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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Respectful parenting- how to say NO

I always cringe when I hear a parent proudly proclaim that they are 'friends' with their child. I wonder what they think this means. You are not one of your child's peers; you probably don't share their interests, or at least not at the same level; you are almost certainly not stimulated intellectually or emotionally by the same things. To strive to be your child's friend is fraught with danger.
The truth is that children really don't WANT you to be a friend in that way. Your child needs you to be a parent, even when they might be screaming to the rafters that they hate you for some boundary you've set. Children without boundaries are scared children, and one of those boundaries needs to be around you; teenage children whose parents are intent on being their 'buddy' will learn how to manipulate that relationship very quickly, and will resent you trampling on their territory to boot.

There's nothing stopping you holding out a friendly hand over the parental boundary and speaking to your child in the tone of voice you would use to a dear friend of yours. You can be a loving, respectful parent, and speak in a friendly way to your child, without trying to be their friend. Friends and parents have completely different roles in a child's life; you can't be both, and I'll guarantee that none of their peer-group friends are going to step into the parent role you've vacated.

Let me illustrate some different parenting styles when the answer to their question probably should be 'no'. 
Scenario: your 12-year-old daughter wants to buy a very revealing sequinned top.

Response 1: No, you're too fat for that.

Response 2: No way.

Response 3: Great, I'll get one too. Maybe we can wear them together when we go to the go-karts next week!

Response 4: Whatever... I'm just going over to look at the bikinis.

Response 5: No, it's too expensive.

All of these answers have fatal flaws. 
Criticising your child's body size is emotionally abusive at any time; to do so in public is truly cruel. As a parent you have NO excuse for making comments like this, and you should jump right down the throat of any relative or friend of the family who does so. If your child is seriously overweight, you do need to address the problem; criticising her is NOT addressing the problem.

A simple 'no' is clear, but authoritarian; it shows no interest in the child's motivation, so you distance yourself from your child if you use it first up (it's fine to use it if they start to whine after you've used a respectful response). 
The parent who thinks they're friends with their daughter joins the party and reinforces the child's interest in the top, regardless of its lack of suitability (if you close your eyes and picture that scene, you'll probably see the 12-year-old cringing- the vast majority of teenagers hate to be seen out with their mother at all, let alone in matching outfits). 
The parent who doesn't even really notice the problem with the top, because she's thinking about herself, is neglectful- does this parent even care if her daughter goes to the mall with her budding breasts hanging out? 
Saying the top is too expensive may even be true, but it's a cop-out- that isn't the real reason for saying no, and dodging the issue with a half-truth is not respectful.

So, what IS the right answer? It's somewhat longer and full of detail; that's what respect means- taking the time to be honest and give complete answers. 

There are five requirements for a really good answer to a tricky question, which don't need to be addressed in any particular order:

Tell the truth. 'I feel uncomfortable with the thought of you going out wearing that....'

Give a reason. '...because it's very revealing, and I think the wrong sort of people will look at you the wrong sort of way when you wear it. Look- see how loose it is at the sides? I'm sure you'd hate it if (name a boy she dislikes) was getting an eyeful like that.'

Give a boundary, sincerely apologising not for saying no but for crushing her hopes, which recognises her feelings. 'So I'm sorry to disappoint you, but no, you can't have it.'

Reinforce your role. 'When you're old enough to earn money and choose your own clothes, you'll be old enough to decide to wear that if you want, but right now my job as your mum means I need to protect you from harm. I can't protect you if you go out wearing something as revealing as that.'

Find out more about their point of view and then move on based on their response. 'What is it that you like about it? Is it the colour or the style? Maybe we can find something a bit less revealing. Where would you like to look next?'

Note that the sequins AREN'T mentioned. 'Sequinned' may be hideous, but it's not dangerous; imposing your own taste and fashion values on a child (or ridiculing theirs) isn't friendly either. If all their friends are wearing sequins, that's what they need to fit in. 'Revealing', on the other hand, may be dangerous. PICK YOUR BATTLES. 
Here's another common dilemma, this time facing parents of young boys. Can you pick what's wrong with some of these responses?

Scenario: your 14-year-old son asks to go to his best friend's party; given what you already know about this boy's parents and older brother, you suspect there will be alcohol freely available and little or no adult supervision.

Response 1: I guess all kids your age want to go to things like that. Don't get too hard into the booze, mate- don't want you hung over the next day! <laughter>

Response 2: Hang on, I'll ring around some other mums and see what they think about this.

Response 3: No. No son of mine is going under-age drinking.

Response 4: What? Ask me later, I'm cooking dinner now...

Response 5: Well, let me think. I know he's your best friend so I'm not surprised you want to go, but I'm not all that impressed by the way the last party there ended and I've got a responsibility to make sure you're safe. I'm worried that you'll drink because everyone else is, and end up making yourself sick or doing something you regret later. Let's talk about it a bit more after dinner. Maybe we can work out some ground rules so you can still go, but I won't be worried to death. How about you think of some suggestions while I finish cooking? 
Response 6: No way, that kid's parents are total drop kicks.

Hopefully this was easy! 
The parent-as-friend is too busy being buddies to take the risk of alienating their child, and instead takes the risk that the child will be in danger. Not good enough!

Ringing around as a first response is a cop-out. Other mums aren't bringing up your son- you are. There's nothing wrong with gathering information, but in the first instance it's your child you need to talk to if you want to be respectful.

The authoritarian answer concentrates on the parent's feelings only. Yes, it's understandable to feel like that, but if you want to keep the lines of communication open, you'll have to do better than that, too.

Dealing with it later is neglectful. What's more important than your son actually ASKING to go to a dodgy party, rather than just climbing out his window and going behind your back? Take a reality check! He's done the right thing- give him some time.

