Learning to say ‘no’

My 7-year-old asked me this week, “Mom — when are we going back-to-school shopping?” My answer: “We’re not, you have enough clothes. We’re done.” She didn’t seem too upset by this news.

It’s not that I’m great at saying no to my kids (though yes, I confess I’ve written a book that talks in part about the importance of that very subject.) But I am getting better at it. I have to. There are four of them and one of me.

Yet it’s not just about my survival. It’s for them.

This doesn’t mean I use no gratuitously, or that it’s not more fun to say yes. It’s just that as a good friend once told me, when it comes to our kids we should learn to use no as a complete sentence.

And that applies to a whole lot more than just clothes and material things they don’t need.

But the battles do seem to loom especially large when it comes to back-to-school. Our kids want all the latest stuff. The very cool and very expensive and often, for girls, the very tarty looking fashions. (I love that word.)

Add to that iPods and cell phones — and not just any cell phones — they have to be the most tricked-out and tech-packed, and laptops, and on and on the list goes.

Parents have always contended with “gimme.” But it seems to me it used to be on a somewhat different scale. When I was in high school, I campaigned for months for a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Yes, I got them _ and I treated them like they were made of spun gold.

Today our kids want it all _ whether or not we can afford any of it. And too often the parents who can afford it, and even the ones who can’t, provide it.

I think today we parents are just terrified of disappointing our kids in any way. I have certainly noticed that reaction in myself countless times. But it seems previous generations accepted the idea of disappointment in their own lives, and their children’s, more readily. Perhaps given wars and depressions and simpler living standards, it was more a part of the fabric of life.

Not we boomers and near-boomers. Disappointment is a dirty word, for both us and our kids. We don’t say no to ourselves, much less our children.

Sure my kids’ reaction to yes, whether it’s about a new outfit or going “rock climbing” at the sporting goods store, is fun for them and for me. (Of course I realize that as my kids get older, the yeses are going to become more nerve wracking.)

But I also have to remind myself, encourage myself, that every time I legitimately say no to my kids, and allow them (force them) to accept some level of disappointment in their lives, I am doing them a favor. I’m teaching them that they can survive, even thrive, with no.

I’ve encountered too many adults, especially, it seems, young adults, who literally never heard the word no when they were growing up. Such people give new meaning to the word narcissist. That’s a pretty destructive way to live.

I see helping my kids learn to accept no as like a vaccine. It will allow them to better handle the disappointments and no’s that will inevitably come into their own worlds later on, and not be derailed by them. And I’m convinced as adults they will be more equipped to say no to their own passions when it’s necessary.

I think such things are gifts for our children.

Nobody should feel guilty about taking their kids back-to-school shopping, or buying them a backpack or even a cell phone they really like and can use, as long as mom and dad can afford it. But I think we parents do have to ask ourselves, “Am I consistently saying yes to all manner of things when I know I shouldn’t, because I am afraid of disappointing my kids?” That is something we should feel guilty about. Because while that view will sometimes make our lives as parents easier in the moment, it will make our children’s much harder over the long run.

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _- and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at www.betsyhart.net or betsysblog.com.)