April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Any reader who has attended one of my parenting workshops will be surprised to hear me touting the word no. My usual mantra, after all, is “never say ‘no’ when you can say ‘yes’.” I still maintain this “golden rule” because I find that many parents say no automatically and give a negative answer inasmuch as, usually, that’s the answer they would have gotten from their parents. Thus, it often comes without really considering what has been asked for. However the opposite, unfortunately, is also often true: that parents won’t say or stick to a “no” due to insufficient thought being given to why theno” was important in the first place. And, believe it or not, studies show that over-permissiveness is more detrimental to a child’s emotional health than being too restrictive.

We can look at the word no in two different ways. In one way, it’s a means of control, kind of the first weapon in a classic power struggle—and that’s when it needs to be guarded against. The other way of perceiving this word is of setting up boundaries, of defining the safe from the unsafe. It is in this, the latter meaning, from which the magic arises.

For children, the whole world is new and often wonderfully enticing. The toddler is just as bewitched by the electrical outlet as by the daisy. Both whet the appetite for exploration and discovery. That’s where the parent comes in. It is the parental experience and knowledge that provokes a firm and resounding no! when that chubby little finger reaches out toward the outlet. And, it is that same no! that lets that child know that there is someone who is watching out for its welfare, looking to protect and guide them as they venture forth.

At some point in the last “X” number of years, the word no has, for many parents, become a “four letter word”, one they are not only reluctant to use but one they feel is wrong for them to use. The most extreme form in which this was demonstrated was shared with me a number of years ago. A teacher of 2-year-olds, whom it had once been my delight to supervise, called me to ask for some advice. She currently had in her class the daughter of a psychiatrist. This dad had instructed the teaching staff that they were never to use the word no with his daughter. Somehow, he and his wife had determined that hearing the word no would cause irreparable damage to the child, and so it would be omitted from her experience. Obviously, in the classroom the child was out of control. She had no sense of boundaries, no understanding of others’ rights, of appropriate/inappropriate behavior. From a teacher’s perspective, this was a child who was a menace, even a disaster, to and in her classroom. From a psychologist’s perspective, this was a child who was screaming for help, being flooded by impulses over which she had not learned any self-control and fears of not being protected from the dangers of the world.

A not so extreme example occurred when a family came to my office in order to explore the possibility of enrolling their child in our 2-year-old program for the coming year. Having only two chairs in this very small space, the parents sat down and put the little girl, standing, on the floor. As soon as we began to speak, the child pointed at her mother and started screaming. The mom got up from the chair and let the child sit. Then the little girl noticed I had a shelf above my desk with toys and books, put there to help children stay amused during just such a situation. The child pointed, using verbalizations, at a particular toy, which the mother retrieved for her. Once the little girl had it, she threw it down on the floor and signaled for another one. Once she had that, she repeated the process. She then got off the chair she was on, turned to her father, pointed at him and started screaming. He promptly got off his chair and let her sit down, with the mother then resuming her seat in the first chair. The process with the toys/books resumed until she, once again, “threw” her mother off her chair. At this point, the dad looked at me and with an embarrassed laugh asked, “What are you supposed to do?” I responded, “You start with the word no.”

“No’s” and limitations are the verbal equivalent of swaddling. When we wrap a newborn in a soft blanket, we provide not constriction, but security. As the baby grows and acclimates to the openness of the world outside the womb, we ease up on the wrapping and allow increasing freedom of movement. So it is as the child grows, when, with maturity and self-guidance, previous no’s turn into yeses and additional freedoms.

Another story comes to mind—this about a 12-year-old boy. This young man had gone to the movies with three classmates, two boys and a girl. The boy’s father had driven them and the girl’s dad was supposed to drive them home. When the movie was over, the boy called his parents to announce the boys were waiting for the girl’s dad to pick her up, but that they would then walk home. The movie theater was on a major highway. The three boys each lived in a different town. It was late and completely dark with many roads having no overhead lighting. The boy’s parents said “absolutely not. You just stay where you are. Daddy’s coming to get you. We’ll call Lisa’s parents and tell her we’re doing the driving.”

When the young man walked into the house with his father, he was complaining bitterly, indignantly declaring, “You never let me grow up; you treat me like a baby, etc., etc.” In actuality, what happened here? This boy did not want to walk home with his friends. If he did, he wouldn’t have called his parents; he just would have shown up. He called his parents because he knew, he trusted, they would say “no.” Thus, he saved face in front of his friends (after all, he would have walked, it was just his “mean” parents who wouldn’t let him), and he relied on what he knew about his parents—they would not allow him to put himself in harm’s way.

The “no’s” in a child’s life help him/her acquire the understanding of right from wrong, of appropriate from inappropriate, of the permitted from the forbidden. It also helps children believe that they are loved, cared about and protected, however much possible, from the unknown and the dangerous. When used sparingly and in a positive way, they become the shelter under which a child is allowed to blossom into a secure and confident adult.

The Torah tells us we have an obligation to let another person know when he or she is doing something wrong. There is also a Yiddish saying, “God couldn’t be everywhere, so he created mothers” (and fathers!). God, in dealing with His children, allowed for questions, tantrums, rebellion, pleas and negotiations. He sometimes said “no” and sometimes capitulated, but He was always in charge—the Voice of Authority and The Final Word. I can’t think of a better role model.

Nancy is a Certified School Psychologist, Motivational Speaker, and psychotherapist with an office in Paramus, anticipating publication of her first children’s book. http://www.thepsychspeaks.com/

By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach

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