By Steffani Turner, LCSW, Community Services Director at Intermountain
Well, it happened again last night . . . and we both went to bed feeling terrible. I said NO! Again. For the umpteenth time. It seems like I say NO every day, all the time, in fact. One little, teeny word is so powerful.
In the 20 plus years of my career working with children, as well as the 20 plus years of being a parent, if there is one thing I would ask of each parent–just one thing—it would be that they learn to tell their child NO.
I understand what it’s like! It’s such a little word with such big implications. Saying NO feels like it creates a rift in the relationship between you and your child, a rift that sometimes becomes an insurmountable mountain that you precariously traverse with a rock pick in hand. Along the way, you get harsh words, yelling, tantrum, pouting, “I hate you” and all the other heart-puncturing weapons thrown at you to dissuade. It almost makes you want to quit, back down, take another path, an easier one, one where your child is smiling and hugging you!
Why is that little word so important to all human wellbeing? Well, for a moment, lets imagine a world where we were never told NO. Those stop signs around town? They would be meaningless – just suggestions, really. How about when that jerk cuts in line at the DMV? What if everyone did that? Being told NO, gently, by our parents and teachers taught us to wait our turn.
Think of all the ways adults tolerate NO on a daily basis:
Doing a project for your boss when you don’t agree with the premise.
Fixing the lawnmower for your spouse when you would rather go fishing.
Having a disagreement without yelling or punching.
Stopping after only one drink when your inner child is telling you to order a refill.
As parents, I think we struggle with NO for a lot of reasons. We are tired. It’s a crazy-busy world. If you are in a two-parent household, both of you may be working, the kids have activities and you are just trying to get by. But 25% of youth in Montana are growing up in single parent households. That means you have half the resources and double the responsibility! You are often playing mom and dad. You may be exhausted, insecure in your parenting role or afraid of how your child will react, especially in a public place. (I swear Walmart is the best place to throw a tantrum.) We are afraid of how our children will feel about us, if they will be mad at us. We are afraid that it will stifle their creativity, they won’t be such free thinkers.
The reality is, learning NO is all a part of the human condition. It is a part of learning boundaries and limits, how far to go and how much to have. We are survivalists by biology. It is how we were engineered (or we would probably have died out long ago). We take what we can get when we can get it. But we also learn societal rules, because you don’t want to be left out of the clan when the saber-tooth tigers are out hunting. We learned that by being together we can do more, but we have to have rules or we don’t accomplish anything. Weirdly, NO is good. NO makes we feel safe. NO makes our children feel like we love them and care about their wellbeing. NO is extremely important.
I had to say NO to my son again today (grrr, electronics), but I did it with a kind word and an understanding that he will be upset because he doesn’t like my NO. NO, a well-balanced NO, is not a punishment. It is meant to teach a child frustration tolerance, disappointment, self-regulation. As adults, not only do we get told NO in some way a 100 times a day, we also have to tell ourselves NO. If not, we would spend all our money, not pay bills, drink and eat to excess, make terrible decisions with our relationships. But mostly we have learned to self-regulate, which is the outcome of being told NO as a child. A good NO must be couched with a firmness (so the kid knows you won’t give in) and a kindness (so they know you are not just punishing them because you want to be mean). This helps them focus on what is important –what lesson we want them to learn with this NO.
One of my favorite examples of a good well-balanced NO is from a few years ago when my child was 4. He went through a phase where, every day, about 15 minutes before dinner, he would ask for a cookie. Now, I’m here to tell you that can get pretty annoying after about the 1st time. But I took it to heart and tried really hard not to do what I had experienced (a lot of yelling and screaming on my mom’s part to get out of the kitchen and leave her alone). It was hard! But I was able to use kindness, saying “I’m sorry, honey. You cannot have a cookie. We are going to eat soon,” while still using firmness and standing by my NO. I worked hard not to waver, as he cried and pled, even threw a tantrum a time or two. But eventually, he no longer asked for a cookie and if he needed a snack he had a carrot stick instead. In this one instance, I could really connect to why my son was hating NO so much – who doesn’t want a cookie pretty much anytime?
All of this aside, what I want most for my children is that they will grow up kind and caring people. This is real success. Hearing NO is just one step in that direction. So for gosh sakes look for opportunities to tell your children NO in a safe and caring manner, where the price tag is low and where you are there to help them learn frustration tolerance and self-regulation. Be ok that they get upset at the NO, help them with that feeling. Practice having kindness and firmness – it’s not an easy combination! It’s hard for us all. Go out there and love your kids with a big well-intentioned NO!
Steffani Turner, LCSW, is the Community Services Director at Intermountain’s clinic on Dredge Drive in Helena. She graduated from the University of Montana with a Bachelors in Psychology and later a Masters in Social Work. She is the mother of two.