Saying "No"

I used to think that being loving meant always saying, “yes.” I am increasingly learning that saying, “No” can also express love – for myself, in my relationships, and for my children.

Permissive Parenting; avoiding saying “no”
I’ve always veered on the side of permissive parenting.  

I was fairly comfortable with listening to my daughter’s feelings when she was a baby, but when she became a toddler I found the setting loving limits aspect of Aware Parenting very challenging.  I would tend to always assume that she had an immediate need that required meeting, rather than see that she needed help with expressing painful feelings.  It took me quite some time to learn the skill of loving limits, and felt much more confident and competent with it once my son was a toddler.

I meet many mothers with similar experiences.  Believing that being a “good mother” means always saying, “yes” and avoiding them ever feeling pain, can mean that we overlook times when our child’s need in the moment is loving support to feel a painful feeling.

Taking time to distinguish between whether our child have an immediate need that requires meeting, or whether they need to express some painful feelings, makes all the difference.  We can do this by giving them our full presence, offering alternatives to meet the same needs, and observing their behaviour.

A need for release often is accompanied by an urgency in the child’s tone, a lack of eye contact, a general agitation, a “whiny” quality, or asking for something else soon after we’ve given them what they seemed to want.  

Once we know that the need is for release, rather than something else, we can choose to set a loving limit, such as, “You really want to play with the DVD player, and mummy says no playing with it.”  When we pair loving empathy for what they want, with the loving limit, the polarities come together and create a kind of charge for the feelings to be expressed.  

Setting loving limits takes time to learn, and requires a us to be centred and calm, as well as confident in knowing that this is going to help our child.  The confidence comes after seeing that once we have connected with them, set the loving limit and kept being loving and close - that after crying with us, they emerge with a new calmness, happiness, more eye contact, and often much more willingness to connect and cooperate.

Why was I, and why are others, reluctant to set loving limits, even when we understand the Aware Parenting context that they are there to bring healing tears and connection?  

Perhaps because our experience of limits was harsh and punitive, meant to shame and disconnect, rather than to connect and heal.  Perhaps because we do not trust that we have a sense of what our child needs, or that we are afraid of hearing their pain, or afraid of the self-judgments that it is our fault that they are feeling the pain.  Perhaps we experienced authoritarian discipline and want to do anything we can to protect our child from the pain and fear that we felt in those experiences.  Or perhaps we simply are not connected to our own needs and thus override them.  When our children do things that we really don’t enjoy, and so half-pretend that we are comfortable with those things, meanwhile feeling a vague dissatisfaction or agitation.

How did I get more comfortable with loving limits and move away from being “permissive”?  A few things helped – seeing that Lana’s behaviour showed more and more signs of pent-up feelings if I kept trying to always “fix” things; seeing her dad set loving limits with her, and her having a big cry, and then being so much more aware and calm afterwards; seeing that ignoring my needs and overlooking her agitation left me feeling resentful and burnt-out, so that I had much less to offer her; and finally, finding the other ways of helping her release became less and less effective as she got older.  

I also find that I tend to overlook the signs of a need to release when I am feeling upset.  I try to “fix” things more and veer away from loving limits and finding the sweet spot, as a way of avoiding seeing my children’s pain, and feeling my own.

In the last six months, as my ex-husband and I were separating, it was as though my Aware Parenting glasses fell off.  Lana and Sunny, usually so full of love for each other, usually wanting to play with each other, help each other, and so on, got more and more agitated in the way they talked to each other.  Lana stopped helping Sunny and instead kept doing things that he didn’t enjoy when he asked her to stop.  Sunny started hitting Lana when she did those things.  Lana started reading a lot more (a control pattern), and Sunny started fiddling on a little mole I have and was generally a lot more active and agitated.  These and other behaviours gradually became more and more pronounced, and yet because I was in so much pain myself, I just did not have the centredness and calm to set loving limits with them to help them express the pain that they were also feeling.  

It has only been in recent weeks that I am finding completion, and I have put my Aware Parenting glasses on, and been shocked to see how much my children’s behaviour was indicating their unexpressed feelings.  

Since then, I have refound the joy of loving limits, combined with laughter games and Present Time, and am already noticing a huge difference in their behaviour, and our level of connection.

All that was a long way of saying that if we avoid ever setting a loving limit with our children, if we avoid the word “no” with them, then it is likely that we will miss out on opportunities to help them express their feelings with us.

Permissive, authoritarian and democratic discipline
Aletha Solter talks a lot about permissive approaches, authoritarian approaches and democratic approaches (which Aware Parenting is an example of), in The Aware Baby.  

