Parenting

Reframing No : 12 powerful reasons to be glad when our children say No.

Do we feel glad when our children say No?

Maybe when someone offers them a cookie or a coke right 🙂

But when they say No to us… That can hurt. Leave us feeling angry, embarrassed, resentful. Exhausted, anyone?

But… glad?

Hmmm… we might start wondering what we’re doing wrong.

Or what is wrong with them?

Refusing our reasonable requests, slowing us down when we’re running late and stirring up our emotions like a whirlpool.

Yeah, in the moment, glad might be a stretch.

But wait. Let’s think about this for a minute. None of us want our child to be a pushover, do we?

We want them to stand up for themselves and for others.

So while it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient and downright annoying at times, No might not really be so bad.

In this post I’d like to reframe our thinking a little and explore some of the reasons to be glad when our children say No.

Saying No is a sign of healthy development.

Yep, you know it…

Saying No is a sign of healthy development.

An expression of counterwill described by Neufeld and Matè as ‘an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced’. A ‘natural, protective instinct’ that parents notice most keenly in their children’s toddler and teenage years.

They explain…

In essence the child erects a wall of no’s. Behind this wall, the child can gradually learn her likes and dislikes, aversions and preferences, without being overwhelmed by the far more powerful will of the parent.

And they illustrate this point beautifully…

Counterwill may be likened to the small fence one places around a newly planted lawn to protect it from being stepped on. Because of the tenderness and tentativeness of the new emergent growth, a protective barrier has to be in place until the child’s own ideas, meanings, initiatives, and perspectives are rooted enough and strong enough to take being trampled on without being destroyed.

Neufeld and Matè

So it’s a good thing when our children say No. They’re in tune with their instincts 🙂 None of us like to be told what to do and counterwill serves to protect us from being misled, especially by those who might not have our best interests at heart.

And it can push us to develop too.

When our children say No, we’re challenged in more ways than one.

Like personal trainers in the art of zen, that No can pull us up sharp. Dragging us back to the here and now, while at the same time dredging up feelings and memories we might rather forget.

Past confrontations, fears for the future and wounds from our own childhood flash by in the blink of an eye. And combined with the pressures of the day – people to see and places to be – this can be a toxic mix.

Yet every chance we have to dig deep, to consider how we’re showing up in the world and explore our expectations of ourselves and of others, is a chance to grow.

It can be hard to respond to those flat out refusals in a way that communicates our love and respect.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be talking more about this. But for now you might enjoy these posts…

Collecting our children : Reducing frustration and increasing connection every day.

Respectful parenting : Healing the hurts from our own childhood.

Being able to say No is a sign of love and trust.

When my daughter was small and announced one morning that she hated me, it was like a punch in the gut. But a dear wise friend said to me later that day, if she feels comfortable enough to tell you she hates you, she probably doesn’t. Only probably, thanks Jill 🙂

And while it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s true that most of us only feel able to let out our deepest, darkest feelings of frustration and anger with the ones we love the most.

I’ve spoken before about my journey to taking a kinder path. It wasn’t always pretty. And however much, as a child, I thought I hated certain family members, there was no way I trusted them enough to tell them, way too scary 🙁   

I would rather them defy me a little and trust me a lot.

Vanessa Zoltan, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text* Season 5, Chapter 25  

So when our children say No this can be a good sign. That they feel safe enough and trust us enough, to do so.

And with that trust, we’ve got more chance that they’ll be willing to hear our concerns, to accept our advice and to come to us when they need us most.

*Another podcast I love 🙂 This episode themed around Defiance, and the next one, Chapter 26, Obligation explore these ideas in relation to the Harry Potter stories, such a great listen. But be warned, if you haven’t read the entire series there are some major spoilers dropped in these shows 🙂

Being able to say No strengthens that love and trust.

We want to build strong relationships with our children that will last us a lifetime. To care for them as children and be available for them as adults. And for this we need that trust.

However close and connected we feel to our children, however well-intentioned and considered our actions, we can never be sure exactly what’s right for them.

Fortunately even small babies are skilled in expressing their preferences. And if we pay attention to their cues and respond with compassion, adapting the care we provide based on the feedback they give us, it’s likely they’ll keep expressing those preferences. 

