Years ago, during my training, I attended a seminar that met evenings at the home of an eminent Boston psychologist. Arriving early one night, I heard children shouting distantly above me, up in the third floor. Then suddenly I heard the eminent psychologist’s voice boom out, “Because your goddam father says so, that’s why!”
I was stunned. I didn’t have children yet, but I imagined that, properly trained, you would never have to speak to your offspring this way because you would always know how to get them to comply. And I knew the eminent psychologist would be embarrassed to have a rookie overhear him in a most unpsychological moment. But he came down the stairs and, with no trace of embarrassment, said, “Hi. How are you?”
It had been a hot day. His sons, aged ten and twelve, were sweaty and dirty, and he wanted them to take baths started so that they would be ready for bed when his seminar was over. He called up to get their attention—once, twice, three times. No answer. The fourth time they yelled back, “What.”
“Come down here,” he told them.
“Why?” they yelled back.
So he told them why. He wasn’t enraged, he was just telling them. Often, this is the only answer a parent can give: “Because I say so.” During 30 years as a parent and therapist, his example has stayed with me. He was a very caring father, but one who cared enough to insist when he needed to. More and more parents, it seems, find it hard to say no.
We are busier and more pressed. We have less time for our kids and feel guilty. We want things to go well and often lack the energy or patience for family friction. And often, we’re not confident about what is the “right” way to handle problem behavior. Moreover, many parents have been led to believe that it is harmful to say no to children.
Just the opposite is true. A key contributor to strong self-esteem in children is clear limits by their parents. When children know what goes and what doesn’t, their world is more secure. They grow up more confident, even if there is occasional controversy at home. When they never hear “No,” things may be smoother on the surface, but children don’t gain the skills and confidence they will need as adults and parents.
One way to say no constructively is to avoid overexplaining. When you have explained to children three times why they must do something they don’t want to do, or can’t do something they do want to do, what else can you offer? Repeating yourself a fourth time is unlikely to cause them to say, “Ohhh, now I get it. Thank you for persevering. I see that you were right and I was wrong.” Once you’ve heard your child’s point of view and reclarified your own, there is not much more you can say, except, “Because your mother says so.”
Needless to say, seting limits can cause upset and friction. This is not just inevitable, it is useful. For young people to eventually become successful parents they need good models. There is no way to do this and keep them perpetually happy. But the ultimate point of parenting is not to have children like us all the time, but to have them belike us when they are raising their own children. Parents certainly have a right to limit how children express their dislike, but not to expect that children won’t be disappointed or resentful. What they need to do is to let their children “get glad again.”
The phrase is my mother’s. Sometimes, when she just seemed impossibly rigid and my sister and brother and I told her so, she would say, “Well, you’ll just have to get glad again,” and walk off. Instead of arguing further, she just stopped negotiating. She wasn’t upset, she didn’t yell. She said it matter-of-factly and left the room. It made me furious—temporarily. I used to think to myself, “I won’t get glad again.” But of course I always did. Children always do. But even if they didn’t, there still isn’t much else a parent can say, once she has explained the reasons for her decision, and repeated them a time or two. As long as the decision is consistent, in a broad, general way, with her established practices and core values, it is unlikely to harm the children. Even if they dislike it they can make sense out of it. And as long as parents can remember this, they can be truer to themselves and can give their children a framework for growing up and for becoming good parents themselves.
Dr. Evans, a psychologist, is the Director of HRS. This article is adapted from his book, Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with The Crisis in Childrearing.