I know what you must be thinking: “Oh, come on! It’s a parenting staple! I was told it a million times by my parents, and I’m fine. It taught me that they were in charge.” And I’m right there with you. My husband and I never purposefully set out not to say it. We just never started.
What we did intend, though, was to clearly explain our reasoning for what our kids must have seen as seemingly-arbitrary decisions. In doing so, I believe we won our kids’ obedience, one that was built on trust and understanding, not just their place at the bottom of some pecking order in our home. And yes, it was (is) tiring.
We went through the obnoxious “Why?” stage with our kids. As teachers, my husband and I decided to treat each “Why?” not as a nuisance or challenge but as an earnest plea of curiosity. It took a great deal of mental work, but we felt it was important to address their concerns directly and honestly. Eventually, in an effort to head off the “why” loop, we often caught ourselves explaining our rationales before we were even approached with the dreaded question. “We’re going to wait and have this candy after supper because we’re about to have cake and ice cream, and I don’t want you to get a belly-ache from too many sweets.”
We didn’t phrase it as a question. We didn’t say “okay?” afterward. They know who’s in charge. Most of the time, they never followed it up with a “why?” If they did, they knew they were risking all of their treats by whining. Honestly, I think most of our “why” questions have been less out of nagging dissatisfaction than of innocent curiosity. “Why does Daddy have hair on his tummy? Will I get some when I grow up?”
I don’t feel the need to justify myself to my children, but I also don’t feel as though withholding explanation somehow solidifies my authority with them. I can certainly understand and sympathize with a busy parent who simply doesn’t have the time to unpack a dissertation on why we can’t go to the zoo today. But if either of us can’t immediately answer, we still tell the kids that we will discuss it later. And we do.
The kids have come to realize and appreciate that about us and have even taken the concepts on themselves. One time, our oldest stopped himself mid-snack-request with, “Wait! I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say ‘We will have lots of snacks at the party in a little while, so just wait until then.’ Never mind.”
It’s sinking in.