Monday, February 22, 2010

Because I said so

A guy I know from church writes a great blog documenting his experience as a stay-at-home dad. He wrote a very entertaining post in which he lamented saying and doing all the things he hears himself saying. Including the classic “because I said so” response. I want to defend the phrase. All 4 of my boys have heard it from me and their mom, and I think it’s a good thing. I have three reasons why I’m not embarrassed using it:
  1. God doesn’t seem to be embarrassed to say it to me. He expects my obedience. He will occasionally explain why to me, but not always. God knows human behavior better than anyone. He knows how we react to explanations and the lack of explanations. And he doesn’t always give explanations. Apparently he seems to think we’ll be ok without always having directions explained. If God thinks I’ll be OK without an explanation then I think my kids will be OK without one, too.

  2. My kids are not smart enough to understand all of the intricacies of decisions that I have to make on their behalf. “Because I said so” is typically a wrong answer to give to a peer. But it’s completely reasonable for someone who understands the bigger picture to give to someone who doesn’t.

    This is the justification for why God doesn’t always explain himself to us. This is the justification for why my manager frequently doesn’t explain her decisions to me. This is the justification for why I frequently don’t explain all of my coding decisions right back to her. And it’s a completely reasonable justification for why my children simply must comply when I say to get shoes on and get in the car right now.

    Do you, dear child, understand what happens when daddy is late for work? Do you understand how it impacts your vacation next summer? Do you understand how this impacts mommy if I have to stay at work later? Do you understand how it impacts a huge variety of things that you are important to you? No, you don’t. And you don’t need to yet. You’re 4. The answer to your question is “because I said so”. It embodies not just that I expect you to comply (which I do), but also that I have your interest in mind. Interests that you can’t even fathom.
  3. My kids may not understand all of the intricacies of human interaction that will stem from their non-compliance with my directions, but they are smart enough to realize that “why” is an effective stall technique. They don’t really want an explanation. They want to delay following my direction in the hopes that a long enough delay will result in not having to comply. And the more complex the answer, the longer the explanation.

    There is a simple one-liner that you can use to acknowledge your child’s curiosity while still expecting compliance. When they say “why”, simply respond with, “I’ll be happy to explain after you’ve done what I said.” And then turn into a broken record. Any time “why” is asked, simply repeat the one-liner, probably followed by, “Now please go do what I said.” This one-liner will distinguish the truly curious from those who are trying to stall. Those who want to know will follow-up afterwards. I’d say that my kids follow-up less than 10% of the time. Some of the 90% non-follow-up can be explained by forgetfulness, but most I attribute to the ulterior motive of trying to stall.
As my children get older, I think it’s very reasonable to explain things to them. As they become adults, I am decreasing my responsibility for their lives in proportion to their taking that responsibility. When they are fully adult, they should have full responsibility for their life. And if I do something that impacts their life, then it’s reasonable for them to demand an explanation. But my pre-teen children are not there yet.

I frequently think that parents are overly influenced by their experience as teenagers. They think, “I’ll never do/say/think that” to some behavior that their parents did when they were in their teens. Teenagers expect to be treated much more like adults than children. And I think that’s correct. I think it’s completely reasonable for most 18 year olds to expect to be treated more like an adult than a child. But my 4 year old is *NOT* remotely close to being an adult. And it is completely unreasonable for me to treat him like one. I think that far too many parents make the mistake of treating their toddlers like they wanted to be treated as a teen. Then the resulting misbehavior that child learns from too much freedom, requires that they treat those same children like toddlers when they’re teenagers. Spurring those children to repeat the whole process all over again when they become parents.

I say, “No.” I will happily not explain myself to a child who can’t possibly understand. But in exchange, I will give that child more freedom (along with the corresponding responsibility) as he approaches adulthood. My hope is that by the time my children are 18 years old, they will be taking most of the responsibility (and receiving most of the corresponding freedom) for their own lives. Hence my challenge (for my 12 year old) is to regularly release my control of his life to him by giving him more freedom, not less.

But this required starting with “because I said so” when he was 4.