Saying No to Kids Can Actually Make Them Happier

Children who have limits have an easier time

Making our kids happy is inherently reinforcing. Any hint of happiness we’re able to provide them seems to multiply exponentially inside of us, so that even the tiniest little smile makes us want to jump for joy. I remember when my son smiled “for real” for the first time. Up until that point, my husband and I were content as new parents to simply admire our newborn; however he was, fussy or calm, groggy or alert. It didn’t matter to us. And then, the day came when our baby smiled on purpose at something we did! Ever since then, we’ve pretty much been obsessed with trying to get him to laugh.

Happiness in a world with limits 

But it doesn’t just feel good to make our kids happy; we seem to view it as a moral imperative and perhaps even the ultimate goal of parenting, at least within our North American culture. It strikes me that this may be why so many of us have a difficult time saying “no” to our kids. We falsely equate the temporary lapse in our children’s happiness (when they’re denied a coveted object or experience) with our own poor parental performance. We all want to have a healthy relationship with our children and nobody wants to be a bad parent.

So here’s the truth: Saying “no” to our kids isn’t only essential to being a good parent, it’s critical to our children’s happiness.

When kids are never told “no,” they get used to a world without limits. This isn’t a problem as long as they continue to have unrestricted access to anything they want. But this isn’t realistic, even for the most fortunate and well-off kids. Eventually, circumstances arise in which a definitive line has to be set. A toddler gets a hold of a sharp pair of scissors, for example, or an unlicensed teen wants to take the car out for a spin. Inevitably the proverbial “foot” has to be put down.

For kids who have limits set for them on a fairly consistent basis, being told “no” is relatively easy to handle. There’s disappointment, of course, and perhaps a temporary flare up of frustration, but this is nothing compared to the feelings that kids who’ve never had limits set for them experience. Upon hearing “no,” these kids aren’t merely disappointed, they’re absolutely miserable. Sometimes, they’re full of rage. They’re mad at their parents for not letting them have what they want, of course, but even angrier at the fact that they’ve been duped into thinking that they live in a world in which they can have, do, and yes, be anything they want. 

Preparing for natural boundaries 

Now I’m not suggesting that we should use “no” to construct a narrow and limited reality for our children. We all want our kids to grow up imagining possibilities in life; believing that the sky’s the limit. What I am suggesting is that we can and should use “no” to help prepare our kids for the natural barriers and setbacks that are bound to crop up throughout their lives. Not to mention the fact that “no” helps children appreciate what they have, rather than fixate on what they don’t have. Saying “no” to our kids not only protects them from feelings of entitlement, but also prevents them from taking things for granted.

Here are a few ways to do it:

Stand your ground 

That means no second-guessing, waffling back and forth, or allowing yourself to be swayed by an emotional plea, temper tantrum or guilt-trip. When you say “no,” stick to it, otherwise it will make saying “no” the next time that much harder.

Be compassionate 

Just because you know that saying “no” to your child is in her own best interest, this doesn’t mean that she’s going to see it that way. In fact, most likely, she’s going to see it the opposite way. So, we must be sensitive to the fact that the feelings that go along with being told “no” are real, whether they’re about a missed sleepover party or an extra chocolate chip cookie. We need to respond to our children’s feelings with genuine care, no matter how dramatically they behave at the time.

Say yes when you can 

Before saying “no” ask yourself: do you really have to restrict whatever it is that your kids are pining for? Is it going to injure them in some way, physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually? Is it about a risk they could actually benefit from taking? Or is saying “no” simply a knee-jerk response to a complicated question you haven’t taken the time to consider. I encourage parents to carefully think through all of our children’s requests and say yes whenever possible.

Put the ball in their court 

This means allowing your kids to arrive at the difficult decisions for themselves. Of course, this is the ideal scenario and it’s also the most difficult to accomplish since it involves laying a fair bit of parenting groundwork ahead of time.  Think about it: In order for your kids to make a decision that’s contrary to their immediate desires, yet beneficial to their long-term interests, they must have critical thinking skills, sound judgment, impulse control, ethical principles and a strong moral fibre. They must be able to self-regulate and tell themselves “no” when it’s appropriate to do so–especially when you’re not there. Really, rather than trying to make our kids happy, shouldn’t teaching them how to find happiness for themselves be the ultimate goal of parenting?