Defaulting to a ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ as a Parent

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

My role as a parent is constantly shifting: one moment I’m a playmate, the next moment I’m the referee. It’s a constant dance of connecting and embracing versus putting down boundaries and guiding (sometimes gently, sometimes less so).

When my son was still just a baby, I read about different views on parenting and was very much enamoured with the view that Alfie Kohn proposes in his book Punished by Rewards, which looks at how to impose boundaries in a way that respects both the parent and the child.

My journey as a parent has been nowhere near as idyllic as the vision he describes, all the more because my journey as a wife and woman has been quite difficult as well. There are, however, aspects of his vision on parenting that have stayed with me.

One of them is that I tend to offer ‘complex affirmations’ rather than a simple ‘good’ when my children ask for feedback. I’ll point out the details in a drawing and the vibrant colors, or I’ll mention how much it helps me when they unload the dishwasher because it leaves me with more time to spend with them. This very much ties in with how you would approach parenting from an NVC point of view.

Another one of the key points of the book that recently popped up in my head again was to be aware of when you say ‘no’ and why. As a parent, ‘no’ is often my default when my kids ask me something.
‘Can I have some chocolate?’
‘No, you’ve already had too much sugar.’
‘Can you play a game with me?’
‘No, I’m busy.’

Sometimes I even rush in with my ‘no’ before they’ve asked a question.
‘No, you can’t go over there!’

And I get it, my own impulse to say ‘no’. It’s a way to try and keep control of a situation that is inherently uncontrollable. Children are human beings, with their own ideas, desires and impulses. There’s no way we can actually control them, but we try. Because we want to keep them safe, teach them things and shape them into people who know how to behave among others in a healthy way.

Saying ‘no’ too often, however important it may be, tends to make that ‘no’ lose its power though. It also means that we might change our ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ after we’ve thought about it more closely, or after they’ve pestered us for long enough. I know, I know, that’s not being a consistent parent, but if you’ve said ‘no’ to something you don’t really care that much about, you’re much more inclined to let it slide after a while. And once you let one go…

So one of the lessons I want to reeducate myself on, is to think more clearly about my answer to my childrens’ questions. I want to make sure that I have a really good reason to say ‘no’ to something.

When my children asked me for a pet, it took me a long time to say yes. I needed to think about all the ‘nos’ that came up in order to make room for a positive answer. It took me two years, but last Monday we welcomed Ginny Crookshanks (see photo) into our home and I know that I’ve not jumped into something I will harbor resentment over because I’ve taken time to consider all the positive and negative aspects fully.
Yesterday, my daughter asked me if she could color her hair (she wants it red like Ginny Weasly). My immediate reflex would have been: ‘no, you’re a kid, we don’t color kids’ hair.’ But this time I took a little longer and couldn’t really see why it would be an issue if she had hair in a differet color.

Yesterday, we went into the city and bought some hair coloring. Opening the box, I found out that it was meant for 16+, but online I found hair shampoos that are less agressive. She’s so excited, and so am I. Turns out that saying ‘yes’ is also way more fun than saying ‘no’, though I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Now, my default tends to be ‘no’, but you can also default to a ‘yes’. It might be more fun, but it can also be problematic when your ‘yes’ means you make promises you can’t keep. Both an inconsistent ‘no’ and an inconsistent ‘yes’ are difficult for kids to deal with. They make a world that’s already quite complex even less easy to predict.

While I’m pondering what to answer, there are a few lines I keep on the tip of my tongue to buy myself time. You’re free to use them whenever the mood strikes. These are some of my favorites:

  • I’ll have to think about it.
  • I’ll discuss it with …
  • It depends on whether X or Y has taken place.
  • I’ll do my very best to make it happen but these plans my fall through due to illness/weather/price…
  • What makes this so important to you?
  • Are there alternatives you would consider as well?

By not jumping to an answer, you also create room for discussion which allows the child to feel heard and understood. Whatever the answer may be after that, it will be easier to bear if the reason behind it is clear, and if the child knows you’ve considered it fully.

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