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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceThe when-Mom-says-no-ask-Dad loophole — Good Parenting

The when-Mom-says-no-ask-Dad loophole — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our clever 10-year-old daughter caught us in a loophole. She’s our one and only so we probably treat her more on our level than as a child. We always encourage her to try a different approach if something isn’t working and to use us as resources when she has reached the limits of self-sufficiency. We’re both attorneys so that may have something to do with our parenting style.

Here’s what happened. Her mother was busy in the kitchen when our daughter asked for help to dye a costume we’d all been working on together. Instead of being specific about when she could help, or explicit about waiting, Mom just said, “Not now, I’m cooking.” So our logical, resourceful and persistent child came to ask me to do it with her. At that time I happened to be up to my ears with a project for work on my laptop. Jump to the finish, and we now have a marble-y green bathtub (with a few green streaks on the floor, too.)

Mom thinks “Not now” meant “Not by yourself.” My after-the-fact stance is that I didn’t fully comprehend the need for adult supervision when I dismissed my daughter and probably came off as, “Leave me out of this.” Our daughter defends herself for not holding off until an adult was available by saying, “Well that wasn’t working and the costume was ready to be dyed.” In addition to wondering what to do about the stains, what might help us to avoid future calamities?

Dad of a Future Lawyer

Don’t miss last week’s column Tools for getting kids to quit whining — Good Parenting

Dear DFL,

It’s wonderful to encourage persistence and ingenuity while assuring your child that parents can be relied upon when the going gets too tough. You are teaching her self-reliance under your protective wing. (As I understand, even attorneys start out as junior partners in a firm.) Obviously this is a case of bad timing, presumptions and miscommunication. Easily fixed. Hopefully the stains will be, too.


A group project benefits from engaged participation by all the members. For this to be successful, initial planning can include a timeline that’s workable for everyone involved. Some tasks could be done by individuals, however there may be certain tasks best done with at least one adult. For example, when there is potential for property damage, personal injury, budget overruns — these kinds of risks are best mitigated by an adult.

A family wall calendar is a good way to visually block out the times your daughter can count on parental assistance for project work. If it turns out that neither parent will be able to honor the commitment, as soon as this is known there needs to be a rescheduling.


While it is usually impossible to know everything about all the twists and turns a project may take as it’s carried out, it helps to recognize and change course with a group check-in as soon as a presumption proves false. There may have been an initial assumption that either the dying task was risk-free or that your daughter would have parental supervision when it came time to do it. Additionally, you may have held faith (if you were indeed paying attention to what she was asking) that Mom would be petitioned after you declined. When no parent was available, your daughter assumed that she could manage the dye job by herself. If she had any concern about the precautions expressed on the dye package, she may have presumed that both Mom and Dad would be irritated to be bothered again and would halt the proceedings for the foreseeable future, postponing forward movement of the project.

Your family’s unfortunate mess was not intended by any of you. At this point, try to keep a cool head. Panic is not the best mind-set for choosing a direction to take.


The parent-child relationship is among the most intimate working relationships each of you will ever have. But precisely because a family spends so much time together, its members often lose focus and miss important communications. You could improve communication with some “active listening.” This insures that the intended message has been received.

We communicate mainly for these three reasons: 1) to elicit an action 2) to have one’s emotions affirmed and 3) to support the relationship. It takes a bit of practice, but all you need to do is to repeat what the other person has just said (it can be in the form of a question) to let them know the message has been received. Do this before you respond with a message of your own.
“Mom, can you dye the costume with me now?”
“You want to know if I can dye the costume with you?”
“I’m busy making lasagna for dinner. I can’t help you now.”
“You can’t help me now because you’re making the lasagna?”
“That’s right. But I’d love to help you later. Bring the dye package in here so we can read it together and see what we’re getting into.”
Specific action elicited by Mom. Catastrophe averted for all.

Dealing with the bathtub

Back to the reparation of damages. A little detective work on the internet disclosed a slew of remedies for an inadvertently dyed bathtub including peroxide, laundry bleach and denture cleaner.

Start fresh with your team on this unanticipated collateral job. Divide up the duties appropriately and block out the time accordingly. Share all the assumptions you can think of and be ready to change course as a team if needed. And be sure all your communications with each other have been correctly affirmed by the receiver.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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