Trust... or Verify?

With Pope Francis’ exhortation on the family in mind, I’m going to ruminate on the daily ins and outs of negotiating with your young child -- and I’ll understand if some of you, for whom this kind of thing is well back in life’s rearview mirror, pass on by.

I view daily life with my daughter as dividing into the “appreciating moments” and the “teaching-and-learning moments.” Sometimes these categories overlap, but often they don’t. A ten-year-old is beginning to assert independence self-consciously, which means pushing borders, taking those tools of reasoning you’ve given her and wielding them against you, and blocking your path with an ever-harder-to-budge obstinacy. Petty arguments proliferate, and molehills become mountains; behind every small disagreement looms a potential battle of wills. One skill you sharpen in the years of being a parent is what I think of as “limb spotting” – seeing arguments before they arise, and quickly reckoning whether taking a stand is worth it.  Do I want to go out on that limb, really?

Because once you’re out there, it’s hard to crawl back. And (switching metaphors here), once the battle is joined, the fog of war descends, and it’s easy to get disoriented. It amazes me, how easily I can lose track of the basic goal. Always the question should be, What am I trying to accomplish in this interaction? Keep in mind that there is a large category of things that shouldn’t have to be argued about, except that, well, it’s a ten-year-old on the other side of the issue. But even the pettiest conflict can yield lessons, if you pay attention.

My daughter and I went for a mid-afternoon Sunday hour at the gym. Typically I work out for half an hour while Larkin reads in the lobby; then we spend the second half-hour swimming together. I usually buy her candy or chips from the vending machine to munch on while she’s waiting for me to finish my workout. But as we were heading out from home, my wife put the kibosh on that, informing me that Larkin had just had a bowl of popcorn. So no more junk.

Lark moaned and groaned -- and, as I discovered once we arrived, ferreted out of the house a little heart-shaped box of miniature hard candies left over from Valentine’s Day. As she settled into the sofa in the gym lobby to read, she had the box on her lap and a candy in her mouth.

“Listen,” I said, “you can’t sit here and eat up all those candies -- you know that, right?”

“But they’re mine,” she said.

“I know they’re yours. But that doesn’t mean you can just eat all of them right here and now. How many do you intend to eat while I’m in there exercising?”

I don’t know,” she said, as if the very notion of trying to ascertain such a thing was preposterous.

After intense bargaining we finally agreed she could have four more while I exercised. “So now I need to count how many you’ve got in there,” I said, holding my hand out.

She refused, adamantly, and we went back and forth on that. Finally she agreed to count them – to count them herself, that is. “And you can’t look.”  

I hesitated. In our back-and-forth I could see the outline of many battles in years to come, could hear the teenager’s plaintive refrain of “Don’t you trust me?” It occurred to me that in forcing her to let me count the candies I was, in fact, failing to risk trusting her, in a small but significant way.

Well, there’s the problem of trust, and there’s the corollary problem of temptation. I pushed ahead. “Honey, I need to count them myself. I know how much you love candy. If I have no way to verify how many you actually eat, you’ll be strongly tempted to break the promise and be untruthful about it afterward. I don’t want to put either of us in that situation.”

As a habitual second-guesser of myself in these set-tos, I can’t help but feel there was a bit too much accounting in my approach -- as if establishing some exact number of candies, and then having my daughter hew to it, was the important thing. Behind that approach lies the perpetual parental illusion that some neat system of tasks and incentives can eliminate the messiness and frayed nerves of constantly harassing and negotiating with your child. Who doesn’t understand that desire?  But parenting is not accounting. What is it, finally, that we want to accomplish with our children? One thing I’d like to accomplish is having my daughter not pass her time, and fill her body, with sugar – a tendency she shows unusual aptitude for, even on the kid scale of things. But I am also trying to help shape her as the kind of person who can be trusted... and then, yes, to trust her.

This is what I meant earlier by losing track of the basics. Was I being too lax? Too tough? Monitoring too closely? Giving too much leeway?  I’m reminded of the phrase, adopted by the Reagan administration during the arms talks of the 1980s, “trust but verify.” That sounds like solid policy for a parent. Yet raising a child is not the same as conducting diplomacy with a powerfully-armed adversary (though, now that I put it that way....). With your child, it’s possible that at a certain point you may not be able to both trust and verify; doing the latter may compromise the former. In some cases, when there isn’t much at stake (e.g., a few extra candies), it’s probably better to err on the side of trust – even if it means that your child ends up lying to you. Better to let your child’s own internal processes correct the situation, through the wondrous action of moral homeostasis that is conscience. Most ten-year-olds will feel an uncomfortable dissonance in deceiving their parents, and will seek to rectify it by telling the truth – if not this time, then next. And is it possible that, in the larger view, these encounters themselves form one of the “shared daily rituals” that help give family life, as Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia, “a healthy sense of closeness and stability”?

In the event, my daughter relented and allowed me to count the candies – but only when I threatened to pull the plug on our swimming and go home. It’s always a bit of a defeat when you have to go nuclear like that: a global threat, just to count little candies in a heart-shaped tin. Oh, by the way, there were fourteen of them. I counted them myself, and told her I expected there to be no fewer than ten afterward.

And then never bothered to count again.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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