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Setting limits and saying no

Last week I was at my book group and the discussion turned to scaling back, not spending as much, etc. Not surprising given the state of the economy. Several other members are also parents, and they were discussing ways to deal with children's wants, most of them very dismissive and coercive.


I think it makes sense to cut back when finances are tight. When something makes sense to us, then it seems like everyone will naturally agree it makes sense. If they don't agree then, it seems, there's something wrong with them.


When we adopt principles for ourselves, we choose to make sacrifices -- make life more difficult for ourselves in essence -- to uphold those principles. Problems arise when we decide others need to adopt our principles and we then impose the sacrifices on them.


If my husband found a new religion that was meaningful to him, then decided that since it made so much sense to him that we'd all adopt that religion and spend 10 hours in church every Sunday, it would be mild to say my reaction would be "WHAT?!"


Forcing children to make sacrifices to uphold the parents' principles is a really good way to make them not want anything to do with our principles!


If, on the other hand, my husband recognized the imposition he was creating on the family because of his new interest, and worked hard to minimize that impact so he could get what was bringing new meaning into his life -- like coming home early on weekdays to do things with the family, devoting Saturday's to be open to family things instead of downtime or chores for instance --, the more accepting the rest of the family would be. We'd obviously want him to be happy. But we wouldn't want him to make us miserable in order to be happy!


While it would be understandable that he'd want the whole family to embrace the religion -- We do want others to share what we enjoy. (It's great when the whole family can find a TV show to watch together, for instance.) -- the more his attitude was "I want you to embrace this because it's right for you, not because I want you to," the more receptive I'd be to trying it out.


We can't, of course, make someone adopt our principles. (We can make someone we have power over go through the motions of adopting and making the sacrifices.)


We can make someone not want our principle, by showing them how unpleasant the principles are by imposing the sacrifices on them.


What we can do, though, is work hard to ease the impact of our principles on others so they aren't feeling just the negative before they believe in the positive.


I just brought up the concept of abundance, and how to make children feel like their lives are abundant even when it's not possible for them to get everything they want.


If it's not just a case of Mom seizing the opportunity of the poor economy to relieve herself of the excesses of the holidays she doesn't like by imposing sacrifices on the kids, if the money really isn't there, approach it with "What can we do," instead of "We can't do that." Be the open door on possibilities rather than the gatekeeper to "No."


A heads up, though! A kid who has only heard no and yes to his requests, when he hears "How about this instead?" it sounds like no. The parent's intent doesn't change what it sounds like to the child. The child will react to the actions that were always connected to the words in the past until the child is confident that the parent means (through their new actions) what they say. It may take months of dedication to helping the child find possibilities without any slide backs into "Just no and that's final!" to rebuild confidence.  This is true of people, not just kids. If someone's been gambling for 10 years and announces "I've given up gambling," we'd be naive to believe their words over their accumulated actions. How long would it take, what would they need to do before the words sounded like truth? It's going to take a long time and clear effort at working to be different to rebuild trust.


So what do you do instead of buying every toy? Make lists. Not just at Christmas time, but through out the year. In one family all the kids have wish lists at Amazon. So when they see a book they'd like that isn't in the budget at the moment, they put it on their wish list. (As someone suggested, it's good for them to go through and clean out their lists occasionally and get rid of the books they no longer want.) Walmart has wish lists too.


Discuss what can be made that might be as good as or better. What can be found at thrift stores? What can wait until after Christmas when everything goes on sale? eBay. Craig's list. Amazon used items.


Be there for them to help them find the possibilities. 


More often than not parents create kids' attitude of "I want that and only that. Nothing else will do." It's not because kids are naturally stubborn. It's because when a parent is a blockade between them and what they want, what options are we giving them? Give up? Sneak around us? Bully their way through us? When we think about it, we admire when the hero hears no and then finds a way to make it happen anyway. But when kids exhibit that same fortitude, parents find it irritating because it's inconvenient to the parents. 


Be their partner. When they're confident that we're working to get them what they want in some way, they'll work with us rather than seeing us as adversaries they need to fight against to get what they want.  To a child who is confident their parent is working with them rather than against them, "How about this instead?" sounds like one of many doors the parent will find to open towards getting their needs met some how rather than "Take this instead of what you want."



My children want a lot that I can't give them. My son wants a go cart for Christmas. Even if it was within my means, I wouldn't get him one because I know that he is impulsive and does not have the skills to be safe on a go cart.


This comes from perceiving that people are saying "Give your kids everything they want." But we're saying help them figure out what they want and help them figure out ways to get it. If we become the locked door that stands between them and what they want, the only options we're giving them are to push against us or sneak around us. If we stand beside them and help them figure out how they can get from where they are to where they want to be, then we become their partner.


Would you rather be a door or a partner? The people who perceive their relationship as partners to their kids have relationships that I admire. They aren't without conflict but the conflict arises from personal differences rather than from the power struggle of a stronger person making a weaker person do what's "right". (Frankly I think getting along with people is hard enough that I don't want to compound it by adding in a layer of power struggle!)


