Fatherly Advice: Saying Yes, Saying No, and Not Teasing Kids

We answer questions about sex after childbirth and why it’s okay to say no to your kids.

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly parenting advice column by the experts at Fatherly. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email advice@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. We’re too busy for that nonsense.

Fatherly,

I like to believe I’m a funny dad and I love to make my kids laugh. But sometimes my wife thinks I take it too far. The other day I did that thing where I scratched my son’s head and said, “My butt itches.” He’s six and he laughed, but my wife said it was mean and I shouldn’t tease him. I’m just trying to help him get a sense of humor. Am I being an asshole?

Kevin,
Austin, TX

More than one thing can be true at the same time, Kevin. Yes, the old “my butt itches” trick is hilarious by any objective measure. That said, it’s funny because your six-year-old is literally the “butt” of the joke. Your wife is, unfortunately, right in that your choice lands on the teasing side of the spectrum. Child psychologists, not really a hilarious bunch to begin with, will tell you that there are some very good reasons not to tease kids ever, including the fact that kids literally can’t “get it” even if they say they do.

Humor requires some pretty sophisticated brain work. There are a bunch of cognitive leaps that need to be made in order for a person to figure out why a spoken joke is hilarious. Kids’ brains have trouble making those leaps up unto their teens, which is why there are so few successful 8-year-old standups. Children love broad, fall-down-and-go-boom slapstick humor because, for children, that is humor. There are always parents convinced that their kids are more sophisticated than that, but, simply put, those parents are wrong.

And the more a joke is at the expense of the kid, the less likely they’ll translate it as humor. What teasing humor models, therefore, isn’t the joy of joking around and having a good time, but bullying. And there’s a good chance your kid will take that perceived bullying to heart. There is also a fair to 100 percent chance that other kids’ parents will get touchy about your reputation for making obscene jokes. I’m not suggesting that your intentions are bad or that the joke is ultimately problematic, just that kids are bad at humor and a lot of parents are as well.

Honestly, if you want to get your kid to develop a sense of humor, you should encourage the family to simply find the absurdity of everyday life. Literally, laugh in the face of spilled milk. Consider the power of “Oops!” Think about Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat Green Hat in which a ridiculous turkey continuously puts articles of clothing on the wrong body parts. That turkey slays at kid clubs.

***

Dear Fatherly,

Three months ago, my wife and I welcomed our first baby — a beautiful girl! It took awhile but I feel like we have things down. We don’t get a ton of sleep but other than that things are cool, except that we still haven’t had sex yet. I’m a patient guy and I know sex isn’t everything, but it feels like we should be doing it again, shouldn’t we? How can we get things back on track?

Anonymous

Hey, Anonymous. Know that the place you’re at is totally common for new parents. Also, know that things are likely to get better. But that won’t happen (sorry!) without communication.

There are many reasons why the spark just isn’t there right now. While it’s clear your libido is up and running, there are a ton of hormonal shifts that occur after a woman gives birth. That’s true for both men and women, by the way, but definitely more true for women. Combine that with lingering discomfort from the actual birth — it’s as traumatic as it looked — and lack of sleep. What do you get? Nothing much. Definitely very little sex.

Your best shot at getting things rolling sooner than later relies largely on your ability to be a patient and present dad. It’ll also help if you aim for intimacy rather than sex. They aren’t the same thing. It’s possible that simple connection through cuddles, caresses, and massages might be just what your partner needs right now. And who knows? Maybe it will lead to something more (not all sex is vaginal).

Given that she’s probably covered in bodily fluids that aren’t her own, and may still be having a hard time getting back into her own self-care routine, it might be that your wife doesn’t feel attractive right now. Helping with that can go a long way. Be flirty even if you usually aren’t. Tell her she looks great even if she actually looks insanely tired. Be nice. Massage both her and the truth.

But don’t try to manipulate your wife. Talk to her. You’re raising a kid now so there needs to be constant communication — endless talking really. If you have concerns, show your partner you respect her enough to talk to her about it. It’s possible that you might discover the lack of sex is connected to something deeper, like postpartum depression. That’s something you absolutely want to know so that you can provide meaningful support and potentially advocate for professional assistance.

Remember, you and your wife desired each other enough to make that beautiful baby girl. Nothing has changed even if everything has.

***

Fatherly,

I don’t like saying no to my daughter. She’s a toddler and when I tell her no she loses her shit. Can I just stop saying no?

Richard,
Topeka, Kansas

No, Richard. You should never stop saying no. No. No. No. No. No. That said, you also shouldn’t make it a reflex.

Here’s the thing: kids need boundaries. But they’re not going to set those boundaries themselves. They need boundaries to be set by a reasonable adult who is going to take a stand on the grounds of health, safety, and development. No, your daughter cannot touch the hot stove. No, she cannot climb the bookcase. No, she cannot go out into the snow without pants.

Will she challenge those boundaries? Yes! She’s learning about the world and her place in it. This is part of that process of discovery. But if you relent because she makes a scene, then she’s discovered a loophole in the system and you are sunk.

However, you don’t always have to say no. And, in fact, your opportunities to say yes should outnumber your opportunities to say no. If your daughter has a request, run it through a decision tree: Is it going to put her health, development, or safety at risk? Are you just feeling lazy and don’t want to be inconvenienced? Is there a possibility that it could turn into a fun learning experience? See if you hit a branch on the way down.

And if you do find yourself saying no because you just don’t want to be inconvenienced by something like playing a game. Just say no again — to yourself.

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