We all like to live in a democracy, yet at times, we expose our children to a tyranny of sorts. The other day, my nine-year-old son threw a tantrum, demanding to know why I didn’t allow him to go swimming with his friends.
“Because I said so!” The words flew from my mouth before I could withdraw them.
Although these words are normally effective when it comes to nipping an argument in the bud, they also hurt a child’s feelings. They label children as objects to be seen and not heard, no different from the household cat.
Watching my son rush to his room, bang the door behind him, and shout about how evil I am made me feel like Cinderella’s cruel step mother. The scene brought back memories of my own childhood. Although I did not condone my son’s attitude, I empathized with him and understood how he felt.
My mother’s word was law. If she told me something, I accepted it and kept my opinion to myself. If I asked for something, and she said no, there was no room for why. I’d get an answer exactly like the one I meted out to my son. Pressing the point further earned me a harsher punishment, like being walloped with a mulberry tree stick, which left me feeling angry, powerless, and unloved.
I remember one particular day when I was still in high school. I made plans with my friends to watch a movie at a cinema in town. When I asked for my mother’s permission to go, she firmly and unequivocally said no. She said we had a television that worked perfectly well in the house, and that I could watch the movie there if I so wished.
When I asked her why, she said the dreaded words – because she said so. I knew better than to push the point. I remember feeling very bitter and unappreciated. It seemed like she cared only for herself and did not want me to be happy.
I realized something that day: While denying me what I wanted disappointed me, what hurt more was an answer that disregarded my feelings. Her words jabbed at my heart like a spear. It was less about what she said than how she said it. I vowed to myself that day, that if I ever had kids of my own, I would be much kinder to them.
So it surprised me when I found myself dealing with my son in the same manner that my mom dealt with me.
At some point I realized it was not out of hatred that my mom denied me so many things. She was trying to protect me from the problems she had encountered during her younger days. For instance, she conceived me at a very young age and tried in the best manner she could to help me avoid an early pregnancy. She did this by keeping me where she could monitor every movement I made.
I made sure my son didn’t go swimming that day because of fear – fear that he would drown because he was never taught how to swim. I never taught him to swim.
Children do not understand the motive behind a refusal, nor do they realize their parent has their best interests at heart. The only thing they understand is that you’ve shattered their plans by saying no.
To avoid sparking anger and bitterness in my child, I recognized that I should stop using the autocratic route. Harry Wormwood, a classic example of bad parenting from the movie “Matilda”, comes to mind. When asked by his daughter why he didn’t sell good cars, Wormwood says, “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” From experience, I knew this approach would not be effective with my son.
As adults, we ask questions and expect answers. Yet we disregard questions asked by children or use scare tactics to silence them. Instead of shooting down questions or treating kids as if they have no right to answers, we should answer them in a way that will make them feel appreciated. The problem is not in saying no; it is the parent who cannot tolerate a question.
Children deserve answers and explanations. When my son asked why he couldn’t go swimming, I should have explained that he first needed to take swimming lessons. I should have also highlighted the dangers of playing in a pool, especially as a non swimmer.
He might not have been happy with my answer, but when in a calmer mood, he would think of what I told him and appreciate the logic behind it. “Because I said so” are not only angry, demeaning words. They’re a denial of someone’s rights. They cut off questions at the roots with the finality of a judge’s gavel instead of the responsibility and care of a parent.