Bryan Caplan  

Yes Mom

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Robots of the Future: A Poor A... Just Say Yes...
Today I learned that I (partly) inspired a charming parenting experiment.  British journalist Lucy Cavendish

There are various blogs and websites devoted to the notion that we should give our children free choice, and, in this way, encourage their development while at the same time teaching them responsibility.

Only this week, Dr Bryan Caplan from George Mason University in Virginia, U.S., said parents should 'cut themselves some slack' and stop trying to control every aspect of their children's lives.

He called for a relaxed and fun style of bringing up children -- dubbed 'serenity parenting' -- which involves us taking a backseat role.

It's particularly interesting to me because I recently decided to try an experiment. In the style of 'free parenting', I would say yes to everything my children wanted for an entire week -- and see what happened.

The only rules were not to let the children know what I'd decided to do, and to ensure that I alerted them to the consequences of their actions, so they could make their own well-informed choices.

This experiment doesn't really test what I'm advocating.  While I question the view that parenting has much long-run effect on kids' adult outcomes, I freely admit that parenting has lots of short-run effects on kids' current outcomes.  Still, I like Cavendish's experimental design.  I pride myself on being a Fun Dad.  If saying Yes is more fun for the whole family, I'd like to know.  The lead experimenter/subject reports some drawbacks, but her experience exceeded her expectations:

Day 1:

Suddenly, my daughter, Ottoline, asks if she can eat her breakfast in front of the television. I would usually say no to this, for fear of crumbs in our sitting room attracting an infestation of ants. When I tell her to go ahead, the other children raise their heads like meerkats.

'What about us?' they say. 'Can we eat in the sitting room?'

'Yes,' I say, through gritted teeth. 'But remember the ants.'

'We love ants,' they say, giggling.

Day 2:

Things are beginning to change. 'Why are you being so nice to us?' they say, as I nod my head to all requests.

[...]

That evening, when they get in from school, we make a chocolate cake. They get the mixture everywhere, spreading the flour all over the floor. For a split-second I panic -- but does it really matter?

My daughter cracks an egg in her lap and they all burst out laughing. I try not to giggle along with them, especially when I realise that I am actually having fun.

I suppose I should make them clear up the kitchen themselves, but I've enjoyed myself so much that I haven't got the heart.

When the cake is baked, they demand slice after slice, which of course I agree to, while reminding them they might feel sick.

Ten minutes later? 'Mum, I feel sick.'

'Well,' I say sagely, 'I did warn you -- but you insisted.'

They all nod their heads, looking rather serious. I leave the kitchen feeling slightly delirious. Will they actually start to self-regulate?

Day 4:

It is a bit of a joke in my family that I am mad on yoga -- and any chance I can, I practise standing on my head. The children love it when I do it. They think it's funny.

[...]

'Can you stand on your head for half an hour?' asks Raymond.

The children giggle non-stop, before trying to get me to drink water upside down, while feeding me biscuits. I feel torn between choking to death and waves of nausea, but the children are having such fun I don't want to disappoint them.

I realise this is what makes them happy -- silly, nonsensical family fun.  

Final write-up of the lab results:
[B]y the end of the week the children are imploding. My acquiescence to everything has meant that they are not only buzzing with e-numbers and sugar, but are exhausted, too

But I have also learned some important lessons. The hassle of clearing up the kitchen after they have made a cake is nothing compared to the joy I feel when I hear them laughing so freely.

They just wanted to have fun, to laugh more; to not have every request quashed by a negative.

They also, I think, really started to understand why I create boundaries in their lives, because as much as they don't like them, they are lost without them.

The lesson: Parents really do err on the side of saying No.  As Jim Carrey learned in Yes Man, religiously saying Yes is better imagined than experienced.  But the marginal Yes pays off.  Say Yes to your kids 10% more often.  My conjecture: They're be happier, you'll be happier, and the negative side effects will often solve themselves.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Wayne writes:

This has got to be the most uplifting blog post that I can remember (my google reader has 40+ posts each day). Thanks a lot, Bryan. And, good luck spreading the good news.

Margaret writes:

It sounds like her experiment helped her be a kinder mother and have more fun with her kids which is great. From the child's point of view, though, having your mom say no about almost everything and then suddenly say yes to everything and then go back to no... well, I can see why her kids were buzzing with sugar by the end of the week. They probably thought this was too good to be true and that it would stop suddenly (which it did) so they had better get as much as they could while they could. They knew their mom well, it seems.

Your advice of saying yes more seems much less confusing for the kids.

It is also similar to the advice I've read on unschooling sites like Joyce Fetteroll's site or Sandra Dodd's site about how to start moving towards the kind of parenting they practice and advocate.

They talk a lot about saying yes and, after trying to explain it to enough people over the years I think they have gotten pretty good at explaining it: saying yes.

jh writes:

A large reason for constantly saying No is because parents are the ones who tend to incur all the costs of a Yes. In the cake example, the parent is the one who usually cleans it all up so it seems easier to just say No. Sure, the kids may whine and cry, but they'll quickly get over it and find something else fun to do that won't cause a huge mess for Mom to clean up.

I agree with Bryan's suggestion to say Yes 10% more often. But, I'd also suggest saying "Yes, if you clean up" about 100% more often.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think she definitely took it a bit far. I would change the following:
1) Make the kids participate in the cleanup in the kitchen.
2) If you don't want to stand on your head, say no. The ideas that Brian preach seem to be that parenting can be easy instead of hard because you are constantly fighting your kids. I don't think he's advocating letting your kids win and act as the conquerers.

Overall, I think this experience may teach the mother that many of the "No" she says are unnecessary and hopefully this can help her live an easier life.

I really like Brian's idea to make sure your kids are good roommates. You have to live with them and if they are slobs it is unpleasant for everyone involved. If they boss you around that is also unpleasant for you.

bobroberts writes:

Interesting how "what I'm advocating" takes you to Amazon. I see what you did there, Bryan...

John Gregg, MD writes:

It's late at night, I'm waiting to do a case, my wife is off to see the grandkids,but I am on call, too busy...you get the drill.
I was Dr. No, now I am Paw-Paw, when I take the time - and Lucy's comments above brought me to tears. I missed so much, tried to overdo it at times - expensive gifts - but the times the girls (2) and I just took off and did "stuff" - miniature golf, shopping for Mom's presents, just goofing around - remain the most precious of my memories. We did all the cheerleading, soccer, gymnastics squad traveling - and they have done well, - nurse, teacher, mom(1) - et al - and realize now and counsel same - time is the key, fun is the game...

Thanks for the memories...

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