A Father Figures Out When NOT To Say No

It was nice to remember that we could say "no" to behavior that makes our lives harder ... But there are other times when I can't decide whether it's appropriate to say "no."
03/12/2012 06:58 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

Late on a Sunday afternoon, at the end of a weekend that featured "Downtown Abbey", Spanish brunch, and coq au vin, Caroline and I lay on the living room floor while the boys played and the sky faded to a somber Michigan twilight.

Jay sat at his small desk, using a pair of pinking shears to dismantle an empty cereal box -- "Cut it into as many pieces as you can," I told him, trying to bide time until dinner -- while Wally crawled around at his feet. He placed one hand on the seat of Jay's chair. Then the other. Then he pulled himself up to a position of full-equality with his brother, who seemed no less stunned than you or I would be if tomorrow morning two suns appeared in the sky.

Caroline remarked, "There's our gross motor child and there's our fine motor child," which is true. Wally's on pace to be doing somersaults by May; Jay, who never crawled and never pulled up, could pull the legs off a centipede with a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the weekend Caroline and I talked about "no" -- as in when to say it to Jay and when not to. This has been something I've thought about since a day shortly after Jay was born when a father in Rittenhouse Square told me that he didn't believe in saying no to his infant daughter. That seemed a little extreme to me, but at least it raised the issue as something to think about.

On Friday afternoon the four of us were driving home from Caroline's office. Caroline and I were trying to talk about Stephen Colbert's very funny interview with Maurice Sendak, but we didn't get far: "What you talking about?" Jay kept interrupting from the backseat.

This is an increasing problem. Jay has a lot to say and he doesn't like to be left out. Those are good qualities, all told, but they also mean it's hard for Caroline and me to have a sustained discussion in his presence. Usually we either let him hijack the conversation or end up yelling at him in frustration.

On Friday, though, it occurred to me that there was a third route: We could tell Jay that Mom and Dad are talking right now and that if he's quiet, he can have a chance to talk in a few minutes.

This was an obvious move but a liberating one, too -- it was nice to remember that we could say "no" to behavior that makes our lives harder, like when Jay interrupts our conversations or asks for another cup of milk after he's already had one and been put to bed for the night. I think Jay's self-esteem is strong enough to absorb the knowledge that as one person in a house of four, his desires don't rule the day.

But there are other times when I can't decide whether it's appropriate to say "no."

Here are two examples from this morning:

I made Jay an English muffin and offered to serve it to him with peanut butter, jam, or peanut butter and jam. He replied, "I want peanut butter aaaaand butter."

"No," I said. Because obviously peanut butter and butter don't go together. And it wasn't one of the choices I offered him. But afterwards I was conflicted. It wouldn't have been any more work for me to serve it to him that way. And was it necessary for me to impose a somewhat arbitrary culinary norm on his open-minded toddler taste buds? At the same time, I don't want Jay going out to eat with his in-laws when he's 30 and ordering an English with "PB and butter." So, there's a balance between necessary socialization and encouraging creativity.

The second example: After breakfast Jay started to move the recycling container from the kitchen to who knows where. I stopped him. I didn't want dirty food containers moving around the house. For a moment I felt like a prig for letting my concern for dirt override whatever grand plan Jay had in mind for the trash. But then I thought, whatever. We need rules. And clean carpets. He'll find something else to do with his time.

There's a third category of interactions, though. This is the one that's been most on my mind: times when I say "no" to Jay out of habit or laziness and really wish I hadn't.

A month ago he started playing "mechanic" on his fire truck with his plastic tools. Two weeks later he started asking me to get him the "real screwdriver" which he knows we keep in a pathetically small box of tools in the basement.

Then a week ago he put the two together and asked if he could use the screwdriver to unscrew the battery compartment on the fire truck. "No way," I thought to myself. "The batteries are going to get lost. He's not going to be able to do it. Plus, we only open that compartment when the batteries actually need to be replaced."

But then I thought: Will the batteries really get lost? And maybe he will know how to do it, especially if I show him. And who says we only open the compartment when the batteries actually need replacing?

So I let Jay open the battery compartment. I showed him how to find the right-sized Phillips head. I taught him, "Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosey." And then, once we'd opened the compartment, I showed him the essential relationship between the sound of the firetruck's siren and the three double-A's nestled in its undercarriage: He pushed the siren, quickly took out one of the batteries, and just as he did, the siren stopped dead.

Jay understood what had happened immediately. His face lit up. He laughed out loud. He put the battery back in and wanted to perform the magic trick over and over again.

Later that night, after Jay had gone to bed, I realized that in the moment Jay figured out what batteries do, the world became a bigger, more interesting place to him, and he become a bigger, more interesting person to himself -- someone newly capable of understanding how the world works and influencing its course.

Far be it from me to say "no" to that.

This piece originally ran in Kevin Hartnett's blog, Growing Sideways