Before First Offspring was born, I read. A lot. All about babies. Having sat many an exam, I guess I treated the pregnancy and impending child-rearing like a test, and studied accordingly. I learnt about all different parenting techniques, and weighed up the pros and cons of routines, attachment, co-sleeping, vaccinations… really, everything. And one of the philosophies was that the word ‘no’ was an unhelpful word, to be avoided, if possible.
Telling your children ‘no’ sends a message of negativity, and is irritating to both you and them. And it can ‘breed resentment and plant seeds for future rebellion’ in your youngsters.
‘That sounds fair,’ thought yet-to-be-a-parent I. ‘I like the idea of being a positive parent. I’ll make an effort to say ‘no’ less. All that negativity is unhealthy, anyway.’
Fast forward nine years. I now say ‘no’ a lot more than I used to, but a part of me still struggles with it. The reality is, that in a household of small people with loud voice, turning the negative into the positive is soon drowned out by a chaotic rabble. So it’s often more effective to say, ‘NO. STOP.’ when Fourth Offspring is poking Lego in the dog’s nose, rather than, ‘The dog doesn’t really enjoy it when you put Lego up her nose.’ Of course, once I have their attention, I can explain how much the dog doesn’t like Lego up her nose, and for that matter, nobody does, so don’t get any ideas (luckily we’ve been through that twice, now, and hopefully never again).
But I recently began considering how important the word ‘no’ can be, and how it should definitely be part of my vocabulary. Not so much in terms of parenting, but more in my broader approach to life. As much as I want to focus on the positive, and be bright and sunny and optimistic, ‘no’ is somehow more necessary than ever. This is because there are so many more demands on my time. And I want to say ‘yes’. But it occurs to me that for every ‘yes’, there must be an opposing ‘no’.
Yes, I can take on extra work.
No, I cannot go to bed before midnight.
Yes, I will volunteer to help in my local community.
No, I won’t be able to do as much with my children.
Yes, I will agree to run errands for a friend.
No, I will not be able to get the grocery shopping done.
It’s not that saying ‘yes’ to any of these things on their own is problematic, it’s that as they accumulate, my time to do other things dwindles, until I’m left stressed and frazzled, and what I need to do for myself is suddenly ‘no’.
The other trouble with always saying ‘yes’ that is that it provides an opportunity for others to say ‘no’. Not only does this happen in daily, personal life (‘yes, I will pick up the dirty clothes off the floor’), but also on a macro level. Those countries who say ‘yes’ to the millions of refugees seeking shelter from war or famine or persecution allow for so many other nations to say ‘no, it’s not our problem, and anyway, look at all the other places they could go.’
Of course, ‘no’ can be an excuse, or a way of escaping responsibility, of riding the coattails of another’s refusal to commit to something. ‘No, I’m not cleaning my room, because X Offspring said s/he wasn’t going to.’ ‘No, we will not agree to reduce our carbon emissions, since those guys aren’t doing it either.’
I suppose when we make these choices, what we’re doing is deciding to whom we can most easily say ‘no’. I know I can say ‘no’ to my family more often than a current or potential employer, or a community or school group looking for volunteers, or a friend, because my family will put up with me and they love me. So I say ‘no’ to them, even though they mean more to me than the employers or the school or the community or my friends (as much as I also really value and like my employers, school, community and friends, of course!)
On a broader scale, decisions are made about accepting refugees or making commitments to climate change, based on that same logic. To whom is it easier to say no? And what are the implications of saying ‘yes’? Is it so that we don’t have to try as hard? Is it so that certain groups can make more successful careers?
It’s not that it should always be one way or the other. Sometimes, it’s harder to say ‘yes’ than it is to say ‘no’, and vice versa. But as my recent juggling of tasks, work, and commitments has shown, there is only so much ‘yes’ to which one can agree, before the ‘no’ begins to push back. And here in my household, as in the world, it always seems complicated. When really, all I need to do is get everyone into bed each night. And make breakfast. And do the washing. And write and edit. And take the older Offspring to swimming lessons. And go to a community meeting. And… well. I’m a work in progress, after all.