind. “Hey, wait a minute! I clearly expressed a desire, and John just acknowledged it without doing anything. He didn’t argue, or agree, or attempt to bargain, or anything! I don’t know what to do with that! Line, please?” Eventually, sensing that no cookie was forthcoming (but not entirely sure why), he wandered off.
Later that evening, after dinner (and a cookie), we played for a while, and then it was time for bed. Christopher offered a counter-proposal: No. Being in a good mood, I decided to be magnanimous and elaborate on my position. Using my best CCD teacher voice, I said, “Christopher, let me explain something. I’m bigger than you are, I’m stronger than you are, I’m older than you are, and I’m smarter than you are. And I always will be. So every time you try to fight me, you are going to lose.”
Aghast at the prospect of going 0-for-life against me, Christopher looked at me and complained, “That’s not fair!”
Meeting his gaze, with all the kindness and understanding I could muster, I replied, “I know it’s not fair”, and went back to reading the newspaper.
Christopher went to bed.