In a restaurant this morning I listened to a dedicated, well-focused child cry “No!” from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.
“Eat your boiled egg and then you can have jelly on your toast.”
“Mommy and Daddy need you to eat a little faster, Sweetheart. Actually a lot faster.”
“You’re fidgeting, Honey. Let’s go to the bathroom.”
As I watched the child being hauled off the booster seat and dragged away screaming, I was struck by an idea that I think is both plausible and overdue: instead of insisting on good behavior, let’s try to force bad behavior on children, thus reversing the usual dynamic of child-rearing.
“Eat your jelly first, Sweetie, then you can have your boiled egg.”
“No! I want my boiled egg first!”
“Slow down, Honey. You need to dawdle; otherwise, Mommy and Daddy will be early for work.”
“No! I don’t want to dawdle!”
“Mommy and Daddy need you to wet your pants right now, Lovie.”
“No! I have to go to the bathroom!”
This strategy could work for more complex issues, such as excessive anxiety, eating disorders, and selective mutism.
“Mommy and Daddy need you to stay home from school today because we know you won’t be able to pass your geography test.”
“But I love geography! The test is on Africa! I know Africa!”
“You can’t learn the geography of Africa, Sweetie. Do you know how many new little countries there are in that far-away world?”
“It’s not a world, Mommy. It’s a continent.”
“Why, there’s Burkina Faso. There’s Guinea-Bissau. There’s—”
“But I already know those! In alphabetical order!”
And then there’s food. “Honey, they’re serving all those vegetables and fruits today in the cafeteria. Mommy and Daddy will pick you up and take you for hamburgers and French fries and an extra-large milkshake for lunch.”
“But I like fruits and vegetables!”
Or selective mutism. “Sweetie, Mommy and Daddy need you to lock your lips tightly together and never let a word slip out of your mouth. In fact, never even open your mouth unless it’s to drink a 48-ounce sugary beverage.”
“No! No! No! I will open my mouth and speak! Yes, I will! I will speak! I will, will, will speak speak speak!”
Reverse psychology might work for political candidates, too.
Hillary Clinton: “My fellow Americans, do not vote for me. What we need is more testosterone in our civic life. More struggle for power! More violence! More male crime and prisons!”
Bernie Sanders: “My fellow Americans, do not vote for me. What we need is a society where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer!”
Donald Trump: “My fellow citizens, do not vote for me. What this country needs is more burglars, rapists, and drug lords who are strictly—and I can’t emphasize this enough—strictly and legally American!”