Figuring out when (and when not) to say “no”

Late on Sunday afternoon, at the end of a weekend that featured Downton Abbey, Spanish brunch, and coq au vin, Caroline and I lay on the living room floor while the boys played and the sky faded to a somber Michigan twilight.

Jay sat at his small desk, using a pair of pinking shears to dismantle an empty cereal box—“Cut it into as many pieces as you can,” I’d told him, trying to bide time until dinner—while Wally crawled around at his feet.  He placed one hand on the seat of Jay’s chair.  Then the other.  Then he pulled himself up to a position of full-equality with his brother, who seemed no less stunned than you or I would be if tomorrow morning two suns appeared in the sky.

Caroline remarked: “There’s our gross motor child and there’s our fine motor child,” which is true.  Wally’s on pace to be doing somersaults by May; Jay, who never crawled and never pulled up, could pull the legs off a centipede with a pair of tweezers.

Throughout the weekend Caroline and I talked about “no”—as in when to say it to Jay and when not to.  This has been something I’ve thought about since a day shortly after Jay was born when a father in Rittenhouse Square told me that he didn’t believe in saying no to his infant daughter. That seemed a little extreme to me, but at least it raised the issue as something to think about.

On Friday afternoon the four of us were driving home from Caroline’s office.  Caroline and I were trying to talk about Stephen Colbert’s very funny interview with Maurice Sendak, but we didn’t get far: “What you talking about?” Jay kept interrupting from the backseat.

This is an increasing problem.  Jay has a lot to say and he doesn’t like to be left out.  Those are good qualities, all told, but they also mean it’s hard for Caroline and me to have a sustained discussion in his presence.  Usually we either let him hijack the conversation or end up yelling at him in frustration.

On Friday, though, it occurred to me that there was a third route: We could tell Jay that Mom and Dad are talking right now and that if he’s quiet, he can have a chance to talk in a few minutes.

This was an obvious move but a liberating one, too—it was nice to remember that we could say “no” to behavior that makes our lives harder, like when Jay interrupts our conversations or asks for another cup of milk after he’s already had one and been put to bed for the night.  I think Jay’s self-esteem is strong enough to absorb the knowledge that as one person in a house of four, his desires don’t rule the day.

But there are other times when I can’t decide whether it’s appropriate to say “no.”

Here are two examples from this morning.

I made Jay an English Muffin and offered to serve it to him with peanut butter, jam, or peanut butter and jam.  He replied, “I want peanut butter aaaaand butter.”

“No,” I said. Because obviously peanut butter and butter don’t go together. And it wasn’t one of the choices I offered him.   But afterwards I was conflicted.  It wouldn’t have been any more work for me to serve it to him that way.  And was it necessary for me to impose a somewhat arbitrary culinary norm on his open-minded toddler tastebuds?  At the same time, I don’t want Jay going out to eat with his in-laws when he’s 30 and ordering an English with “PB and butter.”  So, there’s a balance between necessary socialization and encouraging creativity.

The second example: After breakfast Jay started to move the recycling container from the kitchen to who knows where.  I stopped him.  I didn’t want dirty food containers moving around the house. For a moment I felt like a prig for letting my concern for dirt override whatever grand plan Jay had in mind for the trash. But then I thought, whatever.  We need rules.  And clean carpets.  He’ll find something else to do with his time.

There’s a third category of interactions, though.  This is the one that’s been most on my mind: times when I say “no” to Jay out of habit or laziness and really wish I hadn’t.

A month ago he started playing “mechanic” on his fire truck with his plastic tools.  Two weeks later he started asking me to get him the “real screwdriver” which he knows we keep in a pathetically small box of tools in the basement.

Then a week ago he put the two together and asked if he could use the screwdriver to unscrew the battery compartment on the fire truck.  “No way,” I thought to myself. “The batteries are going to get lost.  He’s not going to be able to do it.  Plus, we only open that compartment when the batteries actually need to be replaced.”

But then I thought:  Will the batteries really get lost?  And maybe he will know how to do it, especially if I show him. And who says we only open the compartment when the batteries actually need replacing?

So I let Jay open the battery compartment.  I showed him how to find the right-sized Phillips head.  I taught him, “Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosey.”  And then, once we’d opened the compartment, I showed him the essential relationship between the sound of the fire truck’s siren and the three double-A’s nestled in its undercarriage: He pushed the siren, quickly took out one of the batteries, and just as he did, the siren stopped dead.

Jay understood what had happened immediately.  His face lit up.  He laughed out loud.  He put the battery back in and wanted to perform the magic trick over and over again.

Later that night, after Jay had gone to bed, I realized that in the moment Jay figured out what batteries do, the world became a bigger, more interesting place to him, and he become a bigger, more interesting person to himself—someone newly capable of understanding how the world works and influencing its course.

Far be it from me to say “no” to that.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Daddy (and Mama) don’t play

What it might really mean to learn to be a parent


9 thoughts on “Figuring out when (and when not) to say “no”

  1. My mom loves toast with peanut butter and butter, so Ryan actually would have been served well if he ordered the same at his in laws’. You never know!

    • I used to love pb and butter, too, but then for some reason stopped
      in my childhood. Maybe it was about the same time I took a fancy
      to pb and blue cheese on saltines. Yum! But I’m still looking for
      someone who’ll share that pleasure with me.

  2. An ongoing struggle for me too. I did learn however that a qualified yes is often a better alternative, such as yes you can have gobs of candy IF you eat your dinner all gone. Sounds like a great teaching moment with the tools though. I love seeing my children’s world grow as they’d learn new things.

    • I agree. And I’m always surprised how, in the heat of the moment when I’m negotiating with Jay, I very often forget about alternatives (like offering a trade) that would defuse the situation so much more effectively than a flat “No.”

  3. Great post, Kevin. How many times did an unexplained “no!” come out of my mouth when I didn’t have the time/patience/inclination to think of a way to say “yes” as I was raising my children? It’s admirable how reflective you are as a father.

    Sometimes “no” is the only viable option, but an explanation of “why not” helps to soothe the disappointment.

  4. What a beautiful moment of childhood discovery. Great writing. Well done opening up your son’s world a bit more – that’s an inspiring moment for us parents, huh?

    Thanks also for reflecting on the need to examine our pre-conceived notions, fight our laziness, and find the best principles in order to make the best decisions with our kids. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts!

  5. Pingback: Kevin Hartnett: Learning When (And When Not) To Say 'No' | USA Press

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