There’s always the nuclear option. I know it’s there. I’m the adult, so it’s mine to use, and I can do that. Anytime I want. It’s just sitting there, waiting for me. Tempting me. It would all be so easy.
On the other hand, nobody benefits from the nuclear option. Least of all, me. I learned long ago: do not use the nuclear option. Ever. Just don’t do it.
I’m running out of options, though. Or, more accurately, I’m running out of ideas. Because this particular power battle is not going well for me.
It started about fifteen minutes ago when you decided you were not going to do your nightly reading.
The book about Kobe Bryant was open. You were in your PJ’s. We were in our positions on the beanbag with you settled into the nook of my armpit, my left arm around you as I held the book out in front us.
The only problem was that you refused to read the simple words on the page. You weren’t kicking or screaming or complaining. You just were sitting there in silence.
“C’mon, buddy,” I said. “Just read it.”
“The heat was on for shooting guard Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers,” I began, hoping you were like an old car that only starts once it’s in motion.
I tried to out-silence you. We sat for three minutes before I gave up.
I stood up and left your bedroom.
“What are you doing?” you asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, a little too honestly. As every parent in a power battle knows, one should never drop the illusion of having a plan.
I went to the dining room table and mindlessly began placing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle as I tried to come up with one. And here I sit, wondering how to get you to perform the simple task of reading words on a page.
I’ve run through my usual motivation tactics. It’s too late for a candy bribe, though, and you’ve already brushed your teeth, anyway. And neither do I want to promise you a toy or something in the future. If I did that, how would you come to learn reading is its own reward?
After eliminating those options, I realize two things: first, I guess I don’t have a very wide variety of motivation tactics after all; and second, this might end up being a long night.
You look like you’re ready for a long night, too, stretched out on the couch next to Ozzy, watching me work on a puzzle. You show no signs of budging on this. And with Ozzy sitting silently beside you, I’m starting to feel outnumbered.
As I’m trying to come up with fresh ideas to motivate you, I hear you finally speak from the couch.
“I actually want to be punished,” you say in an even tone.
And now I know that not only the fate of this evening hinges on this moment, but the entire trajectory of your life. Because a kid who says he wants to be punished in that tone of voice is either going to grow up to be a saint or a serial killer. I’m sure of it.
So, I’m thinking about you thirty years from now, strapped into the electric chair, grateful to finally get the punishment I so cruelly denied you on this night in your youth, when I hear the words fall from my mouth.
“I’m taking away your iPad.”
And there it is. The nuclear option.
“We’ll see if maybe that makes story time easier tomorrow,” I clarify, and I immediately wonder if I’m trying to justify it to you or to myself.
Because here’s the thing. Taking away a child’s electronic device always seems like the obvious solution to almost every problem.
Refusing to brush their teeth? Probably because the Nintendo Switch rotted their brain so severely the body doesn’t remember it needs to care for itself.
Called someone a name at school? Probably because of something they picked up playing Among Us online.
Woke their dad up by pouring a cup of cold water on his face, supposedly as a prank? Probably something they saw on YouTube and thought would be hilarious.
Now, even if electronic devices did lead to all that behavior (which, in the case of that last one, it most certainly did and, let me tell you, it wasn’t nearly as hilarious as those stupid YouTubers made you think it would be), it still is a mistake to take away the electronics completely.
I’m sure it wasn’t always this way, but depriving your child of their electronics in today’s world is like wearing your favorite hat that was recently shrunk in the wash. The thing you love is always a little closer to you than you want it to be, and by the end of the day you have a terrible headache.
If a child is not on electronics, the child is busy. Which, at least in your case, means I’m busy, too. Your iPad gives you a lot of entertainment, but it gives me something far more valuable: time.
Consequences. That’s what this all boils down to. It’s important for you to learn that your actions have consequences. You know this already, but you have to keep learning it over and over until it sticks. Just like how I need to learn again and again that the consequences I dish out upon you have consequences for me, too.
The reality of your pending consequence is sinking in for you. I see you start to pace between your room and the living room. I’m still working on the puzzle but I’m watching you out of the corner of my eye. It seems like you’re trying to keep your emotions at bay. The rage wants to come out. You seem to be looking for something to throw. Tears appear ready to pour down your cheeks at any moment, but for now they pool atop your lower eyelids.
As you walk back and forth across the house you shed your emotions like dead skin, and I can feel the living room fill up with anger and sadness and regret and fear and shame and disappointment.
You are as silent as you were minutes ago on the beanbag. There is still an open book, only now that book is you.
And then, something miraculous happens. I’m reaching to place a piece of the puzzle on Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, when I hear you speak.
“Can I have a do-over?” you ask, with a small quiver in your voice.
It takes me a second to realize what you’ve just asked me. At times in the past I have offered you a do-over, a chance to reset things to the way they were before the tantrum. I had forgotten this technique in my own frustration tonight. This is the first time you have asked for a do-over before one was offered.
I’m caught off guard, and I’m wondering if a do-over is a good idea. Can I pull back the nuclear option now that I’ve raised it? Will it make me appear weak? (I mean, weaker than you already know me to be on these things.) Aren’t you supposed to learn about consequences? Won’t it teach you that you can just ask for a do-over anytime you make a bad choice? After all, you won’t get a do-over when you’re sitting there on the electric chair thirty years from now.
But then I realize that maybe the lesson you learn will be about second chances. About not holding onto grievances forever. About how much better it is to forgive and move on rather than to make sure every wrong is righted in equal measure.
And I won’t have to use the nuclear option. There’s that, too.
“OK, buddy,” I finally say. “You can have a do-over.”
We head back to the beanbag, where we settle once more into our positions. I hold out the book and you begin, “The heat was on for shooting guard Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Only a few minutes were left in the fourth quarter…”
How wonderful it is to hear your voice.
Wow! This sounds like a giant step for Evander. Way to stay quiet.😇. Love you both.
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An incredible teaching moment for me I’ll say that! You really are an amazing father, Caleb. Amazing.
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I feel this post so hard… we are trying to work on several behavioral things with our younger child and just keep running up against the fact that we have so few consequences he cares about, except “screen time,” which almost always backfires AND as you point out, ends up being as much of a consequence for us. What’s a parent to do? You did good, though.
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