As a Parent, My Goal Was Always to Say Yes
Where I Could
(Keeping in Mind the Big Picture,
Including the Needs of the Family As a Whole and the Greater Needs of the Child.)
What do I mean by that?
I mean that I don't set limits just for the sake of saying no. In fact, I try to say yes. When a child wants something, my hope is to say yes. But my hope to make my child happy is not greater than my responsibility as his parent to know what is good for him or for the running of the family as a whole.
Most parents understand and are comfortable with this when it comes to safety. Your two year old may want to climb the wobbly ladder by himself but you know that the risk is too great, so you offer a compromise--she may climb it with you hanging on to him tightly or she may climb her toy slide by herself. He may not use the big knife to cut onions but he may use the plastic knife to cut bananas or to spread butter.
Other areas are trickier, however. Let's say that your seven year old wants to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Yes, your child is enormously bright and precocious and yes, you had a marvelous time reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone together, and at the same time you remember how much talking through you had to do when it came to 3-headed dogs and attacking trolls. She is arguing that it is just Harry Potter and she knows it is just a story and she won't be afraid. She points out that nothing in Sorcerer's Stone gave her nightmares, and if you watch the movie with her she won't get scared. But your niggling parenting voice is still saying no, she can wait 2-3 years for that--certainly until you have read the book with her. You remember being freaked out by Dementors yourself, so you say no and she melts down into a tantrum.
Were you right to say no?
Of course you were. It is your job as a parent to see what your child cannot see—that the concept of something that sucks your happiness from you and feeds on your worst fears is, indeed, the stuff of nightmares. And, yes, eventually Prisoner of Azkaban might provide a rich opportunity for you to talk to your child about his worst fears and how we have the power to affect our own happiness. In the mean time, however, it is worth your child’s disappointment and anger in the short run to say no, we are not watching that tonight.
Setting Limits Day to Day
Perhaps the most tiresome limits to set are the day to day behaviors like when we want our kids do their chores, be cooperative, and not spend too much time on their electronics. We want to set consistent expectations. But the chores could be done later. Wouldn’t it be okay to go out and play while there is still daylight? And yes, Mom, I will help bring in the supplies from the car, but mayn’t I just do the perishables now and finish the rest later? And, oh, Dad, you should look at this program I am on. It is totally cool and is teaching me about how different rates of rainfall affect erosion. These kinds of situations seem so innocent, and yet saying yes can lead to a slippery slope. Saying yes can lead to constant arguments and negotiations—exhausting for the parent and potentially confusing to the child (why did you say yes one day and no another day).
So what’s the best choice?
Ha. There is no best choice. It depends on the personality of both the parent and the child and the circumstances of the particular day. Some parents have an easy time being flexible without getting tense about it. Some kids can change up their routine—go out and play now and come back and do their chores without complaining later. If you are a flexible parent with a flexible kid, it is probably very easy for you to say yes freely and often. If on the other hand, the extra conversations about when something is going to get done or how much longer it is going to take results in you getting that hard, edgy tone in your voice, any benefit in connection that you get by meeting the needs of your child’s personality will go out the window.
First and foremost, you need to know yourself. Ideally, you and your child will learn to be flexible, and at the same time consistent about meeting the limit. And over time, most kids can learn to find the balance between meeting your expectations and also getting some wiggle room for themselves, but it takes a lot of practice and maturity. In the meanwhile, a parent my find herself going back to the tighter expectation.
It might look like this:
Kid: Can’t I fold the laundry later? I want to climb trees while it is still light out.
Parent: I’d like to say yes because I know you love climbing trees, and at the same time I am worried that you’ll forget later and it won’t get done.
Kid: It will get done. I promise!!
Parent: It is almost bed time, and the laundry still is not folded.
Kid: Oh, yeah, right. Sorry. I forgot. I’ll do it now.
Parent: Well, get done what you can, but I want you in bed on time.
……..I see you got around half way done, but now it is time for bed.
THREE DAYS LATER
Kid: Can I fold laundry after dinner? There’s still time to climb before it gets dark.
