The Strength to Say No

My mother used to tell a story I thought was about me. Later, when I was a parent myself, I realized that the story was actually about my mother and her style of parenting.

The story goes like this: I was about four years old and we had plans to head into New York City to see Omy, my great-grandmother. As usual, my mom made a big deal about sprucing me up for a special visit. Dress. Mary Janes. Fancy socks. Shortly before we were to get into our station wagon, something set me off and I threw what my mother described as a “tantrum.” She warned me, “Keep carrying on like that and you won’t come with me to see Omy.”

I ignored her and continued to scream. My mother then gave me a second warning, not because she wanted to give me a second chance, she explained, but because she didn’t want to disappoint Omy, who was looking forward to my visit. Still, I carried on. At that point, my mother concluded, “I told you, ‘Go into your room and take off your dress. You’re not coming with me.’” Then she gathered up her keys and drove to the city alone.

While I don’t remember this incident, I have no doubt that it happened. Why? By the time my own bank of childhood memories kicks in, I cannot remember raising my voice or resorting to tantrum-like behavior to get my way. Ever. For whatever reason (and I think that incident at age four must be it), I knew that yelling, let alone resorting to out-of-control behavior, would not be an effective tool of persuasion with my mother.

These days, we practice what we think of as a more tolerant and compassionate sort of parenting. With the emphasis on making our children feel special at every turn, the idea of saying, “No”—and meaning it—carries very little currency. Time and again, I have heard parents, myself included, offer a “No” that packs no wallop. We issue warning after warning. “Stop it…I really mean it this time…If you do that one more time, I’m going to…” Then, whatever line we draw (no juice, no playdate, no TV tonight), we step over it and fail to implement the consequence.

Why are we so afraid to establish boundaries and honor them? Do we think our “flexibility” will make our children happier? Do we think our lack of resolve makes us a more loving parent? Do we want to be the “cool” parent? The “understanding” parent? Our child’s “best friend”? Do we not trust our instincts? Our authority? Our parental duty to educate our children about what constitutes appropriate behavior, and what does not?

When my child was young, I usually favored a “Yes” over a “No.” I wanted my child to feel both that she could speak up and that I would listen. But as the years tick by, it gets harder and harder to make my “No” heard. At 21, my daughter does not hear my “No” unless the consequence speaks to something she wants or needs—and, at 21, that pool is drying up.

I used to hate that story my mother told. Now, I think she was a very wise woman.

Jill Smolowe

Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents