I'm not the type to say "yes" just because I'm uncomfortable saying "no." But even for me, telling someone "no" isn't the easiest thing in the world, and I still feel bad when I do. And if you're like me, you probably procrastinate and put off saying "no" until the last possible second, which always makes it worse. When I became a parent, I realized I wanted to teach my daughter to say "no" without apologizing and without feeling bad about it, and it's honestly a skill all of us (read: women who are conditioned by society at large to say "yes" to damn near everything) could stand to perfect.
Of course, teaching my daughter to unapologetically say "no" isn't just about her eventually being able to turn down some annoying offer to attend a last-minute dinner party, or denying a rude coworker when she's asked to do their work, too. It's about a lot more than that. It's about serious situations that my daughter will, unfortunately, probably face in her lifetime. It's about teaching her to use her voice forcefully, so those around her take her and her requests, or refusals, seriously.
During the last presidential election, when the Billy Bush fiasco was coming to light, I had some very serious revelations about what I had allowed to happen to me over the course of most of my high school and college years. I realized, quite abruptly, that I was a product of locker room talk and a culture that expects girls and women to go along with whatever comes their way, sexually or otherwise. And having a daughter certainly made it all the more clear that there was going to have to be some real active discussion, spearheaded by both myself and my husband, to change the narrative for her. In my opinion, that discussion can start right now and in the following ways:
This has been one of the most crucial (and difficult) ways we teach our daughter to say "no" without any judgment. We practice with family members constantly, so if they want a kiss and she isn't feeling affectionate, she can refuse and we encourage her to say so politely, but firmly.
As a parent, you're your daughter's best example. Agonizing about having said "no" to something or someone in front of her doesn't help. So if you're going to turn someone down, do it and do it firmly and own it. That's her best example of being able to say no and not feel bad about it. You can explain why sometimes you wish you could do all the things and that can make you feel bad, but it's important to note that saying no isn't the bad part.
Pointing out examples out in the world when people say "no" unashamedly can help your daughter see that it's not just some weird thing you made up in your family. It's everywhere and we should be celebrating women saying "no" more often.
Obviously, your daughter isn't going to be allowed to say "no" to anything and everything. That's just not possible. Sometimes you have to leave the house, and her refusing to put on clothes just isn't going to work out. Sometimes she needs to pick up her toys, and her telling you to essentially get bent isn't going to fly. But allowing her "no" to stand when it counts — especially when it comes to her bodily autonomy and other important choices — helps her understand that she has power, even if she does have to listen to you when you tell her to put her damn coat on.
For my partner and I, bringing in advocates and allies for our daughter has meant educating our family members and friends about what we're trying to teach our daughter. If she says no, especially to affection from them, we explain to them what we're hoping to achieve by encouraging her to express a "no" to them, and enlist them as her allies in protecting her right to say "no" without hesitation.
You might be on the receiving end of some raised eyebrows when talking about consent or your daughter's right to express her opinion, especially about her body. But, at least for me, explaining it with regard to current events has helped. In the end, sometimes it means us, as parents, have to develop a thicker skin when dealing with judgement from others, which can obviously serve as another good example for our daughters.
Whether her daycare teachers or her school teachers, speak to her leaders about how they allow kids to express a response of "no." Getting on the same page as the other people who lead your daughter is critical.
It's a long game, not a sprint, that will help your daughter learn to say "no" without feeling bad about it. It's something that you'll be doing when she's 2 and when she's 12, so if at first you don't succeed? Try, try again.
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