Parents love for their children leads to wanting to fulfill their requests and make their lives as easy and happy as possible. Adding to this is our natural inclination to not want to hear their complaints or whining. Finally, we worry that if we set limits and insist on certain responsibilities, our children will dislike us.
At a glance, this all makes good sense. However, much of the learning that our kids will do is during the times when we decline their requests or require things of them. A good number of children, teens, and even young adults who I see in my psychology practice have struggles due in no small part to over-indulgence.
People who are given nearly all that they request can come to expect this - and to then display various problems when they later face real-world situations. They can display entitled attitudes, show poor work practices and have strained relationships. When older children act “out of control,” it is often because they had previously been allowed to be in control. In other words, when they did not have sufficient limits set during their younger years, they later show worse behavior.
Saying, “no,” is not mean. Saying, “no,” is not unloving. To the contrary, saying, “no,” is often good parenting. Not buying every toy or snack that children request is part of guiding them. They learn the value of money. They learn that we need to earn the things that we want. They learn good values. They learn that they cannot always expect things to go exactly as they want them to.
More than 60 years ago, an influential thinker in psychology, Donald Winnicott wrote about the “good enough mother” - about the importance of not perfectly meeting all of our children’s needs. He spoke of our attempts to take care of all of our newborns’ needs immediately - feeding, changing diapers, holding, soothing. He then went on to say that the best parenting cannot continue in this way, but that, instead, perfection would not be perfect parenting. He noted that children learn invaluable lessons from having to wait while we fail at immediately meeting their needs.
Though Winnicott focused on younger children, these concepts extend all the way through elementary, middle and high school years. When we limit which movies our children can watch, they see that life will have rules. When children need to do their chores prior to playing, they gain a sense of responsibility. Children who are held to certain standards in their schoolwork develop a work-ethic. If we do not say, “no,” because we worry that our children will not like us, we are cheating them out of crucial lessons in life.
Saying “no,” is saying “I love you.”
Keep in mind that our children are going to react to the love in our limit-setting. I have never seen a case where children disliked their parents due such limits. Rather, children feel secure - they thrive - when they know that adults are in charge and watching over them. They do best when they are not allowed to do every single thing in exactly the way that they please. Children do best with parents who guide them in healthy ways. This healthy guidance includes the word, “no.”
Dr. Craig Abrams is a psychologist in Mequon and Sheboygan working with adults, adolescents, and children. Learn more about him at craigabrams.com.