Parenting Thoughts: The Virtue of “No”

 

I think I did alright in the child-raising department. There are a lot of things I don’t do well, and a few I do very badly, but I think I’ve been a good parent, particularly in the last decade or so. There’s quite a bit of on-the-job training involved in parenting — hardly any other kind, in fact — and I think I was better at it when I finished than when I started. I’m sure my older children would second that, perhaps with more vigor than I’d like.

If I could pass on a bit of advice, it would be on the important topic of saying “no” to your children.

There are other things, of course, essential things: love them and don’t let them doubt that you love them, control your temper, never be cruel, show them that you love their mother and respect their father, give them security. I’d like to simply assume those things, because they’re pretty obvious and, as I said, essential.

What isn’t obvious to everyone — and I think this is particularly true for single mothers — is that it’s good for children to hear “no.”

I think a lot of parents feel that they have to justify a “no,” that they have to be apologetic about it, or have a defense ready in case the child responds with “why not?” That’s nonsense: parents have enormous discretionary authority, and there’s nothing wrong with using it. If “no” feels right, don’t think you have to defend your answer — and certainly not when you deliver it. If “no means no” is ever true, it’s true when talking to children.

Kid have nothing but time and will argue, whine, wheedle, negotiate, and act as if nothing in the world is more important than the thing they want right now. They’re wrong. Not only don’t they need to watch that show/play that game/eat that dessert/buy that thing, but they’ll ultimately be happier if they develop the ability to accept defeat, shift their focus, and go find something else to do. They won’t be scarred by disappointment.

Children who can’t accept “no” as an answer are going to be unpleasant to deal with, and are going to face difficulties in life. They’ll grow up acting like typical progressives: nothing will ever be acceptable except exactly what they demand. By all means, discuss your decision-making process with your kids. But do it at your convenience, not theirs. Getting what they want is the highest priority for children, and nothing is ever more pressing for them: if they really want to discuss it, let them come back when it’s convenient for you.

Above all — and, this is particularly important for single mothers — don’t think for a moment that you are going to lose your child’s love if you say “no.” Mothers have an enormous, primal claim to their children’s love, and nothing short of sustained, monstrous misconduct will endanger it. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when you think it’s the best answer.

Two final points.

First, learning to say “no” is particularly important at meal time. Kids should learn to eat what’s served. We made it a point not to make meals that were especially difficult for any of our children; those simply weren’t on the family menu. But, beyond that, the kids were expected to eat what was put in front of them — and, after some learning, they did.

Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

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There are 17 comments.

  1. Slow on the uptake Thatcher

    Yes, yes, yes!

    • #1
    • May 19, 2019, at 8:44 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. James Lileks Contributor

    Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

    We always followed that rule. But it was intended to show that Mom and Dad shared a perspective. “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later. 

    • #2
    • May 19, 2019, at 10:23 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

    We always followed that rule. But it was intended to show that Mom and Dad shared a perspective. “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later.

    I don’t have exact percentages on when to use “no” with a reason and when not to use a reason. I agree with you there are times to explain your full reasoning, and that process teaches something, but I strongly disagree that you always have to give a reason. If a child truly believes their parent saying “no” is an arbitrary application of power there are some way bigger issues to deal with in the relationship. That would mean someone doesn’t talk with their child often and teach them they ALWAYS have their best interest in mind before it gets to specific situations. Basically, the real transmitting of values should mostly be coming in other situations when both child and parent’s emotions aren’t running so high. For example, we have lots of 14-15 year olds in our building. We’re given ample opportunity to discuss teenage behavior at the dinner table with our pre-teens. I’m sure we’ll still get questioned when we say “no” but our values and expectations are most definitely getting transmitted.

    • #3
    • May 20, 2019, at 3:25 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Songwriter Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

    We always followed that rule. But it was intended to show that Mom and Dad shared a perspective. “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later.

    I knew I had become my own Dad the first time I said, “No. Because I said so.” 

    • #4
    • May 20, 2019, at 4:03 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. EODmom Coolidge

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

    We always followed that rule. But it was intended to show that Mom and Dad shared a perspective. “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later.

