‘No’ is a tricky word for parents. It can be overused—either by saying it too often and then ignoring its violation, or enforcing it too rigidly. ‘No’ can also be used too seldom, so kids feel there’s no structure—and no security—in their lives. It’s not easy to find the just-right sweet spot of parenting, where kids get enough limits and boundaries, without feeling controlled and restricted.
The Four Faces of ‘No’
Some parents—labelled ‘Permissive parents’ in the research literature—hate saying ‘No’ to their kids, and see it as a word to avoid at all costs. For fear of being autocratic and controlling, or believing they’re respecting their kids autonomy, they prefer to allow their kids to find their own ways. Their permissive avoidance of ‘No’ isn’t doing their kids any favours in the long run.
Other parents—‘Autocratic parents’—want their kids to be obedient and ‘good’ at any price. Parents who say ‘No’ too often, with insufficient empathy, usually find their kids becoming rebellious or submissively compliant as they get older.
Still other parents—‘Inconsistent parents’—say ‘No’ to their kids, but don’t establish consequences and provide consistent enforcements. Their kids feel insecure, and usually have to keep testing the limits until they find solid rules they can trust—even if that doesn’t happen until they find themselves in trouble with the law.
Parents who manage to find that just-right sweet spot of parenting—‘Authoritative parents’—are rewarded with smart and interesting kids who feel good about themselves and are best equipped for success in every domain of life.
Finding the just-right sweet spot of parenting is about setting boundaries that help kids thrive. It’s the middle place between being too strict and authoritarian, on the one hand, and too permissive and laissez-faire, on the other. In the parenting research, this just-right sweet spot is called ‘authoritative parenting.’
Reasons for Finding the Just-Right Sweet Spot of Parenting
There’s a lot of evidence showing enormous benefits for kids when their parents manage to find that sweet spot most of the time:
- Frustration tolerance. Kids who don’t experience consistently enforced limits don’t move past the self-indulgence and impatience of early childhood. Kids who experience dependable limits—and the frustrations that come with those limits—learn how to tolerate the frustrations that life brings.
- Self-discipline. By experiencing healthy boundaries in childhood, kids learn how to set boundaries for themselves. That’s how they acquire the self-discipline they’ll need to achieve any kind of success as they get older. Autocratic parenting—too many rules, too rigidly enforced—leads to rebelliousness or submission, not to the autonomy of self-discipline. Permissive parenting usually leads to problems with self-discipline.
- Respect for others. Kids who learn to respect reasonable limits set by their parents are simultaneously learning to respect other people’s limits. They’re usually kinder, more polite, and more respectful than kids who haven’t learned about limits, or kids who’ve had limits shoved down their throats.
- Freedom. Children who trust their parents to set healthy boundaries—kids whose parents are authoritative—feel safer and freer to explore than others. Kids whose parents are permissive may seem free when they’re young, but they don’t acquire the habits of mind they need to pursue their interests, bringing lasting fulfilment and real freedom in adulthood. And kids whose parents are autocratic tend to be rebellious or submissive—locked into a response to their childhoods rather than moving freely into their own lives.
- Self-esteem. Parents who set healthy boundaries are supporting their kids in achieving goals that matter to them, which is at the heart of healthy self-esteem.
- Academic, relationship, and career success. Kids who are good at tolerating frustration, and able to discipline themselves—benefits of having had parents who found that just-right sweet spot of parenting—are much likelier to be high achievers in every area of life.
- Happiness. Research on happiness shows that people with these attributes that are built on a foundation of authoritative parenting—frustration tolerance, self-discipline, respect for others, etc.—are happier than others.
How to Find the Just-Right Sweet Spot of Parenting
- Be loving and supportive. Authoritative parenting starts with a solid, loving connection. Your kids should feel you’re on their side.
- Focus on the positive. Emphasize what your child can do (not what you want her not to do). Ask, ‘What kind of fruit would you like today?’ before you say, ‘No candy.’
- When you need to say ‘no’, give child-friendly reasons. Give reasons your child can understand—‘Candy rots your teeth and hurts your tummy.’
- Include your child in making the rules. As your child gets older, include him in thinking about sensible boundaries, and appropriate consequences.
- Be consistent. Enforce boundaries once you’ve set them. Saying ‘no’ can sometimes lead to crying, whining, or even tantrums. Set only those limits you’re prepared to enforce, and then be sure you’re consistent in your enforcement.
- Be empathetic but strong. You should enforce boundaries you set calmly and empathically, acknowledging any troubled feelings your children might have. But be confident and strong, and work on ignoring any judgements (or perceived judgements) from others. You want your children to feel secure in your ability to take care of them, no matter how badly they might behave.
- Be consistent. A big part of your kids’ sense of security is built on their trusting you to enforce the boundaries you’ve set.
For more about finding the just-right sweet spot of parenting: