Saying “No”

There are a lot of literature about parenting. In fact, too much for my taste, so that it is very hard to tell right one from wrong one. Therefore I haven’t read much on this topic, especially given the fact such a reading would be in my case quite theoretical.

But recently I’ve stumbled upon an article that has immediately reasonated with me. I thought this article just can’t be wrong. And besides, it is also written in a very delicious style, so if you read Russian, please read the original.

Below is a shortened and helpless translation, which I did using Google translate and some manual editing. This article is written from the first person, who is a female psychologist living in Israel and is currently upbringing her two children.


Recently I was talking with an acquaintance about how and when to tell the child “no.” Her opinion puzzled me and made me think about the problem as a whole. How do we decide when to make concessions to your child? What makes us to ignore his repeated requests, or on the other extreme, to try to console our child with any price? Many parents are faced with similar issues, while being cried out loud at the ear.

“Mom, can I have a small piece of chocolate?”
“No, not now. Later.”
“Later when?”
“After dinner”
“But we just had breakfast!”
“Do not argue. I said “no”
“And ice cream?”
“No ice cream either”
“But why?”
“You already ate ice cream yesterday. That’s enough”
“I want today! Chocolate ice! And yesterday it was vanilla ice! Mom!”
“Stop begging. You’re always begging”
“Mom, please! Just one tiny bar of chocolate!”

The child is crying, throws herself on the ground, and kicks air. The “chocolate issue” grows into a big scandal. And the parent is furiously clasping his hands:

“It is impossible! Shut up this very second! Shut up, I said! Shame yourself! You’re ill-mannered, unbearable, I feel ashamed because of you! Stop it!”

My acquaintance said that children should regularly hear “no” at home for their own sake. After all, people and circumstances will not always play nice with them. A lot of things in life they will never get. Therefore, from the early age on, children should learn to accept restrictions and prohibitions. Without this skill their life will be very hard, when they’ll grow up.

This is certainly true. He who cannot accept refusals, at least partially, is doomed to suffer every second. After all, the word “no” is all around us in huge quantities. In the morning, it hides in the ringing of the alarm clock (who the hell had the brilliant idea to get up so early?), is hidden in the headlines (“Reducing the standard of living threatens the security of the population”), is winking from each occupied seat is our bus and from each highway lane of a traffic jam, the word “no” is embedded into the supermarket shelves, bank printouts, weather reports, restaurant menus, television programs… And, of course, if you become hysterical every time a cloud closes the sun, you will have to spend a hysterical life.

In addition, any parent wishes his child to be attractive for other people. But who would want to be friends with him if he cannot accept refusals? He will ask to borrow hundred bucks, they will say “no”, and he will throw himself hysterically to the ground!? In an effort to protect the child from such situations, parents try to explain their child that his wishes are not the only important thing in the world. There are other objective circumstances, the desire and abilities of other people, their personalities, their mood.

So, the lesson for the child to learn is very true: “pay attention, you’re not alone in the world.” But the question remains, how to give this lesson to the child. After all, what important is not to win in each and every “siege of chocolate bar”, but rather to make the word “no” normal, and not an extreme part of upbringing.

“The more I forbid, the better my child understands that the prohibition and rejection is part of the norm, just like success is. And therefore it will be easier for him to deal with teachers, bosses, etc later.” This is one possible position. And here’s another one: “He will get enough “no’s” in his future life, so I will try to give to my child so many “yes’es” I could, and he will grow confident and have high self-esteem that will help him to overcome difficulties”.

Of course, these are two extremes, and both are problematic. Zealous advocates of the word “no” raise trouble-makers, endlessly begging for something to be given. Or else, introverted and pessimistic melancholics, who don’t even try to ask for anything. And the parents giving the child everything and all costs, will get charismatic tyrants and egoists.

But even in between of the extremes is often unclear what exactly rules to follow.

The answer to this question can be divided into two parts: 1) in what cases to tell the child “no” and 2) how to behave after the word “no” has been pronounced.

In what cases you’ll have to tell the child the word “no”? I do not believe in education for the sake of education and do not believe in prohibition for the sake of prohibition. Parenting, in my opinion, occurs during the child’s interactions with real events and causes, and the prohibition makes sense only if it is reasonable. Any “no” must have a reason. A very specific and clear one, and of such kind that the adult would also apply to himself. “Because I said so”, “it is ridiculous”, and “even my grandmother forbade me” are not such a reason. They are vague, abstract and often not based on anything other than our memory and desire to injure the child at the same point, in which we ourselves were injured as a child. This desire is understandable, but it rarely leads to good results.