    Children really need to grow up knowing that there is a framework of OK and Not OK until they are at the point of understanding Right and Wrong and Why. From seeing how parents make that set up they grow up knowing that mother and dad believe in some things and what they stand for. They learn that there are Principles even before they know what they are. I think children go from the Particulars to the Universals. Not the reverse. And they learn that Principles remain constant if parents are consistent in the face of child persistence. And any self respecting 3 year old, 7 year old or 16 year old can out last the average parent. 

    • #5
    • May 20, 2019, at 4:55 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. EODmom Coolidge

    Chris Hutchinson (View Comment):

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa. Having both parents on the same page communicates to the children that their resistance is futile — and heightens their respect for parental authority.

    We always followed that rule. But it was intended to show that Mom and Dad shared a perspective. “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later.

    I don’t have exact percentages on when to use “no” with a reason and when not to use a reason. I agree with you there are times to explain your full reasoning, and that process teaches something, but I strongly disagree that you always have to give a reason. If a child truly believes their parent saying “no” is an arbitrary application of power there are some way bigger issues to deal with in the relationship. That would mean someone doesn’t talk with their child often and teach them they ALWAYS have their best interest in mind before it gets to specific situations. Basically, the real transmitting of values should mostly be coming in other situations when both child and parent’s emotions aren’t running so high. For example, we have lots of 14-15 year olds in our building. We’re given ample opportunity to discuss teenage behavior at the dinner table with our pre-teens. I’m sure we’ll still get questioned when we say “no” but our values and expectations are most definitely getting transmitted.

    In our house children know they have a voice always, but limited vote. And mom – or grandma as the case may be – always has one more vote than everyone else. 

    • #6
    • May 20, 2019, at 6:09 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    I’m not suggesting that we be brusque or cryptic with children. I actually like talking to kids, and often gave mine more information than they wanted. But parents have the right to make snap decisions — and particularly on minor issues — and then to stand by those decisions without elaboration.

    It sometimes helps to point out to the child, cheerfully, that adversity builds character.

    • #7
    • May 20, 2019, at 7:06 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. Dominique Prynne Member

    My favorite “NO” story…we have two girls that are about 13 months apart. When they were in the 12-15 age range, they wanted to go to our county fair every year with their friends. Our answer was NO. I had seen the giggling girl gangs roaming the fair in their short shorts and tank tops and the 20-year-old guys leering at them and it was not a good environment. For about three years, every fall, there was much whining, gnashing of teeth and plenty of accusations of “you don’t trust me!” and “everybody else is going, my life is over!” when my husband and I said NO about the fair. We were the meanest parents ever, just trying to ruin their social lives! Finally, at age 16 or so, we agreed they could go with their friends. The girls came home talking about these same giggling girl gangs and the gross guys hitting on these young teens who were flaunting their newfound sex appeal. Our girls were appalled and wondered where the parents were of these young ladies and what kind of immature men would pursue them. I pointed out that, had they attended in the same age range with their friends, they would have likely acted the same way. Both of them THANKED us for saying NO and told us how sorry they were for putting us through their tantrums in the fall of the previous years, that now, they understood. Parenting WIN!

    • #8
    • May 20, 2019, at 7:42 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  9. MarciN Member

    The problem adults have in their working with preteens and teens is that the kids look like they understand what the adults are talking about. As part of their social development, just as they learn language and manners, bless their little hearts, they also pick up our facial expressions. It’s easy for adults to think there is more communication happening than actually is.

    When the child is really little, say, two, and he or she lets go of your hand and starts to run across a busy street or tries to stand up in the grocery cart, parents realize that any conversation about risk and danger and longevity and disability is pretty useless. There’s no time for it, and the parent has to act, and fast. The parent knows that the child has no real understanding of the danger involved. At that age, children respond to their parents only because they love their parents and they love to be loved by their parents.

    We need to hold onto that mental image while the kids finish maturing through their teenage years.

