Occasionally my 4-year-old son will ask me, “Why can’t I do whatever I want to do?”
What I think to myself at those times is, If you had your way, you would eat dessert before and after every meal, watch five hours of TV per day, stay up until midnight, leave every toy we own out all over the house, buy something new every day, and never ever change your clothes.
Instead of saying all that, I usually say something like, “Because it’s my job to look out for what’s best for you.”
I don’t know if this is the right way to answer him or not. I’m always a bit surprised by the question—not that he wants to get his way in a given situation, but the request for carte blanche to do as he pleases. Like many people, he craves freedom and autonomy.
A few months ago, I started to feel like I was saying “no” all the time and constantly nagging him to do what I wanted (or needed) him to do. I got tired of what was turning into a negative environment, frustrating for both of us. So I started looking for more opportunities to say “yes.” I didn’t want him to feel like he didn’t have any autonomy or freedom, or that I was unwilling to do anything he asked of me.
One day he asked me if we could build a mine out of boxes, complete with a working elevator, conveyor belt, and mine train. His proposal was going to be challenging, time-consuming, and messy, but in the spirit of saying “yes,” I helped him to do it. Three hours later we filled the mine with pinto beans, dump trucks, and front loaders.
One day he asked me if he could help chop zucchini. Instead of telling him that it was too dangerous for him, I taught him about knife safety and carefully supervised his chopping.
And when he asked me to play dinosaurs with him for the umpteenth time that week, I conceded and said yes instead of dodging the bullet. (There are only so many times in a week one can really find joy in playing dinosaurs.)
The point of saying “yes” more often isn’t to let your children walk all over you and dictate your entire day. The real power of saying yes is that it makes saying “no” easier and more effective when you need to. When I felt like I was responding to my kids’ simple desires and hopes with “yes” more often, I didn’t have to feel guilty about the times I said “no.” Instead of using “no” as a way to avoid inconvenience, I tried to use “no” for situations when it was really needed. The key is to say “yes” without undermining necessary boundaries, structure, and discipline.
5 Ways to Say Yes to Your Kids
1. The Delayed Yes
When yes can’t be now, say yes for later instead of saying no. “Yes, I would love to play that game with you after we get the kitchen cleaned up.”
2. Yes with a Limit
Set aside a dedicated amount of time to do something your child wants to do and then feel free to say you’re finished. “Yes, I would love to help you build that train track, and then I need to get some work done.” Or, “Yes, you may watch TV for a half hour and then I want you to find something else to do.”
3. Yes to More Autonomy
Find ways to let your kids expand their autonomy in ways that are age appropriate. Certified Family Educator Jennifer Best uses the language of “pasture” and “fences” to talk about boundaries for kids. The pasture is the area in which kids are allowed to have freedom to make their own choices, and the fences are the rules or limitations you put in place. When I felt like my son was old enough, I expanded his “pasture” by telling him he could go outside and play in the backyard whenever he wanted to, as long as he let me know he was going outside. Another way we expanded his pasture was letting him wear whatever he wanted as long as it was seasonally appropriate and we weren’t going to an event with clothing expectations, like a wedding.
4. Yes to New Skills
Look for ways to help your kids learn new skills, even when it would be more convenient to do it yourself or avoid the issue. When my son wanted to chop the zucchini, I was worried about him cutting himself and wanted to just get it done faster myself. Instead I took the time to teach him something new and let him help in a way that I thought he could, safely.
5. Just Plain Yes
Ask yourself why you are saying “no.” Is it mostly out of inconvenience or lack of interest on your part? I recently read a list of 20 Christmas gift ideas to avoid for kids. Among other things on the list was anything that makes a mess (such as play dough or paints), anything with small pieces (like Legos or miniature dolls that come with a lot of accessories), or anything dangerous (like a trampoline or roller blades). One person commented on the blog post and summed it up as “anything that’s fun for kids.” I couldn’t have agreed more with their assessment. Sometimes as adults we say “no” to kids not for any great reason, but simply because it seems inconvenient to say “yes.” I think we have to just bite the bullet sometimes to give kids the opportunity to play and explore, even if it’s harder or more work. No one said parenting is easy, right?
Tip: Finding ways to say “yes” more often makes saying “no” more effective and easier as a parent.