Elite performers in the world of sport or business, music or the arts often tell stories about what it took to make it to the top. Quite often, cliched as it may be, it includes statements like “I didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer” in pursuit of their dream.
Statements like that are celebrated in our culture. We love the narrative of not giving up and pushing the boundaries of what’s been done before. We frequently lift the people who don’t quit up as exceptional; we showcase them as examples and role models.
As a Dad though, my reaction to those sorts of attitudes is mixed. Is this the mentality (don’t take no for an answer) and are these the role models I want to point my kids towards?
On the one hand, I do want my kids to embody the same mindset of gritty determination. I don’t want them to give up easily on things that are hard. If they easily submit themselves to what others want them to do, they won’t get very far in life. They’ll be at the whim of their friendship groups, and I’ll be left praying that they mix with the ‘right’ crowd. Raising kids with independent thought, capable of hearing ‘no’ or ‘do this’ and sticking to their guns is important.
On the other hand, there’s something ugly about the idea of carrying on when everyone around you is saying ‘stop’ or ‘no’. I don’t want them to think they are above the law. I don’t want them to believe they’re exceptional or don’t have a responsibility to society that means we all need to play our part. And for my two sons especially, there’s a very real concern as they become adults that they need to fully understand that no means no when it comes to other people’s personal space and boundaries. Raising kids that are independent minded is no good if they’re unable to hear no and respect what the other person is saying.
In trying to tread this fine line, I think there are two challenging questions to ask ourselves
First, how am I using the word ‘no’, and am I giving my kids a clear definition of what it means?
We use the word ‘no’ a lot. We use it to stop our kids from injuring themselves or others, we use it because we know what might look good in the short term, isn’t always in their long-term interest. We use ‘no’ because we’re conscientious parents and we’re trying to equip our kids with a set of values to take out into the world and thrive.
But we also use ‘no’ lazily. It’s sometimes because we’re tired and we just can’t be bothered to do the thing they’ve asked. It’s sometimes because we don’t want to have to deal with the consequences (albeit minor scrapes and messes) that might come with them exploring and learning. In short, we’re not perfect and all parents could do with some help in using ‘no’ for the right reasons such that we equip our kids to take ‘no’ seriously when they hear it.
My learning here’s is to make a habit of doing away with the half-hearted ‘No, don’t do that!’ efforts. These stress you out as a parent, putting you on edge and making you a constant nag, yet because you’re ambivalent about whether your kid does that thing or not, you don’t pursue your child’s obedience. As a result, you distort what ‘no’ really means to your kids. It sometimes means definitely don’t do something, and it sometimes means if you push it I won’t really care.
Either it matters that your kid does or doesn’t do something and you should be firm on their obedience, or you should just stay quiet on what they’re doing, giving some warnings instead – be careful, you might get hurt etc – and leaving it at that.
Taking ‘no’ seriously, not being flippant with it and not using it as an excuse for lazy parenting is a way we can give kids clarity about how important the word is and how to react when they hear it.
Second, at what age is it okay for my kids to push back on ‘no’ and try and persuade me to change my mind?
This one is tricky, and with only young children at this stage in my parenting journey, I don’t know when I’ll be comfortable with this. What I do know is that with an eldest child at almost four years old, I’m not comfortable with it right now.
The issue here is not about suppressing intellectual curiosity and debate. It’s easy to get caught up in how amazing our kids can be at negotiating and debating issues and want to lean into it for the sake of their intellectual development. After all, don’t we want our kids to be able to rationally tangle with what’s right and wrong and challenge us to do the same?
But while that may be true, I think the bigger issue at hand is trust. Trust in a relationship is far more valuable than intellect. Trust is what paves the way for confidence, and allows for greater freedom in the long term. Where the foundations of a relationship are trust, not intellectual skill in debate and negotiation, you get a far healthier relationship and ultimately one in the long-run that creates the bases for better debates grounded in the knowledge that whatever the outcome, you’re on the same side.
So when it comes to my kids, while they’re young, I think extending the period of time in which ‘no’ just means ‘no’ without the need for a debate or an argument is a good thing. My kids learn to, and build a habit of doing things because they trust me first, not because they think my reasoning is sound. ‘No’ becomes a word that is about trust first and foremost, and not about how hard you can push your own argument.
Once that trust is established (and this is where you can only be honest with yourself about when you feel you’ve reached this point) you can allow opportunities to arise for debate about ‘why’ we do something a certain way. You can allow yourself to be proved wrong by them and to humbly say, thank you, you’ve changed my mind. But kids need to learn that there is a time and a place for this. That sometimes it’s enough to respect the boundaries of someone else without argument.
That should leave us with some healthy introspection about how we use ‘no’ with our kids. We should be comfortable using the word and setting up clear boundaries built on trust. We should be deliberate with how we use it though, making sure we’re consistent and that if we say ‘no’ we really follow through to make sure our kids take it seriously.
And finally we shouldn’t let ‘no’ suffocate them. If there really is trust built into the foundations of the relationship, you can have great debates and give more and more freedom to your kids as they grow up. Ultimately our aim should be to help kids can learn to take ‘no’ seriously while discerning the appropriate times to challenge it and when to accept it point blank.