In a child’s daily life, there are much more restrictions than we tend to notice. He is not to decide about his daily activities, not to choose what to eat for breakfast (we all know the trick with the illusion of choice: “What do you want for breakfast, porridge or cereals?”, but a real choice is very rarely given to the child), he often does not want (but have to) to go to kindergarten, and even more so – to get up early for this kindergarten. Someone hates to go to bed at night, somebody does not like to sleep alone in a room or, alternatively, with three other children. The child is normally not being asked whether or not to give birth to his younger brothers. The weather outside and the times of the year do not consult with him. He cannot influence his parents’ divorce, visit of his relatives, to travel by car or by bus. He cannot adjust pressure of the seat belt, can’t control road nausea, the dress to put on, and the number of sandboxes available near the house, and has to accept principles of the kindergarten teacher, and the school choice… Yes, all parents try their best to take into account children’s interests and needs, but they are often very theoretical from the child’s point of view. Child’s life is full of restrictions.

When we now believe that by telling him “no” we will prepare him for the future, we have to remember that restrictions already constitute a big part of his life. The child learns to accept them on real-life material, and every minute of every day. And the “no” word we would say to him would be only a small part of this material. Therefore, if there is no specific, clear reason to refuse, just tell “yes”.

Positive experiences are even more important for human development than the negative experiences. Through our agreement and willingness to support him, the child learns about love, and obtains reserves of safety, understanding and warmth. The word “yes” does not need any reason. It is natural and normal; it is the basis of the relationship with the child.

On contrary, the word “no” must always have an exact cause. Otherwise, the child cannot understand what is happening, and therefore cannot learn from it. After all, we want to teach the child to understand, not (only) to obey.

Let’s return to the situation with chocolate. What could be the reasons not to buy it?

– Not enough money. This reason is unconditional, non-negotiable. We will not going to steal chocolate bars.

– The money is enough, but they are needed for another, more important things, like vegetables for dinner, milk for the younger brother, bracelet for a friend’s birthday. That one is a little tricky, because it requires setting clear priorities, but is in general reasonable.

– Medical restrictions: allergy to chocolate, diathesis, sore throat, diarrhea yesterday, bad teeth. From the child’s point of view, it is not fair, but the reason is also not discussable, even though it requires additional sympathy from the parents – we’ll talk about it in a minute.

– Inconvenience to buy: it is too hot to go to the shop, or mom is busy with other things. All of this fits into the concept of “pay attention, you’re not alone in the world.”

– Limitations of “common sense”: this chocolate is the third (eighth, hundredth) in a row. Arguments “its enough”, and “too much” the child does not understand and they look like carelessness. Therefore, an explanation in such cases must be specific, precise and exhaustive – in terms of the child, not the parent. And it can be reduced, in general, to those terms already mentioned: health, money, time, convenience.

– The punishment for past sins: “you just kicked me with your foot, so no chocolate until the evening.” Again, it is logical and reasonable, provided that the child understands what his fault is. “You hit your brother,” “tortured a kitten,” “did not make the homework” are clear and specific sins for which it is logical to lose chocolate. But “you are badly behaved”, “you’re a monster”, “always begging for something,” are incomprehensible and therefore meaningless explanations.

You can use the word “no” as a punishment, but the cause of punishment should be as specific as the chocolate. Otherwise it is an unequal exchange: the child does not get something visible, but is being punished for something abstract. And he won’t get the feeling of “I’m justly punished, it is necessary to draw conclusions, and behave differently,” but with the feeling “bad enough that no one understands me, but I don’t even get a chocolate bar.”

Even a simple mother’s “I do not want to go anywhere” it is the reason good enough to refuse chocolate. But only if the mother really does not want to go anywhere, rather than trying to teach the child the word “no.” Any refusal is justified if the cause is real in the eyes of a parent. And is not justified, if the goal of it is education for the sake of education. Children can smell a lie a mile away and instantly react to it.

Scandals and tantrums rarely occur where the parent is very confident. I’ve never met a child who, howling and rolling on the ground required to allow them to pour boiling water over themselves, to stick their face in a fire or to run back and forth across a busy highway. There are children who on their own trying to do all that, but none of them would be screaming to seek consent from us to do these actions. And it is not because children understand the theoretical risk, but because the parents are extremely confident: no, you are not allowed to pour the boiling water over yourself, stick your face in the fire or run through the busy highway, period, end of discussion. And the child doesn’t argue much either.

Children begin to argue when they feel the gap between what is said and what is internally believed by the parent. Loved ones are telepathic and can hear all the words unsaid. The child feels the parent state as a whole, not just the part that has been told. Mom says, “I do not buy you a candy bar, because the shop is too far away,” but the child hears: “For the chocolate to go is too far, but if you will be very whining, I will go, just to shut you up.”

