02/11/2015 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Say 'No' With Love

A recent feature in the New York Times about spas that cater to children made me sad. But not exactly for the reasons you'd expect. It was because of this quote, from a mom of one of the pint-sized spa-goers:

"I don't want them to feel that my saying 'No' means that I don't love them." --New York Times, January 3, 2015

It's sad that parental love has been hijacked by an underlying belief that our children cannot be disappointed or inconvenienced in order to feel loved. Sad that parents may not understand that "saying no" is a powerful tool through which children learn about boundaries and identity. And sad that parents may be uncomfortable with a word that is crucial to keeping their children safe.

As a parent, you may hate to say no. Maybe you want to dodge the emotional reaction to your child hearing "no" or be your child's friend more than their parent in that moment. Or maybe you're just tired--with a barrage of outside influences, it can be exhausting.

Yet, learning to say a quiet firm 'No' is a gift we give to our children and to ourselves. Saying "no" is a tool through which a child is taught family boundaries and identity ("Our family thinks it's important to spend money on ___ rather than ___."). And the most secure children and young adults understand that they have been deeply loved through the No's of parenting:

  • I love you when I say 'No' to the candy at the checkout counter and 'Yes' to the fresh fruit we just chose together.
  • I love you when I say 'No' to more TV and say 'Yes' to a tuck-in ritual that includes a special snuggle.
  • I love you when I say 'No' to adding on one more after school activity and say 'Yes' to your own creative spirit and need for downtime.
  • I love you when I say 'No' to a party with no chaperones so that you can say 'Yes' to a safe space to enjoy your friends and explore the complexity of teen relationships without the risk of alcohol or sexual demands.

As parents, you will say many YESes and many NOs. At those times when you can say yes, by all means, delight in your child's contagious joy. When you also express your love with NOs that teach and protect, there may be disappointment or anger in the moment. But remember that you're building love, trust and, in turn, a sense of wellbeing that lasts a lifetime.

Illustration by Greg Bonnell