I Don't Know How To Teach My Daughter To 'Own Her No' When I Still Don't Know How

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
mother's arms embracing daughter
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I scrolled past a Facebook article the other day while waiting in the school pick up car line. The headline, from a website that had appeared on my feed a handful of times in the past, was about a girl who asked the Internet for help with a flirting situation, and the anonymous, all-knowing people of the Internet delivered. The sub-headline read: “You’ve got to own your own ‘no.’”

To be honest, I didn’t click on the link in my feed. The school doors opened and the kids ran out, after school activities and a few dozen to-dos swamped my brain, and the link disappeared into the chaos of the afternoon, the load I carry as a single mother, and the endlessly updating Facebook feed.

But that night, after the kids had gone to bed and the quiet of the evening gave my mind a chance to filter through the static of the day, that sub-headline stuck out: Own your own no.

Because the truth is, I am terrible at owning my own no.

Not in the big ways, like when a “no” can re-write a story or change an entire life trajectory. Those nos come easier. The nos I struggle with are the smaller ones, the ones that pop up a few times a day, the ones that could easily be yes, if I fail to prioritize my own self-care, my own heart, and my own time. The nos that turn into yes for the sole reason that saying no simply because I’m feeling tired or tapped out feels selfish, or worse, feels unkind, and I hate feeling selfish and unkind.

Clearly, I’m a people pleaser. I know I will bend over backward to say “yes,” sacrificing my own wants and needs as long as it means I can avoid an uncomfortable “no.” And if I can’t find a way to say “yes,” I’ll couch my “no” in a thousand ways to soften the blow, soften what I perceive as a harsh answer. I know I shouldn’t. I know I should own my no and feel comfortable with the word, especially when saying no means having the opportunity to say yes to something I’d rather say yes to. But I don’t. And that’s okay. I’m human and imperfect and I can accept who I am and that I am a work-in-progress.

The problem, then, is not that I, a 37-year-old mother, am still learning to own my no, but that I do not know how to teach my 10-year-old daughter to own her no. How do I teach her an essential life skill when I have not yet mastered it? How do I teach her to prioritize herself, to sometimes make the selfish choice because being selfish isn’t always bad, but instead, sometimes, empowering? How do I teach her to be the woman I am still learning to be?

I could go with the age-old “do as I say, not as I do” approach, tell her that if she doesn’t want to do something, she should say “no.” In theory, that would work because the concept is simple enough. But children, I believe, learn by example. They learn manners by seeing manners modeled, respect by seeing respect in action. Even if I tell her to say “no” when doing so might make someone else uncomfortable but would be important for her own well-being, she’ll see me saying “yes” in a comparable situation. For all the times I advise her one way, she’ll see me model something else. At best, she’ll be confused. At worst, she’ll stop trusting my words.

Which means, I need to find another approach.

I could simply begin to own my no, confirm my “no” is coming from a place of integrity and then own it. As a self-aware woman, as a solo parent and a head of the household, it’s not a terrible solution. It’s possibly the right solution. I can recognize the situations when I’m saying yes but want to say no, and attempt to do better. I can begin to internalize that being selfish isn’t always a negative, and pleasing everyone else isn’t always a priority. And yet, I know it’s not that easy—there’s too much learned behavior to unlearn for that simple solution to be the solution that I need.

Which means, maybe the answer is just to be honest. Maybe—and only maybe, because I truly don’t know—the only way to teach my daughter to own her no is to let her know that it’s okay to prioritize yourself, even if it feels selfish, and I’m learning to do that, too. I might make mistakes; she might, too. Maybe the answer is to tell her—at an age-appropriate level—that I’m still working on myself, that I am hoping to teach her the things I’m learning alongside her.

Maybe the answer is to teach her that she doesn’t have to have it figured out by 10, or 12, or 15, (or 37), and the only thing she needs to know is how to find compassion for herself, for the things that make her a work-in-progress, for the things that make her perfectly imperfect. For the things that make her human.

For the things that make her her.

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