“No, we can’t go to the park this afternoon.”
“No, you may not make chocolate-dipped strawberries today.”
“No, you may not take Tae Kwon Do and guitar and break-dancing lessons.”
When it comes to my children, sometimes I feel like the fun killer. The creativity squelcher. The joy smasher.
Because, you know, as much as I’d love to go to the park this afternoon, the baby has to have his nap. And while dipping strawberries in chocolate sounds like a straightforward kitchen endeavor to a seven-year-old, I happen to know it is a messy, multi-step process. I find myself bouncing back and forth between wanting to say yes, and wanting to prevent disruptions to our schedule and unnecessary messes and more work for myself.
So there are two sides to me. No-Mom. And Yes-Mom.
No-Mom is a drill sergeant. She wants a peaceful home, an orderly closet, and clean, well-behaved youngsters. She tells Daniel to wipe up the peanut butter on the counter before he has even finished applying it to his bread. She is always trying to stay on top of the housework, keep to a budget, and get to church on time. She knows that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Then there’s Yes-Mom. Yes-Mom wants her lovely children to grow up free to create and explore and experience the world around them. Yes-Mom agrees to get out the finger paint with the kids when she should be making dinner. Yes-Mom promises to take them to the pool tomorrow afternoon only to renege when she realizes that she has to prepare for Bible study. Yes-Mom decides to let everyone help make cookies only to collapse in a yelling and teary puddle on the floor from having too many kids “helping” in the kitchen at once.
We moms all bounce back and forth between these two extremes. Yet both sides leave us feeling frazzled and guilty. All us Yes-Moms really want to believe that our children are born faultless. We’re conditioned to believe teaching our children “no” only damages their pure and delicate little psyches and shackles their soaring spirits. The thing to do is show kids how making “good choices” will lead to “good consequences.”
Good little Calvinist (and No-Mom) that I am, I recognize that as a load of hogwash. First of all, I have enough experience with small children to know that babies are not blank slates, but little sinning machines. Yes, they are made in the image of God. As a result, they have an innate love for beauty, order, and peace. But as sons of Adam, they are born selfish and sinful, and seize the tiniest opportunity for revolt.
Even as I write this, my one-year-old is insisting that he needs my pretzel. No matter that he has not taken a single bite from the pretzel grasped in his own little fingers. He wants the pretzel in my hand.
Last year, I read a Christian blog post encouraging mothers to say “yes” to their children whenever possible. There are a lot of necessary nos in this world, she said. Make your nos count by making them the exception.
Around the same time, I listened to a sermon in which the preacher directed parents to let our nos be guided by God’s nos. Instead of layering rule upon rule on our kids, we should make as few rules as possible. We shouldn’t weigh our kids down with laws that are ours, not God’s. After taking this blog post and sermon to heart, I made “Yes” my mantra. But I found it wasn’t so simple. Often I had to choose between what was best for one child versus what was best for another, or for my husband, or for myself.
It’s good for my older boys to be able to spend long afternoons at the park. But it’s best for my baby to get a long afternoon nap. It’s good for my boys to be free to romp around inside the house on a rainy day. But it’s best for my husband if he can work on that one project in peace.
Sometimes, saying “yes” to one activity means saying “no” to another. Saving up for family vacation (one big yes) means a hundred little nos along the way.
In my home, this tension came to a head when I had a new baby. Many of the yeses for my older boys turned to nos when their baby brother was born. Suddenly, leaving the house was a major undertaking. Navigating nap times meant we didn’t have friends over so often, and walks to the park were less frequent. On top of that, my energy and resources as a mother were now split between three boys instead of two.
Before I knew it, I was heaping guilt on myself. The “say yes” standard had placed an unnecessary burden on my conscience.
You are mean.
You are ruining their childhood.
If you were a good mom, you would orient your entire life around their creativity, their dreams and aspirations.
But what if that’s a false dichotomy? What if saying “no”—even unnecessary nos—can be a blessing to our children? What if the family unit functions more like a human body, or the body of Christ? What if, as the Apostle Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together”?
And how about this maxim: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
If baby misses his nap so Mom doesn’t manage to make dinner so Papa is cranky and hungry so everyone else is too . . . maybe that trip to the park wasn’t so good for the boys after all.
