I tried hard to never say “no” if I could possibly say “yes.” -Marjorie Hinckley¹
This is one of my favorite parenting quotes! There are so many important responsibilities to give, lessons to teach, and activities to do that I think we often overlook the yes principle of parenting. I know I often overlook it if I am not being conscientious and instead let my to-do list or exhaustion run away with me. The more I have thought about this quote and corresponding principles from many parenting programs, the more I believe saying yes should be a core principle of parenting. At the very least, it’s something I’ve found brings happiness to my family and purpose to my parenting. And this post is all about why.
How often do we say no when we could say yes?
There are probably dozens of examples every week of times when we are inclined to say no when we could say yes instead. Let me give a few examples. They’ll be mostly based on my experiences with my toddler, but I’ll try to throw in a few older children and teenager examples, too.
My first inclination is to say no when my toddler picks out an outrageous outfit because I want her to look cute for our outing. But, that doesn’t really matter, does it? Now, I have hilarious pictures of her with a swimsuit over her pajamas or wearing a huge, neon running shirt.
I want to pull my daughter along when we’re leaving the store because I’m tired and hungry and I want to get home and make dinner. I have found that the times when I live in the present and allow my toddler to stop and pet the fake chicken or try on shoes that are much too large for her then I am filled with gratitude for her wonder and her sweet smiles and cute personality.
My urge is to stop her when she wants to splash in the sink because then I’ll have to clean it up after. But, remember how much we all loved swimming when we were a kid? I’d like an indoor swimming pool, too!
Many of us parents want a clean house. The toys are supposed to be in the toy bin! But what if we said yes to letting them build a huge fort and drag in the millions of legos into the living room for the week? Probably just more fun and laughter.
Let’s face it: kid games are usually not so fun as an adult. But, by saying yes to engage in them we can strengthen our relationship. Spending time playing together is a foundational element of basically every parenting program I’ve learned about…and I’ve learned about a lot over the years!
Perhaps you’ve chosen the menu for the week and since you’re the cook you have ultimate power! So many powerful memories are made over the dinner table, though, that taking a kid’s request for dinner can make it extra special.
How happy would a child or teenager be and what would your relationship be like if you allowed them to complete their homework later so they don’t miss a fun-filled afternoon with their friends?
Is there a rational reason to say no to a request for a later curfew or was the curfew an arbitrary time and you are trying your best to maintain authority?
What would happen if we said yes?
There are so many benefits to saying yes. Our kids learn that we have confidence in them. Marjorie Hinckley goes on to say that saying yes “gave [her] children the feeling that [she] trusted them and they were responsible to do the best they could.”¹ I don’t think I need to elaborate on the importance of trust in any relationship, kids included.
Our kids might feel more listened to. What if some of the arguments and butting-heads never happened because we said yes instead? Explosions happen after tension is built up and it becomes a nasty cycle of negative interactions. No’s are frustrating, reactive, and threatening or at least feels like a shut-down, according to child neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel.² So, step outside of the negative cycle and say yes when you can. I can’t emphasize enough how important building a relationship is to effective parenting, and saying yes is definitely relationship building.
Going along with that, saying yes stacks up the positives in the positive to negative ratio. We are told we should have 5 positives to every 1 negative in order to make a relationship work.³ I’ve heard several times from various lectures that toddlers hear no a ridiculous amount of times in a day…but I can’t seem to find that answer anywhere. Go figure. One blog post claims UCLA said it’s 400 times a day! Just think about that a minute. Are we giving enough positives? While older children and teens no longer have to be told not to grab the dog’s tail, they probably still hear a lot of no’s.
When we say yes, our kids might have a stronger sense of who they are and what they like. They might have more freedom to explore and create and live up to their best self. They are given the latitude to be who they want to do. They are also given the freedom to learn how to make choices and learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t work.
Saying yes also helps boost resiliency and the ability to rebound and grow from set-backs.. When talking about his book Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child, Dr. Dan Siegel said,”You want to learn to move yourself from a “no brain” state you might be in to a “yes brain” state of receptivity where it’s… openness, a sense of connection, curiosity. There’s a positive approach to life that comes, when you look at the neural circuitry of the yes brain, a way you learn a challenge is an opportunity to learn more, not to collapse in fear, that a difficulty you’re having with a friend or family member is an opportunity to get closer, rather than just fight back and hold a grudge. All of these yes brain approaches are, in many ways, the foundations for what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset or Angela Duckworth would say is the component of grit, of having this resilience, to be in a positive mindset, where you look at difficulties and say, how can I learn from this.”²
When children have that latitude to make their own choices and a positive relationship with you then it can make it easier to set limits. The parenting program Love, Limits, and Latitude tells the example of a father who said yes to his son’s choice of music and getting a piercing. In large part because of his ability to say yes, his son was more receptive when his father said no to hanging out with friends who were involved in dangerous activities.
