I was raised by two civil rights activists, one of whom was born in the ’30s in the Deep South, the other raised in Newark, N.J. It goes without saying that the very idea of “talking back” was unheard of in my household. We couldn’t even look back, much less talk back. So why does my 8-year-old think it’s OK to talk back to me? How did I let this happen?
“Emmy, it’s time for bed.”
“But I don’t want to go to bed.”
“Don’t talk back to me.”
“Because I said so.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“You need to go to bed because you need your rest and you have a big day at school tomorrow.”
“See, that’s a reason.”
For most in my generation, the above exchange would have been much shorter: “It’s time for bed.” End scene.
My husband and I instilled in Emmy the importance of asking questions early on. She was encouraged to question anything if she felt that she had a plausible reason. But that kind of teaching is hard to rein in. So now I have an 8-year-old who questions everything, from how I style her hair to why I don’t allow her to eat candy. Everything is “why, why, why.” And “because I said so” doesn’t end the conversation.
As much as it annoys me at certain times when Emmy hits me with a “but why,” I wouldn’t have it any other way. Earlier generations feared their parents. In our community, most believe that a healthy dose of fear is the hallmark of good parenting. But where do we get this idea that our children need to fear us? Why shouldn’t they look us in the eye and ask us directly why they can’t have a certain toy or a scoop of ice cream?
I’ll be honest: Most of the time when I tell Emmy “because I said so,” it’s because I’m too tired, hungry or otherwise distracted to give her more than that. But that’s my issue, not hers. I believe that Emmy deserves a concrete answer—with reasons. It’s the same thing I want from her.
I want to model the behavior I expect from Emmy, so I do indulge her “but whys.” And it often takes the edge off a situation that could escalate into my yelling at her in frustration. “Because I said so” can easily crescendo into “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”
In this age, it’s important that our children grow up learning to question everything: Is this person right for me? Is this professor knowledgeable? Is this doctor the best in this field? Does this loan have the best rates? Is this the right college for me?
I want Emmy to question everything and have a healthy dose of cynicism about her environment. I want her to be able to look anyone in the eye and ask pointed questions if it’s in her best interest. I want her to be curious about her world. And the only way to foster that is to encourage her to question everything around her. If that means I get questioned, too, so be it. I’ve learned how to quickly and succinctly explain why bedtime is essential, how candy rots your teeth and why you can’t have every toy you want—and I don’t ever have to use the old, reliable “because I said so.”
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.