Allowing Others to Say No

Allowing Others to Say No

2017-08-18T13:19:44+00:00 January 5th, 2013|Personal|

“Mom, I don’t want to take the after-school science class,” my 12 year-old daughter announced early one morning.  By her slightly defiant posture, it was apparent that my generally tractable daughter, had had to muster the courage to say ‘no’.

Just a few weeks prior she’d finished up a sewing class that I’d been wholly convinced she wanted to take, only to learn from my husband that she had grumped to him repeatedly it. Unfortunately, for many us, when we think something is a great idea, we are blind to how others might feel.

“Why didn’t she tell me?”

“Because you can be pretty hard to say no to…”

At twelve, my daughter is still young enough that I can strong arm her into doing what I want her to do.  Studying science could open so many doors for her, she has an aptitude for it, and I think she will enjoy it.  But what of teaching her to believe that what she has to say matters?  That she is worthy of respect?

If I make my daughter learn science, but in the process she also learns to shrink from speaking her mind, from advocating for herself, has my victory been Pyrrhic?

So here’s what I did — because I am not always a slow learner.

“Ok, sweetheart, you don’t have to take the class. But will you do one thing first?  Will you talk to Mr. Hadly, your teacher, to see if you really don’t want to take it?”

“Yes.”  (After she left for school, I e-mailed Mr. Hadly, hoping that his powers of persuasion would be more powerful than mine.)

“Once you have that conversation, if you still don’t want to, I will let it go. Oh, and by the way, I am really proud of you for standing up to me.”

Whether she takes the class or not, that was a win.

When was the last time you let your children and/or your employees say no to you?

  • Sara

    Great post Whitney. I learned this valuable lesson the other day when my son said he didn’t want to take indoor soccer any more. Concerned that he might learn that quitting was ok, I asked him why. He said his coach was mean. I said, well, we all have people that are going to push us to do our best (like parents!). He pointed out that his prior coach (who unfortunately is no longer coaching) was really tough and pushed him to do his best, but also taught him how to play and love the game of soccer. This coach was simply mean. I think allowing our kids/employees to say no, also strengthens their analytic abilities in being able to formulate their own reasoning of what motivates them. He was also practicing articulating reasonable, sound arguments, and delivering them with confidence. And I agreed with his position. My son did say that when we did find a coach who was more like his previous coach he would be willing to take up soccer again. Now I am looking for a better coach, a win-win for everyone.

  • JB

    I’m confused. How is hoping your daughter’s teacher has more powerful persuasive skills to get her to take the class truly allowing her to say no? It sounds like you don’t accept her no and are enlisting an accomplice to get your way.

  • Great post, Whitney. I like your approach and your choice of words. Brilliant move, involving Mr. Hardy. I’ve just started experimenting with that sort of thing. So far, very effective.

    This post is very timely for me. This morning I’ve been listening to a great book on tape: A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle. There are some very helpful parenting lessons on Disc 3. They align nicely with what you’ve written here.

    This book on tape is available at a lot of libraries, so I hear, and you can download it at


  • Yes, and sometimes when our children are saying no to us, the issues are a little bigger and a little scarier than simply missed opportunities (not that those aren’t big enough). When my older son was very young and telling me that the toy he wanted to take for show-and-tell was Barbie or the character for Halloween, Mary Poppins, the fears compounded: I wanted my son to express himself honestly and freely but joint fears of how he would be treated by his peers and how others would perceive me as a mother (weak, but sadly true), had me in a tangled mess of confusion. Fortunately, my son was not nearly so confused, and after I watched him successfully navigate his own desires (It’s in “A Question” on my own blog, and a little on “Beyond Labels”), I let him take command of his ship (thank you for the great metaphor, Whitney). Today he’s equally as courageous, coming out as a sixteen-year-old, garnering amazing respect from both peers and teachers, earning important responsibilities and distinctions in his school and now moving on to college. I think it’s possible that when we allow our children to tell us no, they might miss some opportunities, but they’ll create more of their own that are better suited to them. That said, Whitney, I did the EXACT thing you did when said son was thinking of changing high schools his sophomore year. It was before he’d come out, but I had suspicions and I just KNEW he was in the right school. I told him I was fine if he chose the other high school but please go talk to Ms. R. (a beloved teacher who’d invested tons in him). He did, and she came through with this lovely long thoughtful note and my son stayed in the school that loved and nurtured him to graduation.

