This morning The Boy and I were talking about brains, and how, during adolescence, they don’t work as well as they do both before and after. According to PBS (my authority on all things scientific) this is because the adolescent brain is flooded with hormones, and undergoing massive changes. This got me thinking about one of the things that my mom used to say:
“You need to obey the first time I tell you to do something,” she would tell us. And from time to time she instituted a “Tell You Once, And then You Get Spanked” regime.
So this morning we’re kicked back and I’m telling The Boy how important it is to repeat things when your kid’s an adolescent, and suddenly, out of my own mouth, I hear this: “It’s like in advertising–the rule is that you have to touch consumers three times before they even register you’ve said anything, and when I was learning to teach my professors said that it was important to repeat an assignment at least three times, ideally in different ways–that it just doesn’t register, otherwise.”
And then I stopped, horrified. I realized that while I had never gone so far as a “Tell Once and then Spank” policy, I had, like my mother–and like many parents, I suspect–been expecting something of The Boy that is simply not realistic, given the way our brains seem to work. I had been expecting instant, regular, compliance without ever having to repeat myself.
The power of three is everywhere–christianity posits a three-person deity, one of whom stays dead for three days. There are three wise men in the nativity story. Fairy tales are full of three sisters, three witches, three days. When we apply for jobs we are customarily asked for three references. Baseball allows three strikes. Three is everywhere in pre-christian religions. There are three Stooges, three Musketeers, three blind mice, three Graces, three faces of the Goddess, and of her consort. Three is the largest number we can visualize without breaking it down into groups.
Three is more than how we remember–it’s fundamental to the way we understand our world. It’s time to start treating the fact that as parents we find ourselves repeating things to our children not as an imposition imposed because our children “don’t pay attention,” but as something that is simply part of conveying an idea. It’s time that we allow our kids to be as human as we are. For myself, I’m going to stop expecting The Boy’s compliance after a single request. In the same way that I plan on repeating assignments in my classrooms, and that I plan advertising efforts to include three “touches,” I’m gong to simply factor the reality of repetition into our communications.
If something’s important, I’m going to plan on saying it not once, not twice, not even three times, but over and over, and over again. And I’ll start with, “I love you. I’m glad you’re in my life.”