We lived for over ten years in Budapest, Hungary. During that decade or so, we made minor inroads into the dense thicket of the Hungarian language. More narrow foot trails really. A few words and phrases that carried us into the nearly impenetrable timberland of that turbid language only to find our way blocked by thorny shrubberies of syntax and pronunciation. One phrase we learned very early on, however, was “nem szabad.” Which means “It’s not allowed.” It’s forbidden. Nem szabad.
We’re in an expensive swimming complex, in the area reserved for young children. I kneel down in the piss-warm water to be more comfortable helping our then-toddling son walk. An attendant approaches. “Nem szabad.” Adults are not allowed to kneel in the water, only stand. Why? I ask. “Nem szabad.”
We’re at Budapest Castle. Our boys are playing safely on the base of a large equestrian statue. A security guard approaches, and I already know precisely what he’s going to say. “Nem szabad,” he says. Why? I ask. “Nem szabad.”
There was no logic, no seeming forethought involved in the various prohibitions – it was simply a ruling from above, to be obeyed and not questioned.
Round about our fifth year in Hungary we took a holiday in Turkey. So conditioned were we by ‘nem szabad,’ that we asked permission for just about everything. At a restaurant: “Can we move our table out of the sun?” On a sailboat cruise: “Can we sleep on the deck instead of in our cabin?” The answer, much to our shock and satisfaction, was always “Why not?”
Why not indeed? As parents we often fall back on ‘no’ as a reflexive, almost automatic response. “Can I climb that stone wall?” No. “Can I have a cookie?” No. “Can we stop at this playground?” No. We’re in a hurry. We’re busy, dammit. Busy, busy, busy, let’s goooo!
It’s a blisteringly hot summer day in Budapest, and we’re outside our local shopping center, where there are three fountains with large basins of cool, glimmery water. “Can I take off my shoes and put my feet in the water?” our two year-old son inquires. No.
But then I stop, and I think. Why not, exactly? We have no place particularly to be, and it’s hotter than a goat’s balls in a pepper patch. Is there any real reason for my prohibition? Nope. So I 180 and give the little nipper the green light.
Of course, he progresses inexorably from dangling his feet in the water to more or less backstroking through the basin, and I ultimately get in on the act. We have a blast, and it quickly becomes part of our summertime routine. (I’m certain that this act was intensely nem szabad, but security never ventured outside of the air-conditioned confines of the mall to confront us.)
One day, as we’re splashing contentedly about, a little girl and her dad appear. She asks if she can dip her feet in the water. No, he frowns. And I wonder.
There may be a million reasons he doesn’t let her. Maybe they have to get somewhere and wet feet are problematic. Perhaps he knows that she’ll get her little yellow cotton dress wet and he has to put her in a car seat soon. Perhaps he’s read up on the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, and knows that it kills tens of thousands of people a year. (Most of us call dihydrogen monoxide by its more common name – water.) Perhaps he’s put off by the scattered dollops of pigeon poop decorating the fountain and is up to date on the latest dangers of zoonotic diseases – that is, those that are passed from animals to humans (like AIDS, Ebola, SARS, etc.).
Maybe. Or maybe not. I tend to think that this was a standard fallback ‘no,’ one of those mechanical noes that trip so easily from the lips of most parents, myself included.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots and lots of things I don’t allow. “Can I read my book at the dinner table?” No. “Can I have dessert?” Did you have a good dinner? No? Then no, you may not. I’m known, apparently, among our friends as being both strict and overly permissive. I let my kids do things that some other parents perceive as mortal dangers (walking in the woods and actually touching things, for example), but am a total hard-ass when it comes to things I perceive, anyway, as potentially problematic.
Crossing streets, for example. I dropped our older son off at school the other day, and he had to cross a busy road. From the car I watched him look both ways so carefully as to be caricatural, then run, literally run, across the street, because years of indoctrination had taught him that this was a dangerous procedure. And it is.
In urban areas in Spain, pedestrians comprise the majority of traffic deaths. The elderly and children are the most vulnerable. So I’ll happily let my sons loop about like lunatic gibbons while climbing trees, but if they don’t look both ways before crossing a street, well, they know that they’re going to get an earful.
One of the jobs we have as parents is constantly assessing potential dangers, gauging risks, and choosing to give or deny permission. But this takes mental effort, and often it’s just easier to err of the side of safety or convenience and say No. And of course what might seem safe or sane to one parent may appear perilous to another. And sometimes it’s simply difficult to take the long view.
Why not play it safe and douse our kids with antibiotic soaps? We don’t want them to catch a bug, after all. But in the long run we’re denying them access to good microbes, and exposure (and thus resistance) to bad ones. It’s a fact that kids raised on family farms, which you’ve probably noticed are anything but sterile environments, have far lower incidences of asthma, allergies, and other autoimmune disorders.
Why not keep them inside where they’ll be safe from sexual predators, potential terrorists, Lyme disease? Because these risks are slight, but the risks of letting your kids sit on their asses playing Minecraft – obesity, depression, disconnection from the natural world, ADHD – are very real. According to the WHO, “physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality,’ and studies have shown that youth inactivity is already at record levels and accelerating rapidly.
The other day I watched a Spanish grandmother at a playground admonish her toddling granddaughter – again, and again, and again – ‘no corre, no corre, no corre’ (don’t run). But although the kid really, really just wanted to run, the grandmother clearly, clearly didn’t want her to do so. And again I was left to wonder, Why not?
Every parents picks their own particular battles with their kids, and that’s normal and natural. But don’t you think that it might be a good thing if instead of automatic prohibition, we stop to ponder for a moment the motivations behind our refusals? If we pause, just for a second, and ask ourselves – Why not?