“Just say no!” to underage sex, excess drinking, and taking drugs; to taking on too much work, to accepting sweets offered by strangers, and to the demands from the small people to cut their toast into ovals – the ability to say no and mean it is one that is presented as essential to success in whatever stage of life you find yourself at.
“No means no!” was a phrase I was often on the receiving end of throughout my childhood and was one I found falling out of my mouth with alarming regularity for the duration of my years as a teacher. On occasion I marvelled that the parents of some of the children in my classroom seemed to have taught their offspring a more flexible version of the word, however. Their attitude appeared to be that the word “no” actually meant “maybe” and existed only to offer an opportunity to be argued and bargained with. “No one has ever said no, and actually meant it,” I would loftily observe, and deplore the exhaustion of the endless negotiations with these young people who needed to learn that they “can’t have everything their own way”. These days as a parent to a threenager “No means no” is a phrase that gets trotted out when I am fed-up of repeating the same answer, while she already seems to believe that if she asks enough times then the answer might change. And to be fair to her, sometimes it does.
Yup, I admit it. Terrible, inconsistent parent that I am, there are times when having said no, I backtrack and say yes. And while I realise that this is the point at which some sections of the parenting community would caution me with the words ,”You’re making a rod for your own back”, I’m going to stick my neck out and say, maybe. But maybe that’s ok.
You see, it seems to me that we spend our children’s lives telling them that “No means no,” and getting fed up when they question it. We understandably get irritated when they ask for strawberries, reject them because they have been cut in half, and then ask instead for grapes. The grapes duly arrive only to be usurped by a sudden insatiable desire for an apple. And after all that, the only thing they end up eating is a bag of Oddities. This happened the other day and at the time I cringed at my inability to assert my authority. I heard the voices whispering, “You’re the parent. Put your foot down. Say NO!” But then there was another voice saying that the mind-changing of the small person was not really that a big deal and, in those circumstances, what would be my justification for saying no actually be? Because I couldn’t be bothered to slice up AALLLL of the fruits? Because my petulant desire to not be a slave to her demands also needs to be given air-time? Or perhaps because she needs to “learn her place”? And I found myself wondering whether these are good enough reasons to dig my heels in deep.
Now before I get lynched as the poster-girl for lazy, lenient, woolly and permissive middle-class parenting, I would like to
duck for cover because it’s true say that there are times that I say “No” and mean it, because of course it is important for children to learn that they can’t have everything they want. There are times when they are not capable of making safe and healthy decisions and parents have to, well, parent. But should “No” always be the be-all-and-end-all? Should children just learn to accept “no” and never argue with it?
The fact is that as adults we are encouraged NOT to take no for answer. We are told to keep kicking at the doors that block our path until they fall off their hinges. In my forays into the inter web I’ve been absorbing precious nuggets of advice and experience from a whole host of (mainly) women, and one common denominator in their success is that they don’t accept no. They don’t listen to the voices who tell them “You can’t do that” and precede to tell them why not. They just believe that they know best. That THEY are right.
So when does this begin? Clearly, my daughter demanding to drink her water from the Frozen cup, not the Peppa cup that she has been given, is not exactly the same as making decisions about a business that puts food on the table and in your childrens’ mouths, but like everything, we have to start small. It seems to me that if my daughter was met with a resounding “No!”every time she asked for something different to what was on offer, and was then taught that this declaration is always final, then perhaps she would also learn that when she looks at what she is given and doesn’t exactly like it, she should still just put up with it. Her experiences will have taught her that requesting something different doesn’t ever get her anywhere, so what’s the point in asking?
Of course it’s important for her to learn that she can’t have everything that she wants BUT isn’t it also important to teach her to have the confidence to at least ask, because actually there are occasions in life when no doesn’t mean no. This is my defence anyway, in reply to the parts of me that die a little inside every time I replace the uneaten halved strawberries with some whole ones because she doesn’t want them “cutted up”. While my more authoritative voice tells me that she needs to learn to accept what she is given, there is another that says saying “Yes” to her request is teaching her that she has (some) control, she has (some) choices, and she has opinions that will (sometimes) be listened to. I KNOW that when she becomes a stroppy pre-teen, or a surly teenager, there will be times when I will be desperate for her to “Just take no for an answer”, but I also suspect that sometimes the word “no” is just a test to see how much you actually want what you are asking for.
Just don’t tell her teachers that I have taught her that.