I often think the most powerful, yet most underused, word in today’s modern parental vocabulary is “no.” With the summer months on the way—and with them, more unstructured time and freedom for most children—this word may become even more important for us as parents, and ultimately for our kids’ flourishing.
If you look at a great deal of what ails children and parents about living in modern culture, a lot of it can be traced to our failure or inability as parents to say “no.” (Warning: I’m probably going to ruffle a few feathers here, but I don’t know how to make this vital point without it, so, sorry.) There’s either an actual or perceived rise of bullying in today’s preteen and teen culture, and certainly the rise of cyberbullying, a phenomenon that didn’t exist 20 years ago. How much of that growth is attributable to our failure as parents to keep digital technology out of the hands of kids who are just too immature to responsibly handle it, our inability to say “no” when our kids ask for it again and again?
The Harm in Not Saying “No”
I get the reasons for it—a fear of our kid being left out, our own anxiety about not knowing where they are at all times driving our desire to put mobile tracking devices on them. But, is our inability to say “no” to our elementary-age children creating an environment where kids are getting hurt? In all my years, I’ve never seen a child that age who can appropriately handle social media or texting in a way that doesn’t eventually involve hurting themselves or someone else. And, that’s just one of many decisions where not telling a child “no” can ultimately harm them.
Psychologist Jordan Peterson has quipped that people live in one of three states: they are either tyrants, slaves, or negotiators. And, he encourages parents not to raise people they would hate to be around. I think so much of these states lead back to the judicious and wise use of the word “no” on the part of parents. Tyrants are never told “no.” They’re used to the world revolving around them. They grow up to manipulate and bully others into getting exactly what they want, because they will not and cannot take “no” for an answer. Slaves are told “no” all too often. Their parents may manipulate or bully them, or just overuse “no,” but they grow up to be pleasers and placaters. Yet, they’re never content with pleasing. They are willful people, just like the rest of us. So, they end up being resentful, perhaps angry and frustrated. Negotiators are the rest. Their parents have most often told them “no” in normal, wiser, and more appropriate ways. They have learned that life is a negotiation, where people have to get along with each other, working together to give and take, neither demanding nor always yielding and never standing up for oneself.
Knowing When to Say “No”
Knowing when to say “no” as a parent takes prayerful, godly wisdom. When there’s something kids want, but that may be spiritually, socially, intellectually, emotionally, or financially harmful to their person, their characters, or their relationship with the Lord, that’s usually a hard “no,” and it’s our job as parents to tell them. Other times, it’s a judgment call. The wisdom to say “no” is a gift from the Lord, who gives it when we ask (James 1:5). When we know we should say “no,” it’s still hard, because we’re sometimes afraid our kids won’t like us, or they’ll be left out, or become maladjusted and we’ll be to blame, or some other, frankly, largely irrational fear. Satan often uses these fears to cause us to make bad parenting decisions. I know, because I’ve made a bunch of them.
It’s Never Too Late
The good news is that it’s never too late to stop, back away, and do the right thing. It’s 100 percent okay to tell your kids, “Hey, you know what? I said you could do that, but I was wrong. It’s not good for you, and I don’t want you to do it.” You’re not being inconsistent or violating some kind of irrevocable parent code. In fact, you’re being very consistent—doing the right thing, the thing God calls you to do, even if you have to humble yourself by admitting you made the wrong call in the first place. That humility is actually a really good lesson for kids and a great thing for parents to model. Your kids won’t hate you for putting wise, reasonable boundaries around them, by telling them “no” appropriately. They will respect you for it. And, by God’s grace, they’ll actually grow into the type of people you and others will like being around. That’s the power of “no.”
[Editor’s Note: This blog post can be shared with school families (e.g., via email, e-newsletter), as you seek to build a positive school culture and support your students. More posts like it can be found under the “For Families” tab at the top of the ACSI blog].
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.