A recent house guest who hadn't seen our 3-year-old daughter -- or, more to the point, heard her -- since she became a full-fledged talker asked if "No" is her favorite word. "It's definitely one of them," I said. In fact, if you did a tag cloud for her, No! would be the biggest, boldest word of them all, with "Uppy!," "Baba, I'm hungry," and "I'm not sleepy" following in descending order all the way down to "Please" in tiny, attenuated type.
As a parent, hearing No! all the time can be tiresome. "No, I don't want to take a shower, I want to take a bath." "No, I don't want eggs for breakfast, only toast." "No, I don't want that [really expensive] sweater, I want to wear this [paint-stained, hand-me-down] sweatshirt that reads I Love Turtle Park." "No, I don't want you to take me to school, I want Daddy to." "No, I don't want you to leave school, I want you to stay for a little while." You get the picture.
The very same day our friend posed the No Question, my husband handed me a New York Times piece called "The Frugal Teenager, Ready or Not," about telling teens no - -and sticking to it -- in our current economically challenged times. It begins:
When Wendy Postle's two children were younger, saying 'yes' gave her great joy. Yes to all those toys. The music lessons. The blowout birthday parties.
But as her son and daughter approached adolescence, yes turned into a weary default. Sometimes it was just easier to say, 'O.K., whatever,' than to have the battle of 'no,' said Mrs. Postle . . ."
Until my husband pointed it out, it hadn't occurred to me that it's not just worn-down parents who give in to "yes" too often, it's all of us. We live in a Yes! culture.
There are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, that's the way we consumers are programmed. Never mind, for instance, that I have a perfectly serviceable pair of black leather knee-high boots from five years ago. I long for this year's rounder-toed, higher-cut, patent leather model. A few years ago when I was writing a piece for U.S.News & World Report on consumerism, I found some research on the psychology behind our perennial desire for the next new thing. The gist was that even more than with love and romance, consuming is all about the pursuit. So that after we finally we get the new boots home, it's not long before we fixate on something else we "need." A couple of years ago, when I bought a MacBook, I was thrilled that it was pounds lighter and minutes faster than my old PC. I was completely taken by the packaging, which made my new laptop seem more like a precious objet than a clunky workhorse. So when the MacBook Air was introduced just a few months later, how could I not be tempted by the "world's thinnest notebook"? I stopped myself only because there are other realities like the unity of my marriage to consider. But until recently a boom economy and available credit made it relatively easy to indulge every consumer fantasy.
Also, the people who run Burger King, McDonald's, and the local multiplex must have figured out that it's a lot easier for us to say yes than no. Why else would they come up with fake verbs like "supersize" and "biggie size"? When asked if we'd like a large, a voice in our head says, Why not? It's only 50 cents more. Never mind that your insides would congeal before the movie was over if you actually finished a tub of popcorn the size of Missouri. But the look you get when you resist and stick with a small could melt a box of Raisinettes. It's the same when you turn down a salesperson's offer for 10 percent off with today's purchase if you just open a Saks' or Neiman's or J. Crew or Old Navy or [fill in the blank] credit card. Unless we have the Republican National Committee buying our wardrobe and cost is of no concern, why wouldn't we want to get more for less? *
But it's not just consumerism and all the things that support it like advertising that encourage us to say yes rather than no. About half of the U.S. population -- 50.7 percent, to be exact -- are brought up that way. That's right. Women are generally taught to say yes and to be otherwise agreeable when they're asked to do something, whether it's to become the vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party or to host the PTA tea. Sometimes even when women say no, people pretend that they've said yes, which is the way that a lot of non-consensual sex comes about.
As a Southern woman, I'd say the lesson of yes is ingrained to the 89th power. I remember hearing someone say once that her mother used to invite people to drop by all the time and when they actually did, she was invariably in her housecoat and horrified. But that didn't mean she stopped issuing the faux invitations.
If your vocabulary is based on yes, you're likely to go down roads where it's better not to go. It's one of the ways that I found myself in a career and a marriage and living in a town and hanging out with certain people and dressing in a certain way that didn't quite suit me. In those days even my couch was too prim for its own good. When I finally dug out of all the sense of obligation that I'd succumbed to over a lifetime, often without even knowing it, I found, well -- me.
So here I am in a different career with a different husband and living in a different town with a daughter who says No! And I think that while our daughter's No! might need to be softened here and tweaked there, a polite no! that nonetheless brooks no argument is not such a bad thing after all.
A wise friend of mine whose children are all nearly grown told me that every child has in his or her head the number of times a parent will say no before giving in. She told me to make that number be one.
That seems to be more than a parenting tip. It's a mantra.
* Never mind that it ends up costing us more, but that's another story for another time.