A year or two ago, I watched a Christian stand-up comedy video on Netflix. One of the comedians told a story about getting his oldest son to join the Army.
When his son was a senior in high school with no indication of going anywhere when he graduated, his wife had him talk to their son.
“Son, we need to have a father-son talk. Just us, father and son.”
“Son, your mother wants to know what you want to do with the rest of your life.”
Somewhere in a course or book on parenting, I came across the idea that a parent should never say, “Your mother says,” or “Your mother wants you to” (or, conversely, “Your father says,” or “Your father wants you to”). Supposedly, this implies disagreement, that “Your mother says to do this, [but I don’t really care.]”
And, yes, sometimes it does. But one thing Mary and I always say to the children is that it doesn’t matter if we disagree–when one parent says “no,” even if we disagree, the “no” applies. On positive commands (“Do the dishes”; “Do your homework”), the rule is that my word, as the father, supersedes Mary’s, and I’ll usually just tell them to do whatever their mother said to do first, then come back to me.
Anyway, I was thinking about that rule just now because the same thing comes up in my teaching. There’s a great liberation in the Enterprise Model of modern higher education. After all, one of the great bugaboos of being a student, and being a teacher, is the implication of arbitrariness.
I am always careful to distinguish with my students between what are *my* policies and what are institutional policies, not because I disagree with the institution, but because that way they can’t say it’s just me. Whenever one of my online students says to me, “What do you want us to do with this assignment?” or “What do you mean when you say this?”, I start my response by clarifying: “The syllabus is institutional; it was not written by me, but by a team of English instructors and instructional designers. There’s nothing arbitrary going on here, so you don’t have to worry that I’m hiding something. I go entirely by what it says in the syllabus.” Then I try to explain my reading of the syllabus. That reinforces the student’s confidence that the guidelines are not just arbitrary things I’ve made up, that they would get the same thing with any other instructor at the college.
So, “Your mother says so” does not *have* to be an implication of subtle defiance–though it often can be. Usually, like my assurance to my students that I’m following institutional policy, it’s a reaffirmation of authority: “You can’t go to Mom for an appeal, because she said it to begin with.”
Getting back to that standup comic, the father-son chat result in a decision that, when he graduated, the son was joining the Army. Well, he graduated, and he got a job, but he never moved out and never joined the Army. So, a year after the first conversation, after he got sick of his wife and son fighting, the father sat down and said,
“It’s time for a man-to-man chat. You’re a man now, so it’s no longer a father and son talk, but a man-to-man talk.”
Son says, “OK.”
Dad says, “Son, you need to move out.”
“You don’t get along with my wife.”
“I like you just fine, and I don’t care if you come over every day for dinner, but you need your own place. . . . ”
The conversation resulted in the son’s enlistement in the Army.