Being careful with “no”

(cross-posted with Gifted Exchange)

I’ve been pondering lately the question of “what have my children taught me?” (Asked by the facilitator of my parents’ group). One lesson I’m working on learning is to be careful with my “nos.”

Here’s the thinking: Whining is hell on earth. Listening to children whine makes one irritated, tense, embarrassed. Why do children whine? I suspect many of us unintentionally encourage it. We say “no” reflexively to whatever random thing a child is proposing. Then, the child starts whining or throwing a tantrum and we eventually say “yes.” Because we probably didn’t really care. Yes, you can play for 5 more minutes. I only wanted to leave the playground because I was bored. Yes, you can have jam on your pizza crusts. Why not?

The lesson the child learns is what any good negotiator (or dungeon master) knows. Don’t take the first offer. Torture produces a much better confession. Find out for sure what the parent cares about and doesn’t care about. Whine enough and “no” turns into “yes.”

So what is a parent to do? Grow a spine, perhaps — but the best negotiators know that confrontation often leaves your opponent with no choice but aggression. Here’s another framework:

If you are going to say no, be willing to defend it to the death. Well, not death, but to the point of a public, grocery-throwing temper tantrum.

Otherwise, consider a “yes.” Or at least pause before you automatically say “no.” Stall by asking “why do you think that would be fun?” or “tell me more about that idea.” Because if you’re going to say yes eventually under duress, you may as well say it before the kid realizes that screaming is the way to go. In other words, be careful with each “no.”

This is obviously easier said than done. But I am trying to be judicious with my flat-out refusals. Sam, my 2-year-old, got himself out of his car seat straps last night. That was a definite “we are pulling this car over” no. But when he wanted to have a bite of my birthday cake before lunch, I realized this was going to escalate rapidly, and wasn’t that big a deal. He’s a good eater, shoveling in tomatoes, oranges and other foods that his 4-year-old brother won’t touch. When I realized that I didn’t care enough about lunch order enforcement to endure a temper tantrum during my birthday lunch, I went ahead and said yes fairly quickly. After all, I have been known to eat junk food before meals as well.

When do you say “no” and when do you say “yes”?


4 thoughts on “Being careful with “no”

  1. I don’t think of it as “say ‘no’ only if I’m willing to defend it to the death” — I think of it as “say ‘yes’ unless it matters enough to deserve a ‘no’.” I think too often parents say “no” without thinking about it because we can, and because there is some momentary satisfaction in exercising our power. Anyway, the effect is the same — you end up saying “no” only when you think it’s important enough to defend.

    On whining, my older son knows, and the baby will find out, that the only parental response, repeated as many times as necessary, is “I don’t say yes to whining.” (And if he asks nicely and the answer is still no, I thank him for not whining about it, and suggest some alternative.)

  2. I agree that I NEVER gave in to a tantrum or whining. My kids knew it was ok to ask once, and sometimes I said no and sometimes I said yes… but whining, begging, or a tantrum was an automatic no, even if I might have considered it otherwise. It also earned them a trip to their room until they were ready to be nice again.

    My ex wasn’t able to be consistent, so they whined at him. They knew better than to try it with me.

  3. Sage advice! Our guidelines for our 20 month old are fairly loose so far: as long as he’s not going to incur damage to himself, us, or property, he can do what he wants. Since he’s at the Captain Destructo phase, though, there still is a healthy amount of ‘no.’

    Right now he is busily taking all the CDs out of a case logic container that I refer to as his briefcase. (He likes to carry it around by its handle.) It is a bit of a mess, but it’s occupying him for a much longer time than it will take me to clean up, so it’s worth it.

    I realize when he hits the 2’s and 3’s my guidelines might have to get a bit more nuanced…

  4. When I was pregnant with my first child, my aunt gave me two pieces of advice:
    “Never ask a question you already know the answer to” (do you want to brush your teeth, go to bed, put your shoes on etc…)
    and “Only say no if you are prepared to get up and enforce it”
    This was advice that she got from her mother (my grandmother) and has stood her in pretty good stead during her long career as an nursery school teacher and headmistress!

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