In the world of parenting it is a potent and extremely powerful word.
It is a word that sometimes must be repeated numerous times to have the desired effect, and sometimes that must be said only once — followed by a rather uncomfortable silence punctuated by a lack of response to repeated pleas (including ones that include the word “please” of course.)
Yet sometimes it is exactly the wrong word — and we as parents only realize it when we come to understand the precise circumstances of our saying no need not be as rigid as we think.
The perfect example is my son Chaim’s fairly well enforced bed time of nine. He cannot stand going to bed and will do just about whatever it takes to avoid doing so, even though we have both explained at great length that resting is important, particularly on school nights when he does not have the luxury of sleeping in if he so chooses. (Funnily, he gets up with no problem on Saturday morning at a quarter after eight but there are some school mornings when getting him up at eight is like asking water to be a little less wet.)
There was one night in particular when he was being fussy about his dinner. He sat with the quinoa and black beans that he requested (key factor) in front of him, shifting them back and forth as he seemed to be quoting verbatim an episode of his new favorite television program, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. He told me that he was done eating and that he wanted down. I asked him if he were sure that he wasn’t hungry and he said he was all full.
Fast forward past a short bath and an epic struggle to decide which pajamas he wanted to wear (I sometimes wish I had such a colorful assortment of bedtime attire…) I found myself telling Chaim that it was nearly time for bed. He told me in a few words that he did not want to go to bed and that he was not tired. I explained that he needed to go to bed because he had school in the morning and he needed to be rested. Suddenly he wanted to watch something. I’m not even sure if it matters what it was — the answer was no, that he had to go to bed.
Then the tears came out. “Tati,” he said with a shaking lip, “Sant foame.” (This would be how you could literally translate I am hungry into Romanian. It is not, however, how you say that you are hungry.) “Nu esti foame,” I said, gently correcting him, “Esti Chaim.Spune ‘mi-e foame’ nu ‘sant foame’.” In other words, your identity is not hungry, it is Chaim. You are, however, hungry. He said it correctly and I chided him, reminding him that he had told me assuredly that he was full at the dinner table. That proved to be a weak argument to Chaim.
“Dar Tati,” he said, “Mi-e foame!”
“Nu!” I said.
“Mi-e foame,” he said, sounding even more said.
“Dar mi-e foame!”
This went on until I just put him in bed, closed the door, and walked away. I thought that would be the end of it and that sleep would prove to be the more important thing his body would crave at that time of night — a quarter after nine, give or take. About fifteen minutes later I went into the room to see if he had fallen asleep and he immediately popped up, like a mole in a game where moles are whacked.
“BINE!” I said, somewhat frustrated. I took him to the kitchen and asked him what he wanted. What he wanted ended up being a strawberry. I opened the container of strawberries and found the largest one I had ever seen in my life — yet after washing it and cutting off the ‘yucky’ part (the stem) I kid you not when I tell you that he had eaten it in under a minute. I then asked if he were ready to go to bed and he said that he was. About five minutes later, he was passed out and properly sleeping as he should have been for quite awhile.
I’m pretty sure that the whole situation could have been avoided had I not stuck to my guns on the rigid bed time — when he said that he was hungry, my mind immediately went to thinking that he was just trying to stay up. Instead, he was genuinely telling me that (thanks to his stubbornness in not wanting to tell me that he had changed his mind about what he wanted for dinner) he was in fact hungry. It was a lesson that I took with me. Now when I go to check in on him, I try to keep an open mind about what he tells me… and I always bring a strawberry.