When I collected my son from preschool last week, his teacher took me aside.
“We’ve had a difficult day” she said, looking apologetic, “No, has be the word of today, no to anything and everything”. Apparently he wouldn’t eat or even try his lunch or sit with the other children and refused to cooperate from that point on.
“Um maybe somethings upset him.” I was worried, not knowing what the trigger or underlying distress for his out of character behaviour.
“It’s ok”, she said. “I told him that is was wrong and rude to say no to grownups.”
With that statement, I could feel myself cringe and my heart just sank and broke a little. I didn’t comment or put her straight, but instead turned my attention to my little boy who, though obviously delighted to see me, soon revealed how sad he felt being told off that day after not eating his lunch.
You see, every human has the right to say no, even the little ones. Admittedly in a busy childcare facility there is rarely the time for one on one focus on a child deeper needs. But as a parent it reminds me that in instances when my son says ‘no’ to me (when he’s not just stalling for time or trying to get his own way for a quick treat) he needs to be heard.
In this instance, he didn’t like the food presented to him for lunch, some vegetarian sweet and sour noodle option, there were no more choices and he was expected to eat it, then when pushed, he decided that these people were not on his team and refused to join theirs.
‘No’! As parents and carers we feel like failures because we are not being respected.
‘No!’ We get angry because we feel out of control and we are supposed to be “in charge.” And the human in us feel just plain sad, because the days just get a whole lot harder.
But as the inventor and creator of a human ‘super computer’ and future adult, I am secretly thrilled he said “No.”
Because the inability to say “No”—the inability to set personal boundaries—is one of the most common, insidious causes of human suffering.
As Dr Kelly Flanagan a clinical psychologist eloquently puts it:
‘When we can’t say “No,”
we become a sponge for the feelings of everyone around us and we eventually become saturated by the needs of everyone else while our own hearts wilt and die,
we begin to live our lives according to the forceful should of others, rather than the whispered, passionate want of our own hearts,
we let everyone else tell us what story to live and we cease to be the author of our own lives,
we lose our voice—we lose the desire planted in our souls and the very unique way in which we might live out that desire in the world,
we get used by the world instead of being useful in the world,
we give in to the pressure of a friend and we drink and drive and we endanger lives,
we cave in to a persuasive boyfriend and we end up pregnant,
we get taken in by a sales pitch and we bury ourselves in oppressive debt,
we get abused by a boss and end up with long hours at work and a short fuse at home,
we cater to our kids’ every need and we begin to resent their demands and we fantasize about a deserted island in the Caribbean,
we submit to unhealthy partners and they keep drinking or working or gambling or flirting and we end up in the backseat of our own lives.
There is no end to the ways our lives are diminished by our inability to say “No.” And when a friend of mine is being wrecked by porous boundaries, I will often ask this question: “How did your parents respond when you said ‘No’ as a child?” And I will almost always hear this answer: “Oh, you wouldn’t dare say ‘No’ to my parents.”
It is after all sometimes good to say “yes” to the word “no:”
Our families and carers are where we first learn how to say “No” in a safe, supportive environment. If we don’t learn to do so there, we won’t learn to do so anywhere. If our children can’t say “No” to us, they won’t say it to anyone.
When my son is offered a bunch of pills or my daughter is offered the backseat of a car, I want my kids to have had a lot of practice at saying “No.” Someday, there will be more at stake than eating your lunch or not and, by then, I want him to know their worth isn’t jeopardized one iota when they don’t give themselves away to everyone around them.
I want him to know his voice matters. I want him to know he is the author of his own story.
Dr Flanagan goes on to say: ‘Do children need to learn to set boundaries assertively rather than aggressively? Yes. Do they need to learn the art of compromise? Definitely. Do they need to learn to wisely choose moments of submission? Absolutely.
But all of that learning begins with a “No.”
Because the truth is, you can’t truly say “Yes” until you can say “No.” We need to know we have a choice in life. The freedom to say “No” is the very beginning of our ability to say “Yes.” To ourselves. To life. And to love.’