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Say "no" happily

You are the gateway for everything your kids want and need: all their food, their toys and how they arrange their time. At junior school age, it all goes through you. It’s easy to forget that control you have, and how powerless they are; at least in our house it feels much more like a compromise and a collaboration than anything so controlling. But that is the dynamic that underlies your relationship. You are the boss.

Because you provide almost everything in their lives, they will ask you for things. They will ask for more than they’re allowed to have, so you will have to say “no”. The trick is being happy about it. They’re allowed to ask for things, and you’re allowed to refuse, so do it with a smile. (See Happy Children by Dreikurs for more on having the courage to say “no”.)

Personally, I hate saying “no” to people. If someone asks for my help, then I try to give them what they need. My instinctive answer to anyone at work is “yes!” But not with my kids. They have rules and routines that shouldn’t be broken, and so whenever they ask anything, first I think about what should happen. Then, only if I can, do I say “yes”.

I’ve seen my son ask my wife for a snack before dinner to which she grumpily agreed. She knew she shouldn’t, and wasn’t happy about it, but gave it to him anyway. That was doubly awful: he had a snack he shouldn’t have, which encourages him to ask for others in future, and both she was unhappy, which is inherently bad.

It’s obvious when you put it like that. In the moment, when dinner is late, six emails need replies and the kids are buzzing around your feet, then it's much harder. Stay strong. As the old adverts use to advise, just say “no”. You are entirely within your rights and there's no need to feel guilty or angry about it.

As ever, there are exceptions. If you’ve already refused them five times, then asking again is itself naughty. In that case, snap at them and tell them not to ask again. However, note the subtle difference – you are cross at their behaviour, that they have chosen to ask when they already know the answer. You’re not cross at yourself, nor cross at them for checking.

This appears in many contexts. During the first weeks of homeschooling “Why do we have to do this?” was a repeated refrain. “Because this is the work you should be doing at school,” was the reply that I gave happily, time after time. Whatever they ask, be it for treats, to stay up five more minutes, more screen time, anything – decline their request with a smile.

They’re allowed to ask, and you’re allowed to refuse, so do it happily.

See also:

The power of emotions

One for all and all for one

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