Monday 08 August 2022

Bringing back the art of saying ‘No’

This article first appeared in Malta Today

Remember when we were young and permission for quite a few things was often met with a flat, resounding ‘No’? 

After begging to be given a good enough reason with the obligatory whine of ‘but whyyyyyy?’, the answer we got was usually ‘because you are too young’, ‘because it’s too expensive’, ’because it’s past your bedtime’, or more often than not it was simply ‘because I said so’.  Despite all attempts by our persistent little minds to try and point out some flaw in parental reasoning in order to catch them out, clutch on to their fallacy and wriggle out of the negative reply, most of the time the attempts failed. It was particularly difficult to find a flaw in ‘because I said so’ as there was simply no way you could argue with that response. It was too dramatic and final, with the full weight of Mom and Dad authority behind it which could not be budged. 

Maybe it’s because it’s the end of the year, signalling the passage of time, but I find myself reflecting more and more on parenting styles and trying to pinpoint when exactly they changed.  I know this is an extremely personal matter – the one thing guaranteed to get people’s backs up is telling them how they should be raising their kids.  So, it is no surprise that there are as many methods and beliefs in raising children as there are parents themselves. Styles can range from the too draconian to the too laissez-faire, all the way down to the simply negligent where kids are just allowed to fend for themselves as long as they do not get into their parents’ hair.  It has always struck me as significant that child neglect can be found at the opposite ends of the spectrum – among those who have absolutely no money and those who have way too much. 

Telling children ‘No’, it seems, is something which more and more parents are finding difficult to do but which will ultimately serve them more than a pile of expensive presents.  The reluctance to answer a child’s request with a ‘No’ is understandable – the disappointment and hurt can be enough to melt anyone’s heart, while the tantrums are sometimes too much to bear. It’s just much easier to give in, to let them have whatever they want, and to allow them to do as they please because (a) you get some peace and quiet and (b) your children will like you.  Being the bad guy is never pleasant: you end up at the receiving end of dagger looks which could kill and your own flesh and blood screaming how much they ‘hate’ you.  Holding your ground and resisting the urge to just cave in is never easy, especially when judgmental looks are being thrown your way in public places.

But the reason the art of saying ‘No’ needs to be brought back is not just because it makes for better-behaved children, but because the rest of society will thank you when they grow up to (hopefully) be responsible, disciplined adults.  After all, the arrogant entitlement of those who expect everything and everyone to be at their beck and call at the snap of their fingers does not emerge as a character trait when they are fully-formed in their 20s and 30s.  If you spend your whole childhood breezing by, getting everything you want because everyone is afraid to tell you that you cannot have it, then that is you, programmed for life, and you will believe that the rest of the world will treat you in a similar manner.  Rules and regulations, whether on the road or at work are there for other people, and not for you.  

Waiting your turn? As if. 

Arriving at a shop as it’s about to close? They should serve you. 

Doing your job properly? Who cares.

Being told children are not allowed at a certain restaurant or venue? You raise hell.

A speed limit? You have got to be joking. 

The examples are endless and can be seen all around us, and I put it all down to these adults not being told ‘No’ enough times in their lives.  And because no one bothered to set them straight when they were little, that the world does not revolve around them, they have turned into adult-sized toddlers who do the equivalent of hurling themselves to the ground, banging their hands and feet in dramatic frustration, until someone gives in to them, if only to shut them up. 

The art of saying No can also be extended to those who are often taken advantage of, or end up taking on more work, because they have a hard time telling others who demand their help or attention that they are not able to do so.  The root of the problem is usually wanting to be a people-pleaser (where you end up pleasing everyone but yourself). It’s a common phenomenon, and there have been several self-help books written about this. They all say the same thing: be direct, don’t apologize or give justifications.  Above all don’t say yes out of guilt, because you will only end up feeling resentful.  The surprising thing is that 9 times out of 10 when you learn to firmly say No, most people eventually start to accept it.  Very much like children will, in fact. 


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