Non, nein, nyet

I'm sick of hearing "no" all the time, and I'm the one who keeps saying it.

"No" has fallen from my lips so often, the floor seems littered with the word. Every few minutes, a child pops up in my field of vision and asks for something. I say, "No." The child insists. I say "no" until he goes away. A few minutes later, he's back with a new topic and we do it all over again.

My two sons are flaming optimists. No matter how many times I say, "No, you can't jump on the bed," they keep asking, hoping to catch me in a weak moment. Maybe this time, they'll persuade me their future Olympic gymnastics careers require them to do backflips on my bed. You never know. Ask.

We parents bring this on ourselves because we set the rules. We spell out specific parameters of expected behavior and make it clear the kids must ask permission before crossing those lines. Since it's children's Darwinian duty to push the boundaries at all times, they must ask permission for everything short of breathing.

At our house, the boys are supposed to ask first before they watch TV, use my computer, get online, eat sweets, drink my Cokes, roam the neighborhood, set fires, etc. Naturally, these are the only activities they ever want to do, so they're constantly up in my face, asking.

Plus, my boys have slipped into a strange acquisitive phase. I don't know if it's because they're watching more TV commercials or because their grandparents recently showered them with gifts, but something has set my sons on a shopping frenzy. Every toy, candy, movie, computer game, electronic gizmo and expensive vacation available in the Free World has been requested and/or demanded. If they're not asking me to buy it, they're asking me to take them to the mall so they can waste their own money.

And I keep saying "no."

It's not like we deny them much. Our kids have so much stuff, you can barely walk through their rooms. A million toys, but they don't want to play with any of them. They only want new toys, which they'll enjoy for three days before tossing them into the midden. Their lives brim with activities, but they can always think of other things to request.

My 12-year-old understands that he and his brother are driving me crazy. He thinks it's funny.
He's started getting cute with it:

Son: "Dad, can we take drugs and go around vandalizing houses?"

Dad (wearily): "No."

Son (trying not to grin): "You never let us have any fun."

Sometimes, under this constant barrage, I say "yes" to something, just to throw them off. Or because I'm too dog-gone weary to put up a fight.

But giving in doesn't earn me a reprieve. They've barely finished savoring the "yes" before they're coming up with something new that will earn them a "no." They're like those lab rats who randomly get food when they press a button in their cages. The treats only come once in a while, but they keep madly pushing that danged button, their hopes high.

When I hold my ground, when my "no" is firm, the boys try to get the decision overturned by appealing to a higher court -- their mother. Sometimes this works, especially if I'm not around to defend myself.

Mom and I have developed an entire nonverbal language -- shrugs, eyebrow arches, questioning squints, subtle hand gestures -- to deal with those moments when she says "yes" and I say "no." We want to create the illusion of a united front, but it probably looks like we're telling each other to steal third base.

The boys sense these moments the way horses sense fear. The tiniest conflict in parental inclination is a chink in the armor. No matter the outcome, this issue will be raised again.

And I'll probably say, "no."


clitav said...

Just so you understand, this is a highly refined skill that you will be tested on even more by the time you get some G children! LOL Although I do admit having a little fun just saying yes on PURPOSE once in awhile! AHHH sweet revenge!


This column originally appeared in newspapers in 2001, I believe, but my two sons still seek permission for many things, and I still turn them down. They're in high school and college now, but they still test my "no" ability.