Prior to having my first kid 15 years ago, I pictured my mother-self as loving and patient, always calmly offering up answers to every one of my child’s questions. All the books and magazines I read (not internet articles because this was before the word “google” had become a verb *sob*) discussed how children incessantly ask “why” and how it was our job as their parent to always try to answer that “why.”
If you don’t answer all your child’s questions, or at least tell them how they can go about finding the answers themselves, it squashes their natural curiosity and pulverizes their souls until there’s nothing left but sad, dribbling globs of liquid tar.
Sure, it’s annoying and exhausting to answer one million questions per day, but you wanted motherhood, didn’t you? So suck it up and answer their questions! You don’t want your selfish need for an occasional moment of silence to ruin your children, do you?
So I really expected to be the type of parent who would always patiently answer every single question my child threw at me, for all time. I’d calmly explain my reasoning for various household rules. I’d team up with them to find the answers to questions for which I didn’t have a ready answer. I’d never, ever resort to the authoritarian and blasphemous “because I said so.”
But lately I’ve been hearing myself occasionally shut down my 15-year-old’s “why.” He’s an awesome kid, and I’m lucky to be his mom, I’d literally die for him, blah blah blah, all those disclaimers. I adore him.
And also, he has begun to badger me with “why” as a method of wearing me down when he wants something but I’ve already told him no. When the books and magazines told me to always answer my kid’s “why,” they framed the scenario as a puppy-eyed first grader who was curious about how the world worked. They did not warn me that my kids would become teenagers and attempt to use my willingness to answer against me.
My 15-year-old son has lately resorted to pushing and pushing with his “why.” The most recent example was “WHYYYY can’t I be on the computer for the entire day?” He posed this question during a routine period of the day during which he and his 11-year-old sister aren’t allowed on screens. They get plenty of screen time, but I have a hunk of the day where I require them to find something else to do. I’ve told them why. They both know all the reasons why it’s not good to stare at a screen all fucking day long.
Usually they don’t push back. But on this particular day, my son wasn’t feeling it. He asked why he can’t still be on screens. He asked why is it such a big deal to be on screens for literally the entire day? I reminded him of some of the reasons — mental health, our brains need a variety of different types of stimulation, not good for your eyes, etc.
Each reason I gave was followed by another “Why?” He framed his questions with an aura of sincere curiosity, as if he honestly wanted to know the reasons “why” too much screen time can impact a person’s mental health, “why” our brains need different types of stimulation, “why” it’s not good for your eyes (“my eyes already suck anyway, who cares?”).
This was not a curious child seeking to comprehend the deeper meanings behind the boundaries I had created. This was a teenager trying to get his way.
After answering a few of his “whys,” I told him he is welcome to google the many studies that would provide answers to all his questions. Of course, I told him, you’ll have to wait until next time you’re allowed on screens to do all that research. He groaned and gave up.
Usually as a parent, you feel like you’re on the same side as your kid. Experiencing the wonder of life through their eyes, sharing their joys and disappointments, going to bat for them when necessary and teaching them to go to bat for themselves.
And sometimes you feel like you’re in a boxing ring, figuratively knocking each other down until one of you is dubbed the winner. I won that round. Yes, I know it’s a bit petty. But I also know my kid was trying to manipulate me, and I showed him I am not one to be manipulated. But good try.
Pre-parent me had good intentions with vowing to be a patient answerer of incessant questions. And I do mostly try to answer my kids’ questions, especially with regards to the boundaries I put in place. They understand that every choice I make as a parent has the underlying goal of their well-being — their health, their happiness, their safety, their success. They know my rules aren’t arbitrary. They even know my goal is to be authoritative, not authoritarian.
But pre-parent me didn’t realize that kids are not always angelic information sponges innocently seeking to understand the mysteries of the world with their “why.” Sometimes they’re manipulative teenagers. Sometimes they try to weaponize your gentle parenting techniques against you.
Kids are smart, and part of their normal and natural development is that they will test boundaries and try to figure out who, exactly, is in control. Not because they’re psychopathic future serial killers, but because they’re human, and humans sometimes test one another. And that’s okay.
So, although pre-parent me meant well, experienced parent me has realized that nothing about parenting is black-and-white, no rule is hard and fast, and your kids will always find ways to surprise you. And sometimes you have to find a way to surprise them right back.