If I told you why…

When my son was little he used to like to play outside a lot. At the end of the day I would call him in, and the conversation would go like this:

Me: Rob, it’s time to come inside.

Rob: Why, Daddy?

Me: Because it’s getting late.

Rob: I’m not tired, Daddy.

Me: I am.

Rob: You go rest, Daddy. I’ll be okay. (he was two at the time)

Me: (new tack) Rob, it will be dark soon.

Rob: That’s okay, Daddy, I can see in the dark.

Me: Rob, it’s time to come inside.

Rob: Why, Daddy?

(repeat until sunrise)

Whenever  you talk to somebody, it’s not simple. The conversation is carried out on many different levels at the same time. On the surface, you’re talking about content.  In this conversation, we’re talking about the time and the fact that I want my son to come in now, and he doesn’t.

Underneath the surface of the conversation, however, is the process of the conversation, or the “rules of the game”.

I first learned about “rules of the game” when I went to see a psychiatrist as part of my early therapy training. We were talking about my relationship with my mother (surprise). In our conversation I was complaining that even though I was an adult now, when I went home to see my parents we inevitably had these dinner conversations that left me feeling defeated.

Psychiatrist: How does it go?

Me: Well, my Mom cooks this fabulous meal and we all sit down to eat.  My Mom is an amazing cook. The food is always wonderful. She spends all day preparing the meal and I always enjoy it.

Psychiatrist: [says nothing]

Me: Yes, well, right. Anyway, as the meal progresses my mother makes a face like she’s just eaten something bad. And she says, “This food tastes terrible.” And I say, “No it’s not, Mom. This food tastes great. You made a great meal.” And then she says to me, “What do you know about cooking? There’s too much salt in this sauce -” or another time the meat will be too well done or not cooked enough, or the potatoes will be hard, she says. She says these things about the food being bad but it all tastes fine to me, and so I say, “Come on Mom, this is good food.” And she’ll say, “What do you know about cooking?” again. And I’ll go away feeling like I’ve lost or something….  I’m a bad son. I’ve failed to cheer my mother up.

Psychiatrist: [says nothing]

He did that a lot. Like the oompa loompa therapist in Willy Wonka with Johnny Depp. Just sat there, and sometimes nodded. And took notes. It was very unnerving. 

And then eventually, he said to me, “This is a game.” 

And that was the end of the session. And I went home and thought about that all week. I’m at my parents’ house, eating dinner, and we’re talking about the food, and I’m trying to convince my Mom that it’s a good meal when she says that it’s not, and I’m thinking, “This is a game.”

So what if it’s a game?

Well, a game would have a title. Like “Monopoly” or “Life” or “Operation”.

So let’s give this game a name.

This is the game called, “I’m a bad cook.”

Okay, and games have rules, like in Monopoly: every time you pass go, you get two hundred dollars. So what are the rules of this game?

The Rules of “I’m a Bad Cook”

  1. I go to dinner
  2. I sit down and eat
  3. Mom says the food is bad
  4. I say the food is good
  5. Mom says she knows more than I do, and I lose

So what do I have to do to win the game of “I’m a bad cook”?

The next time I went to my parents for dinner my Mom cooked spaghetti. Homemade sauce. She grew the tomatoes in the backyard and then cooked them in a sauce all day. Homemade meatballs. If we had had room for a cow, she would have made the beef herself. Instead she got up early on Saturday morning to go to the market to get the best ground beef. She makes this wonderful homemade sauce, cooks the spaghetti “el dente”, and we sit down to eat.

  1. I go to dinner
  2. I sit down and eat

And of course, 

  1. Mom says the food is bad

I can see where this is heading. Something has to change here. I have to do something different.

I have a crazy idea. When my Mom makes a face and says, “This sauce tastes terrible”, I look at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then I consider the sauce in my plate. I dip my spoon, grab some sauce, bring it to my lips, smell it thoughfully, and taste it carefully.

Then I make the same face my Mom makes and says, “Ew, Mom, you’re right. This sauce tastes terrible!”

So instead now I have changed the rules:

  1. I say the food is bad

And you what happens next? My Mom says, playfully, “What do you know about cooking? This is a good sauce.” And she smiled.

  1. Mom says she knows more than I do, and I win

Psychiatrists can be very helpful.

But we were talking about my son.

So the content of the conversation is about coming in on time. What about the process? What game is afoot here?

This game is called, “Get Rob in on Time”

Rules of “Get Rob in on Time”

  1. Dad says it’s time to come in
  2. Rob asks why
  3. Dad tells Rob why
  4. Rob refutes Dad’s reason and stays out later – Dad loses

By the way, I had seen the psychiatrist about a year or so earlier, right after Rob had been born. I was getting better at games by the time he was two.

“Rob, it’s time to come in.”

“Why, Dad?”


He came in. If you want to know more, read Thomas Phelan’s excellent book, One Two Three Magic.

And know that you can always change the rules of any game. And with children, you don’t have to give them reasons for all your decisions. You may choose to – that’s fine. But be aware of the new rule you set up when you do that: people tend to think that if you explain the reasons for your behaviour, then if they can refute your reasons, then you have to behave differently. 

Sometimes it’s better not to tell them why.

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