Parent: Remember earlier this week when I said yes to tree climbing and you didn’t get the clothes folded until the following day? That’s making it hard for me to say yes now. So, laundry first, and if you have time, you can climb trees when you are done until dinner. We can try play first and chores after a different time.
Of course, at this point your child may pull out every trick in the book—whining, complaining, blaming. Perhaps now your resentment flairs. You think, see, this is what I get for being nice and saying yes earlier in the week. Still, if you can deliver the message calmly, clearly and then not argue any more, your frustration is a wonderful natural consequence. Your child will learn her parent was willing to give her a yes answer and when she messed up, she had to go back to the previous expectation and suffer her parent’s annoyance.
This cycle might go back and forth multiple times before your child really can follow through on her promises. Personally, I extend the amount of “consequence” between tries. So, if the child forgets twice, she now has to do it on my schedule two times before we try again to do it on her schedule. If she gets another chance and forgets again, I extend the time even more (Let’s try this again next month. I’ll put it on the calendar and in the meanwhile you and I can brainstorm ideas as to how you are going to remember to follow through on your own).
All through this process my hope is to say yes, and at the same time, I am going to follow through until my child meets my expectations. In other words, even as I try to offer some flexibility about how or when something gets done, I am going to hold a firm limit that it gets done. To some degree my willingness to say yes is in direct proportion to how much I feel I am being played. With an ADHD child, I know it will take a lot more iterations. With a less distracted child, I might get the feeling that I am being played and then be less patient. Even so, in both cases, my goal is to train my children to take responsibility for things without my micromanaging them.
What about the clearly white areas? Should I always say yes then?
The areas of parenting I always found the most challenging were the ones which always could be yeses; i just wanted to say no. What about the request, for example, for one more game of Uno. What if it is not too close to bedtime, there is time for one or two more games, and your children have been well-behaved? What if you still want to say no? Is that okay? After all, I started this piece by saying my goal as a parent was always to say yes where I could. What could justify my saying no at this point? Well, I said, consider the needs of the whole family. You, Mom, and you, Dad, are part of the family! If you have already been present and connected with your child by playing a couple of games of Uno, there is a limit! You do get to consider your own feelings and say, no, I have had enough of that. You don’t have to make an excuse. You don’t have to jump up and finish the dishes or do the laundry to justify your no. It is enough to say no, thank you, I have had enough of Uno for one evening. I will play again another time.
Now, if this results in a tantrum, your best bet for teaching your child to control his emotions in the future is still to stay present with his disappointment, to acknowledge it and to assure him that it will be easier to handle his let down in the future. But, boy, can that be hard. Those were the times when I found it hardest to be calm and patient. If my child was losing it because she was hungry or tired or over stimulated, I could handle that. But when she lost it after I had already spent an hour playing boring card games, my first reaction was often just resentment. That felt so unfair! Did being a good parent mean that my kid could suck the lifeblood out of me? (Did you ever think that if you had to read the favorite book again or play Candyland one more time that they were going to be dragging you kicking and screaming off to the looney bin?) Yes, connecting with our kids sometimes means playing things we don’t want to play—but not beyond reason and certainly not beyond the point where we are not going to have enough energy to get up and to be a good parent tomorrow. Better to gently say no tonight than to dread seeing your kid in the morning. It is more than okay for your kids to see that you have your own feelings and your own limits. (Sorry, no, I am not giving you permission to have a tantrum! Just to set a gentle limit).
To sum up?
Have clear expectations, have clear limits, and at the same time look for ways to say yes to your child. Ideally, they will learn the give and take of family members helping each other out—extending time when it works, and jumping right in when their help is really needed.
Without any follow through on requests (or no expectations in the first place), you are treating your child like an infant, and she is going to have a rude awakening when she gets out into a very demanding world.
Following through rigidly with no exceptions or negotiations leaves your child feeling unseen and unacknowledged—like she is a machine or drone, like getting things done is always more important than her needs or feelings. This leads to resentment and anger which is likely to burst forth in the teenage years.
Finding this balance between warm connections and clear expectations is not easy, but as one of the key tasks of effective parenting, it is worth working on.