The most important word learned by most people when they are toddlers is “no.” The word no is more important than Daddy or Mommy. It is more important than love, joy, sadness, excitement, or disappointment. The word no is perhaps the first definitive statement of “self.” No defines me, or rather defines what is not me. When I say no, I am saying that I exist, that I exist separate from something or someone around me. When a toddler says no, s/he is saying I exist, I have wants, and I have rights. We shouldn’t take “no” away from our young children, or from any children for that matter. Children need to say no. Unfortunately, most children hear too many no’s, not enough no’s, or no’s that don’t remain no’s.
Saying No to children
The matter of saying no to children is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, parents use the word no way too often, which is part of the reason that no is the first primary word toddlers learn. They have heard it too much. It is much easier for parents of toddlers to yell at them and say no when their children are crawling up on the table. Parents have to get out of their chairs and then go over to their children and restrain them rather than yelling at them or saying no. Physical restraint is so much more effective, and it is something that I teach parents when they are trying to train and raise young children. For one thing, a child who feels a parent’s hands around him/her will also feel safe and feel love rather than yelling and screaming. But this is not easy to do because it means that the parent has to truly engage the child rather than just yelling at him/her.
The other difficulty of dealing with children is saying no but not abiding by the no. children learn pretty quickly that they can challenge the no, ask “Why?” and otherwise get around a parental no. I continue to be amazed, and a bit appalled, at parents who argue with their four-year old children rather than simply saying no and leaving it at that. When a child asks, “Why?” or “Why not?” the child is asking a rhetorical question, which really means, “I want my way; I want to engage my parent in some kind of rear guard action; and I have had experience in getting my way if I ask a question rather than simply saying that I want my way.” OK, children don’t actually have this exact thinking, but this is really what they are doing with these rhetorical questions. Rather than answering these questions with some kind of adult reasoning, it is better for a parent to say nothing. Saying nothing is difficult for any parent when asked “Why?” , and dare I say, it is more difficult for women who are more inclined to discussion than with men. Unfortunately, women tend to argue with their children and men tend to yell at them or hit them.
Saying no to children is, to say the least, very difficult to do, but it is essential in helping a child develop character. True character, which means among other things, that I have a genuine concern for other people, begins to develop at about eight, a bit sooner for some children and a bit older for others. But character is not truly developed until about age 12, and often much later…if at all. Sadly, many people get through childhood without developing a genuine concern for other people, or worse yet, a shame-based and fear-based artificial concern for others, which is tantamount to being afraid of disapproval or abandonment rather than a genuine concern for others.
So go ahead, and put me out of the business of seeing children, which is about a third of my practice. Say no and stick to it
Saying no to adults
If I can’t say no, my yes’s are not true yes’s. I read an interesting lead article in the most recent Psychology Today magazine (not my favorite journal, however) on the value of no. There were some interesting tips about the value of saying no. I would encourage readers to scout it out. My thoughts about saying no to people is quite simple: be honest. I often tell people, “Give all you have; give your left arm if necessary; give your life in necessary; sacrifice anything and everything if necessary. But don’t give in. Giving in is not the same as giving. Children certainly know that. An adult patient of mine said recently that his father would always say no to Jim when he asked to go out on an evening, but then would almost always give in with some kind of shame-inducing glance together with a $20 bill. Of course, Jim took the $20 and went out, but it was always with a lingering, “I’m not worth this” together with some kind of, “I’m going to have to pay this back somehow.” Jesus said, “Let your yes’s be yes’s and your no’s be no’s.” I couldn’t say anything to add to this simple profound statement. But if you say no to people, be prepared for your own feelings of shame coming up more than the disappointment you might hear from your friends. When I say no to someone, I should feel sad, not ashamed, not afraid of rejection, and not afraid of disapproval. Sadness is born of love. Shame is born of fear. I go for love. But it is not easy.
The practical part of this saying no to adults leads to all kinds of challenges and potential difficulties. For one thing, when I say no, I will probably disappoint my friend (or relative), and no one really likes to disappoint people. Secondly, it probably took some courage for my friend to ask me for something, and s/he will feel some kind of hurt. S/He might even be angry or punitive. S/He might ask a childlike rhetorical question like, “Why can’t you loan me that $5000. You make $100,000 more than I do.” More importantly, however saying no to my friend will cause a distance and a separation between and my friend. Separation/distance is difficult; it is sad. Recall, however, sadness is born of love. If I love someone and want to say yes, but I can’t truly and honestly say yes, I still love that someone. And perhaps my saying no is actually good for the other person in some way that I can’t fathom.
Saying no to yourself
I am a bit of a candy-holic. Not awfully addicted, but I “can’t eat just one” when the M&M’s are on the table, or the cookies, or the donuts. I can stay away from ice cream and cake a bit easier, but not much. So from time to time, like today, I am again swearing off all sweets until I can again get a hold of my addiction to sugar. All the dietary knowledge in the world won’t really get me to stop eating sweets. I have to discipline myself against them. I don’t like it. I want to gorge on donuts. I need to say no to this tendency to gorge.
Saying no to me is also related to saying no to someone else, especially people whom I truly love. When I say no to a loved friend, I probably really want to give him/her whatever that person wants, but for some reason, I shouldn’t give…because giving to that person would be giving in, not giving. So saying no to me is also love-based. I love myself, and as a result, I want to take care of my body. So my saying no to sugar is loving me…even though I don’t like it.
Many more no’s. A few genuine yes’s. And very few maybe’s.