The best way to help the child to perceive the word “no” is to be honest with it. If a parent’s sincere attitude is like “I would not want to buy you a candy bar, but if you are going to yell, I still buy it” – it is then better to go buy it and save time and effort. Trying to raise child’s ability to agree with the word “no”, we first need to track down and remove not only unreasonable prohibitions, but also those who in the end still lead to a chocolate bar. The result is the same, minus the hysterics and spent nerves on both sides.

But if the parent is confident that the chocolate will not be bought whatever comes, he should say his “no” with clear conscience, and then be ready for any reaction. Key is here: be ready for any reaction. You should not expect from a child that he immediately agrees to the logic and behaves reasonably, especially at the time frame of being disappointed by the refusal.

And so, the second part of the topic begins: how to behave yourself after the word “no” has been pronounced?

“Tanya, honey, you must understand: you cannot have more cake, you have a diathesis. You will get rash, if you eat that piece, so I’ll take it away now, because you will be very, very sick otherwise”…
“I want cake! Mom! I want cake again!”
“My dear, my child, how can you not understand – you cannot have cake, your skin will get rash, the temperature will…”
“Cake! Aaaaaaaah! Everybody gets a cake, and I don’t!”
“Our neighbor Bob also has diathesis, and also don’t get the cake.”
“I do not want to be like Bob! I want cake! I want cake now!”
“Tanya, I’ve already explained to you, you cannot have more cake, you have diathesis. What more do you want me to do? What else can I explain? How long will you torment me, wretched girl?”

Our main problem is our huge desire that the child agrees with us, that he behaves as a reasonable person, understands the reasons for refusal, stops yelling, nods and calms down.

And this, in fact, mixing two different things: a ban on the cake and the children’s acceptance of the ban. By not giving Tanya a cake, the mother wants to prevent poison getting into the body of a child. This goal is achieved with brilliance: the cake is left in the fridge, and Tanya is saved. And no matter how loud Tanya cries, the topic of diathesis is closed. But the topic of Tanya’s emotions remains. Just because cake is dangerous you don’t stop wanting it less. Explanations about the rash and about the Bob could not help her grief. Actually, nothing will help to heal this grief at the moment; it can only pass with the time. And the task of the mother is to help her to survive this incident. In her child’s life, a strong desire to get something has met the absolute impossibility to have it. Such situations are never easy, even for adults (only “the cake” varies with the age.)

It makes no sense to argue with the child in this situation. In a dispute Tanya only hears an attempt to convince her that she does not want a cake – but that is ridiculous, she knows better what she wants. Do not try to convince Tanya with logical arguments: this is our adult logic, and the child has his own. It would only show him how much we do not understand him.

Instead, a good strategy is a sympathetic verbalization of his emotions. Not only it will help your child to understand himself, but also it will give him the feeling that he is understood.

“I want cake! Mom! I want cake again!”
“Yes, I understand you do you really want a cake. And it is terribly sad that you have a diathesis. I removed the cake in the fridge, because another piece of it will make you ill. But you are already almost ill now, aren’t you? Because you want this cake so much, but it is not possible?”
“Ye-ah … I want the ca-a-a-ke … Yet another pie-e-ece”
“(Hugging) Too bad, I understand. Nobody has ever died because of not having cake, but it is especially so sad when you so keen to have it. I myself sometimes feel sad when I want something, but cannot get it. You too, huh?”
“Ye-ah … But Bob can have his cake!”
“Bob sometimes gets it, sometimes not. And then he doesn’t, he is also terribly sad. I heard him sobbing. Bass, can you imagine? Do you know how to cry bass?”
“(Squelching the nose) I don’t kno-o-o-w… I want cake …”
“(Continuing to hug) I understand that, my poor rabbit. You want the cake, but it is not possible to eat it, and it’s very, very sad. You know what? Tomorrow, as soon as it will be possible to eat the cake again, let’s have the best piece of it, with roses. What pieces do you like most – those with roses, or with plain cream?”
“That with a red rose…”
“Tomorrow at lunch we will have the piece with a red rose. I will ask Dad to reserve it for you, right? Should I tell him?”
“Yes, tell him… When do you tell him, now on the phone or in the evening when he comes?”

And the conversation changed the topic. Tanya came out of the dead-end “I want cake – I don’t get cake,” endured the pain, was understood and helped to overcome the tragedy – what else? After all, this is not a global tragedy, even for a 3-years old. You just have to help your small hero to survive this tragedy in the safety of warm, embracing arms. You want her to survive, not to stop, to shut up or to cancel.

Verbalization of child’s emotions requires from the parent focusing only on the child. Not on how dangerous diathesis is, not on parent’s emotions about the endless sobbing, not on the objective reality, not a neighbor Bob, who does not cry, but only on a small Tania, whose reality does not include the desired cake. Just like that: you feel bad – I’ll console you. You cry – I’ll hug you. Wherever you are, I’m with you. That’s it.

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