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No Excuses, Dad

Dan Benjamin is probably a great dad. Let me get that out of the way first. I have no reason to think he’s anything but a great dad, with a happy, well-adjusted, son.

Something he said the other day got me thinking, though. I was listening to one of his Back To Work podcasts and he was talking with Merlin Mann about passive-aggressiveness and parenting and how we say weird things to our kids. The example he used was telling his son, “I’m sorry you don’t want to go, now get out of the car.” (The anecdote starts 74 minutes in.)

His son, four-years-old, didn’t want to go to camp. He’d been with mom and dad all the time up till now, but now mom and dad had a little baby and not as much time for the older kid, so he had to go. He enjoyed the first few days of camp, but then one day he ‘inexplicably’ doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to do the talent show they’re doing at camp, he doesn’t like the other kids, he doesn’t want to go. Dan is certain the kid is making up excuses and forces him to get out of the car and go to camp.

Now, the kid ended up having a good time (or so he told Dan), so I guess it worked out, but that is so totally not how I would have handled it. Maybe I’m the bad parent, but there it is.

I make my son, Nathaniel, do things he doesn’t want to do. That’s part of the job. He has to pick up his toys and eat his supper and not torture the cat. But I don’t try to force fun on him against his will. If we want him to do something that we think he’ll enjoy, we try to talk him into it, we talk out any objections he may have, and quite often we can persuade him to try it. But we never issue a Parental Decree that he shall go, and he shall have fun.

We made him take swimming lessons when he was three. He didn’t want to. He hated it. He hated is so much that three years later his hatred of the very idea of swimming lessons burns with the fury of a thousand suns. He’ll probably never take another swimming lesson in his life.

Yesterday, I noticed that he was setting up a new account in Monkey Quest. I thought that was a little unusual because he had a high level monkey in his old account, with cool items. Why didn’t he want to play that monkey anymore? I could have just said, “You’re not setting up a new account. You already have an account; keep playing in that one.” I didn’t.

I asked him about it, but he said he didn’t want to talk about it. I said, “Okay, if you really don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. I was just curious why you want to stop playing Numi, with all the cool stuff he has, that you spent Nick Cash on.”

He just did, he said. Just wanted to start over. I could buy more Nick Cash for him.

“Well, we’re not buying more Nick Cash for that. Now, you’re not in any trouble or anything, I was just wondering; did someone in the game maybe say something that bothered you?”

Ding! Some other kids had told him that he had to change his monkey’s name. The only way to do that was to create a new account. We had a little talk about it and as I type this he’s happily playing as his old monkey, with all his cool stuff.

Sometimes kids make up excuses to try and get out of things they don’t feel like doing. Every parent knows that. That’s usually not-fun things, though, right? Kids don’t usually try to get out of fun. Nathaniel makes up all kinds of excuses to not eat a supper he doesn’t like the look of, but he’ll never say, “No, I don’t feel like going to the water park today.” Not without a good reason. (Like he’s afraid the water will hurt the scrape on his knee. Good reason. I remember not wanting to get in the water when I was a kid because I was afraid it would hurt the cut on my lip.)

When a kid doesn’t want to do something that they usually enjoy, shouldn’t we as parents wonder why? Sometimes, sure, it’s just whimsy. But sometimes kids really do have a reason for not wanting to do something, though they may be reluctant to tell you what that reason is. You’ll never know which it is if you just say, “I don’t care, you’re going anyway.”

Maybe Dan’s kid really just didn’t feel like going that day and was making up excuses. Most likely that’s all there was to it. But maybe he didn’t want to go because some of the other kids were picking on him, or bullying him. I don’t know. Here’s the thing, though: Neither does Dan Benjamin. He doesn’t know what was really going on, and probably never will. Because instead of trying to find out why his kid didn’t want to go to camp, why the boy was screaming and crying about it, he just made the boy get out of the car.

I remember as a kid not wanting to go do things and my mother making me go.

“You’re going to go do this thing today.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t care. You’re going. It’ll be fun.”

It wasn’t fun. Ever. Whether it was being dumped at some stock show or summer camp or a movie I didn’t want to see, I hated it. More, I knew perfectly well that my mother didn’t care if I enjoyed it or not, if I was going to have fun or not. She was just dumping me somewhere, getting rid of me, so she could go do her own thing and have her fun.

Listening to Dan Benjamin talk about making his kid go to camp when he didn’t want to, what he pretty obviously feels is, “The boy didn’t want to go, for some silly reason, but I made him and he had a great time. I win!” What I hear is, “We paid a lot of money for this camp, we have other plans for today that don’t include you, so get out of the car.”

I’m probably being unfair to Dan, but there it is. Different backgrounds, different world-views.

Sometimes as parents we have to make our kids do things they don’t want to do, and it really is for their own good. Sometimes we make our kids do things they don’t want to do and it’s for us, but we sell it like it’s for them. It’s up to us, as the adults in the relationship, to know the difference. Is what you’re making your kid do really for his or her benefit, or is it for your benefit and they just have to endure it?

Because they may know the difference even if you don’t.