The Magic Word

Several times before, I have mentioned that I was raised in a traditional, Dr. Spock kind of way. It was a good childhood overall, with times that were amazing and times that were more challenging. But it was the 60s and 70s, with traditional parenting models, supported by traditional TV and magazines and reinforced by traditional institutions such as school and pediatricians, with traditional solutions and goals. Some of those traditional means were great, like the Shake 'n Bake chicken and my parents' constant exhortations to get me to "go outside" and play. But there were a few things that rankled me. Groundings, for one. "Go to your room", for another. And the worst of all, at least for me: "What's the magic word?"

More than just a few times I responded to this "what's the magic word" question with a typical Jeff-esque wise ass answer like "Um, abracadabra? Open sesame? Mirror mirror?" Of course, none of those were the right answer, and I knew it. No, there were only three magic words, split into two distinct phrases that every good boy knew and could learn to repeat on command: "please" and "thank you."

You know, there is nothing wrong with "please" and "thank you"; in fact, I use each of them several times a day, and I actually mean it when I say them. I speak those words with joy and deep gratitude that comes from a knowledge that so many of the good things that happen in our lives are the result of the thoughtful actions of others, and in addition to "paying forward" these kindnesses, I also want to drop a nice appreciation, right there on the spot for everyone to see. But as cool and wonderful as "please" and "thank you" are, there is absolutely nothing magic about them.
Now sometimes you can get a pleasant and unexpected reaction when you use them, and sometimes you just get a good feeling inside. I don't want to demean those advantages, but they're just not "magical."

When I think of magic, I think of things that make the impossible come alive with endless possibilities; things that transform wants and needs into actions and deeds; and things that take feelings that we once dared only dream of, and places them squarely in our hearts. If we could find a way to get there somehow, to do instead of wish, then wishes could become changes before our very eyes. Now, there is no potion that I know of, no elixir or incantation that can help us emerge into a land of freedom of thought and action. But there is, believe it or not, a magic word that can take us - and the people we love - there more quickly than we think possible. It's not "please", it's not "thank you" - it's not even "I love you", although they each have their place. No, the magic word is much more simple than that.

The magic word is "yes."

"Yes" is a very, very powerful word. The word itself has no meaning, of course; it's merely a collection of letters that make a short, firm sound. But as is always the case, the power of "yes" comes not from the word itself, but from the feeling of acceptance and freedom that it conveys. "Yes", however, is also very scary. "Yes" takes the decision - any decision, from where to eat dinner to which class to take to whom to marry and where to live - out of the hands of the parent, and places it gently into the hands of the child. There is an implied relaxation or relinquishing of control here which runs contrary to basic axioms of traditional parenting. After all, the idea of control in parenting is one that runs very deep.

As a parent, we often believe that we need to control. Sometimes, we control because we feel out of control in other aspects of our lives, and we need to control something in order to stay in balance. But sometimes we control in an attempt to protect our children from having to endure some of the things in life we know are difficult - broken hearts, misdirected efforts, wastes of time, etc. After all, we know all of the shortcuts because we've already been through it. We know how to get through life with efficiency and expedience, in ways that will protect our own hearts from pain. And because we have learned from our own mistakes, we have a strong desire to help our children live their lives as error-free as possible. And so we try control a variety of things - TV, food, sleep times, educational choices, friends and lovers - with generally positive intent, but often negative results.

In some ways, parenting - both "good" and "bad" -
is about laying foundations. Traditional parenting often focuses on foundations like church, school, team sports, perseverance, and a host of other ideals that, they hope, will prepare their children to succeed in the real world. These parents believe that they can see the future and build a person who will succeed within it. It's almost like a 20 year engineering project - meticulously planned, brilliantly executed, but perhaps without either passion or the ability to morph as the future becomes more clear, like building the perfect desktop computer in a world of iPads.

