The Gift of “No”

I’ll open this post by stating for everyone to read: I am not a perfect parent. I’ve been known to yell, fib, over-indulge and occasionally, turn a blind eye.  With all my mothering-flaws, I do believe I’ve figured out something crucial to parenting that often doesn’t happen: telling a child “no,” and meaning it. I know, sounds crazy, right? Let me explain.

I didn’t come to this understanding by reading a book or attending a seminar. It’s not some new preachy parenting technique I’m trying to foist upon you, either. It’s a realization that occurred to me a few years ago that started with myself and bled over to my children. It started with me discovering something about myself, completely unrelated to “no.” After overcoming a spell of being bored and miserable, it dawned on me that I am the kind of person that needs something to do, something to look forward to. I need goals. When I’ve got nothing on the horizon, I feel unhappy, unfulfilled, even depressed. I didn’t know this about myself for a long time. One day it dawned on me that when I had something, anything to look forward to, I thrived. Even when I faced obstacles along the path—as long as there was a goal to be met, I felt alive.

Around the time I discovered my need to work towards self-determined goals, I noticed that very thing missing in my children. Four years ago I asked my oldest son (then eleven) what he wanted to be when he grew up. He told me he didn’t know, and then shrugged his shoulders. It’s not that he wasn’t sure because he had so many options; he hadn’t even bothered to think about it. His world was filled with video games, television shows, ice cream cones, fun trips, allowance, friends and “yes.” In fact, he’d heard “yes” so often that the prospect of having to meet his own needs as an adult wasn’t a pleasant thought. He told me, with a smile, that he’d like to stay home, forever. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen “Step Brothers” and I have no intention of spending my golden years with a man-child.

Somewhere inside my brain, things started merging. If my life had meaning when I had something to do, maybe the same could be said for my sons, and for every other child. Maybe hearing “yes” all the time stunted a child’s ability to innovate, create, cope, and dream. In fact, the more I thought about “no,” the more I realized how powerful it was.

As a child, I was told “no” more than “yes,” and had to quickly develop a skill set to not only meet my needs, but to find alternative ways to discover happiness. If I couldn’t have a party at my house, I could organize a group of friends at the local park. If I couldn’t borrow money to buy a gift, I had to learn how to make something from my heart instead. While I didn’t see it then, “no” was a gift to my childhood. It forced me to think outside the box, and to work hard to get what I wanted. I knew that if I wanted something, I had to earn it. I know most of us have nothing but the best of intentions for our children, but have we stopped to really think about the impact our “yes’s” have on our kids?

If Timmy grows up getting the lollipops, the sodas, the Xboxes, the smart phones, the cash, the new clothes, the expensive shoes, the free time, every time he asks, when does Timmy have time to dream about what he could have, be, or do? What Timmy’s parents don’t realize is that by always giving, giving, giving, they are inadvertently raising a future-adult who believes he is entitled to always have what he wants.

These days, I’m often confronted by the entitled-teen. She is my clerk at the grocery store. He is the friend of my son. They are the young men and women who walk with slumped shoulders, who roll their eyes and scowl, and who demand respect without earning it.

If you are a parent, and think it’s fine to cave when little Tina throws a temper tantrum in the department store and give her that balloon/chocolate/diamond-encrusted-iPhone just to make her stop, then you, my friend, are what I call an enabler. Sure, you think it’s love, but all enabling ever does is allow someone to indulge themselves in bad behavior. Your call, but I warn you: if you think it’s bad now, wait till little Tina has boobs and a driver’s license. Good luck with that one.

So there it is parents. If you want your sons and daughters to have a joie de vivre, a zest for life, a desire to be something, to work hard, to love, to think in new ways, then you must do the one thing your kid doesn’t want you to do: say “no.” I offer my own sons as an example. Today, at fifteen, my son wants to be a computer engineer, he is away from home for the summer working a job as a camp counselor, and he is a self-taught musician. My youngest son, now thirteen, is a percussionist, has a car-wash business he runs during the summer, and dreams of following in his father’s footsteps as a Marine. They are good kids, and while I can’t claim “no” had everything to do with it, I think it played a pretty pivotal role.

If you want the best for your kids, and I know you do, spend time with them, give them choices, encourage them, love them, but don’t give in to their demands. Does Ricky want an iPod? Tell him you certainly won’t buy it, but ask him how he can save up money to earn it himself. Did Mary volunteer you for a bake sale the day before an event without your permission? Tell her “no!” (and don’t you dare feel guilty about it) then offer to deduct money out of her allowance to either buy baked goods for the event or packaged mix that she can make herself. Say “no.” Mean “no.” Watch what happens to your children’s eyes. That dull, gray blankness will slowly burn away like morning fog—and the light of determination will take its place. It’s a beautiful thing to see. Try it.

One more thing: your kids will hate you at first, especially if they’re used to hearing “yes.” But rest assured, if your kids don’t disapprove of your parenting now and then, you’re probably not doing it right anyway.