It's very, very early and dark on a tranquil Shabbat morning when my daughter innocently barges through my peaceful sleep.
"Mommy," she whispers loudly, "Can I go play at Shira's house?"
I splutter and attempt to emit some semblance of coherent speech until finally I manage, "What time is it?"
She ambles over to the oven clock and returns.
"Seven," she announces.
"Seven o'clock in the morning? Why are you up?" I groan.
"Shira wants me to come over," she patiently repeats.
"No. It's too early," is my grumpy response.
My daughter is nonplussed.
"But her mother lets."
I issue my parental verdict:
"Too bad; it's too early. You can't go."
And then in a respectful but disappointed voice, from my daughter's mouth comes "The Line." It is classic; it is universal; it is the phrase that attempts to catch mothers and fathers in a complete and utter conundrum.
"But why not?" she asks.
As any seasoned parent knows, there are a couple of standard responses to that great and poignant question. By far, the most common answer is the hallowed "Because I said so." It's the words our own parents used on us when we were kids. We all swore we'd never use that hated phrase on our own children -- until we actually had children who were old enough to speak.
In my only half-conscious state that Shabbat morning I was all too prepared to unleash the "Because I said so" response from my arsenal. But then something happened. My foggy brain went into surprisingly high gear and my thought process underwent a quick transformation. My daughter's question of "But why not?" triggered an actual intellectual perusal of why, exactly, I would not let her play with Shira. Sure it was really early in the morning, but she was up and all dressed, and there was no school today. Furthermore, Shira's mother, unlike some other mothers, was obviously amenable to having company over at the crack of dawn. So what exactly was my objection?
Wonder of wonders, my "Because I said so" melted away into Never-Never Land.
"Okay -- you can go," I whispered kindly.
The historic moment was lost on her as she mumbled a hasty thank you and slipped out the front door, leaving me with vestigial remnants of sleep and plenty of food for thought.
In the hectic life of a parent, judgment calls need to be made roughly every two minutes. Do I intercede in The War of the Playmobil Motorcycle or let them fight it out? Do I offer an alternative to supper or let him starve? Do I allow her to stay home even though it's clear she isn't sick? Should I respond to that insolent tone of voice or give a time-out? Do I point out that the shoes are on the wrong feet and risk ruining the exultation of independent dressing?
In a perfect world all parents would be gifted with above-average IQ, extra-sensory perception, and an Oracle stashed away in the linen closet.
In a perfect world all parents would be gifted with above-average IQ, extra-sensory perception, and an Oracle stashed away in the linen closet to offer sage words of wisdom in the event of a particularly tough call. The decisions handed down would be well thought out, fair, and sparkling with pure intentions, honesty, and truth.
Well, rumor has it this isn't a perfect world. And even those parents who do have above-average IQ often find that decision-making is a thorny business, not at all for the faint of heart. It does happen -- every now and then -- that the decisions I issue are, perhaps, less than well thought-out. At times, particularly when tired, overworked, and/or upset, I may respond to my children's requests with answers that do not necessarily reflect sage decision-making.
And this is precisely where "Why not" and "Because I said so" might need to part ways. This was my revelation on Shabbat morning, and since then it's opened my eyes to a new world; a world in which it's okay to be wrong and to rescind senseless decrees.
What if Scenario A as described above had not taken place? What if, instead, I had dug in my heels and stood on ceremony, forcing my daughter to stay home at 7 AM just because "I said so?" Even without a crystal ball I can predict with almost 100 percent certainty that Scenario B would have been decidedly unpleasant. Soured by the angst of an eight-year-old, our Shabbat morning just wouldn't have been the same; and all this because Mommy made a decision that was grounded in...nothing.
I am not advocating a jelly fish approach to parenting, where decisions are made and then rescinded with alarming frequency. As scorned as the "Because I said so" response is, in many cases it's actually the only correct answer to the skill-testing question "Why not?" It conveys to a child that respect for a parent's decision-making is paramount, and that not everything in life can be readily understood.
But I find it empowering to finally realize that I don't need to always be right, and that when I'm wrong I can calmly and quietly switch directions, saving face and preserving peace. When, upon second thought, it becomes clear that my response has been a knee-jerk "No" without the courtesy of a fair trial, it behooves me to take a moment and think my decision through. Why should I "put down my foot" when I've no leg to stand on?
My children appreciate that faraway look in my eye as I ponder a freshly made decision, examining it for sound thinking and good judgment. And they know that after all that heart-stopping deliberation, their objection might be overruled and the original verdict upheld.
Play-dates at the crack of dawn? On second thought, you're welcome to go and have a great time.
Chocolate chip cookies for supper? Out of the question!
Because I'm your mother and I said so.