The Power of “No” for Well-Intentioned Parents

If as a child I have not been told ‘no’ by my parents, then when I become an adult, I will not be able to take no [for an answer] from anyone at all. In relationships with children, love often expresses itself in the capacity to say no when necessary.”

               Eknath Easwaran, founder, Blue Mountain Center for Meditation

Re: J.D. Salinger, author of  “The Catcher in the Rye:

“Doted upon by a mother who ‘believed in his talent completely,’ the young Salinger came to expect the same reaction from others and had little patience or consideration for those who might doubt him or not share his point of view.”  This sense of specialness would later calcify into an impatience with other people, an inability to grow past Holden Caulfield’s adolescent either/or view of the world, which would eventually crimp Salinger’s later fiction, rendering it increasingly solipsistic [extremely egocentric, i.e. self-centered] and judgmental.”

   By Kenneth Slawenski in  J.D. Salinger, A Life, 2011, Random House


 “Is it solipsistic in here…or is it just me?”


These quotes speak eloquently to the role parents play in establishing core values in their children; a sense of who they are, i.e. a sense of “self.” By doing so, parents influence the development of social boundaries and limits which their children will model in their regular daily interactions in school, with peers, and with parents and siblings.  Boundaries and limits also serve as the basis for the development of personal expectations regarding how children treat and expect to be treated by others. Children who “want” without thinking to “give” or do something in return do not appear out of thin air; they are taught and schooled in the belief that they are entitled. 


And it is a natural process, the giving without expecting anything in return. After all, parents usually want to give to their children; often they want to give more then they were given when they were children! Parents give of themselves and of what they have with the best of intentions.  No matter how difficult it may be, seem or feel like, a parent’s responsibility however is to develop and establish a path for their children that allows each child to be able to deal with the realities of the world he/she will confront.  Sometimes this duty to have the child earn what he/she acquires is more difficult than to just give each child what s/he wants or what the parent wish to give.


Instead of giving “open-minded or weak-willed permission” by allowing our own needs and desires as parents to interfere with what is in the best interest of the child, we need to take a hard look at our reasons for permitting or indulging children to act in ways that are unproductive and ultimately not in the best interests of the child.

Role of Boundaries and Limits:


Individuals benefit from establishing appropriate boundaries and limits in their lives. This is true whether it applies to how we labor at work, apply ourselves in school, exercise, eat, etc.  Children, however, cannot establish these boundaries or limits on their own.  They both desire and require adults to impose some consistent and predictable structure in their lives. Experiencing the limits or boundaries imposed on them and being modeled by their parents in turn assists children in establishing and managing expectations for themselves.


   Parents aren’t and were never meant to be friends with their children; they were meant to establish and model ways of behaving, believing and making one’s way in the world. The parent who forgets this is bound to raise a child who is self-indulgent, demanding (spoiled) or rebellious (non-compliant) or self-centered.


   It is no doubt sometimes difficult, challenging or unpleasant to have to practice discipline as parents in managing our children.  Establishing which values or activities are appropriate or inappropriate for children is tedious, demanding, requiring diligent effort and constant attention on the part of each parent.  This process becomes even more difficult and complex when children “push back” and refuse to cooperate.  This “push back” occurs when children have not had some form of structure taught to them as they grow from infants to childhood to adolescence to young adulthood.  As children grow and boundaries and limits naturally shift to accommodate and encourage individual growth and responsibility, parents must similarly encourage different expectations and expressions of personal growth in their children. 


The process of development in which every child grows to become an individual with unique abilities, goals, hopes and desires can be described in many different ways.  One way of understanding child development is as a reflection of each parent’s role in overseeing, providing encouragement and support to their children. Age appropriate boundaries and limits present an ever-shifting target. The shift to the next stage occurs and changes naturally as each child grows. Requiring that your children demonstrate mastery, competence and individual responsibility in relation to clearly set boundaries and limits at every stage is most helpful and instructive for them. A child of 4 years of age should have different chores and responsibilities in the home that change and shift as they grow older. This evolving process is a basic part of early child development and child rearing. Shifting the level of responsibility and action is especially important for successful parenting to assure that neither the child nor the parents get “stuck.” To believe or understand otherwise is to misunderstand the difficult and challenging if not well-intentioned role of being a parent!

Role of AwarenessWithout being willing to increase our awareness of what drives our behavior, we are less apt to label it as being meaningful or appropriate.  It is very difficult for most parents to go against their own personal history, feelings and experiences in applying these same values and experiences to how they raise their own children.  Even though parents know that their children are living in a very different world and are exposed to very different environmental demands (in school, media, technology, etc.), i.e. a different climate, parents often persist in preserving and maintaining out of date, ineffective methods that yields little success for the child or the parents!


Role of Strengths-based Approaches & Strategies:

  Strengths-based parenting approaches emphasize focusing one’s energy as parents on building upon existing and displayed strengths and abilities.  Rather than “just say no,” it instead asks parents to “catch the child being good” (i.e. doing those things which are constructive and in the best interests of the child and family), while also “telling the child what he/she is doing right” so that the child is informed of what pleases and catches the attention of the parents.  It is strategic to ask each parent to set up opportunities for their child to succeed in order for the parent to then be able to approve and “just say yes!” A strengths-based approach to parenting clearly communicates and instills approved of boundaries and limits but does so in an affirming, positive manner.


So the next time that your child desires something, consider viewing that request in light of the above.  Remember that earning something brings greater value to ownership or enjoyment of the activity or reward. And I encourage you to believe that it is often the journey that is the real reward, not what is acquired when the journey is complete!