Last summer, my husband and I moved our family from our starter house to a larger home several miles away. Our 7-year-old, Ryan, has made lots of friends at his new school and on our street, and the two girls next door love to come over to play with our 2-year-old, Haley.
As summer approached, I learned that many of Ryan's new friends and all of the kids on our block were joining the private swim and racquet club a few blocks away. We were not.
The private club is much more expensive and has less to offer than the water park we've joined the last two years. So Ryan and I talked not only about the difference in the price of the two pools, but the pros and cons of joining each. He was initially upset ("But all of my friends will be at that pool!"), but when we listed the advantages and disadvantages of each, he understood why our family made this decision.
If you're a parent, you know already that saying "no" to your kids is part of your job description. But saying "don't touch!" to a toddler who's reaching for a hot stove is often easier than explaining to your tween that she can't buy a new fall wardrobe at Justice when your husband's been out of work and money is tight.
While "because I'm the mom and I said so" may be my go-to answer, I've found that sharing my reasoning about a decision helps maintain peace in our household. Just as important, it will help my kids learn decision-making skills they'll need as they get older.
The power of no
Ask your own parents about whether parents today are more permissive than they used to be and you're likely to hear a resounding yes.
Today, many parents don't want to say no to their kids, and that's a shortsighted parenting approach, says Denise Schipani, author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later (Sourcebooks, 2012).
"Saying 'no' gives you a chance as a parent to express what your values are and what your approach is," says Schipani. "If all kids ever hear is 'yes,' then they will grow up expecting to always hear 'yes.' And it creates kids (and adults) who are bratty and entitled and spoiled."
Elmhurst mom of three and preschool teacher Missy Triska knows that all too well.
"I've found that as a preschool teacher that parents are afraid to say no to anything. … They want their kids to be happy all the time. But it's OK to use a firm 'no' when things are not safe or you're not willing to discuss it."
Once your children start understanding consequences, however, it's time to start sharing why you make certain parenting choices.
"Kids should understand the decision process," says Schipani. "They need to understand that there's a reason behind everything you do. Especially as you get older, things shouldn't be automatic for them. …If some things are out of reach financially, for example, you shouldn't always protect them as if they can't handle it or understand."
Besides, once kids reach a certain age, they're likely to start questioning your decisions regardless of what they are.
"I know my kids, and 'no' is never an acceptable answer without a reason," says Downers Grove mom Lori Vernon, an interior designer with daughters who are 10 and 8. "In order to circumvent that, I've started saying, 'The answer is no, and this is the reason why.' I kind of pontificate about why they can't do something with backup. I know that if I just say no, I'm going to hear, 'why?' or 'why not?' So I usually try to think of that before I answer."
Helping kids decide
Around the time kids start school, you're likely to experience pushback on your decisions. While you may be wondering what happened to your docile preschooler, this gives you an opportunity to start educating them about why you make the choices you do.
"When kids start questioning you, they're watching you," says Schipani. "And they know you're making decisions, so you need to make the explanation that fits, and make it not only age-appropriate, but matter-of-fact."
Don't fall into the trap of feeling guilty that you can't provide your child with every toy, item of clothing, or experience he asks for. A school-aged child is old enough to understand that no one gets everything he or she wants. That's called life!
But look for choices that you can let your child make. For example, I don't let my children dictate what I make for dinner (or we'd survive on mac and cheese and hot dogs), but I do let them choose among several options.
For more complex decisions, present them with information and help them weigh it, says Schipani. For example, Vernon's older daughter, Aubrey, wanted to take an expensive class at the Art Institute, so Vernon helped her decide whether it was worth it.
"We talked about the fact that this class costs $500 and it's in the city, so she'll have to take the train every day, and be gone all day, and miss things like going to the pool. There has to be a trade-off," says Vernon. "It's a great program, but we told her that if she takes it, she'll have to give up other things-like her birthday party-because the class is so expensive…We can't do everything."
Aubrey wound up choosing a birthday bash and more freedom over the class.
Being clear about what your priorities are as a family can help your kids understand why you're saying no when their friends' parents may say yes.
For example, a few years ago, Triska's older two kids wanted iPods, claiming that all of their friends had them.
"In our house, that wasn't allowed until they were older," says Triska. "We said 'no' unless they wanted to save their money and buy it themselves… and we talked about the value of having one 'just because everyone else does.' If you spend your life being conscious of what everyone else has all the time, you're not going to be authentically happy as a person."
When your kids understand why you make the choices you do and learn how to evaluate options in a given situation, they'll be better prepared to make their own decisions as teens and adults.
"This is what I like to call being the voice in their heads," says Schipani. "You don't want your kids to feel like they're always going to have to ask their mom about something, but you want your values to be that voice in their head."
And remember, as your kids become more independent, they'll be making decisions-possibly big ones-on their own.
"We want them to learn how to think things through on their own so we have them think of different scenarios and coach them with a lot of questions," says Triska. "Let's say they're going out with a friend, and then their plans change, and something happens that they're uncomfortable with-like they're at a party where there's alcohol. We'll say, 'What are you going to do?' and 'How will you handle that situation?' so they're prepared."
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.