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Just say no to your kids

I feel like I and my fellow members of Generation X must have grown up hearing "no" all the time from our parents. Somehow hearing "no" has seriously damaged our psyche. And it's the desire to compensate for all this rejection that seems like the best explanation for why it's so hard for us to say "no" to our children.

Ruben Navarrette touched on this recently in his article about the attitude of entitlement among the emerging generation. The mall Santa Claus doesn't ask if kids have been naughty or nice anymore. And parenting today is all about positive self-esteem. That means denying kids' requests or calling out their bad behavior is tantamount to child abuse.

This means we often practice appeasement parenting. If my daughter says she's hungry then of course, she gets to eat right than and there (even though she had dinner a couple hours, barely touched her food, while complaining the whole meal). I struggle with this on a daily basis. I'm  tempted to outsource parent-child  interaction to our electronic babysitters of TV, Wii, and iPad. I alternate from appeasement parenting (which gets them to leave me alone and assuage any guilt from being absent or neglectful) to irrational tyranny (which happens after I realize I've allowed them to treat me like a doormat).

I believe one way to find the balance Navarrette offers is to say "no" more than you say "yes". It is "no" that makes "yes" meaningful. Here are some principles of "no" that help make it work.

The less sense, the more "no": The less mature your child is, the more you often you need to say no. This is not solely a function of age. Our oldest son, age 11, makes infrequent requests that are usually thoughtful. For his 5th grade persuasive essay, he wrote about why his bed time should be later than 8:30 PM. We moved his bedtime 30 minutes later in response to that indirect request.  But we have been refusing our second son, age 8, since he was very young because the kid asks for everything. He even gave a Christmas wish list to his grandparents without our knowledge. And of course we turn down 90% of our four-year old's requests. He has no idea how his petitions impact the rest of the family and sometimes we don't have the time nor does he have the awareness to receive an explanation.  The biggest reason we refuse our kids' requests is attitude. They come to us with a list of demands. They issue ultimatums. They threaten and inflict violence. But we do not negotiate with terrorists toddlers. "No" is how kids learn that they are not the center of the universe.

Stay the course: I cave easily. On the third attempt, my perseverance gets worn down and the kids will be eating chocolate two inches from the blaring TV. But I'm getting better. I can make it through the sixth or seventh try. It helps to distract and change the subject. Say no and stand firm. Keep repeating the same words over and over - "No, it is time to get ready for bed". Don't cave in. Stay the course.

Be gentle and calm: There is no need to be like me and snap into irrational tyrant mode when refusing our kids' requests. You can gently and calmly tell them "no". This also helps us in observing what is really going on with our kid and what would be in their (and our) best interest at the moment.

Focus on the root issue: Often a request is your child's request is a veiled attempt to give you information about him/her. When our youngest son acts up, he is almost invariably sleep-deprived. We need to get him in bed earlier. My daughter makes unreasonable demands when she's not getting enough attention. We need to spend some individual time with her. But the root issue is typically not addressed by catering to all our child's impulses.

Say "yes" to the best: Saying yes to the best means you grant request where you know what they want is good and helpful not only to them but everyone involved. If you're not sure (and there's a lot of that), then it's better to first refuse or delay so you can think about it. It is better to first refuse and change your mind than to first accept and later withdraw your approval. I really need to work on that. I grant many requests out of laziness and appeasement (yes, you can play ball in the kitchen when the ceiling fan is on). Most requests are neutral and and then it's arbitrary whether we say yes. Whatever you say here, don't sweat it too much.

I pray courage and wisdom for each of us as we learn to say "no".


  1. I'm interested if this idea of saying "No" often also carries over into telling kids they are wrong. I worked for a tutoring company that trained us specifically to never tell the kid they got a question wrong. We were supposed to say, "Great job for trying! But actually that word is spelled with with an e at the end." The idea was to correct them without any of the negative connotations that come with "right" and "wrong."

    While I was in the training I wondered: does our positive encouragement lose its value for being ever-present? Is it bad if you tell your kids they're doing a good job even if they're not? Because then when they're REALLY doing a good job, you have no way to show them how far they've come.

    What do you think?

    1. Completely agree - the same principle can be extrapolated to right/wrong because the root issue is the same - the fear of hurting someone's feelings and the confusion that calling out someone's work or behavior as wrong is somehow an identity label. If it's wrong, call it as such. But the key is to do it an overall atmosphere of acceptance, affection, and belief the child can improve, grow, and learn.


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