May 18, 2006

The Parent Trap

One of the many compelling reasons for following James Lileks' Journal AKA The Bleat is the never-ending story of Gnat, his daughter. I always brighten up when there's a day with Gnat being retold. It lets me, in a strange way, relive long ago days with my daughter when things were, well,

simpler and yet not so simple. It also lets me kibbitz a bit in the back of my mind when I see Lileks repeating the standard experiences you have when raising children. Today's entry brought us this small, but telling, incident:

"They also had toys, strewn in careless heaps; Gnat found a Care Bear that she wanted, and since I'd been saying NO for the last week when it came to random toy purchases, I said sure."
Ah, the ancient state of many "NOs" followed by the inevitable "Sure." All parents recognize this. I think the general thought is to teach kids about the gap between desire and gratification; the "You can't always get what you want" lesson.

Now it is true that many never really understand the gap between desire and gratification. In truth I don't, but I have come to accept that the gap is there. But is this really what we are teaching our children when we issue the "Many NOs followed by 'Sure'" lesson?

I think not. We are teaching them something much more fundamental. We are teaching them that their parents are the world's most accessible slot machines.

"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"
"Can I have it?"


And still we wonder at the dogged persistence of children asking us for what they want even after repeated "NOs." After all, can't they understand the lesson we are trying to teach them? They do, but it isn't the "Can't Always Get" lesson we think we're teaching them (When is it ever?). Instead in the way of the wise child they learn the more valuable lesson at the end of that old refrain, "If you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."

Come to think of it, that's probably what we meant to teach them in the first place.

Posted by Vanderleun at May 18, 2006 9:17 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Nailed it again Gerard. Thanks for the images.

Posted by: Steel Turman at December 17, 2004 1:38 PM

Intermittent (and/or random) reinforcement. This conditioning process creates damn near un-extinguishable behaviour.

Posted by: Leslie at December 18, 2004 2:16 AM

-- We are teaching them that their parents are the world's most accessible slot machines. --

And they don't even have to put a quarter in!

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at May 18, 2006 8:58 AM

It's not only the child being gratified.

Posted by: RunningRoach at May 18, 2006 9:05 AM

If you enjoy telling your kids "no", then pretty quickly they drop any whining. My four kids 14 thru 18 ask for very little because they know from experience they will not be indulged.

Posted by: Christian at May 18, 2006 5:29 PM

I prefer to tell myself that I'm teaching them balance between Justice and Mercy.



It was much more convincing before I wrote it down.

Posted by: a4g at May 19, 2006 12:21 PM

Since this a re-post, note that in comparison, today is the future:

“I’m going to be an adult in the future,” Gnat said from the back seat, apropos of nothing, “because I was born in the past.”

“I’m in the future now,” I said.


“When I was a kid, today was my future.”

She thought about that for a while, then smiled, and honest to God, she laughed and said:

“You thought you were going to have flying cars!”

I almost drove off the road.


“Oh nothing. That’s just a thing in the future on shows, cars in the skies. But it’s really not real.”

True, but you can get close. I rolled down the windows and punched the button on the steering wheel to change to the techno station. YEAH! she said from the back. The light turned green; I punched it. Daughter and dad on a spring afternoon, laughing and bobbing our heads to the music, wind in our hair. Flying."

That's good Lileks, eh?

Posted by: Reese at May 24, 2006 9:52 PM