Something curious happened to me at our local library the other day. The kids and I often go there once a week to check out a mountain of books. We usually each collect our books and stack them together on a table before checking them out.
This time, a little girl wandered over to our stack and wanted to take a book my daughter had chosen. She asked me if she could have it.
“No,” I told her. “That’s ours. We’re checking it out.”
The child wandered away. I thought all was as it should be and started looking for picture books for my four year old. But it wasn’t. In telling her daughter that she could not have something, I might as well have walked into a bear cave.
“Talk to me, not my daughter!” her mother bellowed.
I tried, as best I could, to explain to the steamrolling woman that I had no problem with that, that I hadn’t in fact gone and sought her daughter out. I mentioned though that I had to stop her when she was reaching into what was set aside as for me.
“Don’t tell my daughter no!” she yelled at me, nonetheless. “Now you’ve hurt her feelings.”
I was so flabbergasted, I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “You can’t be serious.”
But she was.
I’m happy to say that the scene ended without anyone (er, me!) getting physically assaulted, but every time I think about it, I still can’t believe what she said. Clearly, it was such a deeply held belief in her mind that she was willing to confront a complete stranger over a situation in which she was clearly, ridiculously wrong. And why? All because of a little word: No.
How often do you say no?
We might not share that mama bear’s idea about raising our children without ever saying no or them ever having to hear a negative word from any other adult, but I would bet all of us say “yes” more often than we should.
I have written before about how saying no can be useful in saving time, but in this post, I want to explore how an unequivocal no can be useful not just in saving time but actually creating an atmosphere of trust, creativity and freedom – yes, freedom – for your children as well as you.
Think about a random incident. Say you’ve been asked to do something you would rather not – drop off a book you highly recommended to a friend, for instance. Or attend an event you know you won’t enjoy. What’s been asked isn’t necessarily a big deal. It’s just one of those pesky things that gets dropped into your lap somehow. It’s one of those would-you-mind favors we know all too well.
And sure, there are times when we don’t mind doing them. But, practically speaking, none of us has unlimited time. And I have a sneaking suspicion that we say yes way more often than we should. In fact, sometimes we get into such a habit of saying yes that we do it just to avoid saying no.
“Yes,” I sometimes see myself saying. “I’ll be there,” when every thought inside me is screaming, “No! Say no!”
Why do we do this?
I have a theory that we do this to be liked. Liked by who? Liked by whoever is it we’re talking to, of course! It could be the neighbor, our friends, even our children. Saying yes, feeling that we can meet the small demand in front of us gives us a temporary feeling of elation. And it’s not that big of a deal after all, we tell ourselves.
The problem is if we say yes too often, we actually end up saying No to what matters.
Stephen Covey mentions this when he emphasizes the distinction between the urgent and the important. He says what is urgent often takes over what is important. He gives the example of a ringing phone, but you can just as easily substitute the ringing phone with the small favors.
The link between an unequivocal “no” and failure
The other more important reason to say “no” and an unequivocal no to more things than we say yes to rests in the link between that no and failure. When we say no, we give ourselves and our children the freedom to fail. And that’s a good thing.
Let me explain.
Say you’re picking a curriculum. But you’re indecisive. So you dabble in this and that. You pick up a smattering of this and a little of that. You don’t ever put it into a coherent whole because you don’t want to choose. In other words, you don’t want to say no. After all, you don’t want to lose out on what can become a good curriculum in the future, one that has been highly touted by your homeschooling friends.
So you hang on.
Wouldn’t you be better off just picking one? What is the act of picking one anyway? Isn’t it saying “no” to all other options except that one?
And by doing that, wouldn’t you be free to decide in a few weeks (or a few months at most) that it’s working or it’s time to move on? Why would you steal yourself of that conviction, the joy of that assurance by merely hanging on to something that may or may not work?
I felt bad for the woman at the library, really, I did. She left soon after to take her daughter and her hurt feelings to be assuaged with fast food, as she declared too loudly not to be overheard. Not being given the option to fail can get time-consuming and downright expensive.
What would failure have looked like for her daughter that day? There were thousands of books at the library. A simple, firm directive to go look at those books could hardly be considered a punishment.
Give yourself the freedom to fail. Give your children the freedom to fail. It is only after failing that we find what we really want to give our time to. Small failures teach rather than bury. They liberate.
An unequivocal no has more power than a dithering yes. Use it.