The request was simple. My 9-year-old daughter wanted the latest toy and asked if I would buy it. After a few minutes of consideration, I launched into the answer. “Sweetheart, it’s really not a good idea. You’ll see – everyone wants one now, but in a few weeks it will be something else.” I predicted that our home would one day be full of such unwanted toys, pointed out the environmental repercussions of mountains of batteries and plastic, told her it was overpriced. I explained rationally and with respect.
She watched this song and dance for a few minutes and said, “Mom, just say no!”
With those three words she pushed a button. She really nailed me. I was an adult, a strong and confident parent, but I was afraid of a two-letter word. No. It just seemed so stark, so final, so negative. I saw myself as a teacher or a guide, and “no” seemed so authoritarian.
Yet, I had seen the seductive power of the word when my kids were toddlers and discovered it for themselves. A toddler is all-powerful when she stands unwavering, arms crossed, stares firmly fixed and says, “No.” You can see that look cross their faces, the recognition of power when they test limits and hold their ground with the help of the “N-word”. It is a quiet battle, because toddlers know that they also have stomping, arching and screaming in the arsenal if “no” doesn’t work, and parents have a choice. Accept their victory and divert their attention, or engage in all-out war. Two-year-olds may be small, but they have stamina.
When my kids went to school, I saw that the teacher said no with regularity and the students didn’t mind. In fact, they embraced it. They liked the boundaries and the certainty. “No” was a limit that showed them where they stood. “No talking in the classroom. No touching the walls on the way to lunch.” It was like a one-word chorus that rang out from every classroom.
I later went through teacher training and a large part of the focus was on establishing rules and procedures. By this time, I was more comfortable with limits and boundaries – I had to be, as a long-term substitute with a classroom full of third-graders at the end of the school year. I still maintained an attitude of fairness and respect, and most students responded positively. But they were still a little puzzled.
“You have to check our planners today. They have to have a parent signature,” one helpful student pointed out.
“Ok, everyone, I’ll check planners.”
The students presented the planners that noted the week’s homework assignments and activities, and two students did not have a signature. “That’s not a problem – bring them signed tomorrow,” I instructed reasonably.
“Oh, no, Mrs. Montes. You can punish us! You can take away our recess!”
I thought it unfair to punish a student for the lack of a parent’s signature, even if it was their responsibility. However, in their eyes, rules were rules and the consequences were clear. No signature, no recess. I was caught again and had to just say no, as unreasonable as it seemed.
My daughter is now 16, and we still have requests and confrontations — usually more expensive requests and more volatile confrontations. This daughter is now active in debate, and I’ve learned a few of the tricks. When someone presents a case, another debater can win the round just by tearing it apart and attacking the logic of the argument. Some debaters use the rebuttal as their most powerful tool and others present such a crazy case that no one knows how to challenge it. My daughter hates it when I simply deny an unreasonable request without further explanation. Like a used-car salesman overcoming objections, teenagers are masters at analyzing and attacking the logic of a parent’s arguments. If you simply say no, there’s nothing to sink their teeth into.
I’ve learned about the power of “no”. It can be so clear and undebatable when it’s unaccompanied by reasons and arguments. I don’t use it all the time – trust me, I’m still open for discussion — but there are times when I say it calmly and we can just go on.
I’m still a little uneasy with “no”, but I don’t let on. When my daughter asks if she can split the cost of a $700 limo for prom, I remember her advice so long ago and I follow it. In fact, I have a large repertoire of retorts when I don’t want to just bark.
“Not a chance.”
“No way in hell.”
“You must be crazy.”
If you have an infant, you may not be able to imagine that you’d deny him anything. Then one day he’ll crawl, walk, get into things, do something you find unacceptable. You’ll have to be the adult, the parent, the naysayer. And you’ll learn to just say no.