Why I Stopped Saying No To My Kids

When people learn that we unschool, they generally assume that we let our children do whatever they want all day. Theoretically, this is true. Beyond “do no harm,” there are not many rules in our house. We like to think that we do not have “arbitrary” rules. However, after the birth of my third child three years ago, things in our home started to change.

I found that more and more rules seemed less and less arbitrary.

It started slowly and then picked up steam. I was saying no a lot. I had reasons. I had good reasons! No, you cannot have twelve packs of fruity snacks for lunch. No, the last time you were a sumo wrestler, you ended up with a goose egg on your head. No, six hours of streaming Minecraft videos is not a reasonable amount of screen time. No, I cannot take you to the trampoline park because when someone breaks an arm there will be no one to hold the baby during the ambulance ride.

I was saying no to things not because they WERE bad or dangerous, but because they had the POTENTIAL to be bad or dangerous. Or complicated. Or inconvenient.

My boys are energetic, loud, full of really interesting ideas…and home with me all the time. Some days, just keeping them fed and clean and off the roof feels impossible. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing our relationship as a partnership and started seeing it as an obligation. I started making decisions from a place of self-preservation, and my kids noticed. I was not on their side anymore. I was just another obstacle in their way.

I think I was also attempting to shield them from negative consequences. I convinced myself that a lecture was less damaging than whatever potential disaster awaited them. I would just explain to them why it was a bad idea to lean back in their chair at the dinner table or not wear a jacket on a 30F degree day. They would believe me because I am older and wiser and know what is best. They would never get hurt or be miserable again.

Right.

Several months ago, I realized that the “no” rut I was in was damaging my relationship with my kids. I started noticing the boys hesitating to ask me things or changing their minds about asking if they saw I was not in a good mood. They were coming up with ways of getting what they needed without me. They were also doubling down hard on the things they could not escape discussing with me, which led to a lot of arguments and head-butting.

The day I found my four-year-old hiding under the bed with a huge stash of mostly eaten candy, I realized a change needed to happen. He did not come to me because he thought I would say no to candy. If he trusted me, we could have worked out a reasonable amount of candy together, but he did not know that I was on his side anymore. He felt he had to figure out his problem alone and, as a result, ate his weight in chocolate secretly and made himself sick. Suddenly, I could see what a dangerous path we were heading down.

I was setting myself up to be my children’s enemy.

Immediately, I resolved to do things differently. I resolved to say yes more. Since my moment of awakening, I have been examining every request my children have and, if my immediate reaction is no, I have been asking myself, “Why not?” If I cannot think of a concrete reason to say no, then I find a way to say yes. There are far fewer concrete nos in the world than you might think if you take a second look. 

Can I eat this paint? No.

Why not? It will taste terrible…and it is also non-toxic. After one taste, you will never want to taste it again. Okay. Taste the paint.

Can I have chocolate for lunch? No.

Why not? Chocolate is not nutritious…and we have a very limited amount. You will be hungry again quickly. You will eat something else rather than fixating on the chocolate. Okay. Have some chocolate for lunch.

Can I run into the street? No.

Why not? Because cars drive in the street sometimes….and if I let you go into the street when there are no cars, while watching and guiding you out of the street when a car is coming, you will learn to avoid moving cars and not empty streets. Okay. Let’s go into the street.

By giving my children the information I think they need to make wise decisions instead of making decisions for them, I can provide more opportunities for them to practice making wise decisions, and learn from their mistakes (safely!) when they don’t. We also learn to compromise, negotiate and problem-solve when we are on the same team. 

So, I started saying yes more.

Yes, you can have fruity snacks for lunch with your grilled cheese. 

Yes, you can be a sumo wrestler! Let’s push the couch and table out of the way so you don’t bump your head.

Yes, you can watch Minecraft videos until we are ready to start a new project together.

Yes, I will take you to the trampoline park when we have a babysitter so that I can jump and play with you.

Yes, you can have some candy! Let’s decide how many pieces would be yummy without giving you a belly ache.

It is not that I am afraid to say no, it is simply that I have learned it does not usually serve my purposes. Now that “yes” is the default once more, the kids are relaxing again. They are coming to me with their problems and remembering that I am on their side. Some people believe that if you say yes too much children will not know how to handle no, but the opposite has proven true in our case. When the answer is no, it is no for a good reason. We talk through the reasons. When they trust you, children are perfectly capable of understanding a reasonable no. Our home is more peaceful and cooperative when no is kept in its proper place. 

Additionally, doors that I had not even realized were closed have been opened by saying yes more.

Since saying yes to more screen time, my four-year-old started playing Minecraft and now my two oldest boys have a shared interest, which has calmed their bickering, and my eight-year-old has discovered Youtube illusionists and a new interest in magic tricks. We have tried new restaurants, found new playgrounds, discovered new toys, learned new games, gone on road trips, enjoyed deserted beaches on icy days, had more sleepovers, parties and playdates with friends, tried new foods, spent more time together, laughed a lot more, and created some unforgettable memories.

It turns out that yes is not all that much more work than no and it is usually a lot more fun.

I thought I was protecting myself from being spread too thin by saying no. I thought I was protecting my kids from danger or disappointment when things did not work out the way they thought they would. But, in reality, all my “no” was doing was building a wall with me on one side and my children on the other. My kids will get older and their problems will grow larger than a desire for unlimited fruity snacks. The last place I want for them to be when that happens is on the other side of a wall that I built.

No matter how big the “no” wall becomes, it is never too late to tear it down. It is not the easiest thing to do, or the most convenient, but it is one of the best things I have done for my relationship with my children. There are enough walls in the world; we do not need any more in our home.

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