“No,” and variations of it, “I won’t,” “Stop!” “But whyyyy?”, and even “AHHHHHHHHHHHH!” etc are parenting pain points for most of us! But why?
There are several beliefs that combine to raise our hackles when we’re challenged with our child’s will and autonomy.
“I’m the parent, so you have to do what I want.”
Only half of that statement is true. I am in fact the parent. That puts a level of responsibility on me, not them. I signed up to parent them, teach them, keep them safe, be a good example, and provide for their needs. They didn’t agree to anything upon birth. The idea that "they have to obey you" is something that we (society) made up and assumed. Not something that is based on fact. Definitely, there will be situations where we know more and must keep them safe, and that is still for us to do. I hold them, put up a lock, or otherwise make the dangerous thing impossible rather than relying on their underdeveloped brains to keep themselves safe through sheer willpower. When they are old enough we collaborate and work through the areas that are challenging them until we find a solution that works for both of us. Our involvement is an important part of parenting. It models problem-solving, boundary holding, empathy, and respect.
“It’s disrespectful for you to say 'no'.”
Hmm, I wonder why you think that? Who told you that? Who told you that you couldn’t say, "No,"? How did that feel? Do you struggle to say, "No," to this day? Are you a people pleaser? Do you struggle setting boundaries and disappointing others? What if saying, "No," was just a normal word, a normal part of communication, the same as, “Why?” and “What?” and, “Yes,” and, “I have an idea.” What if it was easy to communicate and meet your own needs because that was the standard instead of the self-sacrificing and detrimental expectation we have now? Do you model respectful No's for your kids? Do you say, "No," in a kind way? You absolutely need to say, "No," sometimes as a parent. And how you do it can show them exactly how to say no for themselves. Consider the following meme:
(Photo says: Sometimes people use "respect" to mean "treating someone like a person" and sometimes they use "respect" to mean "treating someone like an authority" and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say "if you won't respect me, I won't respect you" and they mean "if you won't treat me like an authority I won't treat you like a person" and they think they are being fair but they aren't, and it's not okay. Stimmyabby Tumblr. www.wildernesstowild.com)
Are you expecting your kids to treat you like an authority before you'll treat them like a person? Did your parents have the same expectation? If so, your inner child will throw an absolute fit as you try to relearn that children deserve to be treated with just as much respect as adults. Breaking that one old story is some of the hardest work I've had to do! But it makes sense. If I have a boss who demands I treat them like an authority, and calls it respect, but doesn't in fact treat me with respect, I in fact don't respect them. I may defer to them, but I certainly don't respect them. And that job is short-lived. I want my kids to feel deeply secure in their relationship with me, not desperate to get out and for it to be over. And yes, I want them to respect me. So I create that respect by how I treat them, what I model, and the ways I handle problems collaboratively. Everyone has bad moods, hard days, rough spots. Kids are part of everyone. Take a deep breath and don't add extra hurt and anger to it with a broken story. "They yelled at me. They probably feel angry and overwhelmed." That's the extent of what you observed. Adding stories about how they "should" be and how "they better not" and repeating the dialogue from your own childhood cannot make your relationship healthier. It creates extra layers of anger and hurt that cause distance and steal from your relational security. Focus on the relationship and respect naturally improves.
“If they say no now, they’ll be out of control later.”
What is the evidence for this? What is the evidence against it? Children who feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure are FAR less likely to have behavioral issues as they age. If this is one of your fears, ask yourself, "What is my big scary fear?" Then, follow your “what-if” train to its conclusion and then see if it still sounds logical. “If he says no to putting his shoes on right now at age 3, he’ll end up punching his teacher at 17.” Sounds pretty far off to me when I make the direct comparison like that. I intentionally practice challenging this narrative. This one power struggle is almost certainly not a make-or-break issue. I breathe and release the pressure to control this small person and I consider how this “No,” is helping them to grow into just the person I hope for them to become. Then I regulate myself, figure out what need they are meeting with this particular behavior, empathize and help them meet the need another way, and then move to meeting my own need/want for that moment. It can happen very quickly too. He's saying no to shoes...what do I see...oh he's doing the potty dance, his no means he is distracted by needing to go potty. *go to potty* Now shoes. Or He's saying no...is he wanting some choice/autonomy? Hey dude, do you want your shoes on in the house or car? (either option meets my need.) Or He's saying no...he's focused on those toys. That must feel important to him. I'll meet him where he's at. "What is Batman doing now? Jumping over the building wow. Will he jump with you to the car? Can he make that big of a jump?" Shoes are already in the car to go on after the car seat is buckled. There are a million strategies to meet both ours and our child's needs. It doesn't require them to abandon their own needs to meet ours. Or vise versa. We can collaborate and use our adult brains with far more flexibility and creativity and impulse control, to create a situation that works for all of us. And when we need to just hold the boundaries, we can do so in a safe and regulated way without fear and coercion. This creates children who can hold their own boundaries without fear or coercion so that imaginary and deeply feared 17-year-old will in fact have numerous tools and strategies and options outside of violence.
