I confess. I can find it hard to say “no” to my six-year-old, especially when she throws me a winsome smile with an eyelash fluttering; “Pleeese.” Indeed, my dear mother-in-law chortled at my writing this article, as she has seen me skirt round the dreaded N-word on many occasions with my offspring. To her generation’s bemused view, you just say “No” and that’s that. Spit spot. No need to pussyfoot.
To myself and my subsequent generations, though, it’s become a bit more complicated. As we have become more aware of the child’s point of view, and of the damage created by being too tough, punitive and even abusive, many of us have found it harder to say “no” effectively. I always felt the answer was “no” as a child, even before I asked, so I have tried to meet my own child’s demands halfway. Or perhaps 75 per cent, or maybe even 100 per cent, when her watching a second video buys me an extra half hour of paperwork time.
And there’s the rub – the impossibility if managing modern life is somewhat to blame. Parents, especially women, can find it hard to say “no” because of feeling guilty and overloaded all the time. Diana Appleyard, 42, a mother of two and author who lives in the Home Counties, admits: “I find it hard to say ‘no’ which is typical of many women of my generation. I feel guilty that I have an independent life and work, and that my career is important to me.” Diana says that working is “like and indulgence, which takes me away from the role of traditional wife and mother”.
This guilt leads her to overcompensate by being unable to say “no” to her kids. “I end up tying myself in knots trying to do everything to an impossible degree of perfection, and then I end up feeling exhausted and resentful,” she says. The tyranny of trying to be a perfect parents, of not repeating our parents’ mistakes, of getting it all right, can lead many of us to fear the N-word. We can allow babies and toddlers to dominate our lives completely. Of course, they need to in a sense; indeed, they’re programmed to, in order to survive. But many of us – and I include myself in this – have erred so much on the side of putting our children at the centre of things then we cease to have any psychological or physical space left for ourselves.
Thus, as with most things, the pendulum has sometimes swung too far in the direction of all-out permissiveness, which can be damaging to a child. Of course, I do say “no”, especially when it really matters, such as if she runs in front of a car, pulls the cat’s tail, hits another child or gorges on chocolate. But I can find myself doing a veritable fandango of reasons and excuses, rather than saying a simple and firm “no”. Such a little word. So hard to say, especially by hard-pressed or over-sensitive parents.
We are told that discipline in our schools is almost non-existent and that children need to respect authority (for their own sakes, of course). The problem, however, is that there is probably a generation or two of today’s parents who grew up with such stern, implacable or inconsistent parents, that their own child-rearing practises have become somewhat confused.
Take my acquaintance Sara (not her real name), who is in her mid-thirties, and married to Tom. Sara’s father left her family in the lurch when she was small, and her fear of further abandonment had made her a bit of a doormat with her children and husband. Tom is usually away on business, and leaves her to hold the fort. Sara lets her five-year-old son punch her, and let her three-year-old daughter pinch things from other kid’s houses. Sara admits to being ineffective. “I can’t stop them,” she says feebly, “they run me ragged, what can I do?”
Sara’s own lack of emotional security means she gives her children mixed messages: she’s permissive for ages, and then she blows up and slaps them. The cycle is repeated, and, consequently, the children become confused and somewhat brattish.
Children will always demand firm boundaries because they need to feel safe and secure. If, as parents, we avoid saying “no”, for whatever reasons, it can make children feel unsafe. Whether it’s dealing with a tired toddler, who is throwing the inevitable wobbly in a supermarket queue (don’t they always?), or a testing teenager who wants the latest designer good, we get pushed, as parents, to draw a line. Saying “no” brings up strong feelings in both child and parent. The child feels contained and denied, and may well react by shouting, screaming, being rude, throwing things, crying or slamming doors. At the same time, the parent can feel bad, too. Saying “no” too fiercely can make you feel punitive and unloving; saying it too softly can make you feel ineffectual and overwhelmed.
Handling the emotional fallout of a “no” that hits the mark takes courage, intelligence and skill. Standing firm, while saying “no” lovingly, but without being unnecessarily punitive, can be a fairly effective method. It’s tough to get it right in practice, though, especially if you fall into either the toddler-taming camp, where sanctions and punishments are all, or the over-permissive camp, where you fear harming the child with unnecessary “no’s”.
Mandy, 43, a lone parent with five children ranging from 12 to 21, had to learn to say “no” the hard way, as her kids were literally ruling the roost. Mandy in the North-East works full-time, managing a video store. She became a doormat for her five kids, largely to overcompensate for her recent divorce. “I wanted to make it up to them, and be both mum and dad, so I felt I couldn’t say ‘no’.” She would make five different dinners at meal times, as well as be a constant taxi, mobile-phone messaging and loan service. Things got so bad, she would let her eldest daughter turf her out of the bath when she was going out with a blunt: “You, get out the bath.”
Mandy admits that she was scared of her own children. Wrongly, she thought that if she tried to please them all the time, it would only help things. It didn’t, Things got worse. Only when one got in trouble with the police, and another ran up at £800 phone bill, did she put her foot down. Desperately, Mandy went on an assertiveness training course, run by the council of mothers on the estate.
“I learned to say ‘no’ to them at last,” she explains. “I began to set boundaries and stand my ground. They didn’t like it at first and played up, but I learned to say, ‘you are guests in my house and you have to do this, or you’re out.’” She stopped letting them use her as a taxi and a phone service, and set them household chores so they could “earn” money. Mandy had emotional support from other women in her group, who were also trying to handle unruly offspring.
Over time, she has gained confidence and self-esteem, and home life has become much happier altogether Mandy now goes out twice a week, and the kids are behaving themselves better. “You need to sit and tell your child why you are saying ‘no’,” she explains. “It doesn’t do you or them any good for you to be a doormat. I say to them, ‘the answer is No. What is it you don’t understand about No? Is it then N or the O?’”