Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teaching Your Child to Tell You 'NO'

    I was raised to believe that obedience was a child’s non questioning compliance with all instructions and commands that their parents gave. Not only was compliance necessary, but also a good attitude. After all, - if it wasn’t cheerful, it wasn’t obedience.

       As a compliant first born, married to a compliant first born, who gave birth to a compliant first born, this philosophy found its way into my parenting early. It was all too easy to implement. For some kids; like my son, the desire to please is strong and motivation enough to secure cooperation. Yet as my son grew older I was uncomfortable with what I saw in his life, but I didn’t know how to put my finger on it.  There were times when my husband (a truly amazing father) handled things differently than I did  and I found myself struggling to understand why I approached parenting from such a different perspective. Things came to head when we had cousins over for a visit and a confrontation began.

    What had been some minor squabbling in the past few visits (which had been settled case by case)  came to a head in one big fight. When I took him aside and patiently listened to his entire saga one thing became very crystal clear to me. My son had no idea of how to set boundaries.  He had no idea when or how was the appropriate way to say no and stick to it. Without the knowledge and ability to set clear boundaries he was left with whining and manipulation.  Neither are very endearing. While they may sometimes work, they are not the basis for peaceful or healthy friendships.

    At that point things clicked as the connection between abusive authority and relationships in general crystallized. There is a huge difference in creating rules for your house, with which your child must cooperate, and creating an environment that is designed to support one (or more)  person’s ultimate control, and force unquestioning compliance from a child.

  Abusive authority uses their power to exert their will onto another person. Healthy authority simply enforces impersonal, un-emotional rules.  

    A child who has been forced to submit their will to a dominant forceful ‘authority’ does not have a healthy foundation for peer relationships. They will tend to fall in one of two roles, - either becoming, OR submitting to others as the dominant one. They do not know how to handle conflict properly because in their life experience it is force or rank, not logic or kindness that matter.

   I felt a wave of relief in this discovery. No wonder I was uncomfortable. Unwittingly I had been playing the role of an abusive authority. I had never physically hurt my son, - or verbally hurt him in any way, - (if anything I’ve been passive because I am so determined not to ever be to forceful)  but in our home our perspective of WHY and HOW to obey was based in all the wrong ideas.

   Right away I sat down and had a talk with my son. I told him that it was OK to say no. It was healthy to say no. We talked through how to handle when friends and he disagreed on what to play, or what the rules should be, and how at ANY point how he should respectfully state his opinion, then be ok if they disagreed, even if it meant they had to take a break from playing together. We role played a bit with scenarios he created, and I saw huge relief in his face.

   Then I talked about how I had raised him to never say no defiantly to me, and how I was wrong. I told him that God gave him his own conscious and his own personality and that of course he was not going to always agree with his father and I. I told him that he should NEVER do what he felt was wrong, no matter who told him to including me.

    This was something we had discussed before regarding ‘tricky people’ (aka abductors  and sexual predators)  , but it really is futile if your child has been raised to ‘respect’/’fear’ authority, or (through association) those they sense have any kind of dominance over them.)

    I told him that he should feel free to respectfully disagree with me at any point and gave him examples of how to calmly, respectfully tell me what he thought. We role played, with me demonstrating how I planned to listen and affirm what he said. Ironically it is something he has had no problems with in his relationship with his Dad, but in the past I thought maybe the conflicts he and I had were a result of the fact that I am the ‘all day’ parent and his Dad is the ‘fun in the evenings and weekends’ parent. I realized there were actually REAL differences in my husbands core basis for parenting  and THAT has been evident in our parenting)

     I told him that Mom and Dad had rules in our house for how we treat each other, and how to share chores, and how we take care of our pets and possessions. I told him that of course he didn’t have to agree, but that our goal was to be kind and respectful of each other and that when he had his own house he was going to get to make these decisions of what rules where in his house. (I wanted to give the kid a sense of hope and a vision for a future when he could have freedom to call the shots in his life. That day is coming quicker than I want to admit.)

     The first talk was good. It was a great starting point.

  Something I wasn’t sure how to handle was attitude. He knew that every morning it was his job to do ‘morning chores’ which consisted of making (or stripping) his bed, tidying his room and bathroom.

   If I reminded him, some days it was no big deal. Other days he started a full body slump, full on whining, and a litany of reasons why he didn’t want to do it and how miserable his life was. In my past, this would have seen this as disobedience that called for punishment. It wouldn’t be acceptable for a child to ‘keep’ a bad attitude.

   Parental pressure would be exerted to require a ‘change’ of attitude. I have never been comfortable with this. First of all it just isn’t logical. Most of us adults have bad attitudes at times. That is just life.

  In parenting I often consider how God treats his children, and I don’t see my heavenly Father glaring at me because I DON’T want to get out of bed, or go to work, or whatever - he just smiles and loves me anyway. I do not see God as someone who punishes us for having feelings, no matter what they are. Furthermore, - the thing that helps me get over a slump has never been someone berating me or telling me that I am ungrateful and should suck it up and BE happy, threatening pain or punishment.   It is the beautiful, unexpected kindnesses of others in life that have turned my feelings around. Some days my attitude changes, some days it does not.  Some days I don’t feel better until everything I was dreading is done.

   That being said, - as a parent I DO feel it is my job to teach him how to properly handle or express his ‘bad day moments’ in a way that is polite or thoughtful of others. Most of us figure out quickly in life that it isn’t what we think or feel, but how we handle it that affects our relationships and interaction with others.  Those who are able to experience thoughts, feelings and beliefs in a way that does not negatively affect others are the people with whom we all want to be friends.

