“Sweetie, will you please pick up your toys?”
“No,” my 5 year old says, and continues playing.
For many parents, the response to this interaction is raised eyebrows and an “excuse me?!” But the truth is, if you are going to ask a question, you must be willing to hear the answer, even if the answer is no.
Why is it important to allow our children to say no?
Children often don’t have a lot of control over their own lives, so allowing them to make decisions when possible allows them to exercise their own decision-making muscles. It gives them practice in the art of saying no. It lets them know that you can say no, and you will still be loved. These are the skills I want my children to carry into adolescence and adulthood. If they can’t say no now, how will they have the confidence to say it when they grow older?
A 16 year old is dating another 16 year old.
“Come on, we can use a condom. It’ll be fun. I thought you loved me. Just do it.” One 16 year old pushes. The other doesn’t want to, but doesn’t want to upset anyone by saying no. “Ok. I guess.”
One coworker wants another to cover her shift this weekend, even though the other coworker already said she had plans.
Coworker 1: “I really want to go to this concert this weekend. I know you said you had plans, but it would really make me happy if you could just cover for me.”
Coworker 2: “I don’t know. I was kind of planning to just have a relaxing weekend with my kids.”
Coworker 1: “Come on, please? You are such a nice person and always help everyone out. Could you please just help me out this weekend?”
Coworker 2: “I… I guess I can.”
(Trigger on next scene, child sexual abuse. Skip to scene 4 to pass this one.)
A 9 year old that was told to obey their elders while visiting a relative.
Relative: “This will feel good. Don’t worry. Don’t tell your parents or you will be in big trouble.”
9 year old: “I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel right.”
Relative: “Just be a good girl and do as I say.”
Bully at school talking to his “friend.”
Bully: “Did you see the way he cried after I punched him in the stomach?”
Friend: “Yeah. He was pretty upset. It looked like it hurt.”
Bully: “Yeah! Let’s go clip the brakes on his bike. That’ll be a nasty shock when he rides home from school!”
Friend: “Umm, I don’t know.”
Bully: “You aren’t flaking out on me, are you? You aren’t getting soft? I can toughen you up just like I did to him!”
Some of these scenarios may sound extreme, but they happen everywhere, every day. People who cooperate in these scenarios were most likely raised to be obedient. ‘Defiance’ was a sign of the utmost disrespect to their parents. These children grew up doing as they were told out of fear of punishment, out of guilt from manipulation (“if you love me, you will do it.”)
Let’s revisit the scenes.
Scene 1. A 16 year old succumbs to pressure from a dating partner. A child who has grown up with no choice but to do as they were told will not suddenly gain assertiveness as teenagers. Perhaps if the 16 year old had grown up with the freedom to say no, he could have said, “No, I’m not comfortable with this. Don’t push me into something that I’m not ready for.”
Scene 2. A people pleasing coworker sacrifices her weekend plans to maintain an image of being “nice.” She is afraid to say no for fear of no longer being liked. Children want to please their parents. With words like, “if you love me, you would do xyz.” “When you behave this way, I feel happy.” This manipulates a child and puts pressure on them to please. They feel responsible for someone else’s happiness. A child who has grown up with the freedom to say no without the loss of love and affection will have an easier time avoiding doormat status later in life.
Scene 3. Sexual abuse. This, to me, is the biggest reason to empower our children to say no. It empowers them to protect themselves against abuse. Specifically, sexual abuse, whether it be a relative or acquaintance. Our children need to know that they are 100% allowed to say “no, I don’t want a hug from you, grandma.” They have total control of what happens to their bodies.
Scene 4. Standing up to a bully. Many kids are afraid to stand up to a bully even though they don’t feel right about participating in the bullying. They are afraid to say no. Perhaps a lifetime of saying no and having it be accepted as an answer would improve their confidence.
But won’t allowing my children to say no spoil them?
No. Just as your children can say no to you, you can say no to them. Life will provide no shortage of opportunities. Sometimes our answer to our children is no. “No, we can’t buy that toy today.” “No, we can’t jump on grandma’s couch.” We can set limits while still giving our kids a chance to exercise their autonomy whenever possible. We can also fill them with yes’s. “We can’t jump on grandma’s couch, but you want to jump! Let’s find a way for you to jump.”
Allowing our children to say no, to have a say in matters, won’t make them spoiled or manipulative. It will give them self-confidence. It will empower them to stand up for what is right. It will promote a general atmosphere of cooperation and respect because they feel heard; they will feel like their choice actually carries weight, because it should.
I want my child to make decisions because he believes in them; make the right choices because of his own moral fiber rather than out of fear of the consequences. I want him to stand up for what is right, have integrity, feel confident, secure and heard. I want him to develop these skills as a child, not hope that they magically appear once he reaches adulthood.
“Morality is doing what is right no matter what you’re told. Obedience is doing what you’re told no matter what is right.” - Unknown source
Obedient children turn into obedient adults. Let’s raise children with the confidence to be leaders that do the right thing because it’s what their heart tells them to do!
I would love to know what your response in words & actions are when you tell your kid it’s time to pick up toys & they tell you no…. Do you pick up the toys? Do you leave the mess until they are good & ready?
Great questions, Meagan. Each situation warrants its own assessment on what to do. Obviously if it is a super rush, you just have to do what you have to do as gently as possible. I still help my 6 and 3 year old put on their shoes. If it is a scenario where no isn’t really an option, I try to pay attention to how I word things. “It’s time to go to xyz! (Make it sound fun!) Let’s put on our shoes!” Rather than, “we need to go to xyz. Do you want to put your shoes on?” Sometimes they run away in a playful way and we chase a bit. Sometimes when I’m feeling less playful, I kindly and quietly sit in one spot with the shoes. I don’t engage and don’t look angry or anything. But they know we need to do shoes now so mama is waiting. And usually they come to me if I give them a minute to make that choice on their own. I hope that helps for that particular scenario.
So what do you do in a situation where you really need the child’s cooperation? Like if you need to get somewhere at a certain time and the child refuses to put on shoes? I’m honestly asking. I am considering how I will raise my daughter. (11 months now)
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I definitely don’t imply that the child holds any blame, I mean that we empower our children so that they know that their voice matters. I guess with saying that they have 100% control over what happens to their body could be confused with saying they “let” something happen to them if they are abused, but that’s not what that is implying. We can put up all kinds of protections around our homes and break ins still happen, but that fault is only on the burglar. Knowledge is power for parents and children, but bad things can still happen that aren’t the fault of our own. If that makes sense.
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I agree with all of this. The examples are quite emotive, which I understand is intentional to make a point.
I have one concern. I think that it implies some fault with the 9 year old in scene 3 when of course whether they say no or not, the adult is 100% to blame. I’m almost certain that wasn’t your intention.