Parenting 101: Just Say No To Children

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I make many mistakes as a parent, but I have one thing down better than most of my friends: I tell my children “no” all the time. I’m really good at it. It didn’t even occur to me that this was something I was doing, much less doing well, until one of my friends asked for advice on how to say no to her children.

On the one hand, it is easy to say “no” to children. It’s a simple word. On the other hand, a parent has to overcome a few obstacles. It’s our natural inclination to want to make our children happy all the time. And telling them “no” won’t make them happy. I mean, it might make them happier adults to not have had their every childhood whim catered to, but the short-term can be hellish. And because we’re tired all the time (or is that just me?), we don’t want to deal with those unhappy feelings. Saying “no” also means that we’re making a decision. And while making decisions may not be hard, piling up decision after decision during the day can be dreadful. There are other issues, too. We don’t want to disappoint our children, or have conflict. And saying “no” means that we’re the bad guy when really we just want to be our child’s big buddy.

Or maybe we avoid saying no because we have such limited time and we know it’s easier to just give in and buy that piece of candy new toy Maserati than to spend time explaining why we won’t be buying it. The fact that we all have gobs more money than our parents and grandparents ever did doesn’t help things. We might even wonder why we ever say no to our children considering how resource-rich we are.

But what is our parenting job if not to inculcate character in our children? And unless we think character is built by catering to their every whim and giving them the idea that the world exists to serve them, saying no is a tremendously important part of the parenting toolkit. Children need to learn the value of everything in the world and if everything is obtainable without even a time delay, all of a sudden we’ve given our children a world where nothing has any value.

And, of course, a world where every good is obtainable is also a world where we don’t treat what we have very well. Why treasure that doll when Mommy will just buy you a new one if you mishandle it? And if that’s how your children treat a doll, how will they treat friends or partners?

If you want your child to learn that they won’t always get their way, you have to say no to them. We all know those adults whose parents indulged them throughout adolescence and they’re generally not the most enjoyable people to be around.

Your child will be so much better able to handle the real world if they’ve learned how to experience and manage their disappointment as children. There’s no reason to go out of your way to find things to say no to them about — enough opportunities will present themselves naturally. But a healthy dose of no will give them better coping skills in adverse conditions and will help them learn more about their taste — which items are more important to them than others. A healthy sense of priorities is key to building character.

My in-laws are unbelievably generous with my children. I thought I was fully prepared to deal with this — I have siblings with children older than mine and so I was initiated years ago into the ways grandparents spoil grandchildren. But on their last trip to see us, they brought a huge suitcase packed to the brim with item after item after item after item. I watched as my children tore through the suitcase, not even pausing for a second to appreciate the last 10 items as they threw the next batch into the air. It worried me. After years of just smiling as my in-laws showered our children with gifts, I actually got a little concerned and made my daughters slow down to appreciate each item among — quite literally — more than a hundred. I even shouted out something about how I was worried about my children’s character.

I have absolutely no idea how to handle situations such as this — particularly because I know my in-laws just love these kids so much and want to show them that through extravagant gift-giving. And the truth is that I also say no to my children much less than I wish I did. I talk a good game and can be quite the pushover when I’m tired or stressed.

But I do know that for how much I care about my children’s health, cleanliness and intelligence, these are all meaningless without good character. One of the ways I try to instill that is by saying no.



  1. Lindsay Cross

    June 20, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Just this weekend, my daughter got in trouble at my parents house. My husband told her that she couldn’t have desert because she refused to try anything on her plate at dinner and kept demanding different food. When my mother tried to give her ice cream anyways, I had to look at both my mother and my daughter and say, “I don’t care where we’re at, Momma’s in charge. And Momma said no.” I’m pretty sure my mother was astonished, but you’re right. We can do a lot of good, as parents, by telling our children no sometimes.

  2. Erin S.

    June 20, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Awesome to see this. I’m a mom who has been saying no for 19 years.

    Me: Time for bed.
    My kid: Can I have ten more minutes?
    Me: No.
    My kid: Why not?
    Me: Go to bed NOW.
    My kid: Oh, okay. Night.

    And I have to tell you, as a middle school teacher, my colleagues and I also respect and love this choice you’ve made. Day after day, we’re surrounded by teens who seem to think “no” opens the door for negotiation.

    Example (during my morning homeroom):
    Me: Time for quiet reading; get your books out in a minute.
    Kid: Can’t we play instead?
    Me: No.
    Kid: Why not?
    Me: Get your books now.
    Kid who will not give up: Why not?????
    Other kids joining in: Yeah! We want to play!! Why not????

    I tell ya; it’s nuts. I have so many students who think no is meaningless and opens the door for negotiations. So thanks for being firm, saying no, and ending the conversation then and there.

  3. elaine

    June 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Mollie, I just had this discussion with my Mom. She said no all of the time and we learned our boundaries. I hate seeing parents give in too easily because it sets the children up for believing the world is all about “yes”. I watch young people in the workforce try to adapt to feedback and authority and it’s often clear they were never told NO at home. It’s actually sad to see.

  4. Pingback: For 24 Hours, I Let My Daughter Be In Charge | Mommyish

  5. Rebecca

    September 17, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    When I was young we had a Christmas where my mom said we were like wild animals and blew through our presents in about 12 seconds. Every year after that she made us all take turns, one present at a time, so that every gift was appreciated and got a thank you. I plan to make my kids do the same thing! My in laws always give them waaaaay to much stuff for Christmas!

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