Caren Chesler Headshot

Finding the Balance Between Being A 'Yes' Mom and a 'No' Mom

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Perilous Parenting
Caren Chesler Headshot

Finding the Balance Between Being A 'Yes' Mom and a 'No' Mom

Posted: Updated:

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I knew her as "the lady who let her kid play in the middle of the street," until our annual block party, when I learned her name was Summer, she was a single mom with three kids, and she is probably a better parent than I'll ever be.

Summer let her three-year-old son, Devin, climb their tree like a monkey. He'd sway back and forth from a hand-made wooden swing and then leap to the ground like Tarzan, sometimes landing in the road. She would let him go to a skateboard park and ride a half-pipe. She would let him take his boogie board so far out into the ocean that she was vexed as to where to stand in case he needed her: way out in the water, or way up on the beach. In either place, she was going to be really far away from him at some point in his ride. And that's all before he turned four.

In any given day, I can find a thousand reasons to say, "Don't do that." But I don't. I pick my battles. Because to dole out "No's" like playing cards can't be good for the soul. -- Caren Chesler

"I never told him, 'No, you can't do that.' And when strangers tell me he's going to get hurt, I say, 'No, he's not. He can handle it,' " Summer said. She then sings her son's praises with enormous pride. "You know that kid rode a wave all the way in from 30 or 40 feet out in the ocean, at three years old?"

One day, Devin climbed so high up the tree in front of their house that he found himself just outside a second-floor balcony. He leapt to the balcony and walked into his mom's room. Summer says it alarmed her but never forbade him from doing it.

"I knew that was never going to work. I saw it in his eyes. So I said, 'Oh my god, Spiderman! Don't ever do that when I'm not here! I want to be able to see you do it," she said.

Devin is now 10, and the only emergency room visits he's ever had were in the last few months: one for gas and another for an eye infection. And he has a strange quality you don't often see in kids these days: joy.

Summer wasn't just liberal with Devin. She let all her children splash around in dirty puddles, throw mud pies and play in paint. She'll take her 15-year old daughter, Raven, and a friend to Atlantic City for her 16th birthday because she found a nice hotel with an indoor pool. When she booked it, she asked about interesting activities for 16-year olds and the clerk said, "You do know this is an adult playground, right?"

"I know that," she told me, "but it's a night away, somewhere different, in a hotel with a pool. How is that not fun for a kid?"

My husband and I play it a little loose on the parenting rules as well, though on a much smaller scale: We've always let our son, Eddie, who's nearly three, eat with an adult fork and play with scissors. We leave knives out on the island in our kitchen, sometimes within his reach. And I let him stand on a chair near the stove so he can watch me cook. We've never covered the electrical outlets with plastic or cleared the room of small objects for fear that he'll swallow them. And when he started saying, "Dammit!" and "What the heck," we let it slide, figuring nothing makes a kid want to do something more than if you tell him not to. We view bad behavior like a bad smell, feeling it's better to leave the front and back doors open and let the odors pass right through.

Our approach is a bit too loose for some. We had a regular weekly play date last year with a child a little older than Eddie, and every time I picked my son up from their house, he'd say he'd been given a time out. His infractions were minor - throwing blocks, or failing to share -- but it got so that going to this friend's house became synonymous with going for a time out. After a while, I found that if I asked him not to do something, he'd sit himself down on the floor near the front door, and when I'd say, "What are you doing?" He'd say, "I'm in a time out."

"Time-out mom" is a bit controlling for my taste. Hearing "No" and "Don't" all the time might start to make you feel like you can't do anything...right. Sure, there are times when we should say "No," and they're obvious: "Don't chew razor blades." "Don't play with daddy's gun." But the pendulum seems to have swung toward "No," and "Don't do that," with time-outs becoming epidemic. In any given day, I can find a thousand reasons to say, "Don't do that," from telling my child to stop playing with the jam packets in a restaurant to telling my husband not to use the last piece of toilet paper without replacing the roll. But I don't. I pick my battles. Because to dole out "No's" like playing cards can't be good for the soul.

Imagine a world in which all we heard was "Yes." Summer's house is the closest I've seen, and it's given Devin the freedom to grow and explore and be who he is rather than who she is. Sure, time-out mom's child is well-behaved, but he's going to grow up to be, well, time-out mom. Me, I have so many fears, of heights, of waves, of going downhill too far too fast, that my child would be better off not turning out like me. They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I say if you hold on too tightly, the apple won't fall at all.

My son and I went to Summer's house yesterday so Eddie could play with her kids. Devin answered the door holding a rabbit. It was a strange looking rabbit, with a mane like a lion.

"What's that?" Eddie asked, beaming.

"It's a bunny," Devin said.

Summer's house looked like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. The door was turquoise, the living room walls were color-washed gold, and the kitchen was periwinkle. The dining room chairs were covered in a big, bright floral pattern. The couch was covered in a sheet made of a zebra pattern, and there was a pillow the color of peacocks. Everything in the house seemed vibrant and alive, making other houses seem black and white in comparison.

We stayed for about an hour as Eddie played with toys, drank hot chocolate with a big puffy marshmallow, and sat on the couch with Devin watching television. My son cried when we left.

Yesterday morning, Eddie and I were doing our new routine: he's not yet potty trained, and I don't want to push him for fear he'll dig in his heels, so he just sits on the potty, like it's a chair, and we read a book. This morning, we read, "Little Bird, Biddle Bird," which starts out, "Little bird, Biddle bird, time for your snack. Mommy is busy and hasn't come back. Little bird, Biddle bird, mother has flown. Is it time you were finding some food on your own?" For the next 10 pages, the bird ponders what to eat. He eventually finds a worm, struggles to pull it out of the ground but finally does, and he is then full and happy. When his mother returns, she commends him for his ingenuity and then sings his praises with enormous pride, for all the world to hear.

"Read it again, Mommy," Eddie said.

And I did.

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