Who among us hasn't caved in to our child's pleading for candy or a toy, despite wanting to say no? According to David Walsh, Ph.D., it's a common occurrence — and a growing dilemma. Dr. Walsh, the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, says today's parents are almost allergic to saying no. "They think somehow it's hurting their kids and worry about their self-esteem." In his new book, No: Why Kids — Of All Ages — Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, the author talks about our reluctance to deny our children's requests and why hearing "no" actually builds character.
Parent & Child: Why do you think parents today have such a hard time saying no to their children?
David Walsh: Parents are busier than ever before, and a lot of the time we feel guilt that we aren't spending as much time with our kids as we'd like. When we are with our kids, we want them to be happy and have positive feelings about the time they spend with us, so we end up doing things they will like, and we're reluctant to say "no."
P&C: Do you believe there are other reasons having to do with the media?
Walsh: Yes. I think current culture, media, and advertising have combined to teach us four values: more, easy, fast, and fun. And we have all been affected by those values. Parents get very anxious when their kids are unhappy or disappointed and think that it hurts their kids' self-esteem. It's part of an epidemic that's spreading. I call it DDD: Discipline Deficit Disorder. The symptoms are the inability to delay gratification, impatience, self-centeredness, and out-of-control consumerism. The job of being a parent today is harder than ever because media and advertising have brainwashed us into thinking that our kids should have more, that everything should be fast, easy, and fun.
P&C: We know self-esteem is important. How has the concept become distorted?
Walsh: Real self-esteem is very important, but it's built through support, connection, and competence. Self-esteem is not a new idea, but it was mis-defined in the popular culture during the 1970s and '80s. We got the idea that self-esteem comes first and behavior comes second. In other words, if we feel good about ourselves, we'll behave ourselves. There's no evidence to prove that. It's important for kids to feel good about themselves, but people translated that to mean self-esteem means feeling good all the time.
P&C: In what ways can parents help their children build real self-esteem?
Walsh: Instead of doing things for our kids, we need to support and encourage them to do things for themselves. We can't just tell our kids that they are good and capable — we need to give them experiences where they can actually be those things. In this culture we tend to think that self-esteem comes first, and then competence will follow, but actually it's the other way around. For instance, if a child knows how to cooperate and get along with others, he'll have more friends, and he's going to feel good about himself.
P&C: Returning to the word no, how does hearing it benefit kids?
Walsh: It helps them build a sense of resourcefulness and determination. That's where disappointment can actually build self-esteem. If we shield our kids too much they never get practice at dealing with disappointment. But when children are allowed to work through those disappointments, they might realize, "This won't work, but I'll try something else." They build the sense that there are no dead ends, just solutions they haven't found yet. They also learn determination and patience. If we jump in and rescue our kids, it actually eats away at self-esteem.
P&C: So how will saying no to kids more often help them succeed in school?
Walsh: The biggest factor that will help kids be successful in life is self-discipline. Self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor in school success as intelligence. Our kids are as smart as they've ever been, if not smarter. The problem is that they are lacking in self-discipline. Managing their behavior becomes more and more of a focus in school, which leaves less time for learning.
P&C: And how will it help at home?
Walsh: We are born with all kinds of hardwired drives. One is the drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We're born with it, but that drive has to be balanced with other needs. When a child has homework to be done, and has a million other things she would rather do, she's only going to be successful if she has the self-discipline to manage her own drives well enough to sit in the chair and get the assignment done. When she can do that, she's successful and feels good about herself, and she'll have more confidence — the vicious cycle gets moving in a positive direction.
P&C: Do parents owe their children an explanation every time they say no?
Walsh: I think it's fine to give kids an explanation, but it's not reasonable to expect the child to agree. They're still going to want the candy, so we have to be willing to do the heavy lifting and follow through.
PLUS: HOW TO SAY NO AND MEAN IT
P&C: The word no sounds so negative. Can we convey it to our kids without actually using the word?
Walsh: Absolutely. There's nothing magic about the word no. We can say it in a million different ways. In fact, with younger kids it's a better idea to set limits and consequences positively. If you say, "Don't stand on the furniture," all they hear is, "Stand on the furniture," so it's more effective to say, "Please keep your feet on the floor." It's not the word; it's a strategy. This is not a hard-nosed, authoritarian boot camp approach to parenting. We don't want to over-correct — we want a balanced style of parenting that's clear, consistent, and positive. We need to spend as much energy catching our kids being good as we do correcting behavior.
P&C: What other values do you feel kids need?
Walsh: A sense of compassion. When self-esteem gets distorted, kids end up with an over-inflated sense of their own worth and entitlement. Compassion means that I put other people's needs and rights on par with my own, and kids need to learn that.