Teaching children to say "no" and when to do so.
I’ve always been fascinated with the decision-making process. Making decisions seems to be one of the greatest difficulties in life. Some people, for fear of making mistakes, avoid making decisions as often as possible. Others charge right in and wonder, “What happened?” afterwards.
When it comes to teaching children, it is easier to teach them when to obey than when not to. Each challenge will be different, probably unanticipated, and most likely we will not be there to advise them. Can they say, “no” when they should? Can they resist peer pressure or any pressure that goes against their parental guidance or consciences?
A terrific management principle I embraced years ago is this one: “The hallmark of a good management decision is how quickly it can be reversed if it turns out to be wrong.” Let’s see how that can be applied to child rearing.
There is a lot to that statement. It spells out the truth that even the best management decisions, made by skilled professionals, CAN turn out to be wrong! Decisions are made from information that could be faulty. Also circumstances and people involved can change. If the equation changes, then there needs to be another plan.
Let’s face it, human beings are not perfect. Even in the best of circumstances. Children most certainly need to be helped to understand how to think through decisions.
Moving forward with a decision takes courage, and so does backtracking one. Both can be correct, and both can be bold, but the second takes some humility. Changing a decision is not the same thing as breaching contract, by the way. That is a separate subject. Marriage is one example where the decision must be made carefully, and the bedrock of lifelong commitment adhered to faithfully. Sadly society has almost completely undermined that, destroying one of life’s strongest teaching models of fidelity and steadfastness. It’s a primary reason faithfulness and trust have vanished, because those were qualities best learned in functional families.
There can be many twists and turns to decision-making.
I pondered how to make decisions over a specific repeating situation when I was in my teens. My family lived in a west coast area separated from beaches by high hills and twisty roads. On those rare occasions when my very busy father decided to call it “family time” and insisted we all go to the beach with him, I faced a problem. The combination of his hasty driving and the hair-pin turns on the mountain roads made me horribly carsick. That made the beach trip a terrible experience, lasting until long after we got back home hours later. What was the point of going?
I thought about deciding to stay home, and at first did not want to face the static from my dad. Eventually I realized I had to do something different. I had to make a decision. The first time I stayed home I was miserable the whole time. I was bored and felt like I’d missed out on something. Even the dog had gone and I was alone! So I thought it through again and realized I needed to OWN my decision. In other words, decide to stay home but have a plan to occupy myself in ways that satisfied me and made good use of my time. I only had to execute that once to realize it was the answer. Make a decision and decide to be happy with it. OWN IT. My responsibility.
How Children Learn
Children can be helped to make wise decisions every day. It’s one of the best ways for them to learn responsibility, provided they also understand they “own” the results. If they make a mess, they clean it up. Not somebody else. They can make decisions about their attitudes, how they spend their time, how they choose what to eat and many other details. If they ask, “Why?”, that’s OK. Nothing wrong with wanting to know.
Teaching children to make their beds every morning sets a tremendous precedent for them. The military has long had that practice, and not without good reason. At the end of the day, if everything else has gone wrong, the well-made bed is something that started out right. Believe it or not, it is confidence-building. It is one thing even a child can have control over. Every small discipline helps. Mine started by age three and never missed a day afterwards. Expect more and they will do more. They will feel proud of small accomplishments, and having small accomplishments helps diminish the impact of other things that disappoint.
What about disobedience?
Can disobedient decisions be right? Under what circumstances? And how should a parent handle those?
Disobedience could be rebellion. It could also be the result of overwhelming curiosity. Or it could be heroism, planned or not. A parent needs to evaluate, so as to not discourage the higher motives. Obedience should be the norm, and disobedience the exception. Rebellion is another problem to be handled very differently.
A situation that happened to me when I was 8 years old illustrates an important point.
My mother had been waiting for baby brother to fall asleep for his nap so she could take a walk to the neighborhood market. We did not have a second car, as was common and not needed in those days. In the quiet neighborhood where we resided, there was no danger in leaving the house for 15-20 minutes, not in “once-upon-a-time America”. The store was only 2 blocks away.
On that day, rather than having me stay with the sleeping child, my mother needed me to help with the groceries. The trouble was baby brother refused to go to sleep. Through the closed door to my parents’ room where the crib was, we could still hear him blowing bubbles and making noises, indicating wakefulness. So we waited. And we waited.
Finally! My mother determined the baby was asleep, so she motioned me to be quiet and follow her. We wouldn’t be gone long. We had done this many times before.
But. Something was bothering me. I felt an urgency to take one more peek at the baby. I just HAD TO! Maybe it was an angel prompting me. Either way I disobeyed. My mother’s face changed from smiling to something vastly less friendly as despite her instructions I proceeded to just barely open her bedroom door an inch, then more than an inch... and then suddenly I flew across the room just in time to prevent a horrible accident.
Mother had forgotten to raise the bars on the crib! Baby had gotten quiet only to focus on figuring out how to hoist himself over the railing, from which point he had gotten far enough to be hanging upside down by his hips, head facing down towards the hard tile floor. Another second and he would have been down hard, headfirst, and forced to lie there until our return. We dreaded to imagine the consequences had I not disobeyed and caught him in time.
History is replete with stories of heroes who disobeyed orders. Many of them were military heroes [see reading suggestions at the end of this article]. The reason they are heroes is because they saved lives -- not risking them but saving them, and usually risking their own. There is an appropriate time for disobedience. I had learned that early.
We do not want children to be robots. We do not want them to be afraid to make decisions. We also cannot expect them to run ahead of their learning years and make decisions too far outside their reach. Children need to be children. But they need to be taught. By those who love them the most. Whatever happens, they own it, and we own it with them. This also diffuses the “blame game” that is so prevalent today.
There first needs to be a platform established of good, solid values that children understand clearly and to which they must adhere -- values like not stealing or lying, and following the Golden Rule. They also need to know and respect who their highest authorities are, so if someone else’s orders conflict, they can decide if it’s right to obey, contest, or report a problem. They will learn that many decisions take courage.
The best way to diffuse a bad decision is to confess and apologize. Children should not fear doing that. Confessing and apologizing are analogous to the management principle stated earlier, that of reversing course. Stealing and lying may take the wrong kind of courage, but confessing and apologizing take the right kind. Doing so may just prevent repetition of whatever mistake was made and maybe bring about a way to fix the wrong that was done. Admitting wrong and apologizing are good habits to build as they put down pride and replace it with humility.
The World is a Dangerous Place
Today more than ever, children are faced with choices never heard of before. It’s gone way beyond, “Say ‘no’ to drugs”. Can they say “no” to many other challenges? Can they stand up to intimidation, think through consequences in both directions? There are no locks in place against most temptations, since many are available from anywhere and everywhere, “no thanks” to technology.
Can our children resist peer pressure? That’s a big challenge, more for some than others, but the answer is, yes, they can!!!
Most importantly can they come to us for help if they make a mistake, without fear? They need to understand early that undoing a bad decision is part of the decision-making process to begin with. Failure only comes from doing nothing.
More then ever, parents need to be spending time with their kids. However “hovering”, the helicopter parent idea, is the wrong way to do it. It has its place, in moderation, in some circumstances, but the most important thing we can do is teach children how to think and make decisions, when to say “no”, give them the chance to practice, and let them “own” their responsibility.
Also pray for them. Parents cannot be everywhere, but we know who can be. As when the time I saved my baby brother. By disobeying. At the right time.
[All Photos Dreamstime Stock Photos.]
One of my favorite stories about military disobedience that saved lives!
If you enjoy military heroes, here are nine, more graphic stories: