Parenting lesson #34: You are an expert in everything, and when you’re not, you’ll make stuff up.


Photo credit Carl Donohue

When you become a parent, you don’t realize you know all that you know until your kids start to do really unintelligent things and you have to teach them how to stay alive. It starts really young, as is evidenced by all the child-proofing we do to keep our infants from sticking their tiny fingers or other conductors into electrical sockets.

And once they can talk, our kids ask questions constantly, so we feel obligated to answer them. Some days, we can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, amazed at all we were able to explain to our curious little humans. Gold stars all around.

Some days, we make stuff up.

And some days, we simply make up stuff. We do it to end the conversation, we do it because we’re afraid to not have all the answers, we do it to be funny, or we do it to prove a point, like I did last week. It began with the basic knowledge that leaving the lights on when they’re not in use wastes precious energy, costs money and compounds our global CO2 emissions issues. Despite sharing this knowledge with our kids at least 89 times (and knowledge IS power, right?), the information doesn’t seem to motivate action. This is when we as parents start to get creative.

I went upstairs to shut off the lights that I knew were inevitably left on by some children. Sure enough, two kids’ rooms had lights that were on, as well as the playroom, bathroom, and hall light. As I muttered to myself under my breath, “How many times do I have to tell them to turn their stinking lights off,” I headed back downstairs and began stage one of the lecture: the empty threat.

I’m going to make you pay.

“Guys, I just went upstairs and found your lights on aga– OH. MY. GOSH. I turned off that light before I went upstairs and it’s on AGAIN. Go turn it off! I’m going to start deducting a dollar from your bank account every single time I know you left on a light.” There it is. The mostly empty threat, because there’s NO WAY with all the other parenting responsibilities tied to getting in and out of the house that I’ll remember to do this in the moment. (Also, I’d like to point out that Greg is so tech savvy, he has trained Alexa to turn off all the lights in the house. But she’s only about 79% accurate.)

The second part of the lecture escalated pretty quickly into make stuff up territory:

“You know that leaving the lights on is killing the polar bears, right? I just want you to think that every time you leave a light on, you just killed a polar bear. Because that’s essentially what you’re doing. Stop killing the polar bears!!”

You just killed a polar bear.

Admittedly, it’s not the first time I’ve conjured images of cute little bears to try to get them to do something. The thing is, we will often try almost anything to get our kids to take our lessons to heart. We cajole, bribe, reward, manipulate, discipline, do-over, punish, threaten … am I missing anything? And when one method fails, we try another, and another, then another. The morning after the polar bear incident, I don’t think anyone left on any lights. It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it. And a few days later, my two oldest were brushing their teeth at the same time and one said to the other, “Stop killing the polar bears! You don’t need to turn on BOTH bathroom lights just to brush your teeth!” It warmed my heart. But this morning, after getting home, I found a bedroom light on. So often, change and habits need way more time than we want to give to materialize.

It is important to realize when to let things go as a parent. I have a lot to learn in this area, I’ll admit. But turning off the lights is important to me for many reasons. So when it’s important, those are the times we keep trying until something sticks. I also sometimes ask the the kids to come up with the solution – and it’s amazing how creative they can be! I actually told them I thought we could make it a family affair, and if the kids catch Greg or me leaving on a light, they could all have 10 minutes of screen time during the week. I think that has great promise.

When it’s important, we keep trying.

Or maybe next I’ll try heeding my own advice and have the kids practice turning off the lights when leaving a room 21 times in a row. But while that experiment worked for a brief period, I have to confess that it wore off quickly and shoes don’t usually make their ways into their baskets anymore. So I’m back to lecturing about shoes. Lights, shoes, doing homework, turning in homework, wet towels on the floor … I’m starting to feel like a professor with all the lectures I give. But I’m definitely mom. Just a mom who knows a little about a lot and when I don’t, I should probably learn to keep my mouth shut — or the boogey man might get me.