Practically Parenting Blog

The Sandbox Shovel

Does "no" mean "no?"

Does “no” mean “no?”

In my short eight and a half years of parenting, I have found very few things more frustrating than finding myself saying “No,” when I really mean, “I’m saying ‘no’ because I should say no, but all you have to do is whine a little (or a lot) and then I’ll sheepishly give in (especially if we are in front of other people) because I really can’t handle a temper tantrum from my three year old (or six or eight year old) despite being the adult.”

Like the time I really, really didn’t want my daughter to scream at the top of her lungs in front of my boss…  or the other time when I really needed my little guy to get through a Target run without throwing a fit…  or when my other son was on the verge of complete meltdown during the Easter Sunday church service.  I started with a “no” to something and then flat out caved.

There are definitely times when desperate times call for desperate measures and backtracking on a “no” saves a lot of energy, agony, and embarrassment.  However, I don’t want that to become my go-to strategy or become a bad habit.  My “energy,” “agony,” and “embarrassment,” should not be more important than the benefits my children gain from me being consistent in my authority, honest in my communication, and setting limits.

I’m not talking about running a dictatorship here, but saying “no” when I don’t mean “no” sends a very confusing message to my children, resulting in conflict of varying degrees.  By not really meaning “no,” I’m telling my kids to talk back, whine, argue, and negotiate until they get the “real” final, final answer.  It makes sense, actually, when you look at it that way.  Plus, I cringe when I know I’m taking the easy way out and I berate myself for my lack of confidence and control.  Perhaps I should be writing the “Diary of a Wimpy Parent” instead of this blog?  ~sigh~

A friend recently approached me looking for advice and asked what I did to get my children to mind so well.  I chuckled at the “so well” part, but I was really flattered.  I shared my philosophy on how quickly I believe kids learn (in a very unmalicious way, in my opinion) when parents really, really mean what they say.

For example, if it’s time to pick up toys, it’s not uncommon for the conversation to go something like this:

Parent:  Time to pick up.

Child:  -Ignore, keep playing (I know I’ve got until my parent’s voice is raised.)

Parent:  Time to pick up now.

Child:  -No!  (There, now I’ve got another couple warnings to go and I can keep playing this awesome game.)

Parent:  Time to pick up, NOW.

Child:  Ok!  One more minute!  (That voice was raised so the next one will mean it’s really time to pick up.)

Parent:  I SAID NOW!!

Child:  -Starts to pick up, happy with getting extra minutes (I’m not sure why my parent is so upset, because I’m doing what they said as soon as I knew they meant it?!)

Kids learn even more quickly when “no” really doesn’t mean “no.”  A recent example is when a neighbor stopped by with his three year old daughter.  She played with my son for a while in the backyard, we chatted, and then it was time to go.  The little girl had hold of one of our sandbox toys and began screaming when dad told her to leave it here.  His exact words were, “Sweetie, no, that’s not ours.  You have to leave that here.”  This, of course, resulted in much more crying and pleading to keep the toy.  After three to four minutes of unsuccessful negotiations, dad looked at me helplessly and said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get this away from her.  Would you mind if we borrow this?  We’ll bring it back tomorrow.”

Aside from the awkward moment of preferring that our toys stayed in the sandbox, I had to make the split decision that his parenting style was his choice and to not intervene.  I strongly believe each parent must do what works for them, despite that not being the style I choose for parenting my kids.  Being neighborly, I brushed it off and watched the toy ride off into the sunset.  It was just a plastic sandbox shovel, after all.

Often times we think saying “no” is unkind or even cruel, but it’s exactly the opposite.  Children need and want boundaries;  parents need and want boundaries.  Boundaries are an important part of all relationships, especially between parent and child.  And, they are part of life.  A very common-sense article by Empowering Parents says that when you don’t really mean “no,” kids “will translate this to other parts of their life.  Later, when the speed limit is 25 it won’t really mean 25.  When their boss says the report is due on Friday, it won’t really mean on Friday.  When you over-negotiate, you teach your child that with enough push-back or flattery, he can get what he wants.  Additionally, your child learns that you don’t really mean what you say.  And if you don’t mean what you say, then you are not going to be seen as much of an authority figure.”

Back to my philosophy, I simply learned that I can either mean what I say the first time I say it, or not.  It’s literally that basic.  It is a conscious process, with the focus being on how I communicate with my kiddos.  It takes away a phenomenal amount of stress and anxiety when I concentrate on saying what I mean and following through.  I’d rather expend the energy on that, than an avoidable and unnecessary battle with my child.

None of this is to say that kids won’t feel disappointed, frustrated, sad, or angry when they are told “no.”  Actually, something would be quite wrong if they didn’t.  Expressing those feelings within reason is healthy.  Just yesterday daughter cried after I said no to riding her bike to the beach with a friend without an adult.  It was tough because she is very responsible and they weren’t going to be swimming, but I decided I just didn’t feel 100% comfortable with their plans.  She knew not to push it, but she also knew I was happy to give her a hug and talk about when I thought she would be ready to go on that adventure.  This is just one example of thousands, because saying no to children who are testing the entire world around them as they learn and grow is never-ending.  As Dr. Sears states, “When parents begin saying ‘no’ at the appropriate times—confidently, firmly, and lovingly—It does not threaten the child. It might wrinkle him for a few minutes because he doesn’t like hearing ‘stop’ or ‘wait’ or whatever the word might be that you pick.”

And, there will always be times when it is appropriate to negotiate or change your mind.  However, meaning what I say, when I say it, is empowering.  I feel in control, I’m more confident in my parenting, and my kids have boundaries that make them feel safe and in control.  Plus, it’s just kind of nice to not feel like I’m constantly arguing with my little munchkins!



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