Whenever someone asks me for parenting advice, which is never, I always offer the following counsel: “Never make a threat or a promise that you can’t keep.”
Wife Lindy and I decided on this mantra relatively early in our parenting careers, and it was as much for us as it was for our kids.
Kids, we realized, are far smarter than we had imagined they would be.
Once, when daughter Hadley was three years old and loudly demanding some toy, we threatened to leave her at the store. She was not only unfazed, but also seemed genuinely willing to be rid of us in order to live in the toy section of Target.
We needed that “threat or promise” mantra to protect us from ourselves. We learned our lessons, slowly, one threat or promise at a time.
When Hadley was five, she decided to dress as Luke Skywalker for Halloween. Since the costume consisted of the jacket from her karate class and brown boots that she already owned, we decided to splurge and buy her a plastic, battery-operated talking lightsaber.
The lightsaber blade glowed green and, when you swung it, Yoda’s voice would say something like “In need of more training, you are!”
Since she would need someone to fight against, we bought the Darth Vader lightsaber for me.
Hadley loved her lightsaber, and, when it got dark, she spent the week before Halloween out in the backyard doing what all normal five-year-old girls do: Pretend they are cutting off the head of Jabba the Hutt or slicing the arms off Tusken Raiders.
She couldn’t wait to take it trick-or-treating.
When we gave it to her, I had made the following threat: If you leave that outside, and it gets ruined, we’re not buying you a new one.
The night before Halloween, Hadley left her lightsaber outside. It rained.
At maybe 5 a.m. on Halloween morning, I was awoken by my five-year-old daughter. For the full effect, when reading the following sentence, you’ll need to gasp in a full breath of air after each syllable: “I left my lightsaber outside! And it’s raining on my window! Which means it’s probably raining on my lightsaber!”
Our backyard looked like the swamps of Dagobah in the Outer Rim Territories. The lightsaber was lying in a puddle of mud.
When I turned it on, the blade did not light up. When I swung it, Yoda said nothing about how much to learn I still had.
Hadley was devastated. She didn’t want to go trick-or-treating without her lightsaber. And I had made a threat that I didn’t want to keep. I’d done it to myself.
I had to find a loophole out of my own absurd edict.
“I said I wouldn’t buy you a new lightsaber,” I told Hadley. “But we can try to fix this one.”
Halloween, in 2004, fell on a Sunday, and Hadley and I spent the next few hours disassembling the $20 toy and blowdrying tiny electrical parts and sanding battery connections. Tiny screws and toy innards covered the kitchen table. At one point, I called my dad to ask advice about re-welding connections on the tiny motherboard.
“Sounds like the time you left your musket out in the yard,” my father reminded me. And while that is still too painful for me to talk about—little Stevie loved Ol’ Muskie!—I can tell you this much: On the morning that I realized I had left my precious musket out in the rain and that the trigger was rusted shut, I climbed into my parents’ bed and cried just as hard as Hadley did.
And I was nearly sixteen.
Anyway. Hadley and I replaced a bulb and batteries, re-soldered connections, tested continuity. And—alas!—we put the lightsaber back together, and—drumroll please!—turned it on. It still didn’t work.
Hadley, trying not to cry, said something like “Well, thanks anyway,” and started walking up to her bedroom.
“Let me run out and get one more piece,” I told her as she disappeared upstairs. “Maybe that will fix it.”
That ‘one more piece’ was a new lightsaber. So I drove to Target and bought a new one. I put some dirt on it and swapped it with the old one.
Then I called Hadley downstairs, let her help sand a few more connections, and, finally, asked her try the lightsaber again.
She flipped the switch and the toy—and my daughter—lit up. When she swung it, Yoda told her that almost complete, her training was.
Excited to show off her lightsaber—the lightsaber she helped fix—Hadley asked if we could trick-or-treat at 100 houses.
I promised her we would.
We stayed up way past her bedtime. When we ran out of houses in our neighborhood we had to cut, dangerously, across Twelfth Street Southeast. I carried Hadley on my back for the final 15 houses.
We trick or treated at our 100th house just as the last porch lights were being turned off. Hadley couldn’t wait to tell Lindy how we went to 100 houses. My little girl walked home, laughing and swinging that lightsaber. It would have been adorable, except she was probably pretending to behead Emperor Palpatine.
When we got home, Hadley wanted to go in the backyard, just for a minute, to play in the dark. And this time, I just said something like “Try to remember to bring it in in case it rains.”
Learn much from that lightsaber, I did.