Parents must rediscover the N-word or risk raising confused children with no self-control

No. One of the shortest, easiest, most used words in the English language. It can also be one of the hardest to utter in any meaningful way – particularly if you are a modern parent. Those who work with children believe that a generation of parents have forgotten how to say no, with the result that as their children grow up they lack the self-control needed to negotiate adult life successfully.

“Children need to have the experience of an adult saying no,” says Jane Cassidy of the Association of Child Psychotherapists and joint chair of the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Division of the Tavistock Society. “If you always give in, they don’t learn that somebody can stay firm, so when they become young teenagers and adults they don’t have the capability to say no to themselves when they are under peer pressure in terms of drugs, delinquency or sex.” The problem, teachers, psychologists and parents agree, is that when it comes to discipline, parents are hopelessly ill-disciplined. They tell their children that they should not do something or cannot have something that they want, but cave in to the child’s protests.

Dr Tanya Byron, clinical psychologist and Times columnist, says that dealing with this issue has become “the spine of my clinic. The majority of people I see really can’t say no to their children or can’t set boundaries. They can’t follow through to a consequence after saying ‘no’. Children don’t have a sense of who is in charge so they take charge themselves.”

The effect of parental ineffectiveness is all too obvious in society – nowhere more so than in schools. Earlier this year I spent a week at Banbury School, a comprehensive in Oxfordshire, shadowing the head teacher, Dr Fiona Hammans, a dynamic and nationally respected teacher who has been responsible for the education and wellbeing of thousands of children. She had no doubts about where many of the school’s discipline problems originated.

“You’ve got a generation of parents that does not believe in punishing their kids. They say ‘you’re grounded for a year’. And the kid cries and then they say ‘Oh all right, then!’ A whole lot of parents don’t know how to control their kids. The kids are in charge.” Hammans certainly does know how to say no, and back it up. But her point was that what she said was far less important than what parents said and did. Hammans even described the extraordinary situation where parents were not attending parent-teacher evenings because “kids don’t want their parents coming up here”.

Jane Cassidy says that much of the rot set in relatively recently with “the whole idea of positive affirmation: trying to say yes, trying to avoid saying “no” to children because of the negativity”. Byron concurs, saying that our collective failure with the no word is a “huge change” from the situation when she first started working in the field 18 years ago. One of the chief reasons for this change, she believes, is that in the hurly-burly of the modern world we don’t want to spend what precious time we have with our children acting tough.

“We are very busy. In a lot of families where there are two parents, both work and they don’t want to come home at night and have to tell the children what to do. Or they are too bloody knackered to follow through with the discipline and so say ‘fine, do that, eat that’.” Food is one of the key battlegrounds. “Children have the most restricted diets because parents seem incapable of not giving in to what children want.” But according to Andrea Clifford-Poston, author of When Harry Hit Sally, by saying no to your children you are helping them to learn “not only that there are boundaries between you and them, but also how to put boundaries around themselves and other people”. Saying no, she explains, helps children to learn who we can say no to, when we can say no, why to say no and when we can stop saying no.

“If your children are going to have a good life, then they need to understand some of the rules about human beings being together,” she writes.

“If your child has learnt in the early years that you are someone who has clear and firm ideas about how you expect them to behave, and mean what you say and say what you mean, but don’t withdraw your love when your child has made a mistake, then you have built a solid foundation for the more complex years to come.”

Byron believes that the increasing isolation of parents is a crucial factor in how control over children has eroded. “Extended families don’t exist in the way that they used to and so many parents lack the wisdom and support of the older generation.” She also believes that parents feel under pressure to be seen to be raising well-behaved kids. “Parents are anxious not to be seen with unhappy children, so they negotiate and cajole in any way possible to avoid tantrums.

“We have forgotten what it is to be children. It is acceptable to have temper tantrums. Young children are supposed to be defiant. It’s in the job description. They are learning the rules of the game. Let them have a tantrum. Eventually they will learn that when you say ‘no’ it means ‘no’.”

Then there is the modern, highly risky need to be friends with our children. I recently received the following e-mail lament from a friend, a mother of two. “Parents have this warped view of parenting,” she wrote. “They don’t really want to be parents. They want to be down with their kids, to be popular with them. That’s why you have these scenarios of parents picking fights with teachers and encouraging children to do the same: the teachers are the enemy, the boring/repressive authority figures. That’s also why you see parents dressing the same as kids. I am forever seeing families in Wagamama, boy and dad in boardshorts, Converse and logo T-shirts, mum and girl in combats, Crocs and logo T-shirts. The thinking has to be: ‘We are too young and with it to be bossy authority figures, aren’t we? Better to be MATES with the kids and listen to the same music and watch Doctor Who together or fight over the PlayStation.’ I am surrounded by people who seem to treat parenting as a popularity contest. The thought of their child disliking them, however briefly, is very frightening.”

Cassidy agrees: “A lot of parents just want their children to like them. There’s nothing wrong with that but a lot of parents seem to think that you can negotiate with children. You can’t negotiate with a two-year-old. They don’t have the cognitive skills we have. Sometimes you have to get to the point where you say ‘because I told you so and I’m daddy and that’s just the way it is’. You can take time to explain but they have to understand that when you say no, you mean no. They need rules and consequences. They have to learn that if dad says no to something and they still do it, something will happen that they won’t like.”

Or as a friend who is a child psychologist likes to put it: “No negotiation with terrorists.” Cassidy says that parents’ behaviour is often confused by their own childhood experiences. “For example, if they hated school and a child expresses concerns about going to school, the parents’ feelings become muddled up in the child’s feelings.” Her basic strategy for parents who have lost control is to focus on what aspect of the behaviour they want most to change. “If they think that everything is going wrong, they need to start with the worst problem. So you might say ‘we are going to stop the hitting’ and state what the consequences will be for the child if they continue. They get a warning, they know what is going to happen and then if it continues, you remove a toy. But it is important that the consequence is something the child cares about. Parents say ‘I can’t stop him going to football because that’s what he really loves’, but that’s the whole point. It has to make sense, and then you can have a lot of fun with children once you know what the rules are. Children like knowing what the rules are.”

Byron suggests that where many parents go wrong is in their attitude to dealing with unruly behaviour: “It’s not about discipline, it’s about respect. Parents don’t want their kids to hit but they smack them, which I think is bonkers. They don’t want them to shout or scream, but they shout or scream at them. We should be role models.”

Cassidy agrees that actions speak louder than words: “Children don’t necessarily listen to words. You can say ten times ‘I love you’ but if you are not there they don’t feel they are important.”

It may sound funny coming from professionals, but both Byron and Cassidy believe that one of the burdens for parents is that they are presented with too much information. Byron feels this so strongly that her next book on children will be her last. “A lot of parents feel overloaded by information and disempowered,” she says. “We have got to get to a situation where parents feel empowered to do what they want to do. That may be something that an expert says, but you can do whatever you want as long as it works for you.”

Cassidy says that it is unhelpful for parents to think that there is a right or a wrong way of doing things. “I try to talk to parents about what their instinctive sense of parenting is. They need to have a confidence in themselves and their own sense of authority. If there was a totally right way, there would only be one book, there wouldn’t be hundreds and hundreds of books. We are all different.”

These are encouraging words for parents. The ‘yes’ generation should be able to learn to say ‘no’ again. But as any parent knows, it’s not what you say, but the way that you say it. And say it. And say it. And say it . . .

Source: Times Online