I’ve heard it said that our children are testing us when they say No. Sadly this often comes with dire warnings about how we mustn’t give in, we’ve got to take charge and show them whose boss. Where’s the love and trust in that?

Maybe our children ARE testing us. Checking we’re still paying attention. Checking they can still trust us, even when we disagree, or they refuse to do what we ask.

Saying No can help our children feel safe

We want our children to feel safe.

But sometimes our own fear can get in the way.

When we worry about what might happen to our children, sometimes we get lost in protective mode. Fearing the worst and determined to head it off in any way we can, perhaps we ignore or reject our children’s attempts to disagree or say No. Tempted to put our foot down for their own good, we might resort to demands, rules and requirements.

But being able to say No is a vital protective element in any relationship. And given the length of time our children are physically smaller and weaker than us, dependent on our care unlike anyone else in our lives, surely it’s more important than ever that they feel able to say No.  

This isn’t permissiveness or indulgent parenting. It’s about respecting another human being.

And it’s about relationships…

Saying No can help our children stay safe.

Allowing our children to grow up feeling comfortable in their own skin and recognising their right to decide what happens with their own body is hugely important to keep our children safe from abuse and exploitation.

Lucy has a great blog post here explaining some practical ways we can honour our child’s body autonomy. 

When our children are small we have the privilege and the power to make decisions on their behalf, sometimes very difficult decisions. (See here and here for some thoughts on how we can be an ally to our children when their health is a concern).

And we have a choice in how we use that privilege and power. To build or to break our relationships.

Because our relationship is the best tool we have for keeping them safe.

And we get to set the tone of that relationship, and the model for the kinds of interactions our babies will expect and tolerate in the future. If we want them to stand up to others, it starts with us.

Supporting them to feel safe enough to make their needs known and to call us out when we’ve got it wrong. Safe enough to tell us we’re overstepping the mark, that our requests are unreasonable or irrelevant.  

Safe enough that they can turn to us when they need us. 

One day your child will make a mistake or a bad choice and run TO you instead of AWAY from you and in that moment you will know the immense value of peaceful, positive, respectful parenting.

L R Knost

Being able to say No builds healthy boundaries

So many of us, as adults, have a hard time saying No. It makes us uncomfortable. We associate No with rejection and hurt. We don’t want to upset anyone.

Yet when we act from a place of fear, out of duty or obligation, we can find ourselves feeling resentful, over-stretched and overwhelmed.

We don’t want this for our children. We want them to build up those confidence and assertiveness muscles. And that’s what they’re doing, when they say No.

And when we respond with respect, allowing for dialogue and disagreement we all get the chance to learn more about what feels right for us.  

We want our children to believe in themselves, to know deep in their hearts they are worthy of respect.  

That morally and legally, everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to have a say in the decisions that affect them, and to have their opinion taken seriously. 

And that these rights apply no matter our size or our age.

We all have the right to say No.

Being able to say No frees us up to think of others

Sometimes when our children are all about the No, we worry they’ll grow up to be insensitive, obnoxious and selfish.

We get this funny idea that by respecting their preferences and being open to disagreement, we’ll encourage them to be self-centred and uncaring. When the reverse is more likely to be true.  

‘You can’t give what you don’t have… and if you want your children to give generosity and kindness and patience to others, you should give them so much they’re overflowing with it.

Sandra Dodd

It’s when our own needs aren’t met, that our focus narrows, largely locked on to fulfilling those needs.

When we respect our children’s right to say No, even when we don’t understand it, we free them up to hear and respect No from others. No longer fighting for their own needs, they’re more willing to accommodate the needs of others, even when they’re vastly different from their own. 

Saying No builds decision-making skills  

The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.

Alfie Kohn

Figuring out what we want has to begin with having the freedom to not want…

Neufeld and Matè

Offering our children choices and the opportunity to reject what’s offered to them, and asked of them early in their lives, helps them become better decision-makers.

One day our children will be the ones with the power and the privilege to make decisions on behalf of others, maybe our grandchildren and maybe even us.

