I have three children under 11, and my parenting relies heavily on the word no. I also believe in “You’ve just lost half your dessert”, “Don’t make me come in there!”, the Julie Bishoppatented Stare of Death™ and, of course, the ubiquitous “One! Two! Don’t make me say three!” that has turned modern parents into so many hopeless, demented mathematicians.
My technique employs a lot of faux outrage, such as “What did you just say?” Sometimes I experience authentic, unfaked outrage, and then I release a voice I think of as The Fishwife, which hits a shrill timbre so unappealing that neighbourhood dogs run for cover and my husband cannot quite meet my eye. “No” is my default, my catchphrase, my automated response. It’s like a tic. I probably mutter it in my sleep.
There’s an argument that saying no to kids will breed resentment, desensitise them and create rebellion. This is tripe, to my mind, a sure-fire way of raising little psychopaths. But it is tiring, I concede, to be the constant naysayer.
Would life look very different, I wondered, if I stopped saying no? Would the children be happier? Would I? In a fit of madness, I decided to run an experiment where I said yes to the children for one whole day.
My husband Keith is a fantastic, hands-on dad but I am, in modern parlance, the lead parent, the one who takes the call from school: “Don’t be alarmed, but little Johnny has ruptured his testicles slightly.”
Every day, the urgency of housework (next task, next task, next task) pulls my attention constantly from the subtle magic of family life: watching kids create, enjoying their absurd conversations, being buried in a pile of strong little arms and legs. Usually, I turn away from these gentle charms to attend to the machinery of The System with “Just a minute”, “In a sec” and “Show me later”
Not today, though.
At 7am I’m summoned by the kids (Peanut, 10, comedy gymnast; T-Bone, 8, factoid repository; Pudding, 5, thespian) to watch cat videos on YouTube. T-Bone asks if he can play his Captain Underpants CD loud enough to hear it from the toilet. He’s kidding. “Yes,” I say sadly, to his delight.
The songs about Super Diaper Baby give me a slight headache, but otherwise our morning rolls along well. Each request trips on the heels of the last: Can you judge my cartwheels? Can you help me make a cubby? Can I crack these walnuts with a hammer? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Peanut tells me about the rules of her club, the Nerd University of Unicornia. T-Bone talks me through the Pranksters Booklet he is writing (an excerpt: “Train lion to never eat cardboard, put lion in piñata, take to party”). And Pudding sings a free-form song about mermaids called Special Body.
I tune in to the chatter. I don’t turn on news radio, or retreat into my own thoughts, as I often would, to catch a break. This lack of mental space is one of the great trials of life with small children. But today, I’m not resisting.
At lunchtime, I make sandwiches amid the chaos of the breakfast things. Later, the children sink into separate quiet activities. I spy an escape route, and slope off to the bedroom with a coffee, desperate for a lie down, a moment of quiet and a restorative reboot for the afternoon ahead.
However, little Pudding has other ideas. “Pannacotta, where are you?” comes her squeaky little voice. “The customers want their cwutches!” My heart sinks. Pudding wants to play Tinker, the game in which she and I are orphaned sisters who run a crutches shop. I struggle and, eventually, rally. The game is so dark and hilarious, and her earnest little face is so dear to me.
By the time we wind our way through dinner, games, books and, finally, bed, I am surrounded by an unspeakable mess and three happy children. Tomorrow I face an epic clean-up, but today has held many lovely moments.
Saying yes like this is utterly impractical in everyday life. I don’t want my kids to become tiny, entitled emperors. But although housework is important and meaningful, it will never be finished. Childhood, however, will end. Soon, the kids will not need or want me this much, and I’ll be the one begging for their attention.
Can I ignore the seeming urgency of the scrolling to-do list? Can I turn my full focus, instead, to the slow and beautiful unfurling of the children in front of me? Not every day, but every once in a while? Yes, I can. At least, I can try.