Growing up, my parents were very firm that “no” meant “no.” If we begged or tried to get them to change their minds, we would get in trouble. That was disobedience. More than that, they thought that if they were to “give in” to begging after already saying no, they would be allowing us children to rule them and would lose control of the family. So not only were we not allowed to beg, they also didn’t allow themselves to change their minds. That would have been showing weakness.
I see this echoed in mainstream parenting literature as well—don’t “give in” to a child’s begging, parents are told. I know that this may be one of the more controversial aspects of the way I parent, but I simply can’t get on board with that. Oddly enough, it was a Bible passage that first set me questioning the wisdom of this parental truism.
Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’”
“…because this widow bothers me…”
For some reason, that passage really hit me. In this parable, Jesus portrayed asking again and again and again until you get the thing you’re asking for as commendable. When did we as a society decide that persistence was a bad thing? Or is persistence good in adult but bad in a child? Why? And more than this, when did we as parents make not “giving in” to our kids more important than teaching important life skills like compromise and negotiation?
I mean, think about it. If I ask Sean to go to the county fair with the kids and I on Friday night and he says “no,” I can ask again. I can explain that I really want us to go as a family, remind him of how much fun he had last year, and offer to drive so he can take a nap on the way. He may still decline, but not out of some sort of bullshit “I said no already and I won’t change my mind because that would be giving in” mentality.
There was another moment that struck me, too, several years ago when Sally was smaller. I forget exactly what it was she was begging for, but I realized that her persistence in keeping on asking had given me new information—it told me that this was really important to her. Was I really not allowed to change my mind based on this further information? Was I honestly stuck telling her “no” even though I no longer thought that best, just because it’s what I’d said first? That didn’t sit right.
My children and I exist in relationship with each other. Yes, my husband and I are older and more knowledgeable and have more experience than they do. Yes, my children are young and in need of guidance and teaching. But part of that guidance and teaching is helping them learn to master things like compromise and negotiation.
Let me give you a few examples of how this works.
Yesterday, the kids and I had ice cream after we got home. Later in the evening, after some hard playing outside, we sat them down for a late supper. Bobby, age three, refused his food and asked instead for more ice cream. I told him no because he’d already had ice cream earlier in the day, but he was persistent on that point, so I asked myself whether I was willing to give a bit and renegotiate. I realized that my main concern was that he hadn’t had anything but ice cream to eat since he got home from school. So I got down on his level and told him that he could have some ice cream if he ate a good supper. And so he did, and then I gave him a small dish of ice cream.
This morning Bobby asked for ice cream for breakfast. I told him no, that we don’t eat ice cream for breakfast. He continued asking, and so I got down on his level and talked to him about the importance if eating a healthy diet. He still kept asking, so I asked myself whether I was open to renegotiation. And in this case, I wasn’t. I want my children to form healthy eating habits, and that means not eating ice cream for breakfast. I got down on Bobby’s level and explained to him about healthy eating one more time, and then just let the issue be. He continued asking for another minute or two, and then gave up, and ate what I served for breakfast without a fuss.
I wouldn’t be fully honest if I didn’t admit that Bobby’s begging this morning was really annoying. There were moments when I thought wistfully of homes where children know better than to ask for something a second time after being told no. Listening to a three-year-old say “Ice cream, mom?! Ice cream?! Please!” over and over and over again can be unpleasant! But Bobby also learned more this morning than he would have otherwise, and I want this relationship, not that one.
I want to teach my children relationship skills rather than obedience, and that means being willing to “give in” and renegotiate if the situation merits it. Figuring out when I should renegotiate and when I shouldn’t can be a tricky, and it can be difficult to listen to a child begging for something in a situation where I’ve already determined I shouldn’t change my mind. In both cases, I find that it can help to get down on the child’s level and explain why I have said no. It’s these moments that are best for renegotiation as well. Sally, at six, is quite adept at finding solutions that work for both of us and meet both of our needs—a skill I want to foster.
I should note that my approach is very different from the situation where a parent looks at a child throwing a fit and says “I’ll give you whatever you want, just stop crying!” Indeed, if either child starts yelling or screaming at me, I get down on their level and tell them that that is not appropriate, and that we have to treat others kindly. If one of them were to have a meltdown or become hysterical (Bobby does this occasionally, though not often, and Sally has outgrown it), I would point them toward self-soothing techniques or wait for it to blow over and then listen to their request once they’ve calmed down.
I actually have very little trouble with the kids in the grocery store, even in the toy aisle. This is probably at least in part because I get down on their level to talk with them about things they want rather than simply saying “no” from six feet in the air. I also don’t just say “no, I won’t buy that for you.” Instead I explain why I am not going to buy it. I also affirm that they’re right, the toy looks like a lot of fun, and sometimes I do buy them something, when it makes sense to do so. And if I say no and explain why and they still beg, I’ll talk about ways they can earn some of their own money, or tell them I’ll put it on my list of things I know they’re interested in for their birthday, or Christmas, and that generally helps. And if they still beg? They usually don’t, but if they do, well, learning that sometimes something is futile and you just have to give up is an important skill too.
I should note, though, that this is one area of my parenting where I don’t feel like I necessarily have everything figured out. On some level, I’m making it up as I go along. Sean asked me this morning if there are times when asking again is not appropriate, in adult life, and pointed to asking for sex—if a guy at a bar asks a girl to go home with him and she says no, he should accept that, right? He does have a point! And I realized, in thinking about it, that I do treat physical boundaries a bit differently. If I need my space and ask the children not to sit on me, I’m not going to give in and let them sit on me no matter how many times they ask. I might be open to them sitting next to me, etc., but that’s more about finding a solution that works for everyone than it is about me compromising on physical boundaries.
Trying not to say “no” unless you mean it can help cut down on the number of times you might say “no” and then change your mind, but I don’t think it necessarily makes asking again out of order. For example, I might tell my children I am not going to take them to the pool because I am not in the mood to do so, but on seeing how much they want to go, and on their offer to get our swimming things together so I don’t have to, and their promise to swim while I sit and watch them, I might change my mind. And that willingness to negotiate is important. In these sorts of situations I’ve sometimes told Sally to “tell me why I should change my mind” or “convince me.”
In the end, parenting shouldn’t be about taking a stand and refusing to move from it. Parenting should be about teaching skills and preparing children for adult life.