For the most part, saying yes to my kids comes naturally to me. It hasn’t always been for the best reasons though. Whilst my natural default setting has usually tended to be “Yeah, sure, why not” (unless I’m tired or cranky!), there have been times when I have wanted to say no but have said yes because I did not like causing my child to feel disappointed or upset.
So my “Yes Mum” tendency was not so much a badge to wear with pride, but a badge that should have said, “Too afraid to say No.”
Is the solution, then, to say no more? I don’t think so.
Over time, as I changed my parenting and homeschooling style, I started to realise I needed more authenticity in my yes. I wanted to say it mindfully, not just as an automatic, unthinking response, or out of a fear of disappointing my child. If I truly wanted to say yes, I wanted to do it with real joy and choice, rather than stating a resigned “Yes” with a slight roll of the eye if they were asking for something I wished they didn’t want, like “junk food” etc. Once I would have verbalised the words “Fine then,” or “Sure, whatever,” with an undercurrent of “But I wish you wouldn’t!” Gradually, however, I moved towards a simple “Yes” with a smile. (Mostly!)
Kids are smart! They don’t just hear the words; they pick up on the undercurrent, even subtle ones. So if we fake a “Yes”, but think to ourselves, “No, I really wish you wouldn’t” in our minds, our kids will likely end up confused or insecure, not really sure which way is up. A fake Yes isn’t really a true Yes. (I do recognise, though, that there are some kids who are far more literal, missing the undercurrents and subtleties. This can thwart the intentions of passive aggressive parents, who hope to “send a message” through tone, subtle facial expressions or even sarcasm!)
What is behind a default setting of Yes or No?
Fear of a child’s big emotional reaction to “No” in the present moment can drive some parents (like me, in the past) to say yes, and it can lead to the parent micro-managing the child’s life, ensuring they always have everything they want, are always “happy” and never have to endure the trauma of being told No.
Fear of a child’s big emotional reaction to “No” in the future – fearing that the child will feel entitled to always being told “Yes” – can cause other parents to dig their heels in and hold tightly to a big loud “NO!” in the present, assuming that by saying No lots of times, the child will “get used to it” and realise “they can’t always get what they want”. They believe that their “No” response now will prevent the child developing a sense of entitlement, and help them survive better in the big, scary world.
Perhaps the parent’s own childhood was unpleasant and filled with “No”, so it feels familiar and comfortable to stay stuck in that negative place, to pass on the unpleasantness without realising how different life could be for both parent and child if a new way was forged. Perhaps it really is, simply, an unconscious, familiar, default response. Not thought through. Just a parent operating on auto-pilot, repeating the way they were parented.
A subconscious (or even conscious!) desire for control can be another cause behind a default setting of “No.” “If I let him, he will…” or “If I always say yes, he will always….” The parent feels the need to say No to keep the upper hand, to show him who’s boss, to make sure the parent’s own values are being lived out, that the things important to the parent are being instilled in the child.
No, you can’t have another cookie
- You will get fat (fear)
- I don’t approve of sugar (control)
No, you can’t watch TV
- You will lose the ability to play imaginatively (fear)
- I want you to play outside in the dirt (control)
No, you can’t play on the computer
- You will get addicted (fear)
- I value a low-tech life (control)
No, you can’t stay up late
- You will never go to bed early again (fear)
- I expect kid-free time every evening, even if you’re not tired (control)
I believe our relationship with our children and their sense of value and self worth can be seriously damaged by a parent whose default setting is “No”. Too many times I have seen parents respond:
With a no, no here, and a no no there.
Here a no, there a no, everywhere a no no!
Too many times I have seen children shrivel up, in the face of no after no after no, as their self worth crumples like discarded paper.
What about you?
Are you naturally a “Yes” parent or a “No” parent? What is your default setting when your children ask you for an extra story, or to play in the rain on a cold day, or to eat ice cream for breakfast, or ….? What answer do you tend to give when you’re on auto-pilot?
What voices do you listen to in your head?
The voice of a neighbour, a family member, a friend?
The voice of fear, judgment and expectation?
Or will you listen to the voice of your child.
What sort of parent do you want to be?
What sort of parent do you want your kids to have?
What do you want your family life to be like?
Say Yes as often as you can! There is almost always one lurking in the shadows somewhere, beyond your fears and desire for control, beyond your ideas about societal expectations and judgments.
The secret is taking a moment for mindfulness.
Pause…… and think………..
- Why not just say yes?
- What is the worst that could happen? Is it likely to happen?
- What is holding me back?
- What would it be like if I said yes?
- What would it be like if I said no?
- Are there real, unchangeable reasons to say no?
- How do I feel when people say no to me?
- How will my child feel, what will they think, if I say yes, or no?
- What is behind my child’s request?
- What are my child’s needs and feelings?
- What are my needs and feelings?
- What wonderful things could happen if I say yes?
