Question: I have a tendency to always answer my kids “no” when they ask me things. “Mom, can I have ice cream again?” “Mom, can we go to the movies?” “Mom, can I watch TV?” I am so used to being pushed and saying “no” that sometimes I am too quick to answer when I might have said yes. Then I am stuck trying to stand behind my no. When they ask so often and so fast, it just comes out. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: I don’t know how old your children are, but the nos are seemingly endless around the time when the child turns 2 years old and never really slow down.
Around 2, children are full of willpower of emergent energy. They touch everything they shouldn’t, they put things in their mouths that could kill them, and they try to jump off things that are too high — all normal, all appropriate and all vexing for the parents. It is exhausting, and the more tired you are, the more nos come out of your mouth.
The second reason parents start saying “no” so often is that they worry. Some people are wired to see be on high alert often. They instantly see what is wrong with having ice cream (too much sugar!), going to the movies (too expensive!) and watching TV (turns the kids into zombies!). There is nothing wrong with these “no” parents; they are doing their job. But like you said, the issues begin when all you see are the problems — and the nos come too easily.
One of the most important roles of parenting is saying “no.” But parents’ well-intentioned boundaries, when drawn too tightly and too often, become more like the walls of jail cell rather than a spacious fence of protection.
All humans rebel against real or perceived captivity. For young children, this is doubly true. Their ability to be rational and logical is not very well-developed, and if you draw too many boundaries around too many issues, the children will become suspicious, resentful and obsessed with the banned issue.
A “no” to a candy bar right before dinner takes on the same weight as a “no” to playing with matches. The issues are not of equal importance, but since the parent thinks so, the child will too, and that child will begin to fight everything.
Our job as parents is not to draw the boundaries tighter and tighter as the kids get older; it is to grow with the child and discern what issues truly need the no and which issues can use a little bit of wiggle room.
The good news is that you know that you are saying no too much. This awareness is critical, and the desire to say “yes” is so very important. It is this desire that will lead you in the direction you want to go.
Because saying no can become such a deeply ingrained habit, you need all the help you can get to say yes more.
If you have a spouse or partner, be sure to bring him or her on board as a helper in this positive pursuit. You are not looking to say yes willy-nilly, you are looking to break a habit. Have your partner help you wake up to how often you are saying knee-jerk nos. If possible, try to have your partner start answering for you. When there is a request or a question, practice sending the children to your spouse or partner. This may not be easy, but it is worth a try.
Also, hang a sticky that says “YES/AND. . . ”
I love “Yes/And!” It is a powerful way to parent and to live.
The children want ice cream right before dinner? “Yes! Ice cream sounds delicious, and we will have a scoop right after dinner!”
The children want to watch TV, and they have already watched two hours straight? “Yes, you can definitely watch more TV tomorrow. And what shows are you going to watch?”
The children want to go to the movies, and you have a raging headache? “Yes, we will go to the movies another day. And what is it that you want to see?”
The important aspect of “Yes/And” to remember is that your children will not always reply positively and happily every time you say it. They will still fight you. They will still beg or whine or argue with you (and if you are really lucky, all three).
“Yes/And” doesn’t guarantee happiness. Rather, it is a way to welcome ideas in another context, as well as allowing your real nos to carry some weight.
When my 11-year-old wanted the iPhone 6? No, not now and not any time soon.
When my 7-year-old wants to play soccer and basketball and take art classes? No. Too much (in all respects).
When my 4-year-old wants to sleep with a tight necklace on? No. It could choke you; hand it over.
Another important note: You are the parent. You are allowed to change your mind whenever you want. You are allowed to say no, rethink your decision, and then say yes. And vice versa.
You and I both know that if you change your mind all of the time, you will appear waffly and weak. But if you receive a question or a request from your child, and you accidentally spoke before you were ready, you can simply say, “You know what? I’ve changed my mind. I would like to take you to get frozen yogurt. Grab your coat!” Be decisive and strong when you change your mind; the tone and stance are more important than the change of decision.
Finally, take the time to get to the bottom of all of your nos. Do you say no to everyone? Do you allow yourself some fun and silliness? Life is full of risk, but it is also full of joy and deep rewards. Find some ways to say yes to your own fun-loving self. Everyone in your family will benefit from this courageous act. Most of all, you.
Send questions about parenting to email@example.com.
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns.