I need to learn the art of saying ‘no’ to my kids. Sometimes, it’s easier to give in, because saying no takes a real toll on me as a parent. How does one say ‘no’ to the kids, without having a mutiny on one’s hands? My children are four and nine.
It’s a tiny little word. But it’s causing havoc in the home. Parents today are hard-pressed to find ways to use it effectively, and with as little damage as possible. And children today can go ballistic as soon as they hear the word ‘no’.
Perhaps a cartoon from the 1950s sums it up. It shows a six-year-old boy introducing himself and his toddler sister to a visitor: “My name is No, and this is my sister Don’t.”
And today, 50 years later—surrounded as we are by an overkill of technology, products, information, lifestyles, intoxicants, food and choices—there are so many more things to which a parent has to say ‘no’.
As with most aspects of parenting, saying ‘no’ is a tough call. Each time you need to do it, you have to come up with a decisive, effective and palatable way.
Here are five no-nos for when you’re saying ‘no’:
u Never say “No, because I say so.” We’re almost in 2008. Your child expects and deserves an explanation. However, do remember to keep it short and age-appropriate. No point going into quantum physics when you’re saying ‘no’ to a 12-year-old wanting to “drive the car, only in the compound”.
u Avoid adding disparaging remarks. Say ‘no’ firmly but kindly, with a few valid reasons. Do realize that the word erects a 10ft-high wall of frustration for your child. You really don’t need to add barbed wire by saying things like: “Only dumb girls go to discos. Why can’t you find more sensible friends?” Even worse, is to throw “clever” lines at children, such as: “Which part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
u Double standards are out. You can’t get away with it—your child will catch you out at once. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” is a totally dated line, and it never worked in the first place. For instance, parents who eat erratically, don’t exercise and lug around many extra kilos cannot really say an effective ‘no’ to their kids’ demand for junk food.
u Avoid giving contradictory messages. The child, whether six or 16, needs to feel that you know why you’re saying ‘no’, and that you are consistent. Saying ‘no’ cannot depend on your being in a mood to be parently and hyper-responsible one day, and in a lazy chalta hai (everything goes)mood the next.
u Do not be drawn into a bargaining session. Once you’ve said no, avoid negotiations. “If you let me buy this dress today, I promise I’ll wear that boring salwar-kameez to that wedding tomorrow”—this kind of deal-making is not a good idea, since all nos henceforth will be seen as “negotiable nos”.
Here are five dos of saying don’t:
Patience pays: Convoluted sentences and being irrational are not the ways to show who is the boss.
u Have alternatives to offer your child once you’ve said ‘no’. This isn’t negotiating—it is just a way to reduce the frustration. A sweeping, all-encompassing ‘no’ is very difficult for a child to digest. A ‘no’ with an alternative is easier to accept. For instance, “No, you cannot watch TV during exam days...but we can go out on a drive if you want a break.”
u Child-proof the environment. With young children, it pays to anticipate situations where you may have to say ‘no’, and try to distract them beforehand. This involves, first, making your home a child-safe place, so you’re not constantly asking the child to not touch this, not go there, not sit here, et cetera.
u With older kids, too, you can anticipate a demand for stuff in a store, or for soft drinks at a party. Here, it pays to set down limits in advance: “You can have one cola at the party, and two scoops of ice cream.” Or, “You can buy this now but then, for Diwali, we’ll have to buy you something small.”
u Demonstrate to children (without lecturing, of course) that you, as an adult, are faced with many nos too. Children tend to think that parents are created to thwart and frustrate them, and once they become adults, they won’t have to deny themselves a thing! Let your children see that you, too, set yourself many no’s—which may be frustrating too, but are ultimately for your own good.
u Over and above the grind of school life, find out what your children are good at and really enjoy doing. In a world that seems to be all about consumption, try to find what makes your child tick—something that can’t be got off a shelf. This involves much more than money: It requires you to invest time and energy. But it’s well worth it. You’ll find that there could be a sharp cutback in the build-up of the N-bomb.
For those of you in the thick of the civil war, does this all seem like a tall order? Yes, it is. Parenting is serious business. But it doesn’t have to be a grim business.
My eight-year-old daughter is an oversensitive child. She cries easily, is very attached to people, and can’t stand to say goodbye. So, the end of vacations with relatives or friends really becomes traumatic; she is inconsolable for many hours. Even after a dinner with friends at home, she simply vanishes into her room when people get ready to leave. One of her grandparents is very ill, and I really don’t know how she’s going to handle it if events take a turn for the worse.
Farewells are never easy, but they don’t have to be traumatic.
Saying goodbye—for all of us—is, in varying degrees, a sad experience. For children, it is often traumatic. From the very first “ta-ta” we teach them, there are so many partings and farewells that they have to experience in their lives. The first sad, and often traumatic, “bye” is when a child experiences being parted from a parent who leaves everyday for work. Most children get over their initial sense of loss and abandonment by having someone else—like a grandparent or nanny—to turn to at that moment and, mainly, by developing the faith that the departing parent is sure to return. This is the reassurance that we must provide and stick to as far as possible. A phone call sometime in the day helps greatly, too, so that your child, whatever his age, knows that he is in your thoughts.
In today’s world of high mobility, people move neighbourhoods, cities, countries, even continents, many times in their lives. This generation of children is, therefore, dealing with many more goodbyes than earlier. Kids need to be reassured and encouraged to stay in touch with people through email, letters and occasional phone calls. This way, some level of continuity is maintained, and children learn to remain linked and invested in relationships instead of developing an overly “here today, gone tomorrow” approach to emotional ties.
The most painful farewells, of course, are those that kids must say when they encounter death. The loss of a grandparent, a favourite aunt, a friend, a pet…all cause much pain, confusion, fear and even anger in children. It is absolutely essential that the child is allowed to grieve and, yet, provided with a kind of base support for her anguish. Gently, at appropriate times, the child can be led through the process of such a loss, so that she understands the inevitability of it, and yet, learns to believe that whatever she had with the person/pet is in no way lost or negated by death.
Some dos and don’ts that will help you to see your child through separation or loss of any kind:
u Explain the situation, but do avoid being overly rational and wordy. Sometimes, silences provide the best reassurance and empathy.
u Don’t be in a hurry to have your child “get over” the loss. Let him stay with the feeling, and in this way acknowledge to himself that a relationship is/was precious.
u Sometimes children appear casual and offhand when they have to say goodbye. Don’t mistake this for insensitivity. They are struggling with feelings inside: Give them space and time.
u Do avoid insisting that children say goodbye only in a format that you prescribe (“give your aunt a hug,” “say bye, I’ll miss you”, and other such instructions).
u Calm feverish imaginations—many children fear the worst when their parents come home even a little late—by calling them up if you’re delayed. Avoid telling them about a near-accident you may have had on the way back or about an accident you saw, etc.
u When dealing with death, find ways to teach your child to hold on to the essence of the departed person—the good feelings and memories, so that the sense of loss is not irreparable and devastating.
All cultures talk about life as a journey. Let us help our children deal with the many co-passengers, arrivals and departures that they will encounter on theirs.
(Send your questions to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org)