- Am I willing to do my part to enable a joyful yes to be said?
And I think that’s the key: saying yes with JOY! Not resentment.
If the request and the mindfulness process trigger quite a lot of inner turmoil, put it on the shelf to deal with more fully later, and try to find a yes in the moment if possible. Or perhaps your child is old enough, or the situation serious enough, for you to let them know you need time to consider your answer.
If you decide to say yes, say it with joy and confidence, without attachment to your expectations, assumptions and judgments. What is most important: your personal values, or your child’s personal values? Delight in your child and trust in their ability to know what is good and right for themselves in that moment. There is nothing wrong with loving guidance, but there is something wrong with control, coercion and dominance.
If you are absolutely convinced that you must say no, say it with as much gentleness and kindness as you can muster, with utmost respect for their feelings at the time of the request and at the time of receiving your “No”. Say it with respect for their underlying needs, and with a willingness to find other ways to help meet those needs, even though you are saying no to their specific request. For instance, if they asked for a particular food item that they are allergic to, you could consider other foods that are similar, that they also like, and that are okay for them to have in that moment. Resist the temptation to say “No,” to the cookie, “But here, you can have this broccoli instead”. Try to offer an alternative that is equally as appealing as the requested item (it might even be broccoli!). A no said with empathy, and with validation of the feeling of disappointment and powerlessness in your child, is a whole lot better than a cold-hearted, unfeeling “No.” Imagine having to ask for everything and anything you wanted! And being subject to the answer.
If the request was for time spent doing something with you, take a moment to consider why you would want to say no, and what internal work you can do to help you get to a place of yes. Perhaps you could imagine the look of delight on their face when you respond with a joyful yes, and the aftermath of delight and contentment once their need for connection with you is fulfilled. Perhaps it might help to reframe the importance – or not – of what it is that you are thinking of doing instead. Do you really “need” to get those dishes washed or that carpet vacuumed right now, before playing with your child? Do you really “need” to answer that email, or make that phone call, before reading the story with your child, or playing the video game, or jumping on the trampoline together?
At times when we feel like we really must say no, we can often say things like this instead:
In 10 minutes, I can …..
After I finish this, we could …..
I feel stressed, what could we do to make it safer?
Wow, that sounds like fun! Go for it!
It may seem easier to leave our auto-pilot response set to “No,” because it feels safe and familiar, and we feel like we are in control, but if we can instead develop a new habit of pausing to think, of granting ourselves a moment of mindfulness, it can result in a much better outcome, for both us and our children.
A genuine, mindful yes helps to create a solid platform of security and self-worth within the child, on which they can build a life of mindfulness, and freedom to choose rather than react. A child who grows up in an environment littered with frequent “No’s” is more likely to feel unheard, unseen, unimportant; is more likely to react by demanding their rights, or giving up and thinking they don’t have any rights at all.
A child who usually hears No, is more likely to say No
A child who isn’t listened to will find it harder to listen to others
A child who doesn’t feel heard will eventually stop talking
A child whose needs are not met will behave in more needy ways, or eventually give up
A child who usually hears Yes, is more likely to say Yes
A child who is listened to will find it easier to listen to others
A child who feels heard will keep sharing and talking
A child whose needs are met will be more likely to show respect for the needs of others
Sometimes it feels as though a yes will take too much energy. That it will ask too much of me or make me like a servant or doormat. But I think, in reality, that saying yes GIVES energy. It is a positive, affirmative word, and as such it gives a sense of positivity. Of well-being. Of blessing. Of connection. Try it now. It’s fine to start off timidly with a tentative “Okaaaaay, I guess so” but in the end you want to be shouting from the rooftops a joyous, generous YES!
It is saying no that often drains energy. It focuses our attention on why it’s “too hard” or we’re “too busy” or just on all the reasons NOT to do it. I may have to DO something if I say yes, but when I say no I often find it saps my energy. It drains me of positivity. It leaves me feeling……. negative. After all, no is a negative word, yes?
Everyone’s Needs Matter
Saying yes to our children does not have to equal saying no to our own needs. Both can live in harmony if we are creative with the strategies for meeting everyone’s needs. For more information on this idea, I highly recommend checking out the controversial, eye opening book, “Winning Parent, Winning Child” by Jan Fortune-Wood.
Just a random thought to finish off. This famous guy (Jesus) said once to treat others as you want to be treated. I wonder how many parents, with a default “No” answer to their children get upset when their children’s default answer to THEM is “No”?
Yes is a wonderful word! Try it out. 🙂
To whom will you say yes?
- Your fear?
- Your desire for control?
- Someone else’s judgement or expectation?
- Your child?
Here are some examples of “Yes” from my recent weeks, when I have been incredibly busy with a house move, and the children have been “entertaining themselves” much more than I normally feel comfortable with.
What words will you write on your children’s hearts?