Recently, White House press secretary Sarah H. Sanders told the hosts of daytime TV’s The View that parenthood prepared her to deal with reporters. She explained that, much like parenting, her job requires her to answer repetitive questions and say no all the time. Putting aside the fact that her statement literally infantilized an entire industry (the one I work in), what struck me most was the assertion that parenting is all about saying “No.”
If I am honest though, it’s tough to refute that claim. I have two boys aged four and six years old and I say no all the time. I would like to imagine that this is because their demands are unreasonable, impossible, or dangerous, but that isn’t true. Sometimes I say no by default—like an asshole. That begs the question: What if I just said yes? I decided to run a trial program for a weekend and I came out on the other side tired but impressed by my kids.
The first opportunity to say yes came early on Saturday. I was bleary-eyed and one-half cup of coffee in when my four-year-old approached me, inexplicably carrying a backgammon case.
“Poppa, can we play your game?” he asked sweetly.
Fuck no! My brain screamed. “Yes,” I said.
There was an immediate problem, of course. Early Saturday is no time to teach a child the subtleties of backgammon. So I improvised and simplified the game. There was still dice rolling and counting. And the brown and white pieces still bounced along the points on their merry way to home. But that was it. It wasn’t backgammon exactly, but it was a game.
The kid was thrilled. He was engaged and talkative. He carefully practiced counting and gave the dice and the pieces emotions and intentions. He changed the rules mid-stream and I said yes again. The whole game shifted. Now we could choose which numbers we wanted, as long as the die each read the same number. It was fun, but it was also early. And about the time I was wondering if it would go on forever, the four-year-old hopped off the bed and went on his way.
I’d quickly learned a valuable lesson. It’s possible to say yes and then redirect. Yes doesn’t have to be overly literal.
But life isn’t all double sixes. Not long after my game of backgammon ended, I found my six-year-old staring slate-faced at the television. He was locked into a show and it became clear that this was neither a “yes” or a “no” situation. It was an inertia problem. I figured I had to insert a choice, but asking if he could turn off the television would put me in a situation where I would have to say yes if he replied with something along the lines of “Can we not?” So I decided to try to get him to join me on an adventure.
“Hey,” I said. “We’re going to go outside, so let’s get dressed.”
“Okay,” he said. “Can I mow the lawn?”
This was an unexpected turn of events. While I know it’s awesome for kids to do lawn chores, the kid is definitely not big enough to steer a whirring blade across my precious acreage.
Time to leverage the lesson I’d learned earlier and slightly pivot the situation. I have in my garage a modern-ish, human-powered push mower with the bladed cylinder that makes a snicker-snicker-snicker sound as it’s pushed through the grass. It’s a holdover from my more energetic and ecology minded days, before I became both slow, lazy and cynical. I brought out “Old Rusty” and my kid was overjoyed. The danger factor was relatively limited. The blades didn’t move unless he was safely behind them. The only true disaster would come if he hit his brother, which he almost did.
Still, yes was working out. And it continued to work out as long as I kept my yeses general. Yes was how we found ourselves enjoying a milkshake at the County Fair after discovering that, yes, you could pet the prize rabbit. And, yes, we discovered that one boy could stay home while the other ran errands with mom. Yes also resulted in a game of Marble Madness that was far more fun than expected and some pretty sweet Hot Wheel races.
Did I ever say no? Of course I did. I’m not insane. But I said it a lot more rarely than I had expected and only in cases where it felt necessary (“No, don’t put your finger into a pig’s gaping anus.”)
I don’t know what my experiment might mean for Sarah H. Sanders and her combative relationship with the press (and maybe her children). But I know that as I read my least favorite bedtime book, my boys cuddled closer. They hadn’t been aware of my move towards yes. But yes had brought us closer. In my self-prescribed assent, I saw in my boys both creativity and ability that I’d not previously recognized.
Was it easy? Hell no. Will yes be my go-to? Probably not. After all no is often a necessary parental reflex. But will I be more willing to find a way to say yes?