I can't offer advice from experience on the go cart since I've got a quiet kid who isn't a teen yet! And your son's been controlled so trying out letting go of control on a go cart sounds like failure waiting to happen. When control is let go on anything: tv, food, freedom from school, kids can binge. Kids will binge on freedom too if they feel that's been controlled. But if he feels that his own life is in the decisions he makes, then he's going to be a lot more sensible. He won't make the same choices you would. He may take risks! (There probably was no holding Evel Knievel back. And since Evel Knievel's son followed in his motorcycle tracks there was undoubtedly genetic factors.) But he's more likely to take more risks if what he's really doing is fighting control.


In partnership relationships children know their parents are there to help any way they can and their parents do care. They know that advice is advice and not control. When a child's been controlled (still or recently in the past) and they hear "This is what concerns me," it's just code for "That's why I won't let you." They don't hear the concerns because from experience they know there's nothing they can do about the concerns. They're just add ons to the "No" to make the parent feel better. (Justified "no"s feel better to mom than just "no," but they're still "no" to the child.)


In a partnership, "This is what concerns me," means exactly that. It's the beginning of problem solving on safety issues. If we begin from a position of "Yes", then our concerns become logistics to find solutions to.


Partnership parents might find a trusted adult who could advise the teen about go carts. (It's often a whole lot easier to hear advice from someone who's been there and still doing that than from worrying parents.)




Reading through the above, I realized I never got to what to do instead of buying the go cart. Probably it had been covered by someone else on the list at the time.


Approach it with a "Let's figure out what we can do" attitude rather than being the enforcer of "No." For the go cart, find ways he can ride one even if owning one isn't a possibility yet. Lessons. Friends with go carts. Repair shops to hang out. Ask on an unschooling group fo ideas. My unschooler is interested in ... group on Facebook is for exactly that. It's surprising the opportunities that are out there that we're not aware of that others are.


So I am wondering how does one say "no" to buying food so that one does not rack up a huge bill of sugary foods while not making it like the sugary foods are "off limits?"


How do you say no to kids wanting to fly? (And there are better ways than saying "No, you can't fly.") Some limitations in life are real! Removing limits isn't about removing real limits. It's about recognizing and eliminating the arbitrary limits that we impose because of fear and because we want to make life more convenient for ourselves.




The problem with pulling bits and pieces together to answer a question is they don't sound as complete when I reread them later! ;-) 


So what do you do? You problem solve. You let your kids see you proactively tackling an issue rather than just shutting it down.


You discuss how to make it possible. It helps if you have a specific budget for food so you're not just arbitrarily saying "Too much!" when it comes to things they want. You could suggest buying a cheaper cut of meat. (They might suggest forgoing the meat all together, since often kids don't like meat ;-) But you don't need to drop your principles. I'd approach it with "I need to provide you with enough food for health. Whether you eat it or not, is your decision. But I'd be a bad mom if I didn't provide it." (And you can discuss cheaper vegetarian alternatives.) Or buying store or generic brands instead of national brands. Clipping coupons. If you have a certain amount budgeted for electricity, find ways to cut back, like being diligent about turning off lights. Selling stuff on eBay or Amazon. (Shop yard sales, looking for items you think would sell well.)


These are the kinds of things people on tight budgets already do but if you work on finding ways to shift money about, make sacrifices in one area in order to get something special in another area, you'll build up your kids' trust that you're trying to help them get what they want rather than being the protector of the money.



Sorry, I disagree, there always comes a time, when a young child will try out his/or her boundaries.


If there are principles rather than boundaries, then there's no reason to test boundaries.


When this happens, it happens fast.


A wild animal kept in a small cage will take off fast if the door is left open. A child with a parent joyfully accompanying him on his journey has no need to bolt, does he? If there's no confinement, there's nothing to bolt from.


I am talking about a child learning the word "NO", and understanding that this parent means NO.


And how does a child learn No means No without that then becoming a boundary to be tested?


But if No always means "Stop! You're about to run into danger," they wouldn't have a reason not to stop. (We can hope it works in an emergency but we shouldn't rely on a small child remembering that or being able to hear it when focused on something that looks like a huge amount of fun. It's our responsibility to be right there beside them, not turn the responsibility for their safety over to them.)



As for letting the anger of a young child rule my life, I would no more let the anger of an adult rule my life.


No child can rule your life. They don't have that power. Any power they have is what adults let them have. It can just as easily be taken away.


Adults have the power to stop someone from treating them in ways they don't like. We mutually agree that other adults are our equal in autonomy. If someone tries to force us to do something we don't want, we even have legal recourse to prevent them.


Children aren't even in that league. They don't have the power to stop a parent from treating them in ways they don't like. Any power they have is what we give them. Parents physically and emotionally and legally have the power to bend children to their will.