Seeing my children succeed is important to me as well, but I believe that my children should, can and do have the right to determine what success means for them, and that I am mistaken to assume that I know what the world will be like when they grow up and what the best way is for them to live in it. I don't know what the world will look like, I don't know what they will choose to do in the future, and I don't know what they will need to learn to succeed in that world on their own terms and in their own ways. I cannot engineer their lives. But I can still provide a foundation. Rather than try to plan for very contingency and attempt to give them a bit of everything so they can succeed, I can help them develop confidence, curiosity, adaptability, passion, unconditionality and trust, in an environment founded on exploration. Regardless of what the world becomes or what part they choose to play in it, I think that this foundation helps them see the possible.

I cannot do that if my gut, reflexive response is "no."

I don't know how to help my child build confidence when I say "no" to his desire to try new things, like breaking out of a set of handcuffs or walking across the top of a jungle gym on a wet day. Life is not trial and error; life is trial and learning. If one can safely assume that people really never stop learning, then they need to never stop trying. The best way to shut down a child's desire to attempt new things is to say "no" just because you, the parent, are afraid.

I don't know how to help my child build sense of curiosity when so much of the world is put off limits with "no." Be it the end result of smearing peanut butter in your hair or the desire to listen to every single CD at the play station in the book store, saying "yes" helps your child open their eyes to more and more possibilities. "No" is viewing the world through a paper towel tube, perhaps a straw. "Yes" is viewing it through a wide-angle lens - or from a hot air balloon, a thousand feet off the ground.

I don't know how to help my child learn how to adapt to changing circumstances when they want change course and hear "no" in response. Perseverance and commitment are admirable in many cases, and I myself am happy that my parents did not give me an easy out when it came to hockey and guitar lessons. But perseverance and commitment through all change, with no thought to allowing the child their inherent right to make a choice (as if it were yours to "allow"), makes it harder for them to adapt to changes when it really counts, like in abusive relationships or other scary situations. An honest and authentic "yes" when they express discontent and the need for a new direction helps them feel loved and respected, that their beliefs and views are valued in your eyes - and it makes it more likely that they will value the beliefs and values of others.

There are, obviously, some circumstances in which "no" may be a better choice. I might say "no" to a child sticking a fork into an electrical outlet or running into a crowded street after a ball. I might say "no" to an addicted friend who asks for money to buy drugs. And I might say "no" to a partner who challenges me to grow when I need to run back to my comfort zone for a short break. There will always be a need for a limited amount of "no" in the world.

But when we choose the time, place, and circumstance for "yes" or "no", we are robbing our kids of a learning and growth opportunity. Not only are we enforcing our own needs and desires, thereby subjugating the needs and desires of our children, but we're also robbing them of an opportunity to learn some of life's lessons for themselves, in their own way and in their own time, and in terms of what is important to them. We assume that if they experience difficult times that they will suffer in some way, and we want to protect them from that suffering. While that may be true in many cases, our kids are different than we are, and are therefore likely of approaching these situations in ways that are far different than the way would chose to approach them - likely for the better.

I am not suggesting that we should never offer our ideas, or thoughts, or the wisdom of our own experiences. When we are engaged with our children, they will look to us to help them approach these challenges. But there is a difference between offering these things as a partner in your child's life, and controlling these things in an attempt to prevent your children from experiencing the difficulties of life. If we help our children approach their lives through a framework of what is possible when we learn and experience new things, they are far more likely to view these challenging times in ways that far exceed our hopes and expectations with their maturity and balance.

Yes. Say it, mean it, feel it, show it in your eyes and in your body language, and help your children develop the solid foundation they need to meet the world on their own terms, head on and head up.


  1. Brilliant, Jeff. Schools say no a lot too.

  2. Jeff .. once again so enjoying your post

    The only hint of magic every was the first time I heard my oldest say "tank oo" it was of his one choosing in a moment of gratitude and made me weep ..

  3. Love to see your posts, Jeff, as I always enjoy what you have to say and how you say it. Much love from all of the Asheville gang :)

  4. "The magic word is 'yes.'" made my quote wall. This post was just what I needed. (: