"My Kid Won't Listen to Me!" The Art of 'No'

By: Gregory Popcak

yes and no

Michael wasn’t getting along with his 14yo son.  “He’s been really disrespectful lately, and I know I need to find some better ways to handle him.” I asked what was behind his son’s increased negative attitude toward him. Mike answered, “I think I tend to be pretty negative. He’ll ask me for something; if he can go out with a friend, or stay up a little later one night, or do whatever, and I just find myself saying ‘no’–not for any good reason really. It’s just a reflex. Like I’m already stressed out and saying ‘yes’ is going to complicate my life further, so I just don’t.”  St Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger lest they lose heart (Col 3:21).” Although dads have a right, even an obligation, to “Just say ‘No’” sometimes–especially to something that puts our kids well-being or soul at risk–it’s important to resist the urge to give reflexive “no’s” without cause. Nothing provokes any person, child or adult, to anger more than an unjustly frustrated need or request.

To Whom ARE They Listening?

When we make a habit out of reflexively saying “no” to our kids, we fuel the fires of disrespect and disobedience. Dads will often complain to me that, “My kid doesn’t listen to me anymore.” Although it’s tempting to ask “why?”, a more useful question is, “To whom DOES your child listen?” His mother? His friends?  The kid is listening to someone. Why? What are those people saying? More particularly, why does the child believe that these people have answers that you don’t have? The answers to those questions give us us clues how to win back the heart of a child we’ve alienated by our unjust “no’s.”

Inspiring Willing Submission

Although a parent can always try to compel obedience from a child (a hit or miss proposition if there ever was one) research tells us that children only willingly submit to a mom or dad’s authority when they believe that a parent is genuinely committed to helping them meet their needs. When our kids are convinced that we are committed to being their best hope for helping them get everything they need to live and grow into successful adults, they attach themselves to us and offer their obedience to us. We become their mentor as well as their father, or as I put it in Parenting with Grace, “we create the kind of relationship that makes our kids want to look more like us than anyone else.”

The Qualified “Yes”

The best way to create this kind of attached, discipleship relationship with our kids while still protecting them from poor choices and dangerous situations (to their bodies and souls) is to trade “reflexive no’s” for “qualified yes’s.”  This means we need to take Christ’s command in Mt 5:37 seriously and be intentional about our “yes’s” and “no’s.” In particular, it’s best to save a definite “no” for those times when we can easily and clearly explain to our children why we genuinely believe that something is dangerous for them.     Otherwise, it is always better to use a technique I call, the “qualified yes.” A “ qualified yes” is a kind-of, “Yes, but first….”  For instance;

Example 1:

Child: Can I go to my friends house?

Father: Yes, but I need you to clean your room first.

Example 2:

Teen: Dad, Can I get my driver’s license?

Dad: Absolutely, but I need to see you being a little more attentive and responsible around the house before I’d be comfortable putting you in the driver’s seat. Tell you what, take the rest of the month. If you can show me that you can do your chores without being asked and be helpful around the house without us having to point things out to you (i.e., demonstrating signs of responsibility and attentiveness) then at the end of the month, we can start driving practice and work toward your permit.

The technique of the “Qualified Yes” works on several levels. First, it stops you from alienating your child with reflexive “no’s.” Second, it demonstrates that you want to give your child good things, but only if they can demonstrate they can handle the responsibility. Third, it teaches your child the importance of working for things they want. Fourth, it conveys that earning privileges is not so much dependent upon getting your permission as it is demonstrating their maturity. Finally, it gives you a chance to encourage the development of virtues your kids need to exhibit to become loving, whole, and holy grown-ups.

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