This post was originally published on Scary Mommy (which is why it has “grocery store” instead of “supermarket” and why my kids are a year younger than they are now)
Watching Frank Underwood doing his thing in House of Cards last night — pulling himself out of yet another impossible situation with words and subterfuge and subtlety — I thought, “Go Frank, you’re evil, but I like your style. Hey, I wonder if this would work on the kids?”
Then I realized, I’m already way up there with Frank and Claire. My motives are less “take over the world” and more “get through the day,” but either way, manipulation works. Parenting by manipulation is just part of surviving. Here’s why:
1. A lie can be the lesser of two evils. Whether it’s a lie about running for office, or covering up murder, Frank doesn’t hesitate to fudge the facts, especially if the truth will cause even bigger problems. And sometimes with parenting, a little white lie is exactly what’s needed.
Like when my toddler peed on the girls’ bedroom floor on Sunday evening. My first priority was not just the clean-up itself, but making sure his two big sisters wouldn’t find out. At best we’d have blood-curdling screams of horror, but it could escalate into a refusal to enter the room ever again. Which at bedtime on a Sunday evening is potentially disastrous.
So I asked the five-year-old to get me a yellow balloon (“Why?” “Oh, I just need one – search downstairs”) and I asked the seven-year-old to check that I had turned off the TV. Meanwhile I frantically cleaned the floor.
“What are you doing?” asked the five-year-old, coming back upstairs, having failed to find the mysterious yellow balloon. “Oh, just making sure your floor is extra clean for bedtime,” I replied. Sometimes fibbing is the lesser of two evils.
2. Turning a blind eye. As president, Frank should be overseer of everything his staff does. However, if loyal ally Doug Stamper offers to sort out a problem on his behalf, Frank doesn’t necessarily want to know murky details. Turning a blind eye technically absolves him from any evildoing.
I turn a blind eye sometimes too – not so much to evil, more to cartoons. My kids are addicted to TV, so I have to restrict it. They’re allowed two programs per evening, and to avoid a daily battle, there are no exceptions.
But then again, exceptions can be useful — like when I’m trying to write some emails and make dinner.
So from time to time, when I hear the credits roll for the second time, I say nothing. And they say nothing. And I feel them glancing over surreptitiously, to see if I’m watching as they quietly click through to the third program. And I still say nothing, and they still say nothing. And we’re all happy. I do see that this is training them to be sneaky, and probably not a great idea in the long term, but hey, the dinner gets cooked, and officially at least, no rules are broken.
3. Indirect bribery. Frank can’t be seen to directly bribe other politicians – he’s not going to do anything so gauche as offer a suitcase of money in return for a vote. But promises of Supreme Court justice positions and Governorships are subtly and carefully proposed, in return for votes and support. Direct enough to get results, but not so much to get him in trouble.
I’m fond of some indirect bribery too. Of course, in theory we all know that bribing kids is a bad idea. I don’t need to read a parenting book to know that if I promise my five-year-old a magazine/ muffin/ toy for going to sleep, I will have to buy her a magazine/ muffin/ toy forevermore, to get her to go to sleep. I will be broke, and she will grow up to be someone who only follows rules if there’s something in it for her. So that’s fine. No bribes.
Well, no overt bribes. I have fallen into a habit of using indirect bribes. “Time to go to sleep now, or you’ll be too tired to enjoy this trip I’ve been thinking about for tomorrow…” or, “Please get up off the floor of the grocery store and stop roaring – otherwise I won’t have time to bring you for cake afterwards…”
It achieves the same result as a direct bribe, but I get to walk away (almost) guilt free, because I didn’t technically resort to bribery. At least, not anything that would hold up in court.
4. Cover-up. Frank is a master of the cover-up – both inside the political realm and outside in the darker world of murder.
While I haven’t covered up any murders (yet), I have covered up toy disposals. Like the other day, when I spotted a bedraggled, moldy dinosaur on the kitchen floor. I knew I was in trouble. I had thrown it in the garbage earlier that morning, in an ongoing bid to quietly de-clutter the house. Clearly I’d been caught. But nobody had said anything. Ah – realization. They were assuming the toddler did it. Well, who else would throw out a perfectly good moldy dinosaur?
And… perhaps it wouldn’t help the situation if I jumped in to confess. He was already off the hook by virtue of his age, in a way that I certainly wouldn’t be.
So I said nothing, and watched while they tutted quietly then hugged him in forgiveness. Dishonest, yes, but I’d do it again (and will do, when they find the bag of broken loom-bands I threw away today).
5. Empty threats. Frank is a wonderful bluffer. Sometimes it pays off; other times he turns to camera and tells us he’s in deep shit now.
It can go either way with my kids too. Bluffing can backfire. Like my recent knee-jerk reaction to some sibling squabbling: “Right, that’s it, we’re not going for coffee.” Except, I really, really want to go for coffee. Why didn’t I give one last warning instead? Or just taken away the toy that was causing the squabble? Now I have to find a way to backtrack.
“Mom, please can we go for coffee, we’ll be really good, we’re sorry,” come the pleas.
“Alright, but this is your very last chance,” I reply, with a credibly reluctant tone. Phew, coffee is back on the table. Strike one against me for backtracking — the parenting experts would not be impressed.
But hey, I’m having a giant slice of carrot cake and a cappuccino. Can’t fault that. It’s not quite Freddy’s ribs, but I think Frank would approve.