When our kids are little, it’s fairly easy to determine when to set limits. Clearly, a toddler trying to chomp on woodchips at the playground or wanting nothing more than to dart into traffic—that’s a hard no.
But at some blurry threshold, our child’s wants begin to enter the picture, and parenting gets a bit more complex.
Say your toddler has launched a hunger strike for anything that’s not cream cheese. Or your 6-year-old wants you to buy all the books at the book fair. Or you have a 10-year-old who’s the “only kid in the whole fifth grade without an iPhone.” (Here’s a take on how to handle kids and technology.)
As parents, a significant part of our job is figuring out how and when to set limits for our children.
So when should we say no? How should we say it? And is there a time and a place to just say yes sometimes?
If it feels like it’s harder to set limits with your kids than it was for your parents, you’re probably not imagining it.
Dr. Susan Newman, social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, believes that our current parenting culture makes it inherently harder to say no. “We’re in a culture of yes parenting,” she says. “We’re trying to raise star children and keep up with the Joneses, and that affects how we interact with our children.”
In addition to our culture, Newman cites a plethora of other reasons parents might struggle to say no, like an attempt to assuage working parent guilt; having grown up with overly strict parents and wanting to be popular with our kids.
And then there’s perhaps the most common reason parents give in— because we don’t want to deal with the inevitable meltdown when we say no. This is something every parent who’s ever braved the grocery store with a hungry or tired toddler has experienced. Is it worth it to say no to that chocolate chip cookie and risk a public meltdown? Is it worth it to give in and risk spoiling dinner?
There are a number of good reasons for parents to get comfortable saying no to their kids’ demands. “Kids need limits and boundaries. They need to know what to expect,” says Newman.
Beyond establishing limits, saying no teaches kids important life lessons, according to Newman, including:
How to cope with disappointment
Honing decision-making skills
A balanced life means there’s a time and place to say no
“You’re subtly honing their skills to say no,” adds Newman—a trait that we all hope comes in handy during our kids’ teen years.
Tess Brigham, a therapist and coach, suggests taking the time to consider the values you want to pass onto your kids, and use those values to guide your decisions on when to say yes or no. “Ask yourself, ‘What is my intention—and why is it important?’ What are you hoping your child is going to learn?”
For instance, let’s say your child loves soccer and asks you to spend thousands of dollars—and entire weekends—to play travel soccer. You might let your values inform your decision. Does your child live and breathe soccer, and is pursuing a passion full-throttle an important value for your family? Or are you someone who values keeping your family life simple and incorporating downtime into your schedule?
“We tend to react a lot as parents,” says Brigham. “I try to help parents stop reacting and start thinking about what’s important to them, and then make decisions based on that.”
When it comes to your child wanting material goods, one of a parent’s most powerful tools is an allowance. An allowance provides kids with a structured boundary around what they can buy. It also teaches them about delaying gratification in order to save up for something they really want.
John Lanza, Chief Mammal, Author and Creator at the Money Mammals, is a big proponent of allowance—and using it as a simple way to set limits. “You’ll be at the store with your kid and they’ll want something that costs more than they have,” he says. “It’s really important to say no. You can say, ‘You want an item that costs $20, and you only have $10. When we get home we’re going to set a goal and start saving for it.”
If, like many parents, you’ve previously given into your child in the past to avoid a public meltdown, your unexpected refusal will likely spark a protest. That’s fine. It’s part of the process, says Lanza. “Once you’ve set limits a few times, your kids will realize you’re being firm about it.”
With older children, he says, you can even tie an allowance to your child’s favorite items. If you’re raising a clothes horse, for instance, you can estimate how much you might spend on clothes for your child yearly, divide it by twelve, and give them that amount monthly to spend on clothing.
This type of limit-setting doesn’t need to be stop at finances, either.
After Halloween last year, my husband and I realized that our kids had gotten in the habit of eating dessert every night. If we refused, our daughter would stage a massive meltdown. So we talked to the kids and decided to set a dessert allowance—they would be allowed to eat dessert on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Having a structured plan reduced the battles over treats significantly.
Even when we’re setting limits on things other than money, we’re helping our children become capable humans who can manage their finances (and lives) with aplomb.
While saying no inevitably leads to our kids’ disappointment, the delivery can have a big impact a child’s reaction, says Newman. She suggests being firm, but using a soft voice, when saying no.
“If you lower your voice instead of raising it, your child is more apt to understand.” She also advises using empathy when saying no. “If you can understand where the child is coming from, that can go a long way in terms of reducing arguments, frustration and tantrums,” she says.
“You can say, ‘I know you’re disappointed, but that’s not happening now.’ You’re saying no, but recognizing that your child really wants something. Understanding that they’re unhappy goes a long way toward reducing the arguments and the frustration and tantrums,” Newman explains.
The fear of raising a “spoiled child” can be a powerful motivator, but that doesn’t mean we should never indulge our kids. Just use a bit of common sense, says Lanza. “If you’re going to indulge your kids, do it irregularly.”
If you’re one of those parents who finds it all too easy to say no to your children, Newman suggests setting a “no budget.” She suggests, “Consider what you’re saying no to, how often you’re saying it and set a limit.
Tell yourself that you’re only going to say no six times today,” she suggests, so it doesn’t become your reflexive answer to everything. That way, your kids will see that you’re a reasonable human who can make judgment calls, but “no” remains part of your vocabulary.
No matter your approach to saying no, keep in mind that kids generally recover from disappointment pretty quickly. Newman says, “They’re onto the next thing pretty rapidly when they see you’re firm.”
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