I Teach My Kids That Sometimes They Have To Take 'No' For An Answer

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Tang Ming Tung/Getty

“Mom, I want to play Xbox,” my son begs me. We aren’t even in the door yet, still walking from the school bus stop to our garage.

“No, Buddy. Not today. Remember what I told you?” I ask. He immediately begins protesting and yells, enunciating every word. “I. Want. To. Play. Xbox!”

“I know you do,” I reply empathetically. “And I will absolutely let you play when you get home from school on Friday.” I try to change the subject. “What would you like for a snack?”

It doesn’t work. He becomes increasingly agitated, refusing to discuss our afternoon snack. I’m exhausted and annoyed, trying to muster every last bit of patience I have. After all, my kids just started a new school year and the adjustment has been hard on all of us. We’re out-of-this-world tired and grouchy, desperately yearning to just zone out and pretend there’s no such thing as homework and alarm clocks.

But here’s the thing, I know if I give in to my son’s Xbox request, then I will have hell to pay when we shut it off. Saying yes simply isn’t worth it. Temporary spoiling will inevitably yield pain. And I’m not willing to go there, not even on a day when I’m desperate for some reprieve from our back-to-school chaos.

I have four kids, each in a different life stage. I’m parenting a tween all the way down to a toddler. And I know one thing for certain.

Saying yes to kids who really need a hard no creates a vicious cycle—one that’s really hard to get out of.

I made up my mind over a decade ago that I was going to be the parent who said no—often and without apology. After teaching college composition for several years, I noticed a pattern among some of my students. The ones who were entitled, who tried to argue and excuse their way out of the failing grade they earned, had one thing in common: They were unhappy. Very unhappy.

They would tell me things like, “My high school teacher wasn’t this strict.” Or, “You just don’t like me. I’m going to call my parents.” And sometimes their parents did call me, ranting that they paid my salary and how dare I fail their little angel? Due to legal restrictions, what I couldn’t tell the parents is that their “little angel” had missed almost every class, and then returned to grunt at me, “Did I miss anything?”

The lack of personal responsibility was astounding, as was the lack of basic communication skills and good manners. Unhappy students didn’t take any pride in themselves or their hard work, because they didn’t have a clue how to work hard and then reap the natural rewards.

If these students only would have poured their efforts into doing the assigned work instead of trying to worm their way into a 70% for doing absolutely nothing, they would have been so much better off. In fact, some of these students were pretty damn persuasive in their woe-is-me emails. They should have channeled that into convincing their readers that global warming is legit. And citing their sources.

These students truly believed they were owed multiple opportunities and should be the exception to the guidelines outlined in the syllabus. After all, their high school teachers, parents, and coaches had coddled them up until now—or so they told me in not so many words. Why was college any different? How dare I expect them to write their own words, in an organized fashion, and then revise that work multiple times?

I have those whiny young adults to thank for teaching me an important lesson. I didn’t want to raise children who treated me like a genie. Their wish isn’t my command.

After over a decade of parenting, I’ve come to understand that happiness doesn’t happen when kids are predictably told yes, granting them whatever they want, whenever they want. True happiness is in the nos.

In real life, there are numerous rejections and disappointments. And there are rules. My job as a parent is to teach my kids how to navigate these. And until they learn to do so, they won’t have the chance to be happy.

There was a time I was struggling with a personal relationship. Every time I gave an inch, the other person took a mile—on repeat. It didn’t take long for me to reach burnout. I spent a good forty minutes ranting about this person to my therapist who told me something simple and profound. Boundaries are gifts.

Boundaries set the bar for all. And they can be downright magical. I respect a person with boundaries because boundaries show the person values themselves and others.

The same applies to parenting. If we create rules and stick to them, our kids can relax into those boundaries. They know exactly what’s expected of them, and they know their parents are going to adhere to the rules. There’s safety and relief in that.

Does this mean you’re a hard-ass parent, inflexible and cold? Well, no. You can have firm boundaries and empathy. You can say no to one thing, followed by a yes to what’s allowed.

Parents, it is OK to tell your child no to multiple sugary snacks. Preventing our kids from getting on the blood sugar roller coaster, where they ride between hyperactivity and lethargy, is a gift. My kids know they can have one dessert a day. After that, they’re welcome to some fruit I keep on the kitchen counter.

It’s also OK to give your kids chores, teaching them that parents aren’t the only ones responsible for taking care of the household. Laundry, lawn care, clean up, and food preparation responsibilities can be collective activities. Everyone from my tween to my toddler all help with daily chores.

If your child messes up, teach them to apologize—sincerely and without excuse. If they need something, show them how to speak up with respect and confidence. If they want something, demonstrate to them how to work hard to earn what they want.

I want to raise kids who are happy because they are independent, humble, strong, and kind. They know how to problem solve. Because the happiness that comes from push-over parenting is fleeting.

Temporary happiness isn’t real happiness anyway.

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