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Lucky Dad No. 5: Green Beans and Other Contests of Will

As parents we should have the upper hand in any negotiation, at least in theory. We’re older, we’re smarter, we supply all of the goods and services. Moreover, some things are non-negotiable, at least in theory. Yes, theoretically speaking, “Because I said so!” is a perfectly good way to end a discussion, assuming you are willing to stick to your guns. Even so, we lose a lot of negotiations. It seems that kids instinctively know every tactic of effective negotiating. Throwing temper tantrums; pounding home the main objective through constant repetition; asking for one more thing; out-waiting the opponent; twisting the knife of guilt; appealing to fairness; these are all second-nature for a child.

I came home from work one evening when our oldest daughter Katie was about five, and was confronted with a classic tableaux. There sat Katie, alone at the dinner table, staring balefully at a plate that held three green beans. Francine signaled to me to join her in the kitchen for a council of war. Every parent knows the importance of presenting a united front. You simply must back each other up, no matter what, or the children will ruthlessly employ a strategy of divide and conquer. So Francine had every expectation of my support when she explained that Katie refused to eat her green beans, and that Francine had told her that she could not leave the table until she ate them. By the time I got home, the contest of wills had been under way for at least half an hour. Katie had moved past tears and wailing, and had settled down to a grim battle of attrition. Francine needed fresh troops, and she was perfectly right to expect me to enlist on her side.

So of course I told Francine that I loved her above everything else in the world, and I assured her that I would never take sides against her in any matter large or small, involving the children or anything else. And then I told her that she was on her own in dealing with Katie and the green beans. Call it moral cowardice, but I had seen this movie many times before in my own childhood. The lead roles may shift among various actors in the family, but the outcome is unvarying. The child always wins such contests of will, and I did not want to share in the humiliation that was coming.

The reason everyone goes through this as a parent at least once is that the adult misunderstands the balance of power involved. The parent thinks: “I am the adult, and I am the authority figure. When I give an order in my house, it’s final. Vegetables are good for my children, and they are wretched and ungrateful for refusing to eat them. I am only asking for a token gesture of submission—just one bite, just one bean. Therefore, the child must do as I say, and eat the beans.” The problem is that the parent erroneously assumes that the child has access to the same rational thought process, but that is not the case. The child is living on a much more atavistic level, and the child’s thought process is more along the lines of “It’s gross—I won’t eat it.” The punishments that the parent can mete out are simply not great enough to overcome the child’s primitive determination. No dessert? So what. No TV? Big deal. Go to your room? Yeah, whatever. Sit here until bedtime? Fine.

Meanwhile, the clock is working against the parent. The night is drawing on. The dishes need to be cleaned and put away. Baths and bedtime are approaching. The parent has a long list of things that absolutely must get done in the next hour or two, while the child has nothing of importance. So, as time passes, the balance gradually tilts in the child’s favor. Inevitably, the parent surrenders in the end, and there is no face-saving way to do it. The child is dismissed—Go straight to your room! Yeah, whatever.—and the plate is whisked away.

And so, because I adored (and still adore) Francine, and because I could see how it all would end, I stayed neutral. And when the end came, I did my best to smooth it over, comforting Francine, telling her it would be all right, that it was OK to cry, and that it didn’t mean she was a bad mother.

What a heel! Francine didn’t need a sanctimonious pat on the back, complete with a condescending “I told you so.” She would have appreciated it much more if I had died in the trenches with her, but I just didn’t have it in me. When I married her, I promised to love her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, etc. There was nothing about green beans in our wedding vows. The closest we came to it was a commitment to Accept the Rich Blessings of Children, but in my analysis of the Catholic catechism, that leaves a broad area open to further interpretation.

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