The respectful parent acknowledges the child's point of view, is honest about their concerns and reinforces their role, but does NOT totally shut off trust without giving the child a chance. The gates are opened for negotiation of a compromise, and though the timing's bad, the child is reassured that the matter will be revisited SOON and is given a constructive task to do while he waits.

And the final response? Criticising your son's friend's parents is almost as bad as criticising him or his friend to their face. It alienates your child, and puts him in the difficult position of either telling his mate what you think of his parents or concealing that from him. Would you do that to one of your own friends? It's not friendly- don't do it!

I can already hear some parents complaining that their child won't take 'no' for an answer. What do you do if your child just won't leave it alone?

Don't change your mind the first time they start to whine, whatever you do! Reiterate your reasoning and change the subject. After that it's time to send them off to do something else if they keep whining. 
If the campaign is still going strong the next day, you may need another strategy; it's obviously important to them for some reason. First, ask them to tell you all the reasons they can think of for you to change your mind; they need to address all your concerns. Then ask them to give you some time to think about it again. Tell them you can't think while they're nagging you. 
Do as you promised. Go over what you've decided and think about whether you were fair and reasonable. This is the time to ask friends or other family members for their opinion; older brothers and sisters can be a real help here, because they're of a similar generation to the child in question and have more understanding of how the peer group works. Listen to what they say, but in the end you have to be happy yourself that you've made the right choice. It's okay to change you mind if you feel comfortable with that now.

Explain the process you've gone through to your child, regardless of the result. He or she needs to know why you've changed your mind just as much as they need to know why you're standing firm; it's important they understand that it wasn't nagging that did the trick if you DID change your mind!

The bottom line answers if you're still saying 'no' are something like this: 
'No, because I love you, and to let you do that would mean I didn't care.' 
'No, because my job description as mum/dad means I have to take better care of you than that.' 
'No, and I know you feel like you hate me for saying that, but I'm prepared to wear that right now because I care about your happiness- not just now or next week, but every day into the future.'

Good luck!


  1. My little 7yr old tends to gain stability from the boundaries we set for her as parents. She often reply's to being not given permission to do thing's by stating that she understands why we make rules or judgements for her, and that it's because we want to her to grow up knowing what's intrinsically right or wrong. She has also often said that " we do this so she can grow up to be a nice caring girl" ;-) Sure she pushes boundaries like other kids, and should be allowed to do this at her age I feel, as without the experimentation how could she ever be able to make sound judgements herself.
    By no means are we as her parent's perfect. I guess it's a matter of trials and tribulations for all concerned. We are quite open to her point of view too and often take it on board when playing the "overseer" in decisions she make's, or one's that we as responsible parent's have to make for her. But mostly always with an explanation prior to (sometime's you just don't have the time or chance and often a de-brief after the event. I think this encourages a higher order thinking pattern to be a natural pattern in herself, which hopefully pay's off for her in life.
    I'm a firm believer in whilst the truth may be confronting and sometimes hurtful to views of the involved in the instance, it always results in a positive..:-)

    Another wonderful topic Aunt Annie, thank you for the food for thought..and your seemingly never ending passion..

  2. Thanks Lisa. It sounds like your little girl is getting the best possible parenting. None of us manages to do it perfectly, I assure you, and a lot of what I write is with the benefit of hindsight after making mistakes myself. So keep up the great work!

  3. OMG I can not stop reading your blog lol. No. Seriously. Save me... :)

  4. Mariah? No, I will not save you from reading!! lol Reading is good! But I do hope to save you some of the pain of parenting. :) Glad you're hooked!

  5. Could you direct me to some incredible help (such as above) for a preschooler? I'm having a hard time lately with my son, for whom the explanation sort of "No," just doesn't work. For example, when he hurts his baby sister (9 times out of time she is within his reach), I explain it is not right to hurt people. He may not hurt people. It physically hurts them, makes them cry, makes them hurt inside, etc., he just replies, "But I like to hurt people!" I'm obviously using too many words, but don't know how to shorten it for him. And the "punishment" sort of "consequence," such as "If you choose to hurt someone, you are choosing to have whatever toy you're playing with put away" of course does nothing but to make him angry with me.

    Anyhow. I love this post and just know you must have already written something for parents of younger children!

  6. I would recommend Janet Lansbury's RIE approach for younger children- is a great place to start. Janet directs most of her advice to the parents of infants and toddlers, but I think much of it is applicable to preschoolers too. At preschool age most kids are still developing the skill of empathy, so putting other people's point of view to your son is likely to be ineffective at a moment of crisis; Janet's 'calm CEO' approach- 'I won't let you do that' accompanied by gently holding their hands if necessary- gives him a boundary from YOU, instead of asking HIM to think and consider. That's what he needs.

    My feeling is that your son is also not comfortable with the balance of power since his sister arrived- 'I like to hurt people' sounds like 'this makes me feel more powerful in a situation I can't control' to me. Make time to spend with your son alone, doing fun, positive things. Explain in advance what you are doing when you need to care for the baby, and let him have some input (but within realistic boundaries). Work on your positive relationship with him and he will be much more likely to listen when you have to put on the CEO hat and prevent him from doing unacceptable things.

    The very best of luck to you- you can change this!

  7. Here's another link to check out for the Schneldales:


  8. Thank you so, so much for your very quick and personal response to my question. It all makes sense - and even works! We started anew today, and boy does it feel better. Just simply reading Teacher Tom's analogy (that's how I ended up here, his blog) of the dog recoiling at the leash started us on the right track. It just takes a little nudge back on course every now and again. Thank you again!

    - Kristin


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