So what can you replace these beliefs with? No, is an important valuable word that my child needs in their life to keep themselves safe.
They need to say, "No," to tricky people. They need to say, "No," to nefarious adults, even if they are their family, teacher, coach, or clergy. They need to say, "No," to their peers with bad ideas. They need to say, "No," to their friends who cross their own moral lines. They need to say, "No," to their community members who judge or shame them so they can remain true to their core beliefs even in the face of adversity. They need to say, "No," to their significant others who want to push them past their comfort zones. They need to say, "No," to injustice and policies that need to change in their community, state, or country. They need No. Absolutely, without a doubt, need it.
How do they develop a strong No that can keep them safe? By practicing. When they are 2, and 3, and 4, and 5, and 6 and 7, and 8 and on. They say, "No," to us. In ways that work, and ways that don't. We accept it when we can, which is most of the time (at least a little). It is quite rare when we can’t pause for a moment and say, “Oh I hear you. You don’t want to…” We validate their no when they say it to others, “I heard your sister say, 'No.' She’s not done with that. You can have a turn when she’s finished, what do you want to do while you wait?” We can even validate their, “No,” when we still have to do what they don’t like.
During instances of health and safety, we will have to hold limits that upset our kids. Honoring “No” does not mean we do whatever our child says, and it does not mean we don't ever hear our kids cry in frustration or anger or sadness. That isn't the goal. Those feelings will happen and it doesn't mean we're doing it wrong. Honoring "No" doesn’t mean we’re afraid to physically help our child keep their bodies safe. We just don’t have to make that experience scary for our child. Developmentally, the most important thing is for our kids to feel safe. There is no need or benefit to punishing kids for their, "No." You may not be able to abide by it, but you can honor it, hear it, acknowledge it, and then calmly hold your boundary or limit and allow them to experience the feelings that come with that. Give them grace for their immaturity. That’s how their brain is designed right now. They mature emotionally by living with our emotional maturity. Which includes understanding that it’s valuable and important and messy and loud to grow into your own person. The journey to a strong "No" has lots of bumps in the road and that's ok! They will learn how to respect others' "Nos," follow your leadership, and feel strong enough to stand for themselves in time. Because they've had your faith, guidance, and example along the way.
When we are holding their hand or picking them up so they can’t run off into the street, they will be mad and scream, “Nooooo,” to us. Fair, they don’t like you holding them there. And you are going to anyway. You can hear them and still retain your regulation. “I hear you. You wish I’d let you run. This is a street. I have to keep you safe bud. It’s ok to be mad. I hear you.” (This went down with my 2-year-old today as a matter of fact!) And you keep walking. In 30 seconds when you get to the car you can say, “Ok, I can let go now that we’re at the car. You can be safe inside.” Keep in mind, you’re the one with an adult brain. Use your creativity and flexibility to have an open mind. Your first assumption might be wrong. Is she trying to run into the street or is she tugging against you because her flip flop fell off and she’s trying not to walk barefoot on the asphalt (that has happened before too!)
When it isn’t time-sensitive, we can pause and collaborate with our kids. We can sloooow down, observe what they are trying to tell us, and notice their verbal and non-verbal communication. When they are old enough to tell us their side of things we can listen and write it down so they know we take them seriously. We can find solutions that work for both of us. Sometimes their “No,” was really just a, “Pause, papa! Slow down and notice me,” and our effort to connect and listen to them leads to their ultimate cooperation anyway. Remember, if they can find the courage to say, "No," to their parents, the people to whom their connection and attachment is most vital, they will have a "No" they can use their whole lives. Arming them with that powerful tool is worth the hard work on our end to challenge our old beliefs, keep our egos in check, and patiently persist through their emotional growing pains with them.