There’s this word that I’ve been saying too often this summer, and it’s starting to get on my nerves, actually. My kids swear the word is evil, and it does leave a bad taste in my mouth when I say it, sometimes bitter, like regret, sometimes saltier, like anger. Sometimes, when I have repeated it more than a few times in five minutes, it tastes a bit like exhaustion. It’s a little word, just two letters, yet it holds extraordinary power. According to my kids, this word alone has propelled me to “the meanest mom” and “the worst mom” on multiple occasions – not just in our neighborhood, mind you, but in the whole entire world.
It’s okay, though. I have thick skin. I can take it. But I know that they are tired of hearing that word, the one that begins with N and ends with O. I know that NO gets old, and I have to confess that sometimes, a lot of times, I just hate to say it, too.
“No, you may not stay there overnight. I don’t know that family. Snag some DNA samples, and we’ll talk.”
“No, you may not hang out at the playground without an adult in sight. That’s how gangs get started. I saw it on Dateline.”
“No, every PG-13 movie is not fair game because we watched Jurassic World. Dinosaurs aren’t breaking laws by killing people. In fact, they probably should kill people who think spending time with dinosaurs is a good idea. That’s an important life lesson.”
“No, you may not have a Facebook account.”
“No, you may not have a Twitter account.”
“No, you may not have an Instagram account.”
And that’s just before lunch . . .
“No, you will not be getting a cell phone for your birthday. A cell phone is not a gift at our house. A cell phone is a bill that you can’t pay. Your friends live down the street. Yell louder.”
“No, we are not signing you up for another sports camp this summer. But, PLEASE, feel free to play soccer and basketball. Outside. Right now. For free. And let’s make some nice cold water bottles for you, just in case the door is maybe possibly locked until dinner time.”
“No, we are not going somewhere else today. We just left the water park, for goodness’ sake. Do you realize that some kids NEVER get to visit a water park? Like N-E-V-E-R. Not in their entire lives. Some kids don’t even have water to DRINK, and you get to play in it! Can we appreciate that for a few minutes, guys? Can we show some gratitude?”
“No, you may not watch TV all day.”
“No, you may not play video games all day.”
“No, you may not eat ice cream all day.”
“Yes, I said ‘ice cream,’ BUT YOU KNEW WHAT I MEANT!”
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
My sons, particularly my soon-to-be sixth grader, are struggling with NO – and I get it. I really do. It’s hard to be the kid whose mom says NO regularly. NO is not cool. It hurts your image. It reminds you that even though you feel like you are old enough to make your own decisions, someone else is still (sort of) in control. But while my guys think that I don’t understand, that I don’t empathize with them, the truth is that I do. We actually have a lot in common.
It’s hard to be the kid whose mom says NO.
But it’s hard to be the mom who says NO, too.
My boys don’t understand the social dynamics of NO, the way that other moms think I am judging their decisions when I say NO to things that they allow. My guys don’t know how heartbreaking it is to see them excluded from something or how difficult it is to find the sweet spot between “does-that-kid-even-have-parents?” and “that-mom-needs-to-cut-the-cord.” They don’t realize that it is painful, that it literally hurts, to deny them something that I know they really want, even when I know it is the right decision for our family. My oldest can’t yet comprehend that, even though I trust him, experience has taught me that there are temptations that he is not ready to face as a preteen. That there are people who seem trustworthy who should not be trusted. That even though he thinks he has seen everything, there are things that he has not seen and is not ready to see and if I could create a world where he would never ever see them, I would do that.
They think my job is easy. They imagine that I retire to my room after saying NO, reveling in some kind of sinister satisfaction, gloating with an evil laugh. (Bwahahahaha!) I am the villain in the script, the one with the kryptonite, always thwarting their plans. But it just isn’t true.
Maybe someday I will look back and wish that I had not said NO as often. Maybe, when they are all grown up, my kids will still insist that I was too strict. Maybe they will entertain everyone at the holidays with embarrassing stories about my husband and me, about how we REALLY were the meanest, most awful parents. Maybe, and this is where it gets really frightening, it will all fall apart, and they will blame our parenting for their own bad choices and rebellion.
Or maybe they will thank us. Maybe they will appreciate just a little bit more the very word that they hate. Maybe they will feel grateful, as I feel grateful to my parents, who loved and trusted me but did not shy from saying NO.
Maybe someday they will understand.
It’s a gamble, really, a risk that we all take in those weird years between helping our children order from the kids’ menu and taking them to get a driver’s license. All parents walk the same wire, seeking a safe balance between being overly strict and being too permissive. There is no simple answer, no decision that fits the needs of every child or every family, but the compromise in our family is that even though we do say no often, we always say yes more – yes to fun, yes to adventures and time with friends, yes to building character, yes to hugs, yes to trying new things and facing our fears, yes to family, yes to celebrations, and yes to love.
And when I feel uneasy about denying my children something, I remind myself that every NO is just a YES, really. It’s a yes to the values that I want to instill in the men I am raising, a yes to protecting them just a little bit longer, a yes to allowing them to earn the responsibilities and privileges that they think that they deserve. Saying NO isn’t easy. It’s a word that hurts sometimes. I know, because it hurts me, too. But when I say NO to my sons, it really means I LOVE YOU, and I hope that they will understand that, eventually, maybe when they have the honor of being “the meanest dads in the whole entire world” themselves.