Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Respecting Kids’ “No’s”

(I’m not sure that apostrophe is grammatically correct, but what the heck!)

Over our morning coffee today, my husband and I were talking about how different people react to hearing the word “no.” Some people will take it as final and go on with their lives. Others are pushers; they hear the word “no” and it means “try harder, I’m not convinced yet that you mean it.” Then they try a variety of tactics, selling the benefits of saying “yes”, telling you what a great boon it would be to them if you would only agree, telling you what a great boon it would be to YOU if you would only say “yes”. Others go even further into nastiness and start implying that you are selfish for saying “no” or that you are deliberately disappointing them by saying “no” or that you are somehow attempting to control THEM by refusing whatever their request was. The last one is just astounding to me, it’s so manipulative. Lots of people do it, though. Or, they’ll look amazed that you’ve refused them, try to find a time when you can do what they ask, as if it’s merely inconvenient, etc. I have met more “pushers” than “accepters” in my life.

My Mom was a notorious pusher. “No” was never the right answer. In fact, “no” was a slap in her face. If she requested something, she wasn’t really requesting, she was commanding. A request that does not allow a refusal is a command, so all her “would you” and “could you” and “do you mind” statements were not questions, they were orders. If I continued to refuse, she would quickly move to the denigrating phase – “how can you be so lazy/selfish/mean, etc. as to refuse my ‘request’,” she’d say. Then she’d move to how much damage I was doing to her by refusing, “Don’t you want me to be happy? Don’t you want to help me out? Don’t you think you owe it to me? Why are you doing this to me? I can’t believe you’re so intent on ruining my life! You’re so disobedient!” Blah, effing blah, on and on the rant would go. Eventually, the only choice was capitulation, otherwise, I would hear about how evil I was for a very, very long time, and she’d pull others in on it, too.

“Can you believe,” she’d start out, “that my daughter refused, outright REFUSED to…” she’d say to a church friend with a tone of high outrage. There would be tongue clucking, shaking of heads, and then some well-intentioned third party would have go at me. What horseshit! Utter and complete horseshit.

The punishment for saying “no” to a “request” would go on – I’d get the cold shoulder for literally days. She’d stop doing my laundry or setting me a place at the table, or I’d have to eat cold leftover crap at a TV tray while the rest of the family dined on hot food at the dinner table. Sometimes there was physical punishment, too. I was banned, shunned, treated like dung on her shoe until I gave in. Sometimes, if I stuck to my guns, things would seem to smooth over after a couple of weeks and then months later, I’d hear about it again, usually as a topic of conversation or as a subtle form of “you owe me” blackmail. “The last time I asked you to…” Mom would say, “you REFUSED! And I had to do it all MYSELF! Now, this time, will you….” And, I usually did, not wanting to go through the nastiness that was involved in saying “no”.

Through the years, having my “no”, my boundary, ignored has led to some difficult times. I have done things I really would rather not have done because to me, subconsciously, any request was a command and there was no option other than acquiescence. I would say “no” and then the pushing would begin. I’d feel the whole crushing load of how my refusals were treated as a child coming over me again and just give in instead of standing my ground. Sometimes I would exit the situation or run away in some other way in order to protect my boundaries. It was difficult learning to stand and defend my right to refuse things.

I was helped by the anti-rape campaign that started gaining ground in the 70’s. The catchphrase was “No means NO!” After years and years of women being blamed in the courts, in society, within their families, and even amongst their friends, for having been raped, this particular offshoot of women’s lib was, truly, liberating. No meant no. It meant no whether you were dressed like a nun or a Playboy bunny. No meant no whether the person pushing was your spouse or your boss or some icky stranger. It just meant no. Always. I watched with exhilaration as the rest of society learned what I had been trying so hard for so long to defend – my absolute right to refuse something. And I was happy to extrapolate – it didn’t matter if I was saying “no” to sex, a trip to an amusement park, a book recommendation, or butter on my toast.