In permissive styles of parenting, parents tend to lessen the importance of their own needs whilst aiming to meet the needs of their child/ren.  Over time, parents practising this type of parenting tend to get stressed and resentful. Children parented this way will often build up an accumulation of painful feelings.  This is because one way that they signal a need for help releasing these feelings is through acting in ways that other parenting paradigms would call “misbehaviour.”  (There’s no such thing as misbehaviour in Aware Parenting; children are simply expressing an unmet need, trying to learn something, or needing to express painful feelings).

So, if a parent is afraid of their child’s painful feelings, or afraid or their own painful feelings, or doesn’t value themselves or their needs, they are likely to miss many opportunities to help their child express these feelings.  

“Broken cookie” moments, such as when a child shows a lot of feeling about something seemingly minor, (such as a broken cookie) are one such opportunity.  Whenever a parent tries to “fix” what is going on for a child, without realising that the real need is to express the painful feelings, those feelings get pent up and tend to lead to more and more of the same types of behaviour.  These include being unwilling to cooperate, wanting things they know that we don’t want them to have, wanting things to be in very fixed ways, acting in ways that hurt others, like hitting or biting, whining, an underlying sense of dissatisfaction, repeatedly wanting things but on receiving them, wanting something else.  All of these can indicate a need for release.  

I’ve talked elsewhere about loving limits and finding the sweet spot; loving limits are central to the democratic discipline element of Aware Parenting.

I’ve been wondering lately whether children brought up with more permissive approaches tend to then take responsibility for more than is really theirs.  Having experienced permissiveness, they may believe that they have more power than their parents, which may translate in adulthood to taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, trying to choose for others, and being scared of trusting a deeper intelligence at work in the universe.

So, saying no with love and empathy and support, when our child is upset and needing help to express painful feelings, becomes an expression of caring and love, since after crying and raging, they return to their natural state of presence, being loving, aware and connected.

No to self-judgment
I see that “no” is also very helpful in our relationship with ourselves as parents.  I have talked to many parents over the years, more of them mothers than fathers, I have found so many of us judging ourselves and our parenting, telling ourselves that we “should” be doing such-and-such, “shoudn’t” be doing something else, and generally punishing ourselves whenever we are not perfect.  

I think that this particularly happens when women aim to practice Aware Parenting and other similar parenting paradigms, because in aiming to be aware, we can believe that we “should” be completely aware and perfect!  

I am learning more and more that loving limits also refer to how my internal dialogue runs.  If I am judging myself, or being harsh on myself, I can bring in a loving limit – not judging myself for judging myself, but simply saying, “no, I’m not willing to do that to myself anymore.”  Loving limits to our own self-harshness help bring us back into a more compassionate connection with ourselves.  The more compassionate we are with ourselves, the more we are able to offer that quality of love to our children.

Loving limits in other relationships
The third prong of loving limits is in our relationship with other adults, often our partners or exes.  I have found this to be the most challenging area to learn!  One thing I am learning is if that I’m not aware of what I need, repeatedly, and I ignore my needs or put up with things that I really don’t enjoy, then finally I get angry, and say “no” in ways that are harsh and blaming.  I am learning how to know what I need, and to ask for it, or say no to unwanted things and behaviour.  I am finding that when I finally connect with my “no”, there is a sense of standing in what is true for me; with what I am willing to live with and what I am not willing to live with.  I trust that the more I learn to do this, and to speak my truth and my “no” as willingly as my “yes”, that this will also be a gift to my children, particularly my daughter, in validating her choices and her “no.”

Likewise, we can see the loving, “no” if we think of a friend who has given up alcohol after realising there was an addiction present.  Saying “no” to his request to go and buy him some alcohol would also be a loving response.

The global “no”
Whilst I was thinking about this (the 1st of April 2011), I was also thinking about the recent events in Japan. I had a sense of the earth saying “no more” to being treated in such harsh ways.  

I had a sense of the power of women, in particular, saying “no” to being treated harshly, and to treating themselves harshly.  

I have a vision of mothers learning to feel comfortable with valuing their own well-being, and with embracing their children’s feelings, and knowing that sometimes, a very lovingly spoken no, within the context of emotional release, can be a great healing opportunity.

In finishing, I am remembering learning in Nonviolent Communication that whenever we say “no” to something, we are saying “yes” to something else.  I honour our increasing skills in knowing what we want and don’t want, learning to say, “no”, and helping our children stay connected to what is true for them too.  

Edited April 2011