Sometimes Kids Just Need To Hear No
Nobody likes to disappoint their children. It’s hard to turn them down, crush their hopes, or deny them. And it’s particularly hard to deal with their unpleasant reactions to being denied. In truth, though, we don’t help our children by giving in to them all the time. Many adults – with and without kids – comment on the entitled attitude of many of today’s young people. That’s no accident. When you grow up believing that all you have to do is ask (or demand) and you’ll get whatever you want, you really feel that the world does owe you. Years ago, I remembered reading an article in the National Post (I tried to find it to reference here; this is the best I could do.) It outlined the results of a survey of university (that’s right, university) students, which demonstrated that a good number of these students felt that professors should meet with them when it was convenient for the student, even if it wasn’t convenient for the professor, who felt that simply by attending all classes and “trying hard” they should receive at least a B, and that a good chunk of them “think poorly” of professors who don’t reply to emails the day they were sent. Is that the kind of child we want to raise? A self-absorbed youth with an enormous sense of entitlement and self-importance? And perhaps, worse, the inability to learn from mistakes and actually experience humility around those who are legitimately more experienced and/or more educated?
It’s a dangerous decision to decide to keep your kids happy at all costs. At best, you raise tyrants, and at worst, you raise kids with no sense of competence, ability, or self-worth. If everything is handed to you, if you have no opportunity to see yourself as able to overcome adversity and failure, how high and how authentic can your self esteem really be?
Any parent will tell you that parenting is about picking your battles. I completely agree. But choosing not to fight any battles is actually a choice, too. “No” is an important word when it comes to your values, for example. If you don’t want your children growing up with the belief that money magically comes from a bottomless ATM, you’ll need to pick the battle that emphasizes your value of money and how you feel about the need for “stuff.”
The world has rules. And while you may not concern yourself too much with your toddler’s wild behaviour, when it comes time to go to school, your little one may find it a tough adjustment. Schools are structured and rule-based, and kids who have difficulty conforming to those rules – hearing “no” – struggle. But there are benefits to the structure and guidelines of school beyond the obvious crowd control. Kids feel better when they have clearly defined boundaries and guidelines. A child pushing up against a boundary you have set is not telling you that he doesn’t like boundaries and that he can cope with absolute freedom and autonomy. He’s actually testing to find out where that boundary is, what the consequence of jutting into it is, and how far he can push his behaviour. That all provides a great deal of security. Kids want structure. The world is a big and intimidating place, and kids instinctively know they are not ready to cope with it all on their own. They count on us as the adults to make sense of it, to protect them, and to teach them how to develop the skills they need to eventually take over responsibility for their own lives. If we don’t teach them how to overcome obstacles and frustration, how to accept disappointment and bounce back, how to set a goal and create a self-driven plan to achieve it, how will they mature into competent, capable, independent adults who can actually do all of these things?
This isn’t about being unnecessarily cruel. The world will do a just-fine job of that, thank you very much. What I’m talking about is respectful and logical steps that gently turn control of our kids lives over to them, in stages that they are ready for. Kind and firm are the foundations of democratic parenting, and that’s the kind of “no” we should be giving to our kids when it is in their best interest. Avoid tacking on words like “always” and “never” (as in, “No you can’t go, because you always come home late”). Don’t hesitate to discuss the situation with your children before saying no. An automatic negative response is not going to encourage your kids to come back to you again…but if they feel that you’ve really listened to them and heard their position, and perhaps worked with them to consider alternatives, they learn to see you as reasonable and trustworthy. Sometimes it isn’t possible to have this discussion right away because emotions are running to high. That’s ok. Come back once everyone has cooled down and discuss your positions. This is a learning experience, not an arm wrestle, so it’s ok, too, for you to be learning as you go as a parent.