Jul 31, 2019

In Good Faith: The Power of No

In my August In Good Faith column, I write about what might be lost if we stop saying "no" to our children.

The Power of No

“We don’t use the word ‘no’ in our home.” 

A friend of mine recently told me her teenage daughter is babysitting for a family who made
this declaration when she was hired. Shunning the n-word is apparently a hot new parenting trend, as mothers and fathers seek a solutions-based approach to child rearing, rather than a punitive model.

So, at the grocery store, when a child demands a box of Sugary Sugar Bombs cereal, rather than declare “no!” in a thunderous, Zeus-like voice, a parent seeks to engage and turn the conversation into a lesson. “I know you’d really like that cereal, but all the sugar wouldn’t be good for your teeth. Let’s find a more healthy option.” 

Of course trying to reason with a two-year-old sounds like a recipe for a meltdown, but what do I know? My kids are now Sugary Sugar Bombs-eating 18 and 20-year-olds. But then, every generation is amazed the previous generation even made it to adulthood, and every generation thinks the previous generation got parenting wrong. It’s the circle of parenting life. 

I mean, it’s amazing I survived the choking hazards of my play pen. It’s amazing my mother and father survived without car seats and seat belts. And evidently it’s amazing my own children survived the constant barrage of hearing “no.” “No, you can’t have a pet giraffe. No, we can’t trade in the mini-van for a bulldozer. No, you can’t root for the Yankees.”

But I do worry about children for whom the word “no” is verboten. The reality is that life is full of “no” and the sooner you learn to either cope with disappointment or find the resilience to circumnavigate it, the better. 

When it comes to the life of prayer, it’s often said that God offers three responses: yes, no, and wait. You don’t necessarily receive these responses as text messages. More often they are discernible through the unfolding actions and events of your life. It’s difficult when the answer is “no,” especially if we seek something important to us or to those we love. 

But we rarely, if ever, see the big picture of our lives. There’s a giant chasm between the human perspective and the divine perspective, and we can’t always know the broader implications of our petitions. Much of life, you could say, is above our pay grade. “No” is often the answer when it would negatively impact our own lives or those around us, even if we remain blind to the hidden reasons — that’s where this whole faith thing comes in. And when the answer is “no,” the first impulse is often to stomp our feet and yell at God. Yet even a “no” response means that God is listening and playing an active role in our lives.  

“No” is an important part of life and an integral piece of the human condition. Shielding children from the word, won’t safeguard them from the concept. Yes, I understand there are times when parents, especially those of special needs children, must redirect the conversation and avoid using negative terms. And there are times when we could all use some reframing from the negative to the positive. 

Yet, at the risk of sounding like someone who, back in my day, walked two miles to school in the snow, without shoes, uphill both ways, children must hear “no” in order to learn hard lessons that will ultimately allow them to thrive. In the meantime, I have some sugary cereal to eat.

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