| Family Reflections |

Yes to Noes

Show your child true love. Say “no” with confidence


"There was a doll that almost everyone in my class had, but my parents couldn’t afford to buy it for me. I remember crying and crying. I felt like I was the only girl in the world who didn’t have that doll. I’m in my fifties now and I still remember the disappointment and embarrassment that I suffered.”

We all remember the pain of not getting what we wanted in childhood. We’re like that. Bitter disappointments bore deeply into our neural pathways, lodging in our brains for decades or lifetimes. Why is it that we fail to remember that we got almost everything else we wanted?

Our childhoods were filled with good things — toys, foods, experiences — and yet, we don’t hear ourselves thinking or relating, “I really wanted an ice cream and my parents bought one for me! I really wanted to ride on the pony at the petting zoo and my parents let me! I really wanted to sleep over at my friend’s house and my parents allowed me to go!” No. What we recall, vividly and with deep pain, are the few things we wanted and didn’t get. Why is that?

The Negativity Bias

Negativity has a stronger impact on us than positivity. One hurtful parental criticism has much more effect on a child than does one parental smile or compliment. This means that parents have to work hard to reduce the impact of correction and other bad-feeling communications by loading on the positivity in both quantity and quality. Giving four good-feeling communications for every bad-feeling one (the 80-20 rule) ensures that a child will remember parental positivity.

In a similar way, what one doesn’t receive in childhood is rendered far more significant by young brains than what was received.

This is why we have to be taught to practice gratitude, while we instinctively gravitate toward resentment and unhappiness. And that’s why it’s inevitable that our children will be hurt by our occasional less-than-perfectly formed communications and that they’ll be wounded by our refusal to give them everything they want. Our “no” will make them cry.

The Good in the Bad

We enjoy positive feedback, gifts, and treats. Every one of our cells sings with pleasure when things go our way. But “no” stymies us, stops us in our tracks, hurts our heads and our hearts. “No,” feels aversive, as if it’s dangerous or toxic. But it isn’t. “No” is actually good for us. It’s a signal, much like pain, that instructs, guides, and protects us. A painful tooth, for instance, demands our attention and forces us to call the dentist. Without the pain, we wouldn’t bother to tend to a life-threatening infection. Pain steers us in the right direction.

Similarly, “no” provides important, even life-saving, information and direction: “Stop here, go no further — you’re crossing a dangerous line.” “No” gets our attention. “You’re asking too much. You need to stay within healthy limits.” “No” highlights an important lesson. In addition to teaching us healthy limits, getting a “no” increases our compassion for our fellow life travelers who are lacking. Because we’ve experienced deprivation, we know a bit of what they’re going through. We want to help. We’re better people.

Imagine if a parent told a child to go ahead and eat all the candy he could eat, as often as he wants. This generous “yes” would make the child sick. And yet, the child cries his eyes out when being denied his coveted treats. He feels as if his parents want him to suffer, as if they don’t love him. He’s so wrong. It’s because his parents love him that they bring this frustration upon him. Giving him what he wants would be cruel and uncaring.

“I can’t stand seeing my child unhappy. I know that I give into his demands way too often but I can’t help it. I hate to see him cry.”

Yes it’s hard for us to inflict pain on our children. And yet, refusing to do so means that we deprive them of the wisdom that “no” confers. The crying is not from mistreatment or suffering; it’s from downloading a memorable life lesson. A “spoiled” child is truly spoiled, unable to take proper care of himself, unprepared for healthy adult relationships, and unable to build a healthy home of his own.

Show your child true love. Say “no” with confidence.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 664)


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Tagged: Family Reflections