Gatekeeping

My kids are great. They really are, despite occasional outbursts to the contrary. Okay - here's what they do that's annoying: Cordelia dawdles in the morning when it's time to get dressed; Delphine whines when I ask her to clean up (or leave the playground, or stop doing whatever she is enjoying); while they do play nicely together, they are both often impatient with each other and often fight, usually about really stupid things. That's all! That's not much, really.

Okay, there's one more thing. The most annoying annoyance is the pestering: they pester me for television, and for candy, and for trips to the park. They pester me to let them paint, or go play across the street. They ask, I say no, (or later, or tomorrow, or "you already had your tv/candy for today"), and then they beg. They argue. They bargain. They whine. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, sometimes they get distracted by something else, but however it ends it's tedious and aggravating.

I don't control what they eat at mealtimes, I don't control what they wear, I don't control what they play with, so they don't pester me about that stuff. The things which they pester me for are the things which I control; the things for which I'm the gatekeeper.

It must be so frustrating for them, to want something and to have to get past me in order to get it. I really can't blame them for pestering. I know if I wanted a lollipop or to watch Chuck or something and someone was (apparently) arbitrarily preventing me from doing so, I would be pretty pissed off. I would do everything in my power to get what I wanted, even if the only thing in my power was whining. Indeed, the very fact that I couldn't have that lollipop would probably make me much more obsessed with it than I would be if I could just grab a lollipop whenever I wanted one.

I've tried to create some kind of external structure around these things, so that it's not up to my whim. For example, the girls are allowed two TV shows a day, and four a day on weekends. These are rules they helped create and which they agreed to. Even so, they manage to find all kinds of opportunities for negotiation: TV now or later? Which shows? How long are they? Does Pingu count as one show? No? How many Pingus count as a show? Ultimately all these decisions are up to me, which puts all the power in my hands and creates a very unpleasant dynamic where they are constantly supplicating to me and I'm in control of their happiness. This is not how I want my home to be.

So what to do? I guess we could come up with ever more specific rules: TV only after school; three Pingus equals one Dora; one Sesame Street equals two Doras; if Delphine watches something while Cordelia is napping then Cordelia gets to pick the next show... Augh. That way lies madness, and eight million rules.

The assumption underlying all this, of course, is that if I left these decisions: how much TV? How much candy?; in the hands of the kids, they would handle it badly. Is this assumption valid? If I let them watch as much TV as they wanted, would they watch it all the time? To the exclusion of doing other things? What about candy? If there were candy available all the time would they eat too much of it?

I can start to answer these questions by considering adult behaviour. (That's the logical extension of every parenting dilemma, isn't it? "He's not going to be in diapers when he goes to university." "She's not going to keep eating only white food for the rest of her life.") So, I know I have gone through periods when I watched too much TV. I know I have watched TV, even crap TV, to the exclusion of other, more valuable activities. There are plenty of people out there who inarguably watch too much TV, for whom TV has negatively affected their quality of life and prevented them from living up to their potential. It has taken a good deal of self-restraint (and some technological tricks) to reduce my TV watching to the level it's at now, and even still I could probably afford to watch less. I have to consciously manage my TV habit; perhaps it is asking too much for a five-year-old and a three-year-old to do the same, and it is appropriate for me to manage it for them. Perhaps I have to just suck it up and deal with their whining as a part of being a parent.

(I could write that whole paragraph over again for candy, as I'm sure you can imagine.)

Incidentally, I'm thinking of shutting off the TV altogether this summer. (Well, at least for the kids. I'm a giant hypocrite. Also there's no way Blake would agree to not watching TV.) I have a friend whose dad unplugged the TV every summer and I must say it sounds like a fine idea. At least it will provide me with a short and easy answer to any demands: "Sorry kids, no TV until school starts in September." It might even curb the whining. Maybe.

I don't know the solution to this problem. Maybe I need to keep explaining the importance of not watching too much TV. Maybe I need to be more firm when they try and negotiate (I think I'm pretty good at sticking to our existing rules but perhaps I could be better.) Maybe I've been blessed with particularly persistent children and I just need to be more patient. Maybe I need to try harder to distract them. Maybe I'll just keep trying things until something works. Or they move out and buy their own damn TV.

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