But it’s also true in a broader sense. I had a bit of an epiphany when I read these words in a very old book called Hints of Child Training by H. Clay Trumbull: “Wise withholding is quite as important as generous giving. . . . A child ought to be denied, by his parents, many things which in themselves are harmless. It is an injury to any child to have always . . . [what] he likes best.”
When a new baby comes along or Dad has a project to finish, it is good for the child. This gives children the perfect opportunity to learn selflessness, to practice contentedness, to consider others better than themselves. Trumbull goes on: “If in childhood one is taught to deny himself, to yield gracefully much that he longs for, to enjoy the little that he can have in spite of the lack of a great deal which he would like to have, his lot will be an easier and happier one.”
In short, he is simply practicing for adulthood.
So how do I put this into practice? When should I say “yes”? When should I say “no”? Here are a few guidelines that have been helpful to me.
First, if you really want to become the right sort of Yes-Mom, don’t be afraid to make more rules. Lowercase not-the-Law-of-God type rules. Making rules is a valuable way to significantly reduce the number of nos you must say in a given day. My husband made a rule that our boys may not ask to watch TV unless it is raining—like, raining at that very moment. And guess what? Now I don’t have to say “No, you may not watch TV” several times each day. It’s a treat that I can offer them whenever I choose, but they may not ask.
Now, is that one of God’s rules? No. But it’s a good rule nonetheless. Same goes for eating candy. The kids may only ask for candy once—after lunch, after their chores are done. Now I never have to say “no” to candy requests.
So figure out the questions that are wearing you down, making you resent your workload, and making you think too hard and question your own judgment all the time. A few well-placed rules will save you a lot of nos.
Second, we must draw a firm connection for our children between the small, seemingly petty rules and the big Rules that they flow from. Why do we follow rules of etiquette? Because Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and no one likes seeing your food while you chew it. Why do we take our shoes off at the door? Because I said so, and God said, “Honor your father and mother, so that it may go well with you.”
It is right and necessary to discipline for seemingly insignificant infractions, because it is still disobedience. So in this sense, the small nos become the big nos. We should constantly be drawing this connection for our children: “Do you know why you are being disciplined? It’s not because the floor is muddy, it’s because you disobeyed.”
And third, there must still be a clear distinction in our homes between God’s No and lowercase no. While any disobedience must be disciplined, not all disobedience is created equal.
Tracking mud into the house should not be treated with the same stringency as telling a lie, or, say, hitting your brother with a baseball bat. One infraction is inconsiderate and careless and is only disobedience because I made a rule about not tracking mud into the house. The other infraction is a direct violation of God’s Law whether I want it to be or not.
If the severity of the sin’s punishment is determined more by the inconvenience it causes me than by the danger to my children’s souls, I’m not teaching them to honor and fear the Lord. I’m modeling selfishness, and I’m cultivating anger, bitterness, and, ultimately, rejection of God and His authority in their hearts.
In this spirit, it’s important to always be evaluating the rules we make. Can we draw a clear connection between our no and God’s No? Can we see how our rules help us as a family to honor God, to love and serve one another, and to love our neighbors and guests?
It goes without saying that it’s a fine line we walk between Yes-Mom and No-Mom. I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I being oppressive here?” or “Am I being too permissive there?”
Sometimes it feels like parenting is a choose-your-own-adventure. And no matter which route I choose, the only child that I’m really guaranteeing a successful life to is the one that grows up to be my kid’s therapist.
But if it were easy, it wouldn’t take faith. Scratch that. If it were possible, it wouldn’t take faith. Which makes it impossible apart from anything but faith.
Because, the fact is, my kids were born sinners, they’re sinners now, and they’ll continue to be sinners until they die. My job is not to get mommying perfect, but to teach them to fight the good fight, and not give in. Sometimes I teach them this by giving them chores—sometimes by giving them chocolatecovered strawberries. Sometimes, no doubt, I give them strawberries when I should be giving them chores, and vice versa. Yes-Mom isn’t perfect, anymore than No-Mom is. But if this mom lives by faith, I trust that God will teach my kids to live by faith too.