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Saying No with a smile
I was hanging out with a Mom and her four-year-old son before a
playday workshop. The boy, Saul, had a toy shark, and he was
pretending to attack me with it. I was doing my usual thing,
exaggerating being scared by the shark, and he was giggling.
Then he tried to get the shark into my pants leg, down by my
ankle, and I was squeezing the fabric around my leg so he
couldn't get it in. He suddenly stopped playing and asked me
quite seriously if I would let him stick the shark up my pants
leg. I smiled and said, "Nope." Saul went back and forth between
trying to force his way in and asking me if I would let him. I
stopped him and kept saying no, always with a big smile. He
never got upset, but he never gave up, either. Eventually I told
him we had to stop playing that game because it was time to
start the playday. Later, his mother said to me, "I'm glad you
didn¹t let him do that, but I thought playful parenting was
about saying yes all the time." I had to stop and think about
that for a while. I realized that in my mind--even though I was
saying "no," and stopping him from shoving a plastic shark up my
pants leg. I was really saying "yes" because I wasn't pushing him
away, ending the game or getting upset. I was saying yes to the
game of saying no.
That whole episode got me thinking. I have heard from many
parents that their young children fall apart every time they
hear the word no, or don't get their way. Sometimes even older
children still show this pattern. Naturally, this upsets the
parent on many levels: They worry about the child's ability to
handle real life; they are annoyed by the screaming, tantrums,
tears, and endless arguments; and embarrassed about the dirty
looks that people give at the grocery store or the bank.
My theory is that some of this "falling apart" is not really
from the no, or the limit, or the frustration. Instead, it is
from the loss of contact or connection between the child and
parent. Often when we say no we also pull away from the child at
the same time, or push them away from us, or express disapproval
or anger. When they want something they can't have, we want them
to get over it right away, or not make such a fuss about it.
This leaves children feeling alone right when they are also
feeling frustrated or sad. The combination may be what leads to
an over-the-top meltdown.
The solution, according to this theory, is to see what happens
when we say "no," but remain calm or even cheerful. If our child
is upset by the no, we can stick around and encourage them to
share all their sad, angry, and frustrated feelings. Maintaining
the contact, in other words, might let them feel grief rather
than attack us. At other times, perhaps children will respond to
our non-threatening faces and voices by playfully exploring what
"no" means, like Saul did with the shark.
When you say no, try saying it lightly (not in a teasing way,
but in a gentle way), instead of being grim or harsh about it.
Maintain eye contact and loving connection even when you are
breaking bad news to them. Try expecting and welcoming either a
playful game or a flood of feelings after the no. My guess is
that after a playtime (or feelings-time) like this, children
will be more reasonable and better able to handle things that
don't go their way, and that parent and child will feel closer
together. But I'd love to hear how this theory actually works in
the real world. So please try it out and let me know!