You Can Say No

"You can say no," I find myself saying to family after family. Which is kind of an amazing thing to have to say, if you think about it
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I see it again and again in my practice: parents who seem to have forgotten that they are in charge.

"You can say no," I find myself saying to family after family. Which is kind of an amazing thing to have to say, if you think about it. You'd think that parents would know that they can say no when their child asks for yet another toy, to watch more television, to have seconds of ice cream, to stay up late or stay out past curfew.

But they don't seem to know.

I loved the post by Emma Jenner, the British nanny, about the five reasons modern day parenting is in crisis. I couldn't agree with her more. Parents are afraid of their kids, have lowered the bar when it comes to behavior and are using shortcuts (like smartphones to entertain their child) way too much.

Now, I've certainly used electronics to keep my kids occupied in a boring situation that required quiet, there are days when the bar just plain old needs to be low (we all have lived those days) and some kids with emotional or other problems need to get their way sometimes in order to cope. But these should be exceptions. I shouldn't see parents giving in every day, but I do.

Once, many years ago, a colleague and I spent a long time getting a ball bearing out of a preschooler's nose (no easy task, trust me). We handed it to the father. The little boy held out his hand... and the father gave it back to him. "What are you doing?" I said as I took the metal ball back from the boy. "He wanted it," said the father.


It gets played out in so many ways. What the child wants rules, whether or not it's a good health, safety or discipline decision. Parents don't like it when their kid cries -- which I get, but as I try again and again to explain, they cry because it works. If they know that crying won't work -- if no means no -- then they stop crying a whole lot faster or don't start at all. Parents also want their kids to like them, which I get, too; being popular with your kids and their friends is nice. But the fact that you are popular may be cold comfort when they get diabetes from obesity, do poorly in school or come home with the police one night because they were drinking (or worse).

Parenting is hard work. Being a good parent means being unpopular sometimes. It means having upset children -- and plenty of unpleasant moments, including in public places. It means being exhausted, bored and really frustrated. But here's the thing that so many parents these days don't realize: putting in the extra work and enduring the unpleasantness makes things easier and more pleasant in the long run. Oh -- and you end up with happier, healthier, better-behaved and more successful kids.

Discipline can feel harsh. But done calmly, consistently and with lots of positive reinforcement for good behavior, it doesn't have to be. It actually can be comforting to children to know that there are limits. It makes the world smaller and safer at a time when they need it to be smaller and safer.

These parents I see aren't lazy or dumb (not any more than any of us, anyway). They care about their kids and want things to turn out well. They just don't know quite what to do. I think Jenner is right in pointing out that we've lost the village; so many parents are disconnected from family and community, all those older, experienced people who can offer advice and be role models. For so many young parents, their "community" is other parents who are muddling through alongside them, who have no more experience than they do.

So here's what I wish all parents would remember:

1. You can say no. Practice saying with your partner (you can support each other in saying it), or to the mirror, or your pet or pillow. Practice until you can say it with conviction.

2. You are in charge. You might not be smarter than your 5th grader, but she doesn't get to call the shots.

3. You don't have to do everything perfectly. Mistakes are part of how we learn to do things better. And as long as you do try to do things better, and say sorry when you should, your child will forgive you.

4. You can (and should) ask for help. Make your own village. As you fill it, include some people with gray hair who have been around the block a few times. And your doctor or nurse.