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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Aubrey wound up choosing a birthday bash and more freedom over
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
"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.
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