Why Saying ‘No’ Must Hurt


Last week, when my 7-year-old son asked to watch television after school instead of doing his homework, I told him ‘no.’ This is a standard rule in our house, and my answer came as no surprise to him. He proceeded to plop down on the couch, turn on the television anyway, and ignore me while staring at the screen. I promptly took the remote and sent him to his room, where he slammed the door and yelled that I was the worst mother in the world. A few minutes later, when his door opened and a little voice asked if he could come out, I figured he had cooled off and was ready to apologize. Instead, he marched down the hall pulling his suitcase behind him and angrily announced that he was running away.  Good grief. Do I need to just let go of the rules now and then?

   Like changing diapers, saying ‘no’ is one of those jobs of parenting that is never fun and that none of us really wants to do, especially to a pair of big, beautiful eyes that are brimming with tears. It is a fact based in love: as parents, we hate to deny our children. As the queen of guilt, I know the feeling and, like a full diaper, it stinks. But study after study shows that parents who are inconsistent with rules and boundaries are setting their children up for suffering later in life.

   One recent study tracking the responses of over 16,000 American college students showed that today’s young people are more self-absorbed than ever before. According to these researchers, self-absorbed people’s tendencies include lack of empathy, aggressive reactions to criticism, and favoring self-promotion over helping others, all of which can have very negative consequences for society. The researchers felt that permissiveness was partly to blame, and said that a possible antidote would be less indulgence on the part of parents. Easier said than done.

   Until our children grow up and move on to what we hope will be their own, rewarding lives, we have to live with them, so of course we want to say ‘yes’ as often as possible.  But when indulgence is the norm, living with them becomes even more difficult than saying ‘no’. After my youngest was born, I let a lot of rules slide with my older son. It was easier to say ‘yes’ (actually it was more like, “OK, fine, whatever you want,”) than battle, especially when I was sleep-deprived and trying to get used to the new, two-child dynamic. What a mistake. The more I let Jacob get away with, the more he wanted. It was never enough, and then when I did finally start saying ‘no’ again, the conflicts were worse than they had ever been before. I realized I had created a monster.

   It’s ironic, but when we indulge our children to try to avoid conflict, we end up developing big, bad habits (in our kids and ourselves). A recent New York Times article showcased parents who dislike ‘the family bed’ (their children will only sleep in Mom and Dad’s bed). Though these parents wished their children would move into their own rooms, they were aghast at the idea of telling the children that if they stayed in their own beds, their doors would be left open, but if not, they were going to be closed. Of course, it is up to the parents to hold firm to such a statement, since any child is going to test it, and change won't happen when parents’ soft hearts make them say, “I just can’t do that!” But like me, these parents had lost sight of the big picture. When we give in to our children’s every whim, request and demand now, even when it burdens others, we teach them two things: that theirs is the only happiness that matters, and that they do not need to have any self control. Personally, I find the thought of living with a teenager possessing these two outlooks pretty frightening.

   Because it was already late in the afternoon when Jacob was ready to move out, I suggested we talk about it first. Where would he go? Night was coming, and it was cold. He also hadn’t eaten yet. He wanted to sleep in the yard in a tent, and I reminded him of the impending rain, so we agreed he could sleep in the tent in the basement playroom. The brainstorming seemed to help, because afterward, he was in better spirits and went off to do his homework so that he’d have time to watch television before pitching the tent. What had started out as a power struggle turned out all right in the end, but what pleased me most was that he got his homework done and I didn’t have to relent on my no-TV-before-homework rule.

   Once my children became old enough to start testing me I quickly learned that when it comes to child rearing, without pain, there is no growth. And I need to constantly remind myself that my saying ‘no’ is necessary for all of us to grow. If I can’t say, “No, you can’t watch television” to my 7-year-old, how am I going to be able to say, “No, you can’t go to a party where there’s alcohol” when he’s a teenager, and mean it? The truth is I won’t, unless I practice now. Love hurts. Saying ‘no’ is hard, and it almost always has consequences. But isn’t it better to hurt ourselves in the short term than our children in the long run?