No matter how nicely we treat our children, that imbalance of power is there. It needs to be there, of course. A child doesn't have the same coping skills to deal with society that an adult has. A child is emotionally dependent on his parents.


But when we parents get what we want because of that imbalance of power, it can be an abuse of that power. You can claim a time in the evening because you have the power to do so. The children can't make you go to bed at 8 because they want some time alone.


A wife not liking her husband's friends he wants to invite over is not in an equal power position with a child who doesn't want to be around guests the parent wants to invite over. A child doesn't have an equal voice to say "No, I don't want them to come over"; doesn't have the physical ability to leave the house; doesn't have the skills to bring up solutions in advance like suggesting a play date with someone else; and is, especially for younger kids, emotionally dependent on the parents' presence in his life.


If a child gets to negotiate, it's because we let them. Then we get to judge whether their objections are worthy or not. Then we get to choose to inconvenience ourselves or inconvenience them. There's a huge difference between choosing to inconvenience ourselves and having someone else force it on us.


No one is advocating promoting children to be adult equals "as is". They have less knowledge of the world, lesser ability to express what they want. So they need help in understanding what they want and what is possible. (A young child may say "I want those ($60) shoes," when what they really mean is the shoes I have are hard and those look soft.)


Basically children need advocates. Someone who has no stake in the outcome and only wants to try to help the child. So, sometimes as parents we have to be both impartial and involved, negotiating for the child and for ourselves too ;-) And sometimes, yes, we do have to set aside our own wants to meet their needs. Spending an afternoon with a 3 yo who says "I hate you" is an unfair burden for another 3 yo to bear. It's an especial burden when the child realizes it's the parent's choice to put him in that situation. And especially if it's done repeatedly because the adult wants to "play" with the other child's parents.


What I hear people say is as we have chosen to have these little creatures, we owe it to them to give them what they want.


I think we owe it to them to love them and understand them and provide what they need to live joyful lives. It sounds similar but isn't the same at all.


The TCS (Taking Children Seriously) discussions on AOL helped me to see the powerless position children are in and to see the parent child relationship differently than I had. If I had to run all my wants and needs past my husband and wait for him to decide if they were worth meeting and if they were, when it was convenient for him to make it possible to meet them, then it would be stressful to say the least. And yet that is how children live their lives.


To change that, we don't need to provide everything a child asks for. Life doesn't give adults that! But we can stop being an obstacle and start being a companion and aid on their journey. We don't need to buy them every game they ask for, as Pam said someone assumed. But we can help them figure out ways they can get what they'd like. (And the discussion might help them to decide they don't really want it after all.)


What you said previously:


This is part of sharing life together and I am not going to run my life on the fits of anger of a seven year old or a three year old.


is saying that your children's feelings are sometimes unreasonable. That's something else the TCS discussion helped me see. An angry child is a child who is honestly frustrated by something. It doesn't make any difference if we agree that it's something they should be angry about. If we would like them to respect others' feelings -- even the ones they can't understand -- then we need to respect their feelings. Even the ones we can't understand or don't agree with.


I tell him as above that if he doesn't want to be around his brother there are plenty of rooms in the house for him to be in and friends' houses for him to visit if he wants to get away.


Which is a way of saying "It's your problem. You solve it."


It's a wake up call for me when I hear similar things that sounded reasonable at the time echoed back to me from my daughter. Like the seemingly reasonable, and even said logically without a hint of snarkiness, "You made, the mess, it's yours to clean up." Boy does that sound cold when I've spilled something and a 4 yo says it to me! I'd much rather hear "Oh, here, let me help you clean that up!" So that's what I say to her.


So I think a child would much rather hear -- as I would like to hear back from someone else -- "Would you like to come sit with me for a while?" or get them something from a closet they've never seen before or something that's been on a shelf for ages or call a friend or whatever might help him solve his problem. Or if it's an ongoing problem like the visiting 3 yo, figure out a solution before the problem arrives, like arranging a play date for him with someone else for that time, or just putting off getting together for a while since it's probably a problem that will cure itself with age.


When a child knows that something that distresses them is in our control to prevent, or even if they see us not trying to find a solution to something we can't prevent, then we betray their trust in us.



I do always seek the "yes", but sometimes, for me, the answer is just no.


Such as?


Not everything in life is possible. But that doesn't need stated, does it? It sounds like you're preserving some right to say no as if someone's trying to take it from you.


This applies to my dh, my dd, my mom - everybody in my life. Sometimes the answer is just no.


But your husband and your mom don't need help to get what they need from the world. :-) We adults tend to see only the advantages of being a kid -- oodles of time free of responsibility and obligations -- but miss the total powerlessness and dependence. The Yes/No discussion isn't meant to imply that parents should become doormats for their children. It's a recognition that children are fellow human beings who need help getting what the adults take for granted.



Joyfully Rejoycing
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