Channeling Naughtiness

My oldest son recently announced that he couldn't do math. I was surprised, since he did math of one kind or another all the time. I pointed out all the things he knew, but he dismissed them completely. His position was that all the things he didn't know were really "math"; the things he did know weren't math at all--they were just "easy."

I knew this was not going to be a useful idea for him to carry around in his head, but it seemed firmly implanted. I reasoned, with no success. I joked around with him about it for a while, seeing if I could loosen it up, but couldn't. Finally, I remembered an old stand-by in our family. I announced, "I don't know where you got this idea, but it's a good thing, because I don't like math, and I don't want anybody doing math in this house."

He and his brother immediately got curious about this new prohibition and started testing it. "Well, I know that 1 plus 1 is 2, but that isn't math, that's easy," he said. "Oh, no!" I responded. "That's math, and I don't want to hear you saying that kind of thing again." His brother joined in with "2 plus 2 is 4," got the same response, and laughed delightedly at this new game. Both of them were ready to play.

It's an age-old approach. (Remember Brer Rabbit? "Do anything to me, but please, oh please, don't throw me into that briar patch.") Passionately wanting someone to not do something is a sure way to get them interested in it. Although we've used it for years, and the dynamics must be totally familiar, it has yet to grow old on the children I know. There is something irresistible about that kind of naughtiness.

I think they're attracted to it because of the power. I can imagine it: you get to thumb your nose at the powers that be (i.e., parents) without fear or reprisal. In a life filled with adjusting to big people's rules and expectations, you get to do exactly what they don't want you to do--finally. You can watch the grown-ups squirm with discomfort as you cheerfully disregard all their rules, boundaries and limits.

The wonderful thing for parents in all this is that we get to suggest what form their naughty behavior takes. We can invite them to be "bad" in areas that really don't bother us at all. They can experience the delicious thrill of naughtiness without inviting adult reprisal. Everybody wins. And, in my experience, making a point of setting up situations for them to be naughty in actually increases cooperative behavior. If they have that outlet, they are less likely to challenge the system in times and places that are unacceptable to us, and consequently hard on them.

Math has been "outlawed" at our house for several months now, and has been an ongoing source of challenge and fun. Very pleased with themselves, they figure out harder and harder problems to present to me. ("Hey, mom, did you know that six 50s is 300?") I complain bitterly about how they're breaking my rules, while watching with delight as they stretch their minds around the endless possibilities of this rich mental territory. My eldest has maintained his original position--that he can't do math--but no one, himself included, can really take it seriously.