Telling Kids 'No' Is a First World Problem

Is it significantly harder to tell children “no” today than it was twenty or thirty years ago? That was the question posed to a parent group by a school administrator in my community recently. She was leading a study group covering the book No: Why Kids–of All Ages–Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It by Dr. David Walsh. The question seemed to be directed toward a critique of technology and media, the sheer amount of advertising and instant gratification in our culture. But could there be a more fundamental answer?

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted one of those Little Tikes Cozy Coupes. You know the ones, the plastic red car with the yellow dome that you peddled around like something from The Flintstones. I wanted one of those so bad. By time my parents finally got one, I was too big for it, and it primarily benefited my younger sisters.

I know now what I did not realize then, that my parents could not afford to buy me a Cozy Coupe when I was young enough to enjoy it. Part of the burden of being the oldest, along with having nascent parental skills beta tested on you, is being raised during your parents’ least affluent earning years. There were certain things that I just didn’t get to have. My parents had to say “no.”

But does that really count as saying “no”? If the reason you don’t get something for your kid is because you can’t afford it, have you really denied them? Isn’t the impact of “no” felt most in relation to something utterly attainable?

This is where my mind went when the administrator asked her question, because my kids are bombarded with their every heart’s desire. As the first among a new generation of grandchildren, my oldest son has never had a Christmas or birthday with fewer than a dozen presents. Even if I tell him “no,” he eventually gets what he wants from the rest of the family. This is a decisively First World problem, but a problem nonetheless. How do we teach key lessons about scarcity, value, and delayed gratification in an affluent culture?

A handful of ideas which came up during the parent group discussion:

  • Regularly give to charity: one mom shared that she has her children comb through their belongings and unload accumulated toys to charity. She also has them give rather than receive to mark certain occasions.
  • Window shop: instead of avoiding the toy aisle for fear of their begging, let your kids browse to their heart’s content with the understanding that nothing will be bought. I do this with my boys and note their preferences for future reference, building Christmas and birthday lists. They seem to develop an appreciate for delayed gratification.
  • Talk openly about cost: in an age-appropriate manner, bring money into the picture. How much does something cost? What does that translate to in terms of hours worked or alternative goods?
  • Meter out presents: holidays and other special occasions can leave you with a pile of new junk. Instead of letting junior tear through it all at once, confiscate most of it and withhold it for future use. This works especially well for younger kids, for whom out of sight is out of mind.
  • Because I told you so: last but not least, a good old-fashioned appeal to authority never hurt anybody. Sometimes, even if you can afford something, even if they’ve been good, even if you can’t think of a good reason to deny them, saying “no” because you can establishes who is in charge.

Share your own strategies in the comments section.