Welcome the chance for them to practise now when the stakes are relatively low and we’re right there willing and able to support them with the consequences of their choices.

Saying No allows for clearer thinking

Without the freedom to say No, our choices restricted and feeling at the mercy of others, we don’t make the best decisions.

Our focus shifts from weighing up the risks and benefits to resistance mode, seeking freedom wherever we can find it.

Our judgement is skewed and our reason is blurred. When we feel locked into a power struggles, we lose touch with our inner wisdom. Those instincts that warn us when something or someone is dangerous.

We want our children to be able to tune into those feelings, to trust their own judgement and to be able to say No.

Being able to say No encourages our sense of responsibility.  

When our children feel unable to say No, to reject our requests or disagree with our ideas to our faces, then it’s likely that once when they get the chance to do it behind our backs, they’ll take it.

And fuelled by that urge to resist being controlled, their sense of responsibility for themselves and for others, gets lost.

They might be inclined to take more risks, to lash out at others in frustration and anger, and to react defensively or aggressively, rather than in our own or anyone else’s best interests.

Yet as a species we’re wired to connect, to form communities and to conform. Harbouring a deep seated fear of being abandoned and rejected from the tribe, it’s not easy to go it alone.

So we join new tribes, ones that might not have our best interests at heart.

Or we suppress those urges to resist and find ourselves conforming to the most devastating degree.

Without a sense of the freedom to act on our own terms it’s much easier to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility, resulting in harm to ourselves and to others, and increasingly to our planet.

The ultimate gift we can give the world is to grow our tiny humans into adult humans who are independent thinkers, compassionate doers, conscious questioners, radical innovators, and passionate peacemakers. Our world doesn’t need more adults who blindly serve the powerful because they’ve been trained to obey authority without question. Our world needs more adults who challenge and question and hold the powerful accountable.

L.R. Knost

Being able to say No can lead to the most wonderful and wholehearted yes

No doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. It can be an invitation for more communication. A chance to learn more about our children, to connect with them at a deeper level and to demonstrate our respect for them.

The more we push our children to say Yes, the more likely we are to find ourselves in a standoff, with our children digging their heels in and fighting for their freedom.

But when they feel free to say No, then they’re also free to say Yes. Wholeheartedly. Without obligation and resentment. And with love.

And isn’t that a reason to be glad?

I hope this post helps you feel a little reassured that No is no bad thing 🙂

But, I know, hearing No isn’t always easy for any of us. And so as promised, coming up soon are more practical posts on how we can up the levels of co-operation and consent in our relationships.

You can subscribe to the blog and follow us on Instagram if you’d like to be notified when these go live.

Please feel free to let me know what you thought of this post in the comments below, and I’d love to know if you’re a Harry Potter and the Sacred Text listener too.  

Wishing you all a wonderful week 🙂

4 Comments

  1. This is so true. Just today as my daughter stood up to me (almost face to face-eek!!) and expressed her frustration in my approach at asking her to tidy up, I had to think about this “saying no.” After I had a rant 😂 I sat down and we talked about our frustrations and reached respect. I actually thanked her for standing up to me and voicing her opinion so eloquently. Ha! Because in that moment I realised she felt comfortable enough to be honest. When she was little and she expressed her own mind, it was always something I wanted to cultivate. Like you say, we want our children to be strong and comfortable enough to take ownership. Great thought-provoking post.💗

    1. Hayley says:

      Thanks Alice, great to hear this post was timely for you. Well, maybe not so great for you in that moment but you know what I mean 🙂 Really appreciate you sharing your experience and your kind words. Hope you managed to get the place tidied up, that’s something I need to work on right now 🙂

  2. Hayley, this is so thoughtfully written. I came back to this a few times, partly because I was interrupted a few times, but also because I found it better as a “slow” read as I thought through examples from my own life and experiences with my children through different ages. It was a great read as a mum with at least one child who has always been very proud of his ability to say “no.” :). Such wonderful points and quotes.

    1. Hayley says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment Erin and taking the time to read it through more than once. Much appreciated! ‘Proud of his ability to say no’ – I love that and good for him 🙂 Yes, I have at least one of those too. And while it’s tough in the moment, definitely something I’m glad of long-term.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.