Long before we actually had children, my wife and I entertained the fantasy that we would be more nurturing and understanding than our parents. “I can’t wait to answer all their questions,” my wife would say of our future kids. I would agree, and we would each judgmentally recall how frustrated our parents were with our childhood inquires. “When my kid asks ‘why,’ I’m going to give them an answer,” my wife pledged.
Well, here we are. Our second son just had his third birthday and has begun to question literally everything. His response to the denial of any request is, “Why?” And his follow-up question to any given answer is another, “Why?” Our patience has quickly worn thin.
For my part, I recall thinking before I had children that I would never use the phrase, “Because I told you so.” It’s not a reason, I told myself. It teaches kids to blindly follow authority rather than think their way through decisions.
Now that I have some experience, I realize that blind allegiance to parental authority is often precisely what is called for. I don’t have time to explain the intricate nuances of every decision to the satisfaction of a three-year-old. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to. There may be contexts when his prompt obedience could ensure his safety. More commonly, prompt obedience facilitates a productive routine. It isn’t practical to make every moment teachable. Sometimes you just need to get moving.
That’s not to say that I have abandoned my previous concern for fostering thinking skills. I just realize that the basis for parental authority is children’s inability to make reasoned choices for themselves. If they can’t think at the level required to make their own decisions, then it follows that they cannot fully understand the decisions which parents make for them. If they can’t understand those decisions, then their understanding cannot be a prerequisite for compliance. Put another way, my sons need to obey because I told them so.