A few days ago, my son started asking me a question and then stopped right in the middle.
“What were you going to ask me?” I said, as he walked up the steps to his room.
“Oh, nothing” he replied. He stopped halfway up and turned around to look at me. “You’d probably just say ‘no’ anyway.”
He might as well have punched me in the gut right there, because as much as I didn’t want to believe it, the truth was that he was 100% right.
I’ve grown accustomed to saying the word “no” quite often to my kids, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how it was starting to affect them.
Growing up, my parents used to say “no” to my brother and me all the time, without discussion or explanation, even for simple things like playing with a box of toys out of my reach, or going over to a friend’s house for dinner. I never really understood why, only that I started to hate asking them anything.
Instead, I just started to do everything on my own, and worse, sneak around behind their backs, and then doing the best to cover my tracks.
As I got older, I realized that it was a combination of lazy and controlling, which, in some respects, I understand. I’m as tired as the next parent.
But after awhile, the “nos” start to pile up and create a wall between you and your kids.
I just started to do everything on my own, and worse, sneak around behind their backs.
To be fair, my kids rarely ask me for anything ridiculous, so I’m not quite sure why I started instituting the discussion-less “no.” So far, none of my kids have asked me to go skydiving or take up sword fighting.
It’s usually innocent requests, like more video-game time or another movie, more snacks or another piece of cake for dessert.
“Can we use the sheets to make a fort, Mom?” they asked just the other day. And really, what are the sheets doing other than sitting, not even neatly folded, in our linen closet? But the prospect of having to clean up and not so neatly fold them and stuff them back in our linen closet made me say the big bad two-letter word.
Their forlorn faces said it all.
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So when my son stopped himself in the middle of his question and told me how negative I’ve been, I decided to take a step back and examine why I’m saying “no” so much—and what that might be doing to my kids.
And what I found is that there are plenty of opportunities where instead of saying “no,” I can actually say “yes” and still maintain some level of order in my household.
“Yes, you can play with the sheets, but you must put them back when you are done or you won’t get to play with them again.”
“Yes, I am happy to give you another snack, but you may only have fruit or a vegetable since it’s close to dinnertime.”
As it turned out, saying “yes” didn’t really change the end result so much as it changed how we all have started relating to each other. There’s more love, more respect and a wonderful dialogue between us that was never there before.
And interestingly enough, there’s a bit of critical thinking happening and huge life lessons being learned, all of which I was effectively missing whenever I said the big fat “NO!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out to make friends with my kids. I’m definitely still their parent, and I’ll be keeping that distinction quite clear for years to come.
But being a parent means teaching them how to relate, think and interact with others. It means forming a bond of trust with them so they can feel safe.
When I remind them that if they play with the sheets they will have to clean them up, they now think long and hard before they decide to make forts. And when I offer up a specific healthy snack before dinner, they sometimes choose to forgo it and wait for their meal.
Other times, they go ahead with their decision, and then learn how to deal with the consequences if they don’t keep their end of the bargain.
There are still tantrums and meltdowns, and there are definitely still arguments between us. But there’s also respect and a whole lot more trust—which I hope means that they’ll ask me first before doing something without my permission. And that they’ll come to me knowing that I won’t push them away before hearing them out.
To be clear, I’m not erasing “no” from my vernacular. But I’m thinking much more carefully and wisely about how I’m using it, and doing my best to replace it with “yes” when I can.