The importance of saying ‘No’


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Andrea Clifford-Poston is an educational psychotherapist and author of Tweens: What to Expect From and How to Survive Your Child’s Pre-Teenage Years (published by Oneworld), When Harry Hit Sally: Understand Your Child’s Behaviour (published by Simon and Shuster) and A Playworker’s Guide to Understanding Children’s Behaviour: Working with 8-12 Year Olds.

SAYING NO is difficult; it is difficult to say no to an invitation, or even to refuse a drink or meal you don’t really want. So we should not be surprised that more and more parents are finding it difficult to say no to their children.

They find it difficult to set boundaries (the scene is often “No, you can’t…” the child protests … the parent gives in!), or to refuse demands for the latest toy, designer name or expensive treat. They will run up high credit card bills to give their children things they cannot afford now and are going to be even less likely to afford as the global recession deepens.  

But we are surprised because saying no to children has always been both a parent’s role and prerogative. So why has this become such an issue in recent years?  

Children need to disobey

Both parents and children know that children need discipline as much as they need freedom and choice. By discipline, I mean clear, consistent rules and boundaries.

Children are born into an unequal world where they have virtually no power and the adults have a great deal of power (or at least children’s power is different from adults’ power). Children want to please their parents but they also want some of their power. So remember, a little defiance is no bad thing! Defiance may be difficult for parents, but for children it is essential. Children need to push and pull their own world in order to develop their independent personalities but they need to do so within the security of firm boundaries.

Why saying no is difficult

Many parents want to say no but are confused by two current trends. The first is that saying no is seen as negative, running contrary to the idea of praising children into behaving well.  

Saying no can make us feel as though we are bullying, being aggressive or even just spoiling someone’s fun. Parents may feel they are deliberately denying their child for no valid reason, even if they are not. Saying no is difficult because it is likely to provoke an argument, ‘no’ creates distance between people.

You know that when you say no to your child you risk them hating you, never easy to tolerate, and very difficult for today’s parents who may feel under pressure to be seen with happy and well behaved children. In many ways parenting is a public performance and no parent wants to risk a tantrum or scene in public.

Secondly, some parents see their children as their equal ‘mates.’ They dress alike, listen to the same music, watch the same TV programmes. What gets lost in this scenario is who is in charge, with parents trying vainly to negotiate with children too young or immature to do so.  

Saying no reminds us how we felt as a child when we could not have what we wanted. Such memories may muddle parents into confusing not wanting their child to feel disappointed with the importance of a child learning that you are someone who has clear and firm ideas about how you expect them to behave; you mean what you say, and say what you mean, but don’t withdraw your love when your child makes a mistake.

But above all, saying no is difficult because for most parents, the days are long and arduous and they may have limited time to spend with their children. Such parents know saying no is likely to provoke an argument and they do not want the time they have with their children to be ‘spoilt.’  They may also feel just too tired to say no at the end of the day.  

But, of course, by saying no you are helping your children to learn not only that there are boundaries between you and them, but also how to put boundaries around themselves and other people.

Why saying no is positive

Saying no helps children to learn:

Who we can say no to

When we can say no

Why to say no

When we can stop saying no

Children need discipline

Discipline is an adult’s response to a child’s behaviour and so it is worth spending some time thinking about the purpose of saying no.

If you want to play football, you need to know and understand the rules of the game and if you want to excel at football, then you have to abide by the rules. Family life is not entirely like a game of football, it is more akin to imaginative play, but it is true that if children are going to have a good life then they need to understand some of the rules about human beings being together. And good human relationships are based on trust and respect for each other. When your child knows that you say what you mean and mean what you say, they are also learning about trust and respect.  

N-O spells no!

There are as many ways of saying no as there are parents. A simple guideline is that children remember not so much what we say as how we say it. If you don’t want your child to shout and scream try not to shout and scream at them. ‘No’ is most effective said quietly, clearly and firmly, and if necessary, said again, and again, and again … State clearly what you want your child to do.  

State what the consequences will be if they don’t do it. Give one warning, “If you continue this will happen …” If they do continue, follow through with your promise.