Parenting Solutions: Saying No to Children in a Yes Culture

If you think your job as a parent is to always make your children happy, think again. Helping kids understand the rules, the limits, and the consequences of their actions gives them something more important: self responsibility.

One day Jen Singer’s sons, 11-year-old Nicholas and 9-year-old Christopher, started fighting in the car on the way to their piano lessons. The boys, both Cub Scouts, knew their Mom would buy them pizza before the lesson only if they got along. So Singer pulled her car to the side of the road, turned off the motor, and told them, “No pizza today, guys.”

“But Mom, but Mom!” the boys cried.

“Sorry boys, that’s it,” she told them. “When you can stop fighting, I’ll start driving again.”

“You have to say no now and then,” Singer explains, “or they’ll grow up thinking everything will go their way. But it won’t.”

Psychologist David Walsh agrees. A Ph.D. and author, whose book NO: Why Kids — of All Ages –Need to Hear it and Ways Parents Can Say It has launched a grassroots movement, says that if parents can learn to say “no” at appropriate times, they’ll teach their children how to delay gratification, a key skill for success in school and in life. Kids will learn how to handle frustration and disappointment and acquire the patience and self-responsibility they need to compete in the global marketplace.

“Popular culture brainwashes us into thinking that we all deserve whatever we want whenever we want it,” Walsh says. But he notes that American adults should instead “tame the gimmes” of their children so that the youngsters can develop self-discipline.

“The goal is not ‘No’,” Walsh says. “‘No’ is the road to ‘Yes’: I want to be able to be in charge of my own life, my own drives so that I can be successful.”

Here are some tips for helping kids develop that all-important self-discipline:

Set rules and limits

Saying “no” begins with infants. That’s the time to start saying gently but firmly that they can’t have something they want or can’t do something they want to do. Then, as kids get older, you can use the same gentle firmness, accompanied by reasons, to continue setting rules and limits.

“No, you can’t have a candy bar now because it will take away your appetite for healthy food at lunch,” you might say. “At five o’clock it’s time to come inside because the sun is setting and people driving cars can’t see you in the dark.”

Parents sometimes have trouble saying no because they think their job is to make their children happy, says Walsh. And giving in is certainly the easy way out, no small consideration when you’re stressed and short of time.

But the rules, limits, and consequences you make as your kids grow will teach them that their actions matter in the world, a necessary notion for acquiring self-responsibility.

While staying firm on consequences is crucial, you can negotiate occasionally on rules, says Jen Singer, who is the author of a book on parenting: You’re a Good Mom (and your kids aren’t so bad either). If you allow one cookie for dessert at dinner and your child says, “Can I have two, because I didn’t have any other sweets today?” compromise may make sense. And if kids have a legitimate point, adds Walsh, flexibility can foster your communication and show your child you respect him.

Tame the gimmes

Advertisements, movies, television, video games, store displays, and ubiquitous brand names all scream ‘Pleasure now!’ to our kids, says Walsh. “Our culture encourages the gimmes with no limits.”

But kids will develop character if we help them distinguish between needs and wants, and explain why we don’t say yes to their every request. Not only does providing limits help a child learn when to curb himself, but your “No” also teaches kids important values.

For example, Judith Rubin of Port Townsend, Wash., does not give her children what she calls “junk toys” — toys that excite children at first but soon bore them. They include many plastic toys whose petroleum-manufacture pollutes rivers and soils mostly in China and Southeast Asia, and usually “wind up in a landfill,” points out Rubin. Packaging and transportation also add to their carbon footprint.

“I put it in simple terms” explains Rubin. “Like, ‘This kind of product hurts the Earth.’”

Saying “No” to certain toys opens parents to saying “Yes” to others. “The best gift that I ever gave my nephew,” says Rubin, “was a cardboard refrigerator box. After opening a dozen molded-plastic toys at his birthday party, he and his friends went absolutely wild over the giant carton.”

Kids will also learn good values if you teach them that the rewards for good behavior often are not material. “The reward of doing something good is the good feeling it gives you,” she explains.

Limit your child’s screen time

Kathy Sena, a journalist who blogs about parenting at www.parenttalktoday.com, limits her 12-year-old son Matthew to 30 minutes of video games and an hour of TV a day.

“There’s a definite ‘zombie’ effect that seems to overtake him if he sits too long in front of the TV or the computer, and I swear his brain just zones out,” she says.

Too much screen time (TV, video games, computers), with the exception of homework, research, and e-mail, keeps kids from healthy physical play outside and from learning the social and problem-solving skills they need to get along with others, adds Rona Renner, RN, a temperament specialist, parent educator, and mother of four who hosts a Sunday morning radio show “Childhood Matters” (www.childhoodmatters.org) in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Too much screen time also risks traumatizing children. Singer remembers the morning she sat in the waiting room at a blood-testing center, the TV blaring news of a bombing overseas that showed disturbing images of blood, gore, mangled bodies, and collapsed buildings. As a 9-year-old boy watched a victim being tended by firefighters, his mother looked up at the TV, sighed, and went back to readingPeople magazine.

“I was frightened by the report,” says Singer, “so I can only imagine the feelings of her 9-year-old, who looked like he’d just stumbled into a midnight showing of Saw.”

Even when a sign in a public place asks “Please do not touch the TV controls,” if the program isn’t appropriate for her children Singer will stroll over and change the channel or turn it off. Or she’ll ask someone in charge to turn it off — even take her sons out of the waiting area. Parental controls should operate in public just like at home, she says.

Kathy Seal is a journalist and author whose latest book is Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child (Prometheus, 2008), coauthored with Wendy Grolnick, Ph.D..

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