In summary, saying yes means:
-Helping them gain confidence
-Letting them learn how to make choices
-Letting them be their own unique individual
-Building a strong relationship with them
-Making positive memories
-Boosting resiliency and growth
-And building up positives to buffer against the negatives.
Does that mean we never say no?
Of course that doesn’t mean that we never say no. We’d live in a jungle, or worse, if we allowed our kids to do everything their heart desired and shirk every responsibility they do not like. So, saying yes when we can simply means that we are more intentional and conscientious about saying no. The answer is no when it breaks family rules, family values, or appropriate boundaries, is in the best interest of the child or family, or when saying yes would hurt our child or others.
For example, while I let my child run around screaming outside (even though I would prefer some quiet) I say no when it is at church because that’s breaking reverence rules.
Even though I say yes to splashing and having fun, I say no to dumping out her cereal every morning because that both is not polite mealtime etiquette and it also harms the hardwood floors.
While I might say yes to an impromptu dance party and put off doing the dinner dishes, I will say no to putting them off completely because we value the importance of work in our family.
While I would say no to letting an anxious child stay home from school or go to every activity with them because that would be enabling their anxiety and would not in their best interest, I say yes to finding helpful long-term solutions.
While I say yes to a certain amount of video games or tv, I say no once it exceeds a set limit because I believe it’s not in their best interest to be a couch potato all day.
Ice cream for dinner is not allowed every day because that would not maintain a healthy and balanced diet.
When she gets older I might say no to an unchaperoned party because that has the potential to lead to trouble for her or other peers there.
We also would say no to children coming along on a dinner date because that wouldn’t be in the best interest of our marriage. Instead, we might say yes to a special family date later on. Similarly, we might say no to a child sleeping in bed with us because no one sleeps as well and it becomes a habit that’s hard to break. Instead, we find other ways to help the child feel comforted and learn to sleep well.
These are just a couple examples. I’m sure you can think of dozens of others from your personal family life.
How to effectively balance the yes’s and no’s
So how do we try to encourage the yes mindset I talked about above while still setting rules, boundaries, and values? One way to balance the yes’s and no’s is to set limits on it. So, for example, you might tell you child that you will come play with them for 15 minutes but after that you must return to the task that you were in the middle of. You might find that a short amount of attention does wonders to helping children’s emotions! Or, you might have special play or one-on-one time set up every day or a couple times a week but the other times are reserved for your work and their homework and friends.
Another way to balance it is to offer acceptable alternative choices or options. My toddler cannot pick out any crazy outfit to wear to church, but sometimes she is more willing to get dressed if I provide her with two nice options. In another example, instead of giving a flat-out no that you will not buy a toy at the store you can provide your child with options on how to earn the money themselves to buy it.
When you say no, remember to be consistent about it. No amount of whining or complaining should change it to a yes. If it does then kids simply learn that whining and complaining is needed to get you to give in.
Similarly, be consistent about what activities are a no and what the consequences are for breaking the rules. For example, if one day a child is allowed to play video games for 3 hours and the next day you decide they have played enough and decree that there will be no video games that day then I’m guessing there will be a big tantrum. When rules are consistent then children know what to expect and life will usually be a lot smoother.
Remember, while there are research-based principles that have been shown to be effective parenting techniques, every child and every parent is different. Each will require an approach that is slightly modified and tailored to their own needs.
Find help if the no’s are causing too much trouble. Sometimes, no matter the amount of yes’s and limits you try to balance, kids can continue to be oppositional and wreak havoc in a house. If this is the case, know there are many great books out there with tips on how to help your child become calmer and more compliant. A professional therapist can also help create a tailored program for your child.
So, should we say yes or should we make a stand to establish expectations and rules? The answer is both, but always keep the relationship in mind and say yes when you can.
Resources and References
¹Pearce, V. H. (2010). Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.
²Hanessian, L. (2018, Jan 11). Dr. Dan Siegel: What hearing “yes” does to your child’s brain. Mindful. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/dr-dan-siegel-hearing-yes-childs-brain/
³Lisitsa, E. (2012, Dec 5). The positive perspective: John Gottman’s magic ratio. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved from http://www.gottmanblog.com/2012/12/the-positive-perspective-dr-gottmans.html