By Rick Epstein
“I’m going with you,” announced 3-year-old Sally. She went outside and climbed into the car, then sat expectantly in her car seat. A year earlier the postmaster had given her a few jelly beans, so Sally never missed a chance to go back there just in case he’d feed her some more someday.
I could probably pry her out with a tire iron, but there would be talk. So I quietly abandoned my errand and went back into the house.
My wife, Betsy, read the situation and said, “Lure her out with a cookie.”
A bribe? I wouldn’t! But Betsy hadn’t said “bribe”; she’d said “lure.” I got a cookie and wordlessly showed it to Sally. Once her eyes had locked onto it, I put the cookie on our front porch. Sally climbed out and made for the cookie. I jumped into the car and drove away. I looked back to see Sally sitting happily on the stoop eating the cookie. A bribe? A deal? Or just proof that an animal will follow food? You decide, but it is typical of my wife’s technique.
That was almost 20 years ago, back when I was just starting to understand that my wife was much more than the college girl who had looked so delectable wrapped in a mint-green bedsheet. (We met at a toga party.)
By paying close attention and by occasionally ignoring her advice, I’ve been able to distill her wisdom into Betsy’s Seven Principles for presentation here as an exquisitely practical Mother’s Day gift.
1. Sidestep a head-on collision of wills. The cookie out-pulls the crow bar. Offer choices and enticements instead of challenges.
2. When you say “no,” make it stick. You’re in the check-out lane. Junior wants candy. You say “no.” Junior argues and cries. Then he yells, “You’re the meanest mommy in the world!” Everyone is looking at the two of you with disgust. This is the moment when you must not teach Junior that “no” really means “convince me.”
3. Be realistic. Understand the limitations of 2-year-olds and teenagers. When you tell a tot, “Stop that and come here,” he truly can’t. Go get him. When you ask a teenager, “Have you done your homework?” she will respond as if you had wondered, “Are you ready to go out with unsuitable companions and look for trouble?” Her answer will be, “Yes, and thanks for asking.”
4. Each child is unique. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he was thinking about human rights for white people – not report cards, talent, honesty, thrift, and who will live up to promises regarding the care and feeding of kittens.
5. Keep your ears open. There’s a fine line between listening and spying. A carload of chatty girls can tell you a lot after they've forgotten you are at the wheel. So will a kid roaming around the house talking into a phone. My wife wouldn’t read a daughter’s diary, but she would (and did) recruit a stooge who can get her an occasional look at a daughter’s Instagram postings. (Listening works better with girls. They tend to talk more – to friends and to parents. Boys are less communicative. But luckily, when a son is a teenager, his father already knows what's on a boy’s mind 58 minutes out of each hour, awake or dreaming.)
6. Save anger as a weapon of last resort. If you scream about every little thing, there’ll be a lot of screaming. Save it for the big stuff. A lion tamer has a whip, a chair and a revolver. The best ones know better than to shoot the lion every time they want to emphasize a point. Of course, a child is not a lion, so you probably shouldn’t use the whip or chair either.
7. Love them. Just like the way Las Vegas runs on money, a home runs on love. It makes the whole thing hum and click. Without it, everybody might as well sober up and leave.
Rick can be reached at [email protected] But be advised, he’s only listening to encouraging words this month.