Photo: Merete Kropp

Early on in my parenting days I thought it would be a good idea to create a positive environment by becoming a “Yes” mom instead of a “No” mom. I decided that when I needed to say no to something, I could turn my words into yes statements, thus playing a semantic game that would help my children hear more positive phrases.

It plays out something like this: “Mom, can we have dessert?” (meaning: ice cream, cake or chocolate) “Yes! We have grapes!” (See what I did there? No to tasty unhealthy food, yes to fruit.) “Mom! PLEASE can I stay up past my bedtime?”
 “YES. When it’s not a school night.”

This approach occasionally works, although by now my children see through my wily ways. By consciously framing directives in a positive way, I am able to set clear boundaries and behavioral expectations. Intentionally redirecting attention to appropriate options and established rules and routines reinforces healthy habits and positive choices all around.

However, consistently implementing this approach requires enormous effort, and fails to take into account key elements of brain development. Newborn babies are dependent on caring adults to meet their every need. As babies grow and develop new skills, it is not difficult for parents to identify their needs and to find ways to meet those needs on their children’s behalf. When a diaper is wet, we change it. Before babies can walk, we carry them. Parents encourage children to become more independent as they offer help and support while gradually removing the support as their offspring gain autonomy.

Older children also need caring adults to undertake certain tasks on their behalf while offering age appropriate scaffolding that in turn needs to be gradually released, but these needs are often more hidden. Scientists who study brain development have in recent years discovered that the part of the brain responsible for helping to make decisions involving long term planning, self regulation and delayed gratification in order to realize long term gain is the last part of the brain to fully mature. In fact, this section of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) only kicks into full gear as young adults reach their early to mid 20s. This scientifically proven phenomenon has tremendous implications for parenting in terms of saying no.

One of my jobs as a parent is to actively take on the role of a mature prefrontal cortex by setting limits, establishing boundaries and helping my children learn what delayed gratification and long term planning looks and feels like so they can practice these skills with help until they are ready to fully take them on independently. I want to create a positive, nurturing atmosphere for my children by avoiding the negative connotations of constantly hearing the word, “No.” I have learned that, as the adult in the relationship, it is also my obligation to be the boundary setter, which necessitates at times saying no to my children. If my children have never been told no at home during their formative years, how will they react and respond when they inevitably hear it in other settings as they grow older?

If I do not set limits for them as children, enforcing perimeters on their behalf, how will they have the ability as adults self regulate, delay gratification and establish their own boundaries? I owe it to my children to say no when I mean no, thus setting the stage for healthy brain development. It is helpful for me to keep in mind that as a parent I am tasked with filling in for my children’s prefrontal cortex as their brains are still developing. This realization provides motivation to give myself permission and authority to say no even when it is difficult to do so. I recognize that certain resources such as time and attention are finite.

Saying to no to one thing is often a necessary precursor to saying yes to another, which may be better in the long term. I say no in order to say yes when I: Say no to a (fun) activity. I say yes to a more open and flexible schedule that may encourage creativity. Say no to rude behavior. I teach my children accepted social norms. Revoke a privilege. I capitalize on teachable moments regarding consequences of poor behavioral choices. Say no to unhealthy food or activities in my home. I set the stage for healthy habits. Say no to living a life of rushed, busy existence. I say yes to a slower paced, more enjoyable journey through my children’s childhood years.

Saying no to my children is not always easy. I do not enjoy seeing their faces fill with disappointment and it is difficult to live in today’s world and avoid feeling rushed, busy and stretched thin. We battle the constant onslaught of an overabundance of opportunities, responsibilities and tugs on our time, attention and money. Most of these opportunities may be enjoyable and beneficial in and of themselves. However, when I refuse to allow outside influences to dictate my family’s time, energy and consumption, I am protecting myself and my family and saying yes to safe-guarding our future by setting consistent, firm limits and boundaries.

When I say no, I am also modeling regulatory behavior for my children. I encourage them to set their own limits and to say no as well. I have learned that no is not a bad word but rather a necessary word used to establish clear boundaries in life. I say no to help strengthen the connections in my growing children’s brains. I can be a “Yes” mom who must also at times say no in order to say yes to positive outcomes for my children and my family.