When Parents Refuse to Say 'No,' Kids Rule the Roost

I recently received an exasperated call from my friend Jen, who is also a mother to a toddler. She and her family had spent the weekend with friends out of town. They were hoping to enjoy being away for a change, to catch up on old times, and to get to know the couple’s young daughter, who is three years old. Unfortunately, they had their work cut out for them. Their trip was more like a prison sentence. And the three-year-old girl was the warden.

It turns out that the friends they were visiting (let’s call them Mike and Sara) are among a scary and growing crop of parents who refuse to tell their children “no.”

Let’s look at some reasons parents today might avoid this two-letter word. I glanced through several parenting articles and found the following:

  • “No” can act as a challenge for a toddler, making the behavior even worse. (I know about this one firsthand. My son loves to hear “no” because in his mind that is permission for him to push my buttons even more.)
  • “No” might hurt the child’s feelings
  • “No” limits their ability to express themselves
  • “No” is a form of authoritarian parenting – hey, aren’t we all in this together?
  • “No” implies the child has no choice in the matter
  • “No” is negative – parent positively!
  • “No” creates unnecessary boundaries

All sarcasm aside, while “no” might result in some hurt feelings here and there, and while it does create boundaries, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used. It has been shown time and time again that children need, even crave, structure and discipline to thrive. Knowing what the boundaries are allows them to operate freely within a structured setting – thereby keeping them safe, and preparing them for life in a world where the word “no” isn’t considered a bad word. If a child isn’t given restrictions as he matures, how will he know what to do in school or at baseball practice (or at his first internship years later), when someone finally imposes limits and restrictions on his life?

I am personally not a fan of harsh parenting, per se. My husband and I try our best to explain situations as much as possible to our toddler. We feel he needs to understand why we do what we do, so that he can start to piece together the puzzle and make educated choices as he grows. But there is no excuse for downright bad or dangerous behavior. Being aggressive with the dog or rude to another child or adult will result in a firm “no,” no matter what.

During their weekend away, Jen and her husband were appalled by how Mike and Sara’s daughter could get away with treating them and their young son so poorly. She was downright mean to Jen’s little boy, and didn’t even get a sideways glance from her parents. The group did whatever this small child wanted to do all weekend, and were ordered around from beginning to end. Mike and Sara shrugged, as if to say, “What can you do? She knows what she wants.” Jen and her husband were mortified.

It is certainly possible that Mike and Sara set out with the best of intentions. Maybe they wanted to be gentler parents, and incorporate more communication into the raising of their daughter. No one can fault anyone for choosing a kind approach to parenting. But when a child’s behavior starts to negatively impact those around her, it is a sign that more boundaries need to be put into place. It is absolutely feasible to be a loving, accepting and communicative parent who also happens to say “no” when the situation warrants it. Sometimes it’s the “no” that will help that child the most in the long run.