Why We Should Teach Children to Say “No”

Why We Should Teach Children to Say “No” April 21, 2015

I recently came upon an a post by blogger MaryEllen titled Six Things My Kids Are Not Allowed to Say to Adults. With some trepidation, I clicked through. This is what I found:

One of the most important things I want my children to learn is to respect authority. They will never learn to be obedient to God if they cannot first learn to be obedient to the adults God has placed over them.

For that reason, we are very careful to enforce respectful speech when speaking to adults.

This is not about being a drill sergeant; this is about helping your child understand his or her proper role in life.  Everyone has authorities, even adults, and teaching children to submit to those authorities from an early age will help them their entire life.  If your child has a hard time respecting authority now, what will he do when he has his first job and he doesn’t want to do what his boss says?  You’re not doing your child any favors by allowing him to do and say whatever he wants to his authorities.

Okay, so let’s talk about this idea that everyone has authorities they have to obey.

There are reasons I do what my boss says—because these things are part of my job, and I signed onto this job, and because if I don’t do my job, I will lose my job, and I want to keep my job. In other words, I don’t follow my boss’s instructions just because she’s my boss, and therefore my authority, and I have to obey my authorities. If my boss told me to do something unethical, I would say “no.” If my boss asked me to do something and I knew I was already swamped, I might ask for a reprieve. I’m not a robot, blindly following my boss’s orders. Life doesn’t work that way.

Soldiers follow orders because they know that the system only works if people follow their orders, and because they signed onto this job knowing this is what it would entail. But soldiers are also supposed to disobey an order if it is unethical. Soldiers are not supposed to be robots blindly obeying their orders either. In fact, we’ve had whole trials over this question—can a soldier get out of responsibility for a war crime if they were only following orders? The answer is definitive—no, they cannot.

When we as adults follow orders from authority figures, we almost always know the reasons behind those orders. We know that we have to obey the traffic rules or we will get a ticket, but we also know and understand why those rules exist. There are very rarely times we have to obey an order just because an authority gives it. The only time I can think of where that is the case is in emergency situations, but even then, even if we don’t know why a particular order was given we understand why following it is probably a good idea—i.e., that emergency personnel are trained to handle emergency situations and therefore probably know what they are doing.

As for being respectful to our authority figures, I would argue that we should learn to treat all of those around us with a certain degree of respect. I don’t want my daughter treating her friend badly anymore than I want her treating her teacher badly. Yes, her relationship with her friend is different from her relationship with her teacher, but both are people with inherent dignity, and that’s what I want her to learn. I would argue that we should learn to interact respectfully and healthily with all individuals. Teaching children to be especially respectful of those in authority over them can set them up to be taken advantage of.

Here’s the first thing MaryEllen says she doesn’t allow her children to say to adults:

1. “No.” This is the ultimate defiance toward authority — when a child outright says they will not do what they’ve been told to do. Just today, one of my boys playfully said “No” when I told him to do something, but went immediately to do it. I stopped him and instructed him that he is never to say “No” to an adult, even in jest. I don’t even want him to get comfortable saying it to me or any other authority. It will make it that much easier to say it and mean it if he is allowed to get in the habit of saying it at all. 

Um, wow. Can I say what a bad idea this is? 

Teaching your child to never say “no” to an authority is not preparing them for adulthood. At all. Instead, it prepares them to fall into patterns of abuse or dysfunction. It prepares them to obey an unreasonable or abusive boss rather than going to HR or quitting and finding another job. And so forth. Children need to know that they can say “no” to those in authority over them, both as children and, in the future, as adults. 

In the present, before they grow up, teaching children not to say “no” to an adult makes them perfect targets for abusers. A child who has been taught never—ever—to say “no” to an adult is laid open and ready for grooming and abuse. Children very badly need to know that they can say “no” to adults. It seems some of the commenters on MaryEllen’s post pointed this out, so she added this update: 

(Update: it seems many are concerned about instances in which a child may find himself being touched inappropriately, asked to go somewhere, etc.  That is an entirely different topic, and I DO firmly believe children need to be taught how to handle these situations.  They need to know they will never be in trouble with mom and dad for protecting their personal privacy however it needs to be done – including saying no to an adult.  For purposes of this post, I am merely talking about instances in which an adult gives a legitimate command; my child is not allowed to tell them no.)

But go back and read the first paragraph—she definitively states that she teachers her children never to say “no” to an adult. Never. You cannot both teach your child to never say “no” to an adult and teach them to say “no” to adults who would abuse them. Even if you use a generous interpretation and assume she only means not saying “no” to adults who are directly in authority over them (rather than all adults), this still fails. Abuse is usually carried out by a family member or other trusted adult. Children need to know they can say “no” to adult authority figures in their lives, and that is exactly what MaryEllen is teaching her children they can’t do. 

MaryEllen adds this example:


Me: “Johnny, you need to pick up the toys now.” Johnny: “No!”  (continues playing)

Um…that is a problem.

Me: “Son, when mommy tells you to do something, you don’t tell me no.  What does God say children are supposed to do?” Johnny: “Obey their parents.” Me: “So if you disobey mommy and daddy, who are you disobeying?” Johnny: “God.” Me: “That’s right.  So why should you obey?” Johnny: “Because God says it’s right.” Me: “For that reason, I cannot allow you to tell me no.  I cannot allow you to disobey God by disobeying mommy.  Why don’t we try this again?”

Okay, wow. Talk about setting yourself up in the position of God to your children. In contrast, I teach my children that it is my job as their parent to teach them right, and that if I don’t, they absolutely should say “no” to me. I am not perfect. No one is! I would rather my children learn their own value and worth and to stand up for themselves—including standing up to me—than I would them learn simply to obey me. 

The worldview underlying this whole approach is so vastly different from the worldview I hold today that it’s almost boggling. MaryEllen would probably say that the ideas I’ve outlined here set me up to raise rebellious, obnoxious, selfish children. Not so in the least. I teach my children to treat all people with respect and kindness, including their parents. I teach my children that they are part of a household and a community, and that as such they have a responsibility to contribute, whether it be in cleaning up after supper or in spending a day helping out at the community garden. 

I think people sometimes think of parenting as a dichotomy, where either the parents give the orders and the children obey, or the children give the orders and the parents obey. Not so. These are not the only options. We run our household on cooperation and compromise rather than on authority or commands, and my children are learning the value of both. Yes, sometimes mommy and daddy know best, because we have more lived experience than they do, but even then our goal is always to teach, not to dictate—and our children are always allowed to become part of that conversation. 

I feel for MaryEllen’s children. I was raised in just the environment she describes in her post. I was not allowed to say “no” to my parents—it was considered backtalk. I learned that obedience is “immediate, complete, with a smile, without question, and without complaint. This did not prepare me well for the world around me at all. I still have trouble interacting with authority figures like my boss, because I’m forever afraid of getting in trouble, even over little things. “Obey me completely or reap the consequences” does not prepare children for adulthood. Instead, it simply warps them, and I’m still dealing with the consequences of that today, as an adult with children of my own. 

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