I’ve been at this mom thing a decent amount of time as my oldest son, Blue, is about to turn sixteen. An incident this past week made me realize how little I like saying no, and it’s come as a bit of a shock as I pride myself on a great capacity for no. My kids aren’t shy about asking for all manner of goods and services, and the constant barrage of requests results in my reflex “no” shout-out before I’ve even taken the time to consider if what they want might be reasonable. I blurt out my trusted no and then find myself backpedalling to a “we’ll see,” a “maybe,” and sometimes, a “yes.”
The other day, Blue asked if he could see Straight Outta Compton with his friends. He’s wanted to see it for quite some time. Recently, when he was with his dad, this movie idea came up, and my ex-husband asked me what I thought. I promptly and proudly went to commonsensemedia.com and looked it up. It’s rated R, and appropriate for 17+ year olds due to a wide array of inappropriateness including sex, violence, language, and drug dealing. I said no. My ex-husband said no. It was a done deal, and I actually felt good sticking to a no (from down the street).
A few days later, my son texted me during a break at his lifeguarding job, asking if he could see “a movie” that night. “Sure,” I responded, as deep down, I really want to say yes. Then, it dawned on me to ask. “What movie?” I texted. There it was, first the three little dots, and then the words Straight Outta Compton. I reached out to his dad to make sure we both still agreed and got back to Blue saying no. The texting stopped. When he needed to be picked up from the pool, he got in the car and sat stewing. I asked if he was mad about the movie. “I’m being treated like a child,” he said. My initial thought was, um, well, you are a child, but for some reason that’s not what I said. I went to the empirical fact at my disposal. “The movie is rated R and you’re not 17. You can’t go.” To which he told me that he has responsibility in the form of a job that pays “real” money, and an iPhone and laptop, so maybe we jumped the gun giving these things to a child. I politely offered to take the stuff back and hold onto it until he felt ready. He has no problem saying no.
Blue’s habit of asking mightily for things is matched only by his habit of not taking disappointment well. When he’s granted his wish, the world is a lovely and enchanting place and I, of course, am equally lovely and enchanting. When he is told no, however, with a no that sticks, he holes up in his room for the night, stomps around in dismay, and once this spring, he didn’t speak to me for four days. This time, about Compton, I told him that I understood he was angry, and he went to his room. A little while later, though, he emerged and asked if I could take him to his dad’s to get the computer he had just tried to use in his argument. In the car, he said he was sorry for the way he reacted. To me, this was huge.
We got home, and G was in the process of trying to score coveted tickets to a hot Broadway show (Hamilton) for Red, so she was busy, but I was bursting with the desire to reverse my Compton no for a Compton yes in light of Blue’s newly mature response to my no. I realized later that my rush to reverse was premature. Blue had tried to sneak by me what he wanted to see with his general question of “can I see a movie?” and his dad and I had just days earlier joined forces in a no, so I couldn’t unilaterally go back on that. When G had secured the show tickets, I told her how proud I was of Blue and that I was contemplating letting him go (there was still ample time for him to get there). She basically called me crazy and said that Blue’s graceful handling of disappointment is not a reason to give him what he wants.
She was right. He simply did a little self-reflection, which by the age of almost sixteen, he should do. I just like to say yes. And if I have to say no, I like to be able to exercise the prerogative of changing my mind. I like to find reasons to change my mind. The problem is that the flip-flop sets the precedent that no isn’t no, but I’ve already raced down that bad, bad road. I started wondering what’s at the root of my desire to say yes (my self-reflectiveness in a customary state of high alert). I know a mother’s job is not to be liked, but I like to be liked. Is that so wrong? I like to make my kids happy, and I hold my breath that they’ll know enough to do the things that make me happy, such as say thank you, turn off the light when they leave a room, and put dirty dishes in the dishwasher in return. My rate of return varies widely.
To make matters more interesting, the very day after Blue had apologized and held off withholding from me, he texted me again from the pool making sure the movie was off limits. I should have been horrified or insulted. Instead, I searched for a way to say yes. I called his father to let him know of Blue’s yeoman’s job of accepting no, but he asked the good question of what had changed since the day before when the movie wasn’t right. “Fine,” I said. I knew that Blue asking again so soon was ridiculous. I knew that nothing about the movie had changed. I knew it would feel wrong to send my child to a movie he’s not allowed to see. I just wanted so much to say yes. I texted him a “nope” and he dropped it. For now.
Liz Kingsley lives in Westfield with her girlfriend and their five children. During the day, she teaches Special Education and Basic Skills at a local elementary school, writes poetry and columns about her family, and directs The Writers Studio. At night, she collapses from exhaustion.
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