I’ve been working recently on my ability to say “No” to my three year old son. Oh sure, I can say No quite easily and say it many times. It’s the random question from him, that I quickly reply No to, and then regret with the onslaught of his crying and carrying on. He sure knows how to plead his case. And I’ve found myself to be more of a sucker than I thought I’d be. After incessant whining for several minutes, what’s the harm in a bowl of Cheerios right before dinner, an extra television show, or dirty hands before eating? Well, over time, quite a lot is wrong if I give in to his demands. After all, he’s interested in his immediate gratification. It’s my job to see the bigger picture, set the rules, teach him the basic structure of how to live well in society. I know what’s best.
In reality, I needed a little training before I could help train him. So, I consulted my library of parenting books (is yours getting as big as mine?) and was fortified and comforted by one in particular: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (see my booklist to the right). This book takes a different spin on the standard parenting issues. Its author, Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, uses Jewish teachings to emphasize the values needed to raise our children. It’s a bit more applicable for older children than mine, say six years and up, but on my first reading a year ago I found its principles to be a solid framework for parenting and one that closely matches how my husband and I hope to raise our kids. She pulls from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to create nine “blessings” that guide parents in raising responsible, caring children.
So, I thought of Wendy’s book when looking for the power to say and reinforce my No’s. In Chapter Three, she discusses the need for children to honor their mother and father and asks some pretty pointed questions about how well your children might be honoring you. As I squirmed in my seat, she noted that many parents have trouble in this area. They have “bred disrespectful children in large part because they don’t demand respect from them.” Her reason? “Deep down parents don’t believe they deserve it or that they can master the struggle.” This phrase alone got me thinking. I realized the truth is that I’m not sure I can “master the struggle.” I don’t want my son to suffer and when he cries and whines and becomes close to desolate when he can’t have what he wants, I relent out of sympathy. But that’s not what is best for him. And it certainly isn’t setting the stage well for when his demands will become bigger and have more impact on his well-being (or our finances!)
Wendy goes on to set out helpful guidelines to establish authority but I decided right then and there that I would have the courage to “master the struggle.” And here’s what happened: My son cried and whined less. Yep. When No means No, they eventually move on. Sure, I think he senses when I may waver and plays upon past experience of my waffling tendencies. But a calm, firm No with a couple of choices sets a tidy parameter for both of us.
We’ve all heard that children like rules and limitations. It grounds them and provides security. Limitless options or the knowledge that they set the rules is actually very frightening for them. And this is why I think the Power of No is so positive. The results have certainly been. After all, if I hold firm, C. is the one who relents. He eventually comes around because no other options are presented to him. “No, you may not play with the vacuum (after finding him with the plug in a socket). This is for adults and those are the rules.” Or, “No, you may not have juice right before dinner. You may have some milk and a cracker or wait until we eat.” In this type of circumstance and when he says No himself with enough “power” for both of us, I find it most effective to present two choices: “You can brush your teeth now and we’ll read three stories or you can go to bed without stories tonight.” He gets a choice (this is a power struggle after all) and chooses the one in his best interest.
One of the biggest benefits of this approach is that when I feel confident that I can say No calmly and firmly and STICK TO IT, we don’t get to the point where I lose my temper. C. isn’t the one pushing me to my limits. I’m in control of the situation and guiding him to the right choice. Of course, it’s more difficult to stick to No when it’s over a trivial request that I realize is actually okay and find myself wanting to give in. In this case, I’ve realized it’s necessary to invoke my mother’s tried and true responses: “We’ll see” or “Maybe.” I never understood the reasoning behind these phrases until now. But I now see that a little careful consideration gives me time to determine whether a firm No is necessary so I can confidently hold my ground.