©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
It had been a hectic day. Heather had been up since 4:00 a.m. making lunches, throwing clothes in the washing machine, and leaving breakfast on the table. Promptly at six o’clock she left the house for the outpatient surgery center where she worked four days a week.
Now, back home after her eight-hour shift, Heather glanced at the clock. As wife, parent, nurse, homemaker—you name it—she was accustomed to completing many tasks in the shortest time possible. Once again she filled the washing machine, this time with sheets and towels. Soon it was swishing and spinning its load.
A few adept motions and Heather had her beloved bread machine filled with ingredients for a polenta loaf. She hummed along with the machine’s humming sound and thought about the scent of freshly-baked bread that would soon be filling the kitchen. That triggered the thought of another scent. Cookies! The twins would be home from school in another hour. Time to make a batch of chocolate-chip cookies if I hurry, Heather thought to herself. They’ll top off spaghetti and salad nicely!
Heather was just removing a tray of golden-brown chocolate-chip cookies from the oven as the two eight-year-olds burst in through the back door. “Cookies!” shouted Trevor. “Cookies!” echoed Trisha. “Can we have cookies?” they asked in duet.
“No, you can’t,” replied Heather, placing the hot cookies on wire racks to cool.
“Why not?” asked Trisha.
“Because it would spoil your appetite,” replied Heather.
“No it wouldn’t,” said Trisha.
“Yes, it would,” said her mother.
“It won’t spoil my appetite,” said Trisha. “I had P.E. this afternoon and I’m starving!”
“I said no,” repeated Heather.
“That’s not fair!” said Trevor.
“It is fair because I make the rules,” replied Heather, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice.
“Well, it’s not fair!” said Trevor. “You don’t know what my body wants. I ran around the track this afternoon and I’m starving, too. You’re mean!” and he stalked off to his room, his face a thundercloud.
“Please, Mummie!” begged Trisha. “Just one. I promise I won’t ask for any more before dinner.”
“I said no, Trisha. Why do you keep asking?” asked her mother. “What part of ‘no’ don’t you get?”
Trisha burst into tears. “You could let me have one,” sobbed the little girl. “It wouldn’t hurt you to let me have one!”
“That’s it!” said Heather. “Go to your room and stay there until dinner.”
“Why do I have to go to my room just because I want a cookie?” asked Trisha.
“Because I said so!” shouted Heather. “I’m sick and tired of your begging! I wish I hadn’t even baked cookies!” Heather’s face was red and it wasn’t from the heat of the oven.
Head down, Trisha slowly turned and walked to her room. Even as the door closed behind the child, sounds of her heart-rending sobs could still be heard.
Heather sank into a chair. Well, that went well, she thought to herself. What a dismal atmosphere that interaction created. Indeed, what could have been a happy after-school reunion between parent and children had gone straight to hell in the proverbial hand basket.
Dinner that night was also a rather dismal affair. Trisha’s face was still tear-stained. Trevor’s expression was still disgruntled. Their father asked about how school had gone and received monosyllabic responses. When he asked the reason for their sad faces, the children mumbled something about wanting cookies. “Sure, cookie-time,” their father said, smiling.
Heather brought a plate of golden-brown chocolate-chip cookies to the table and said, “Help yourself to two cookies each.” The twins sat nibbling slowly, in silence. This was not the happy dinner I had in mind, Heather thought. What a disaster!
Later that week, the twins brought home a flier announcing a lecture that was being sponsored by the local PTA. The topic was how to increase compliance and decrease conflict in communicating with children. Heather decided to attend and “had my eyes opened,” as she put it, when recapping the information later that evening for her husband.
There can be a huge difference in the way differing brains absorb and respond to language. The left hemisphere is believed to be home to decision-making as well as Broca’s Area (spoken language) and Wernicke’s Area (decoding heard language). Individuals with an innate energy advantage in the left hemisphere typically know how to spell the word no andthey understand what it means. They may choose to argue, debate, or demand what they want when they want it, but their brains do get the concept of no.
The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is the home of possibilities, the venue for creativity and spontaneous problem-solving. Either it doesn’t understand the word no or its focus is so strongly on how can I make this happen? that it tends to ignore or ride roughshod over the concept of no. Many parents and teachers can tell stories about how exhausting it can be to have a right-brained child come up with every possible option under the sun in an attempt to get a yes response.
“That’s what happened when I made cookies the other night,” Heather told her husband. “Trevor got my no, although he didn’t like it and tried to argue that it wasn’t fair.” Her husband nodded. “Trisha, on the other hand, bent all her energy on trying to get a yes. I see that now and how I played right into the situation.”
“Did the speaker have any suggestions?” asked her husband.
“Sure did,” responded Heather and she went on to describe the discussion and role-playing that had kept the evening lively, interesting, and helpful. “I wrote this down,” explained Heather: Always say yes if you possibly can, even if you need to use a qualifier. I’m going to practice,” she added.
“Hmmm-m-m. Always say yes if you possibly can,” repeated her husband, a twinkle in his eye. “That could be good.” They both laughed.
A couple of weeks later Heather had the opportunity to do some hands-on real-time practicing. On this occasion, Heather’s mother had arrived bearing gifts just before the twins burst in after school. The gifts included three dozen favorite mini-cupcakes, each decorated with frosting and red-hot candy hearts. The twins took one look at the cupcakes, jumped up and down, and cried, “Cupcakes! Cupcakes! Can we have cupcakes?”
Heather had looked at her mother and replied, “Yes, you may have cupcakes in about two hours, at dinner tonight.”
“In two hours?” asked Trevor.
“Yes,” replied his mother.
“Do we have to wait two hours?” asked Trisha.
“Yes,” Heather replied.
The twins looked at each other, a puzzled look on each face. “Can we have two cupcakes?” asked Trevor.
“Yes, when you have eaten all your salad tonight,” replied his mother.
“Can I have four cupcakes?” asked Trisha.
“Yes,” Heather replied. “You may have two cupcakes for dinner tonight and two more cupcakes tomorrow.”
“But I still have to wait ‘til dinner?” asked Trisha.
“Yes,” Heather said, smiling. “Put your books in your room and change your clothes. You can visit with Grandma for awhile before she has to leave to pick up Gramps at the dentist’s office.” The children looked at each other somewhat uncertainly for a moment, and then turned and ran toward their rooms.
“Your face has a deer-in-the-headlights look,” said Heather’s mother. “What’s the deal?”
“The deal,” said Heather, “is that this is the first time I can ever remember saying no and not getting a big argument.”
“But you didn’t say no,” said her mother, her face wreathed in a rather mischievous smile. “You said yes—with a qualifier.”
Heather smiled back. “I did, didn’t I? And the response was light-years ahead of my last confrontation with the twins. Just wait until I tell their father. This is good news!”
And it was.