Children are more than a little fickle with their affection, which can make it especially difficult to learn how to say no to your kids. They love you, they need you, they have to have you right this second because oh my god look how they balanced this foam block on top of the other foam block and it’s not even falling over, Mommy, look Mommy, look Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! — and then they try to deck you when you attempt to hug them in public. Blurting out “no!” is often just a parent’s attempt at self-defense from tiny fists of fury.
But “no” is an important thing to say to someone, especially a human who is experiencing things for the first time, and seeing how far they can push their boundaries. Kids cycle through a lot of emotions from minute to minute, and they don’t always understand them. Why is the world so awesome (ice cream!) and so terrible (no ice cream before dinner)? Why can’t we all have it all? Because tummy aches, kiddo. Sorry.
When it constantly makes me feel like a bad guy, it’s really hard to say “No.” I’ve ended days in utter defeat, feeling like all I told my kids that day was what not to do. I imagine being them, at ages eight and five, and having been denied pretty much everything because it was either wrong or annoying. So then I overcompensate, letting transgressions slide and pretending I don’t see it when they sneak another Fig Newton. But caring too much about being liked by my kids is not effective parenting. A friend of mine framed it perfectly: We hate doing things for their own good.
Shonda Rhimes has shown us the benefits of saying “yes” whenever possible, and that’s helped me re-examine when I need to deliver the hard “no” and when I should give them a pass. Yes, you can borrow my scarf but please put it back where you find it. No, you can’t watch another episode because it’s bed time. And my kids will love me and hate accordingly, or so they say.
But I’m the mom and my number one job is to keep them safe and prevent them from being menaces to society, so I continue to practice my naysaying in the hopes that one day I’ll feel like I’ve mastered that art, where I barely use it and the children respectfully oblige. Since that might never happen, I have to be content with the fact that I’m trying, as I work through the stages of getting really good at saying “no” to my kids.
But if I tell them "no," they won’t love me, or worse, they’ll think I don’t love them!
At this point, I could deliver a wimpy “...no...?” before bursting into tears along with them.
In this stage, I was getting braver, as I recognized "no" is usually for a good cause. I still felt terrible when they threw themselves down in a fit of rage but I figured I just had to get used to it until they came around to the fact that bunny crackers aren’t a food group.
My "no" was serious, but they thought it was hilarious.
No, absolutely not, nuh-uh, no way… OK, maybe later.
Firm, But Kind
I pepper in a few “sweeties” and “I love yous” but hold my “no” ground.
Firm, But Mean
I say “no” and they whine “whyyyyyy?” It goes on, until I am shouting “NO!” and they shout back how horrible a mother I am. Fun stuff.
At this point, I am able to say “no” without emotion. I am a rock. They eye me warily.
“Mom, can I… “
“Mom, is there… “
“Mom, would you stop saying… “
Desperate to avoid uttering the dreaded two-letter word, I try to anticipate any bad behavior by warning against it before it happens:
“Don’t touch the faucet when you’re in the bath.”
This often backfires, serving instead to inspire them to find an even worse workaround:
“Don’t throw shampoo bottles at the shower head!”
“But I’m doing what you said — I’m not even touching it!”
If I ever arrive at this magical place, it will mean I use the word sparingly, to great effect, because my children respect my authority, understand life has limits, and totally get that no means no, no matter what. I'll let you know if I ever reach this mythical parenting place.
Images: NBC; Giphy(11)