| Family Reflections |

Hard to Say No

It takes confidence to say no to our children


“Yes” is the answer we want to give our children. We want to give it because we love our children. We want to give it because it feels good to see the smile on that youngster’s face. We want to give it because we hate what happens when we say “no.”

Says one mother: “My son needs things to go his way. When they don’t, he blows up. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to deal with that. I just give in to keep him quiet.”

Says another parent: “My daughter absolutely exhausts me. If she doesn’t like my answer when she asks permission for something, she argues with me. ‘But why not?’ she’ll start off with.

“When I give my answer, she’ll say, ‘But what if I do such and such?’ When I explain why that won’t address my concern, she’ll go into her victimized routine. ‘But I’ll be the only one in the class who isn’t going/doing whatever. I’ll be a freak.’ If I ignore that line (which I usually do), she’ll say something like, ‘I wish I was in a different family!’ At the end of it all, both she and I are in a miserable mood.”

Children’s Feelings and Behaviors

Children like to receive a yes as much, or perhaps even more, than we like to give it. And they’re disappointed and frustrated when one isn’t forthcoming. We can certainly accept their feelings, but we mustn’t accept their inappropriate behavior. There’s no reason a parent should end up feeling bad for having made a protective, healthy, appropriate parenting decision (e.g. saying no). The parent shouldn’t be punished by a child’s tantrum.

However, it’s up to the parent to ensure this doesn’t happen, because the child will certainly try all means to change the parent’s mind.

Some steps that can help, include the following: Name and accept feelings that have happened (“I know you’re not happy about my answer”). Provide context and concepts (“It’s my job to help you succeed”). Modify inappropriate behavior. (“When you’re upset about my answer, here’s what you can say and do. Please do that now.”) Set boundaries for repeat offenders (“In the future, doing/saying what you did tonight will result in such-and-such consequence…”).

Parents’ Feelings and Behaviors

Because parents do love their kids so much, it can be hard to cause them frustration. And because parents want to be loved back, it can be hard to risk being perceived as “the bad guy.” In fact, some parents are so frightened of being rejected, they refuse to offer correction or limit-setting.

Instead they let the other parent “do the dirty work,” while they act the part of the full-time loving parent. This creates a disastrous dynamic that can lead kids to dislike one parent (the rule-setter) and resent law and order itself. It puts a strain on the marriage while protecting one’s own good-guy image, preventing the children from seeing a healthy marriage and a fully adult, healthy man (if it’s the father who refuses to discipline) or woman (if it’s the mother).

Children learn how to set boundaries in their own lives from watching how their parents do it. That’s why it’s so important to set boundaries with respect and compassion. Anger isn’t only unnecessary; it is harmful, eroding love and trust. Just as children need to be steered away from displays of hostility and stubborn resistance, so parents need to conduct themselves with kindness and care even when remaining firm.

When love is associated with total freedom, children’s education becomes badly skewed. True love is protected by boundaries and limits. Healthy adults say no when it’s the appropriate and healthy response, and healthy parents provide both love and guidance. Indeed, when “the right hand draws near” by offering generous doses of attention, acknowledgment, warmth and affection, the left, weaker hand, is free to offer gentle rebuke without harm.

Even then, it takes personal confidence and courage to set limits — confidence in one’s authority and position of leadership, confidence in one’s own goodness and lovability, and courage to be willing to cause displeasure when doing so is the right, necessary, and beneficial action.

All these principles hold true throughout the parenting journey, even when the children are grown. The issues change and the manner in which boundaries are established changes along with them, but the confidence and courage to say no will always perpetuate loving, respectful, and healthy relationships.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 833)

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