The Right to Say No

By Moriah on March 3rd, 2009

As Christian parents, we obviously want our children to honor and obey us…after all, the Scriptures clearly outline obedience as normative and godly. (Eph. 6:1)

But we also don’t want our precious little girl climbing into the backseat of a strange man’s car in a parking lot simply because she was ordered to do so.

So how do we teach our kids to differentiate when it’s appropriate to obey an adult (when they’re a proper authority), and when it’s entirely appropriate (and necessary) for them to say no?

Andy and I have recently been browsing Boundaries, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, which deals particularly with these kinds of issues. We highly recommend it to anyone who has to deal with people (that would be you).

But concerning childrearing specifically, there are a few helpful things I want to mention. We want our kids to grow into adults that are responsible for themselves. They should learn to know their own needs – meaning physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc. Once they’ve learned to do this, they should not have to rely on others to point their needs out to them. The book refers to this as “carrying one’s own knapsack.”

(We each of us have our own personal knapsack we are required to carry throughout our lives. When the Bible speaks of ‘carrying others burdens,’ it’s talking about true burdens, NOT another person’s ordinary personal knapsack. We want our children to identify and shoulder their own knapsacks.)

To this end, we encourage our kids to own their feelings and be free to talk about them. We encourage them to own their basic physical needs and to learn (over time) to be responsible for them. (And note, this might not always be convenient for the parent!)

The family unit was designed by God to grow His people up. First is love and attachment, then comes responsibility and maturation. “As we teach them the merits and limits of responsibility, we teach them autonomy – we prepare them to take on the tasks of adulthood.” (p.170)

How do we teach responsibility? By discipline. Discipline is two-faceted; positive (proactivity, prevention, and instruction) and negative (correction, chastisement, and consequences). Good childrearing involves both. (171)

From the same page, “For example, you set a ten o’clock bedtime for your fourteen-year-old. ‘It’s there so that you’ll get enough sleep to be alert in school,’ you tell her. You’ve just disciplined positively. Then your teen dawdles until 11:30 p.m. The next day you say ‘Because you did not get to bed on time last night, you may not use the phone today.’ You’ve just disciplined negatively.

“Why are both the carrot and the whip necessary in good boundary development? Because God uses practice – trial and error – to help us grow up. We learn maturity by getting information, applying it poorly, making mistakes, learning from our mistakes, and doing it better next time.”

So back to my initial thoughts. Discipline trains up the internal boundaries of a child for the time when mom and dad can’t be there to guide. And since they stated it far better than I ever could, I’ll end with the lengthy example from the book of exactly what I’m talking about:

“Consider the following two twelve-year-old boys: Jimmy is talking with his parents at the dinner table. ‘Guess what – some kids wanted me to smoke pot with them. When I told them I didn’t want to, they said I was a sissy. I told them they were dumb. I like some of them, but if they can’t like me because I don’t smoke pot, I guess they aren’t really my friends.’

“Paul comes home after school with red eyes, slurred speech, and coordination difficulties. When asked by his concerned parents what is wrong, he denies everything until, finally, he blurts out, ‘Everybody’s doing it. Why do you hate my friends?’

“Both Jimmy and Paul come from Christian homes with lots of love and an adherence to biblical values. Why did they turn out so differently? Jimmy’s parents allowed disagreements between parent and child and gave him practice in the skill of boundary setting, even with them. Jimmy’s mom would be holding and hugging her two-year-old when he would get fidgety. He’d say ‘Down,’ meaning, ‘Let me get a little breathing space, Ma.’ Fighting her own impulses to hold on to her child, she would set him down on the floor and say, ‘wanna play with your trucks?’

“Jimmy’s dad used the same philosophy. When wrestling with his son on the floor, he tried to pay attention to Jimmy’s limits. When the going got too rough, or when Jimmy was tired, he could say, ‘Stop, Daddy,’ and Dad would get up. They’d go to another game.

“Jimmy was receiving boundary training. He was learning that when he was scared, in discomfort, or wanted to change things, he could say no. This little word gave him a sense of power in his life. It took him out of a helpless or compliant position. And Jimmy could say it without receiving an angry and hurt response, or a manipulative countermove, such as, ‘But Jimmy, Mommy needs to hold you now, okay?’

“Jimmy learned from infancy on that his boundaries were good and that he could use them to protect himself. He learned to resist things that weren’t good for him.

“A hallmark of Jimmy’s family was permission to disagree. When, for example, Jimmy would fight his parents about his bedtime, they never withdrew or punished him for disagreeing. Instead, they would listen to his reasoning, and, if it seemed appropriate, they would change their minds. If not, they would maintain their boundaries.

“Jimmy was also given a vote in some family matters. When family night out would come up, his parents listened to his opinion on whether they should go to a movie, play board games, or play basketball. Was this a family with no limits? On the contrary! It was a family who took boundary setting seriously – as a skill to develop in its children.

“This was good practice for resisting in the evil day (Eph. 5:16), when some of Jimmy’s friends turned on him and pressured him to take drugs. How was Jimmy able to refuse? Because by then, he’d had ten or eleven years of practice disagreeing with people who were important to him without losing their love. He didn’t fear abandonment in standing up against his friends. He’d done it many times successfully with his family with no loss of love.

“Paul, on the other hand, came from a different family setting. In his home, no had two different responses. His mom would be hurt and withdraw and pout. She would send guilt messages, such as ‘How can you say no to your mom who loves you?’ His dad would get angry, threaten him, and say things like, ‘Don’t talk back to me, Mister.’

“It didn’t take long for Paul to learn that to have his way, he had to be externally compliant. He developed a strong yes on the outside, seeming to agree with his family’s values and control. Whatever he thought about a subject – the dinner menu, TV restrictions, church choices, clothes, or curfews – he stuffed inside.

“Once, when he had tried to resist his mother’s hug, she had immediately withdrawn from him, pushing him away with the words, ‘Someday you’ll feel sorry for hurting your mother’s feelings like that.’ Day by day, Paul was being trained to not set limits.

“As a result of his learned boundarylessness, Pau
l seemed to be a content, respectful son. The teens, however, are a crucible for kids. We find out what kind of character has actually been built into our children during this difficult passage.

“Paul folded. He gave in to his friends’ pressure. Is it any wonder that the first people he said no to were his parents – at twelve years old? Resentment and the years of not having boundaries were beginning to erode the compliant, easy-to-live-with false self he’d developed to survive.”


The chapter also includes interesting discussion on teaching kids “to know what they are responsible for and what they aren’t responsible for, knowing how to say no and knowing how to accept no” (169), teaching the continuum of delaying gratification (for a greater good) (181), and finally the goals of teaching our children to have an internal sense of boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others (192).

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