The Rubbery ‘No’

Erica Sharplin wonders if we should be teaching our children to take ‘no’ for an answer.

Can I have one Mum?”

“No. Not now.”

“Please Mum.”

“No. I said not now. It’s nearly lunchtime.”


“I said no! Now stop bugging me
about it!”

“Please, please, please Mum! Just one.”

So you change tack and exercise your right to silence. You focus on the picture of Tom Cruise hanging over the audiovisual department, advertising his latest movie you won’t get to see.

And then the volume goes up a notch. “Please Mum! Please!”

Maintain silence. Maintain silence. But then they hit you with the chant.
The checkout chant. “Please! Please! Please! Please!” And it’s all over.

“Aaahhh!” you yell, not really at the kids, but at the universe and the Great Parenting God that requires you to endure this tortuous to-and-fro. “OK! Just one but that’s all.”

But should I complain? Do parents have the right to complain about travelling this well-worn path? After all, according to the latest childrearing books, parents who engage in these verbal jousts are actually the architects of them. My mum (self-proclaimed expert) says, “If they don’t learn the meaning of ‘no’, then it’s the thin end of the wedge”. She meant, of course, that unless I held firm to my ‘no’ the gate to my life would be flung open and my sons would stampede in, their small hooves flattening me into a doormat.

The importance of making children understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’ is in vogue at present. In Beyond Toddlerdom, Christopher Green writes: “When a rule is challenged, it should be clearly restated and then enforced. Parents must allow some flexibility, but no amount of a child’s nagging can change the referee’s decision.”

And Steve Biddulph, in his popular parenting book The Secret of Happy Children, warns of the danger of letting your ‘no’ slip: “One of the first big surprises was to discover that some of the most stable and happy children were being brought up by incredibly harsh (to my way of thinking) parents. The secret seemed to be that these parents were hard but predictable – so consistent that their children knew exactly what the rules were and how to stay out of trouble.”

It seems as though those of us with a rubbery ‘no’ not only make the proverbial rod for our own backs, but we also make our kids miserable. If children would only understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’, these infernal arguments would be a thing of the past and we’d all be calm and happy, right? Probably.

But could there be any benefits to having a rubbery ‘no’? It may well be desirable for us to have our children understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’, but is it necessarily an ideal lesson to learn in the long term?

Everyone knows it can be tough in the adult world. The road to your chosen field is unlikely to be a smooth one. As an adult, one of the best assets you can have is the ability to ‘not take no for an answer’. Experts writing about the keys to success in adult life emphasise determination, an ability to get up when life knocks you over, to keep your eye on the long-term goal and to not accept ‘no’ as the last word.

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, says: “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all”.

The pages of history are filled with the lives and wisdom of those who didn’t take no for an answer. In the words of Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill respectively, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up”; and “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”.

As adults, we receive strong messages about the importance of overcoming the obstacles in our lives – quite the opposite of the lessons we learn as children.

So where does this leave those parents stuck at the checkout with a kid demanding the latest dinky toy? With a little more perspective perhaps. Children do need to understand ‘no’, but perhaps they also need to be encouraged to push against it. To learn that with a lot of effort a ‘no’ can turn into a ‘yes’. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the tortuous to-and-fro, and the supermarket is, in fact, an early training ground for learning to get what you really want out of life.

So perhaps those of us with a rubbery ‘no’ shouldn’t feel too bad. Just think, the next time you give in to the checkout chant you might actually be helping your little Jasmine or Jordan take their first steps along the road that leads to the top.