Family Man

I Gotta Be Me! (musical notes abound)

What you need to do is...
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David Miles Illustration

If you’re looking for a new way to draw ire and resentment from your spouse, resulting in sleep-on-the-couch-style blow-ups, I’ve got a great activity sure to accomplish that goal. Start telling them what they need to do. A quick and easy way to do this is to start every sentence with, “What you need to do is . . .”

Spouse venting about a frustration at work? “What you need to do is . . .” Spouse concerned about weight goals, social obligations or strained relationships with their family? “What you need to do is . . .”
This tactic also works well for those of you looking to alienate yourself from co-workers, friends and neighbors.

I’m not saying people disdain solicited advice or instruction, but it seems to be pretty universal that people hate being told what to do.

We seem to be pretty conscious of adults’ aversion to being told what to do (although, admittedly, I’d have to give myself about a 4 out of 10 on the awareness level, if I’m objectively self-assessing), but what about with our kids?

When you think about it, kids spend almost their entire day being told what to do. They get up and they’re told they need to get ready for school, pick up the pace, brush their teeth, pick up the pace, get their shoes on, pick up the pace. At school they’re told what they need to do to be proficient at math, or reading or whatever else they’re learning. They’re told to line up for lunch or for the buses and parent pick-up. Freedom doesn’t come until the end of the school day. Or does it?

Kids these days (Yes, I just said that, and now I’m officially old. I’ll remember this date.) have an abundance of afterschool activities. My daughter does dance, piano, theater and singing lessons throughout the week. Other kids her age may do some of those activities and soccer, football and swimming.

Have time off for Spring Break or summer? They go to camps. And not the “go-find-frog-in-the-lake” camps. No, these are camps that further reinforce these other activities. Camps that tell them what they need to do.

When my daughter gets home from whatever activity she was at, she needs to eat dinner. Then, she needs to do her homework and she needs to practice piano. Then she needs to get ready for bed.

Now that I’m officially old, I can (most likely incorrectly) recall having significantly more do-nothing time as a youth. It could be the reason I’m not good at anything, but I don’t remember having nearly the amount of structured activities that most kids now are engaged in. I remember walking from backyard to backyard, playing make-believe games with neighborhood kids until an inevitable argument broke out and one kid went home crying. Maybe I’m remembering that as being a bigger percentage of time than it was, but one thing was for sure: our parents did not come out and tell us how to play make-believe. Nor did they tell us how to play with our G.I. Joes, Barbies or He-Man figures.

The other night, my daughter asked me to help her on the piano. She started trying to figure out songs she was familiar with, songs that were not in her piano book. (For some reason, she is endlessly fascinated with the keyboard intro to A-Ha’s Take On Me.) When I directed her to her actual assignment, she got frustrated and said she wanted to learn Take On Me. So, switching gears, I started showing her how to play that. She got frustrated again and pushed my hands off the piano.

“I thought you wanted my help,” I said.

“I do! Just . . . sit there and help,” she replied.

It was then that I became frustrated, but I sat and listened. Finally, after several minutes of finishing on an incorrect note, she asked me to point out the correct one. I did, and she resumed.

It hit me later that this experience was basically akin to my spouse telling me about her day. It was a time to listen, not tell.

Parenting can be very difficult. You’re responsible for the growth, development and safety of a human being (albeit a very little one who sometimes forgets to flush the toilet). It requires focus, time and a careful and perplexing blend of discipline and kindness. But perhaps the hardest part of parenting is knowing when not to “parent.”

Give your child — and yourself — the gift of relinquishing parental control for specific periods of time. In small doses, that can be for granting them iPad or television time, but more importantly it can be intentionally setting aside days after school that are just for play. After a long day, or week, of being told what to do, having complete freedom could be a welcome emotional break for your kids. If they choose to still focus on soccer, art, piano or whatever, let them kick the ball around without instruction or create without guidance or judgment.

Maybe you’re already good about this (again, I’m only a 4, so chances are you’re better than me), but if you’re being honest, could there be more time for this sort of freedom? If so, give them more.

Now, I’m going to tell you what you need to do. You need to get that Take On Me song out of your head. (Sorry about that.)

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When not to "parent"

Parenting can be very difficult. You’re responsible for the growth, development and safety of a human being (albeit a very little one who sometimes forgets to flush the toilet). It requires focus, time and a careful and perplexing blend of discipline and kindness. But perhaps the hardest part of parenting is knowing when not to “parent.”

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