How to teach our children to say ‘no’

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Yesterday I went with a friend to a restaurant. They had made a mix up with the reservation and they wanted to put us in the basement, which was pretty depressing. I was about to say ok, when my friend answered: ‘Definitely not’. As a result, they prepared a nice table for us outside and we had a wonderful meal in the sun. I admired my friend’s ability to stand up for himself and say no. We all know these people who struggle with setting boundaries. They are the ones that get the most work at the office. They are the friends who will usually do the largest commute for a meet up. They will consistently sacrifice their needs to please others. Sometimes we are these people. As a parent I often think of how can I encourage my daughter to be true to herself and her needs and stand up for herself. Here are a few thoughts:

Respond to the child’s needs: There is nothing that can teach our children to respect their own needs better than our responsiveness to them. By responding, we are sending the message: ‘Your needs are important and deserve to be met’. They will hold that belief for the rest of their life.

Stop worrying about kids ‘behaving’ and encourage them to be themselves: Infants and children are naturally social. From the smile of the six-week old to the toddler who will come to you when you call them, kids aim to please. They naturally tend to sacrifice their own wants to fit in. They imitate us and learn all the behaviors we want to teach them without any effort from us (from good manners to doing sports). This is a revolutionary idea championed by Jasper Juul, that goes against the popular belief that ‘children are born monkeys and need our help to adapt to society’. I started observing my daughter and it was true. 9 out of 10 times she would do exactly what we told her to do, even in the ‘terrible twos’. We just naturally pay more attention to when she doesn’t, because it creates conflict or inconvenience.

Additionally, society, from grandparents to teachers will use a lot of ways (usually carrots and sticks) to encourage children to collaborate and ‘behave’. As internal and external forces push our kids to cooperate, it is an even bigger responsibility for parents to foster our children’s ability to do what they themselves want rather than what others want. If we don’t, nobody else will.

Have age-appropriate expectations: When I was three months old I had a daily conflict with my mum because I would spit out the puree she was trying to spoon-feed me, following doctor’s orders. Now it is widely known that infants have the tongue-thrust reflex until around 6 months to protect them from swallowing what they should not. It is widely known that we should not give solids to a 3-month old! I was doing something natural for my age that served my well-being. Unfortunately, due to lack of knowledge, I was driving my mother crazy.

The minimum we can do is inform ourselves about normal behaviors per age. It is normal for an 8-month old to put everything in their mouth. It is normal for a 1.5 year old to want to explore and not sit still. It is normal for a 2 year old to have tantrums when disappointed.

Celebrate the ‘nos’: I show my daughter that ‘no’ is an acceptable answer and that she is not any less loved when she does not agree with me. I try to respect her opinion as much as possible. She does not want to get dressed? That’s ok. I ignore people’s opinions and have a toddler walking around half-naked and shoe-less most of the time. She does not feel like eating more? That’s fine as well. And goes on. I am not suggesting doing everything our children want. That would result in an insane parent and a little person that does not know how to respect others and deal with disappointment. We should set personal boundaries, enforce matters of safety, etc but we should also try as much as possible to have empathy and give our children control over the important things in their life.

Set personal boundaries: Instead of setting boundaries around the child like dictators, we should set boundaries around ourselves.

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Instead of this - Source: Your Competent Child by Jasper Juul
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This - Source: Your Competent Child by Jasper Juul

What’s the difference you will ask. The obvious difference is in the language. ‘I do not want you to play with my make up’ is different than the ‘You are not allowed to play with my make up’. Always use personal language (I want, I do not want, etc) when setting limits. It is more honest. It does not create a power hierarchy in the family. It teaches children personal boundaries. Every person is different. Making a mess does not cross my personal boundaries (I am pretty comfortable with mess) but it does cross my husband’s for example. Personal boundaries work the same for things that do not directly affect us, eg: ‘I do not want you to watch TV’

It is hard: If setting boundaries to adults is hard enough, it is close to impossible to do it with a two-year old:

  • Toddlers struggle with empathy until they are four. Few bits of knowledge have helped me as a parent more that this. Young kids are not going to get the ‘why’ of the boundary. They cannot understand that mommy is tired for example, or that pulling her hair hurts.

So every moment of crisis we need to ask ourselves: ‘Is this really an important personal boundary of mine?’ Is the boundary really mine and not society’s or my parents’? If yes, by all means, go ahead and set that boundary. It is important for both you and your child. You have all our parent-solidarity with you because we know it’s hard.

Set the example by standing up for yourself: People usually avoid saying ‘no’ from fear of conflict or to please others. They may achieve pleasing others but they loose the most important thing in the process, themselves. A lot of my loved ones are people-pleasers. I love them for it, but it stresses me out. When I ask them for a favor I cannot be sure if it’s honestly ok. They would say yes even if it wasn’t. What can adults do to set more boundaries?

  1. Become more self-aware: Who are the people you most struggle to say no to? Is it your boss, your friends, your partner, your kids, strangers? In which area of your life would it be most beneficial for you to change this?

To summarize, we need to put a lot more effort into raising kids who are themselves and say ‘no’ rather than kids who ‘behave’. We need to work with ourselves to set more personal boundaries so that we are happier and also model a positive example to our kids and others. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

‘Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place’ Anonymous

Executive Coach at www.theleaderpath.com. Former Google business leader. Fast Company & Thrive Global Contributor.

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