    If adults want to give explanations to kids for the occasional no that must stand no matter what, go ahead. Sometimes it helps the adult to work through his or her thoughts, and that’s a good thing. And there’s some value to repetition of goals and morals and risk assessments. It’s good to have your own sentences memorized for times of explanation. As parents, we have to be consistent. Think about the value of our brief Constitution and Bill of Rights. They work for us because we are consistent about it. This is exactly what teenagers need too: simple justice. So parents can and should develop a quiver full of simple sentences for those times of conflict between them and their teenagers.

    The problem with some explanations is that they open up the argument. In many decisions, you can’t allow that to happen between you and the teenager. You will lose, and you cannot lose. His or her life is at stake.

    (And as a side note: The other issue is that the kids are really smart, and if you have more than one child, the younger kids will have years to think about and construct winning arguments they came up with while they listened to discussions between the first-born and the parents. It gets harder to stand your ground because the later-born kids get better at arguing.)

    Don’t ever think that a teenager truly comprehends the adults’ reasoning. They certainly look like they do. But they don’t.

    • #9
    • May 20, 2019, at 8:26 AM PDT
    • 9 likes
  10. Stina Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    “No” without a reason can seem like an arbitrary application of power. “No, because” is the way you transmit values and the modus vivendi that will serve them well later. 

    One of the values I’m trying to pass down is that even if we don’t understand the reason for doing something, there’s probably a good reason to do it anyway.

    Half the things I fought my parents over as a kid had reasons for it I never would have understood at the time. I get it better now that I’m a parent… and my kids won’t get it until they are parents.

    They need to learn to trust their parents just as much as you need to pass down values.

    • #10
    • May 20, 2019, at 8:44 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  11. Stina Member

    MarciN (View Comment):
    The problem with some explanations is that they open up the argument. In many decisions, you can’t allow that to happen between you and the teenager. You will lose, and you cannot lose. His or her life is at stake. 

    Omg. My seven year old did this to me over hot chocolate in the car. I said no, she asked why, and I obliged a simple answer that invited a simple argument that invoked a simple counter and on and on until I ended with “accident & death”. Sometimes, simple “no” is better.

    • #11
    • May 20, 2019, at 8:49 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. Seawriter Member

    My kids always used to push for more, until I said no. I tended to be pretty easygoing, not afraid to let then do something foolish that would end up getting them embarrassed or even with minor injuries. (My philosophy is pain is a great teacher.) But whenever they verged into truly unreasonable, unsafe, or simply wrong, I stopped it with a “No.” And could not be pushed to change my no.

    Often afterwards (frequently long afterwards) they would thank me for having said no. I pointed out I used to do the same thing when I was there age. I wanted to know where the fences were. That “no” let them find the safe limits within which they could safely roam.

    Kids will always push the boundaries. Challenging authority is part of growing. But setting limits by saying “no” is a critical part of that process.

    • #12
    • May 20, 2019, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    Henry Racette: Secondly, if your children are fortunate enough to be in a stable, two-parent household, they should learn that the first “no” means “no”: if mom says “no,” don’t ask dad, and vice versa.

    Yeah, my wife and I agreed that first no is no. And we agreed that a child caught sneaking off to the other parent to try to get a reversal was due a spanking. It’s deception–lying to a parent’s face is cause for serious discipline.

    • #13
    • May 20, 2019, at 12:49 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Samuel Block Member

    I have nothing to add to the parenting side of this, but whenever my peers praise their parents it is almost exclusively for their parents refusing to spoil them. 

    • #14
    • May 20, 2019, at 12:54 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. Slow on the uptake Thatcher

    It sounds like we are raising up a generation of conservatives.

    • #15
    • May 20, 2019, at 4:04 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Seawriter Member

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    It sounds like we are raising up a generation of conservatives.

    My three are.

    • #16
    • May 20, 2019, at 4:22 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Samuel Block Member

    Slow on the uptake (View Comment):

    It sounds like we are raising up a generation of conservatives.

    My parents were not!

    • #17
    • May 20, 2019, at 6:37 PM PDT
    • Like