Because “no” means no. Always. And, as far as I’m concerned, that should be the end of the discussion or pressure to agree. A request, an answer, it’s over. Move on. Don’t take the refusal personally, but accept it as the other person’s choice. Next!

I have tried, as a parent, to follow my conscience, my respect for other people’s “no’s”. I have caught myself pushing, even though I know better, particularly with my kids, and I am ashamed of myself when I catch myself not showing respect for their wishes.

When they were in their terrible twos, “no” was something cool to say. It meant Mom looked surprised and went and did something else. It also meant that whatever Mom had offered was dispensed elsewhere. That’s the consequence of saying “no” for a two year old. It was easier then. I learned to either ask a direct yes or no question and cope accordingly with the response, to phrase the question as a choice, as in “do you want French toast or cereal for breakfast” rather than enter the quicksand zone by asking “do you want breakfast” to which a negative response is really not what I was looking for with a kid who is clearly hungry. Or I learned to go ahead and issue a command, “I need you to help me pick up the toys in this room. You start over there.” I was trying my darnedest not to repeat my own mother’s mistakes.

As they got older, it got harder. I would offer the option of swimming lessons, only to be refused, and then I’d start selling. “Oh, gosh, I really think you’d enjoy them; you love playing in our pool.” Or, “Are you sure? I think it would be good exercise and a chance to meet some new kids.” Ouch. My bad. My very bad. Because there is a difference between encouraging children and pushing them beyond their boundaries. I learned to ask exploratory questions with as little unconscious manipulation as possible, preparatory narrative explanations and clearly stated reasons. “The school is offering music lessons. If you would like to learn to play an instrument, please let me know. The parents’ meeting is on the 9th, and I’d like for you to think about it and let me know by the 6th if you think you would like to give it a try. Do you have any feelings about it now or do you want to think about it until then?” Or something much like that.

My two sons have no problem with understanding that I feel neutral about things I phrase in that manner. They understand that I’m just presenting information for their consideration and that my life and my feelings for them are not going to change depending on their answers. My daughter tends to interpret things as, “if Mom mentioned it, she must want me to do it.” It took me a while to twig to that, and I’m working hard to make it easier for her to say “no” to me without worrying about repercussions of some sort. I never know if I’m explaining too much, offering too many options, exploring too many consequences out loud, or what. I just don’t know unless she says something like, “OK, Mom, I GET it.”

I have to watch myself very carefully to make sure that I don’t fall into the patterns that I was raised with – I have caught myself phrasing commands as requests and then having to backpedal and rephrase. I apologize for misstating my intent, and the kids give me the fisheye, but they understand.

I don’t know if my kids realize why I’m so exacting about respecting their “no’s”. I hope to help them understand that they have the right to draw a line in the sand, regardless of how powerful the authority figure facing them is. A Mom is a pretty powerful authority figure, and if I can respect their boundaries, then the rest of the world better damn well do so as well. I hope they will grow to defend their boundaries without giving it a second thought, without second-guessing themselves, and without feeling the crushing pressure to give in that I felt when I was first learning to do so. I hope that when someone pressures them to do something they don’t want to do, something they know is wrong, they feel a sense of anger that someone would push like that, and stand even more firmly in their decisions. I hope that if someone is just stating things badly, they will feel free to ask questions, clarify goals, and come to a compromise or a decision that does not make them feel coerced, conned, or emotionally blackmailed.

I don’t know if I’m doing it right, I just know I’m doing the best I can. The long-term consequences of ignoring children’s boundaries are huge and life altering, and I don’t want to do that to them. I want for them to own their own power, their own space, and their own boundaries.

Wish me luck.


Dene said...

I so much enjoy your writing... Just for fun and because you show more good horse sense and compassion than most of the people in my "real" world.

Would that I had been so fortunate to have had a parent like you.

BoS said...

Thank you so much; what lovely compliments! Parenting is a tough job, and, like most difficult things, I think I learn as much about myself as I do about the task before me.