  In the past I would vacillate between trying to ignore the unpleasantness, (which was pretty hard some days) or telling him that he needed to work on his attitude, sometimes giving him ‘time outs’ until he could ‘be more pleasant ’. With my shift in perspective, came a different approach. My goal had changed. I was not trying to change his attitude, OR simply endure it. My goal was to help him learn to properly express his emotions, and then, to love him unconditionally through them.

   Now on his ‘whine fest mornings’ I first try to stay cheerful and loving. I love that boy, fuss=pot or not, and he knows it. Second, - I try to genuinely sympathize. I know I like it when others understand my bad days!!  Sometimes, a smile, hug and ‘I’m so sorry you are still tired (or ‘hate cleaning’ or whatever) , - I know it is hard.’ Is all he needs, and is enough to cheer him up.   

     Third, - I remind him that it is ok to have a bad day, but he needs to be thoughtful of those around him. I don’t require him to smile and be cheerful, but he may not throw himself around, start verbally ranting, or doing little things to annoy his sister, etc.    In our house, this means that there will be an extra chore. Having a ‘bad day’ moment or rough start is not an excuse to intentionally make others miserable too.  This is comes back to the impersonal rule in our house that we treat others with respect and kindness no matter what.

  In the adult world, waking tired and being grouchy is your choice and not a problem, - unless you decide to break the traffic rules and endanger others. Then you are responsible for your actions.

   So if my son wakes up grouchy at the world, (or develops this attitude at some point in the day) he knows he will receive love and understanding first and foremost. If he tries to spread the feeling through poorly chosen actions, he knows I’ll calmly ask him to do an extra chore.

    The results have been amazing. I don’t take his bad attitudes personally or feel that I have any responsibility to ‘change’ them, and he knows his feelings are ok, and is learning how to properly express them.

  Ironically, his bad attitudes are less common. Probably in part because it just isn’t a big deal either way. He feels heard and affirmed, and knows he is totally normal to feel in a funk sometimes.

     The concept of setting boundaries has been very freeing for our relationship, and I suspect will be invaluable as he reaches his teens. Already there have been times when I see his little ‘man’ personality appear and it totally catches me off guard. The other day he got home after working with his Dad and I eagerly started asking all sorts of questions about what he did, and if he liked it, etc.

  He glanced at me with a tired, slightly irritated look that shocked me because it reminded me of his Dad some days. He rolled his eyes, and sighed loudly, ‘Mooooom.’ I could tell he was winding up for a whine/slump session.

  I smiled back (inwardly crushed realizing my baby was gone forever) and said, - “Hey, - if you’re tired and don’t want to talk about it, - that is OK. Just tell me nicely and I’ll respect that.”

  He sucked in a huge breathe and exerted the obviously HUGE effort required to quickly and quietly say, ‘Mom I don’t really want to talk right now.”

  “Cool! No problem! – Why don't you go get a hot shower and think about what you want to do tonight!?!"  He visibly brightened and life moved on. I smiled thinking about his girl friend or wife someday and hope that a little practice now will mean open, honest and guilt free communication that supports a healthy relationship in his future.

    Interestingly, my second child is a much stronger willed daughter. From the perspective of my past, she would have required much more intense effort to achieve compliance because she has NO problem saying ‘no’. I am very thankful my perspective changed before I ever started parenting her.

    I am delighted to see her fiercely independent self develop and we are both learning how to properly channel her spunky determination.  I am glad that she will never have her spirit crushed, or her will broken. I am excited to see my son develop his voice and inner strength and confidence and wish I had done more to encourage it from the start.

   What about you? Is your child willing and able to tell you and your spouse ‘no’?  How have you taught your child how to make personal boundaries and to properly express their feelings? Have you had to overcome any ‘abusive authority mentalities’ in your parenting?   

   Some of you are probably shocked that these basic simple ideas are so new to me, and I would love to hear your input!!  What have you found best encourages your child to be confident in themselves, stand by what they think, and yet be respectful? Thoughts?

Linking Up


  1. Well I dont have kids, but when I do they will be taught to unquestionably obey my absolute authority. Thats the way it was for me growing up as well. I suffered severe consequences when I did question my parents, as will my children. My wife understands this as well, my word is absolute in my household. ( gee, I sound like a tyrant!) Oh well. Thats just how it is for me.

    1. walks like a duck. quacks like a duck. DUCK!

  2. I found this idea interesting. We try to teach our children to respect us, but it really should go the other way sometimes, too. The adult should always be the one in charge, but it is good to be able to respectfully say you don't like something without getting in big trouble. Disrespect is not allowed and the child should also understand that sometimes they may still need to do what the parents say even after they have respectfully stated their disagreement. The child needs to be able to learn how to do something they don't like willingly, even though they may not like it (i.e. chores, homework)

  3. Susana, thanks for your input!!
    Yes I agree that an important part of parenting is teaching children to do what they don't feel like. However the question I have changed my thinking on is how, and why.
    It is one thing to force them to do something 'because I say so' and therefor as an extension of a parent's direct control/leadership.
    Quite another to teaching them to know and follow 'house rules' that everyone, including parents are subject to.
    In our home, - respect of others is a house rule, and it applies to me and my husband and also to our children.
    Responsibility is also a house policy, and it applies to us all... this is where chores, home work etc. come into play!
    I may write more at another time about what we have found helpful implementing these things!!
    Thanks again!!