How I Learned To Tell My Kids 'No'

I had to reprogram the way I thought about and reacted to my children’s tears.
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When I tell my preschooler something like, “Don’t ram the skateboard into your little brother,” or “No, I don’t want the cushions off the couch,” he sticks out his bottom lip and accuses me of being mean. On his most diplomatic days he tells me he doesn’t like my words. Yup ― he’s offended by my parenting, which is total BS, because I’ve always been conscious of disciplining in gentle, respectful ways.

I started out parenthood, clinging to the idealistic philosophy of attachment parenting. What new mom doesn’t want to feel empowered to soothe her baby’s every upset? It encourages co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, babywearing, and letting your child run your life. (Just kidding.) (Kind of.) In this mindset, the cry of a baby or toddler signals distress that a parent should fix.

This was all warm, fuzzy, and beautiful until I became so drained and lost. I wanted to know I still existed on my own when a child wasn’t attached, but I wasn’t sure I did. I wanted to feel free to leave the bed when I woke up without army crawling with crossed fingers, hoping my little parasite of a toddler wouldn’t sense my absence and need a nipple STAT! I wanted to fill my son’s needs, but I wanted to care about mine, too. They were all sacrificed in the name of motherhood.

“I wanted to fill my son's needs, but I wanted to care about mine, too. They were all sacrificed in the name of motherhood.”

As time went on, I started to value having more boundaries. Mother-led weaning and sleep-training, amen! With my changing ideals, I had to embrace more crying, but it wasn’t easy. I had to reprogram the way I thought about and reacted to my children’s tears. I value being a firm parent, one who has high expectations of her children, but that means there are a lot of times my kid’s not happy, and his unhappiness kind of sucks. Sometimes I’m tempted to appease him just so I don’t have to deal with his sh*t. But I know that dealing with his sh*t (or rather, having him deal with his own) is actually a crucial part of parenting. I never want my children to suffer unnecessarily, and I always want to be available to love and comfort, but surely, there is actually a place for crying.

I’ve learned to see crying as a response that is not only normal, but sometimes therapeutic on its own. This past summer, my 3-year-old was running along the sidewalk and tripped. To console his cries I offered him ice, a Band-Aid, or animal crackers. He shook his head and said, “No, I just want to cry.” Tears are healing, and studies show they release depressants from the body, reduce stress, and improve mood. Crying isn’t just a normal response to physical pain, but to disappointment, frustration, and anger.

“I tell him 'no' and accept his emotional response, because permissiveness doesn’t make for a happy kid or a healthy relationship.”

Knowing this, I feel less inclined to rescue him from his negative feelings. Of course I’m going to support and comfort him in sadness and other upsets, but I’m no longer going to let his disappointment or potential outburst stop me from enforcing a rule, redirecting behavior, or stating a boundary. I no longer feel the kindest thing to do is protect him from negative feelings, but to give him opportunities to cope and work through them.

I tell him no and accept his emotional response because permissiveness doesn’t make for a happy kid or a healthy relationship. Children need their parents to be true leaders. There are many times he resists this, and says I’m being mean, but I know he ultimately benefits from a feeling of security. He might think he wants free reign, but really, he wants to know I’ll keep him in bounds.

Respectful parenting doesn’t mean making children their equals. I allow my son to make decisions, but from the reasonable choices I offer. He doesn’t choose what time to go to bed, but if he wants to read one book or two. He doesn’t decide what we are eating for dinner (lollipops!), but he can choose how much he consumes. He doesn’t decide when we leave the park, but if he wants to hold my hand or walk to the car himself. I used give my child too much power in the name of respect. In fact, there was once a construction site by our playground that he’d want to watch endlessly, and I actually felt bad for eventually making him leave… Who was I to say no?

Sometimes my children cry when I tell them no. No, you can’t break the crayons. No, I won’t prepare you a snack after I just served you lunch. No, you may not watch another episode. However, allowing them to cry expresses my acceptance of their feelings, more so than bending the rules or turning a blind eye to keep them endlessly happy. I used to confuse empathetic parenting with protecting them from negative emotions. Now I know empathetic parenting is understanding their responses, without rescuing or punishing them- just kind of saying, “You’re mad the TV is off. I get it. We can watch more later.”

I am now comfortable with saying no, because there were plenty of times I didn’t say it soon enough, and then I ended up losing my shit. Just yesterday he wanted me to find a specific shirt and his soccer socks. (I’m not organized enough for these requests!) He also wanted to wear his cleats and shin guards. I was already feeling frazzled by the morning duties and getting us out the door, and knew my attempt to make him happy would put me over the edge. I kept myself in check and said no, knowing it was simply more than I could comfortably do.

I now say no because I value authenticity over niceness, and I want him to do the same. By respecting myself through boundaries he learns not only consideration for me, but how to respect himself. We are our children’s models, after all.

I used to want my son to always be happy, but now I know his struggles are often opportunities for growth and learning. When I stand back (and firm) I communicate trust in him, and that’s what respectful parenting is really about.

I say NO, not to be mean, but because it’s part of my job. I say it because I care about his well-being, as well as mine.

Copyright 2016, Amanda Elder, as first published on Scary Mommy.

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