Jennifer Garner’s movie Yes Day, about a mom and dad who let their three kids decide what they’ll do for 24 hours, has been in the Netflix Top 10 since it was released earlier this month. The movie is inspired by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld’s children’s book of the same name, which was published in 2009; some of you may have had the bad luck of your kid reading this book in school, then coming home with Big Ideas. In 2017, Garner posted an exhausted morning selfie from a backyard tent after her own family’s fifth annual book-inspired “Yes Day” ended in a sleep-out. The photo generated viral interest in the Yes Day idea, and, eventually, that viral interest turned into this movie.
Yes Day is bright, cheerful, and incredibly depressing. We meet the Torres family: overprotective stay-at-home mom Allison (Garner), who’s just dipping her toe back into the job market; handsome lawyer father Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), who’s the quintessential “fun dad”; sulky teenager Katie (Jenna Ortega), who battles with her mother over the terms of her social life; preteen Nando (Julian Lerner), a super-social dork whose grades are not great; and adorable kindergartner Ellie (Everly Carganilla), who wishes that her parents would look at their phones less and spend more time with her. The Torres family has a very nice house and seems to live a pretty good life, yet are constantly at odds with one another. In that, the movie assumes, they’re typical Americans.
“I’m not opposed to fun and whimsy, just when it becomes this ‘thing’ that resembles an obligation.”
Forget the loss of sleep or the hemorrhage of money—yeses and noes are the hardest part of parenting. When you become responsible for the thriving of a small human, full of his or her own desires, you have to figure out how to be an authority in somebody else’s life. How will you approach negotiations with your child over the important, and less important, choices that arise every day? How will you decide which of these battles you must “win,” for the sake of health and safety (no, daughter, toothbrushing is not optional), and which ones you can “lose” (fine, daughter, you can go coatless in February; I’ll bring it along, just in case)? Which battles are you fighting simply because you feel triggered by your own memories of not being allowed to “get away” with something in your childhood—or because you’re worried about what other people will think?
Uptight Allison Torres and her charming but far too permissive husband Carlos seem never to have asked themselves a single one of these questions. As a result, they are stuck in a toxic loop of no. The beginning of Yes Day is a montage of the different curt and dismissive ways that Allison says no to her kids. (At the end of Rosenthal’s book, there’s a calendar of “No Days,” with a bunch of ways that parents say no: “Over My Dead Body,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “You Gotta Be Kidding Me,” “Nope on a Rope,” “Don’t Even Ask.” Some of those show up in the montage.) When Allison and Carlos go into a parent-teacher conference, and one of the teachers shows them a video Nando made that compares “dictator” Allison to Stalin and Mussolini, Allison says to the teachers, a little chagrined, “That’s good parenting,” and pats herself on the back.
Though the movie is invested in the idea that Allison is a misunderstood mother-martyr, I actually don’t think what she’s been doing is “good parenting.” We never really find out why Allison says no so much. She doesn’t trust her children; when the idea of a Yes Day comes up, she says, “You don’t know our kids. If we tried what you’re proposing, it would be apocalyptic.” But a big problem seems to be not her kids’ natures but the family’s elaborate schedule, which requires a project manager—Allison—to push things along. There’s no real reason Katie couldn’t teach Ellie how to twerk at breakfast, except that they’re late; they all need to get along to school and work.
In the movie’s logic, the answer to all of this—the mother who reflexively says no and thinks it’s just the way it has to be, the father who lets her be the bad guy, the constrained and chafing kids—is one single day of Rumspringa, full of giant sundaes and amusement parks and lots and lots of exploding foam. I was trying to think of other contemporary bits of parenting advice that could be adapted into movies, but very few apply, because most of the things you do to make real changes in family life are boring and procedural and must be done day after day, to varying degrees of success. (Think of nutritionist Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding, which, its proselytizers reassure the nervous on Instagram daily, is a long game.) The Yes Day concept is a panacea—a magic bullet to fix a broken family unit. As such, it’s perfect for a movie.
Real-life parents who’ve tried Yes Days give them mixed reviews. I’ve never done it—my child is a bit small for the idea—so I asked the Slate Parenting Facebook group whether they had. “It was fun for them, but I’m not in the mood for another day of voluntary servitude,” one member said. “I’m not opposed to fun and whimsy, just when it becomes this ‘thing’ that resembles an obligation,” another added. (As a card-carrying parent who doesn’t play, I have to admit that the scene where Allison jumps on the bed with her kids and blows confetti out of a horn gave me hives.) “I watched the movie with my four kids, and they all loved it,” said a third. “But while I was watching, it felt like more of the same messaging I hear ALL THE TIME, that really breeds a lot of resentment in me.” This mother got the sense that, after having done everything she could to help her children along in life, all while absorbing their occasional annoyance and disapproval, she needed to add “Yes Day” to her parenting list.
“Instead of a ‘Yes Day’ I just tried to say yes whenever I could,” another member, who has slightly older kids, said. “If I couldn’t say yes, I would explain why.” And this, to me, is the ultimate reason I find the Yes Day idea so grim. Is it really so hard to say yes sometimes? Are kids really so untrustworthy and unreasonable? Is the world so full of dangers and temptations? And, most of all, is the everyday course of family life really such a grind? If we truly think it is, I don’t think a single day of letting your Yes flag fly is going to make a difference.