The title of this piece may startle or surprise you. After all, few enjoy the limits and finality the word “no” implies. Could such a thing ever be considered a way to show favor toward someone, or to offer assistance, as the dictionary suggests a gift should be? In my twenty years as a parent, counselor, and public educator I have come to see that saying “no,” when done judiciously and appropriately, is a gift all children deserve, for it enables them to grow into the responsible, balanced adults we wish them to become.
Fundamentally, the world is not limitless. No matter what a family’s resources or philosophy, there are societal rules that cannot be ignored, unsafe acts that should be avoided, chores that must ultimately be faced, life events that are out of our control. Everyone, even reluctantly, must learn to cope with these natural limits life brings. This gift of “no” teaches children they cannot have everything they want, when they want it. It says,” you must consider the environment and other people before you act.” It implies that many decisions are not up to children, and that sometimes children must do things they do not wish to do. “No” helps to keep children safe. And, most humbly, this gift gives children a realistic view of life by saying “you are not in charge of, or the center of, the world.”
Yet saying “no” to our children and consistently following through on limits may be one of the hardest parenting skills to recognize, learn and master. It is an art to use “no” wisely, consciously avoiding the dangers of being overly restrictive and punitive, while being willing to discipline when necessary. In studying the challenge of limit setting within myself as a parent, and with the parents I counsel, I see an increasing confusion about the importance of discipline, and a consequent reluctance to provide children with the instruction they need in accepting limits. The gift of “no” is becoming more difficult to give, for various reasons.
Culturally, we live at a time in the United States when choices are highly valued and apparent everywhere, from the supermarket to national politics, creating the illusion of limitless bounty and acquisition. Even limit-setting families who diligently protect their children from exposure to the media and commercialism must contend with this powerful cultural dynamic present in every American community.
Some parents are philosophically opposed to the idea that saying “no” to children is instructive or healthy. They may believe children deserve unlimited choices, or that children will learn how to make choices in the world without guidance. They may wish to protect their children, for as long as possible, from the limits of a harsh world. Or they may adamantly believe saying “no” is “mean”, based on a child’s understandable upset in reaction to limits.
Other parents intuitively sense saying “no” is in the best interest of children, but find it difficult, if not impossible, to do. Those with gentle personalities usually struggle to find a firm voice. Some are exhausted by modern life and cannot muster the stamina limit setting demands. Others wrangle with guilt over not having enough time with their children, and are reluctant to face the struggles inherent in the process of limit setting. Some are wrought by the anxiety many new parents face concerning whether it is the “right” thing to do.