When I think about how we generally raise children and were, generally, in this society raised as children ourselves, I reflect on the message we learn as children about saying “no” and the message we give to children about saying “no”. I see the ramifications of our messages to children reflected in my own life and in my own professional practice around the difficulty people can have in saying “no”. There can be a lot of distress and emotional upheaval that gets created for someone in even thinking about the idea of saying “no”. Saying “no” must mean that we are only going to hurt someone’s feelings, make the wrong choice, be a social outcast, “make” someone angry at us…We talk to children about how it is OK to say no to riding in cars with strangers or to stopping someone from hurting them, but we often do not help children learn how to say “no” in other ways and teach them the benefits that can come with saying no.
We tell children things like “listen to authority”, “follow the rules”, “go with the flow”, “don’t make a scene”, and in all of these messages we give to children we can be discounting the voice of the child in their attempts to say no through tantrums, passivity, meltdowns, and other such behaviors. We try to stop these behaviors and thus, often unknowingly, are teaching a child that saying no is a bad thing instead of teaching them how to say…no, I not OK with this; this scares me; this makes me uncomfortable etc… Teaching a child to say “no” does not mean we necessarily have to shift away from setting limits with children and giving consequence to inappropriate behaviors that they sometimes engage in through their attempts to say no, but what it can mean is that we are giving tools to a child to start to explore and give words to their internal experience that can help them to articulate emotions and set boundaries.
As we grow into adults and have more discernment in how to say no, reasons to say no, and values we hold that help us say no, we become better skilled at setting limits in our personal and professional relationships as well as setting limits within ourselves. We become less fearful that “no” is a bad word and more confident in the gift of no toward a more authentic and fulfilling life.