This essay originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.
Every schoolday, I pick up my kids at the bus stop and greet them with a big smile. I get toothy grins in return. Sometimes we walk home, sometimes we waddle. Sometimes it’s a piggyback.
Ambling home one day, my eldest son announces: “I’m gonna trade toys with my friend – my Nindroid for his Blue Ninja Jay!”
“Yeah,” my youngest son chimes in. “I'm gonna trade my Cole ZX for Armored Kai!”
“We’re gonna trade on the bus,” eldest adds hopefully, referring to their latest fad, Lego Ninjago.
“Guys, no trades on the bus,” I say. “You know how Mom and Dad feel about that. It can cause problems.”
“Aw, Dad, c’mon!”
“I don’t want to hear it, boys.” Our amble home turns into an angry stomp.
The next morning, eldest asks repeatedly if they can trade on the bus.
“Listen, guys,” I retort, “you wanna trade stuff, buy it with your own money – no trades on the bus!”
Thud. The sound of Dad dropping the hammer. Case closed.
Frustration sets in. “You never let us do anything! I hate it! This sucks!” eldest fumes. “Mom!”
I glance at my wife. Our eyes lock. I flash back to an episode of The Cosby Show where Cliff Huxtable reminds Clair about the all-important parental “united front.”
“You heard your dad,” she says as eldest kicks the wall and begins to bawl.
“Have fun with that,” she teases as she leaves for work.
“I guess I drew my line in the sand,” I sigh.
I contemplate my freshly drawn line. I’ve stated my position and now I feel obliged to defend it. To change my mind now would appear weak, a loss of authority.
When I clash with my kids, I often impose unnecessarily binary solutions – black or white, win or lose. That is not the way I want my kids to view the world. It’s not even the way I want to view the world. So, when push comes to shove, why do I revert to “my way or the highway”?
I think back to my own childhood, when I traded hockey cards with my friends. We enjoyed it, having created our own little economy and currency. Trades were usually fair. And when I got ripped off, I learned a valuable lesson about the “marketplace.”
So I consider the following: Have I become so old and stale that I have to put the kibosh on that fun and those lessons? Why don’t I want my kids to trade on the bus? Am I worried they’re going to lose their toys and be sad? That they are going to be taken advantage of outside my supervision?
Maybe I’m one of those “helicopter” parents, always hovering, making sure my kids don’t mess up. But if I need to supervise every trade, this means extra playdates with their friends, extra e-mails, phone calls or texts to schedule yet another thing in our busy lives. Do I really want that? No.
I huddle up my boys and tell them I have something important to share.
“Guys, I wanna talk about this trade thing. I wanna tell you how Mom and Dad feel, then I’m gonna tell ya how I think you feel. Tell me if I say it wrong, ’kay?”
They both nod.
I tell them we feel like we are wasting our money when we buy toys that they “really want,” then see them traded away one week later.
I ask if they understand. More nods.
“Now, this is how I think you feel,” I continue. “You get a toy, and it’s cool, but there’s lots of other cool toys, right?” Uh huh. “I get the trading thing – I used to trade hockey cards all the time when I was a kid.”
Then it hits me. They’re called trading cards. That’s what you’re supposed to do with them.
So instead of banning trades, I decide to teach my kids the art of trading. They will need to know how to negotiate as adults – buying cars, houses, bartering for services and discounts. Why not start earlier rather than later? Why not move from a binary, win/lose proposition to a continuum – flowing, with variable solutions dependent on situation and environment?
That would be a teachable moment.
I proceed to pass on the knowledge I earned through my childhood trades. Rule No. 1: Never trade unless you clarify exactly what you’re getting and exactly what you’re giving up. Rule No. 2: No tradebacks. Even if someone says tradebacks, assume that there aren’t. Rule No. 3: Trade fair. Rule No. 4: Have fun.
Now that I’ve armed my progeny with my “golden” wisdom, I prepare to send them forth into the world – or at least to the bus stop.
“Get your Lego ready,” I say with a smile. “You can take it on the bus.”
Toothy grins emerge once again. “Thanks, Dad.”
I feel as if I’ve freed myself of some weight, that I am more like a parent now than a police officer.
Perhaps if my kids see that I can be a bit flexible and put myself in their shoes that is more valuable than anything.
I always thought lines in the sand should never be crossed. Once drawn, they are to be defended to the bitter end.
I’ve realized those lines can sometimes be redrawn. And occasionally, they can even be erased.