  • Hi Whitney- I just listened to your conversation withTara and wanted to check out your blog. I have a 13 yr.old daughter and loved reading about how you are creating deeper connection with your daughter. I am right there with ya and it not only makes this time in our lives richer, it’s actually a lot more fun too.
    BTW……I love the ship and harbor metaphor. Thank you so much.

  • Good experience for your daughter…and for you. Atta girl Whitney!

  • What is important about your approach is that you ensure that this is an actual choice by having her talk it over with her teacher.

    Smart on two counts, 1) She can be more open, because the teacher is not her parent. 2) The teacher may be able to pick up on resistance (i.e. insecurity, unfamiliarity) that would prevent your daughter from doing something that she might actually enjoy and excel within.

    Bonus: 3) This also helps her learn a productive way to determine her own interest, while being informed and mentored by going right to the source.

    As parents we don’t want to force our children to do something that just flat-out rubs them the wrong way, but we want to ensure real responsibility and knowledge (self-knowledge as well as content knowledge) in choosing.

    Too many people give an uncommitted “yes” which helps no one. Too many people avoid a definite and informed “no” which often beneficially clarifies and prioritizes.

    I think you treaded that line pretty well.

  • Lynn

    I must admit I feel for your daughter, she’s 12 and you want her to do an after-school science class!? That’s like school on your school. And surely she’ll be doing science as part of the normal curriculum in the next couple of years, if not already. Having said that, my father was a scientist so our family had an inbuilt science resource. Maybe you could subscribe to New Scientist, or similar, and just discuss various articles from time to time.

    Also did you ask “why?” your daughter doesn’t want to do the class? That might be enlightening.

  • I tend to go along with JB in that you were counting on the teacher’s powers of persuasion. You are letting your daughter think that she has a choice. However, you didn’t say the content of the e-mail to the teacher so it is difficult to know the whole story. If you just gave the teacher a heads up that your daughter was going to talk to him about the class and to keep you posted on the conversation and out come and leave it at that, that is one thing. However, if you really never intended for her to have a choice then his input would lean more toward convincing her she should take the class. Then she really had no choice after all. And, the pressure was doubled.

  • Whitney Johnson

    I don’t have that functionality yet to respond to each of you one-by-one. But, there is a richness here to the thread, that I’ll give this a whirl.

    Sara — thank you for sharing your experience with your son. It is such a deeply satisfying moment when our children describe their experience in such a way that they teach us important lessons.

    JB — Nice push back. It comes across as not accepting her ‘no’, which no doubt there have been times when I haven’t. But when she said no to tennis, violin, and to sewing, I said ok. In this particular instance, I was prepared to take her ‘no’ as well. But I also was fairly certain that there was some hesitation here that was ‘extraneous to the class’ and that her teacher, her favorite teacher, who she says can ‘read’ her, might help overcome that objection. Nonetheless, point taken, and appreciated.

    Susan — You are such a prolific reader — I’ve heard of Eckhart Tolle, but haven’t read his work. Thank you for the insight.

    Diane — It’s interesting with daughters. There is the assumption that because she is a ‘girl’ I will just know what she’s thinking, but alas I do not. But then when she has those moments of wanting to talk, and describe what she’d working on writing and thinking. Wonderful.

    Maria — I appreciate the Atta Girl. No doubt you’ve had many of these moments!

    Zeus — Exactly. A teacher that knows our children well — because he’s interacted with them for years (school plays) can potentially read quite well what is going on, when you are pretty sure that they will like it if they give it a go.

    Lynn — Oh, I love that word ‘why’. Thanks for the reminder to ask more often, and then wait for the answer to come, if not immediately, but eventually.

    Carol — Good call. I did intend for her to have a choice (especially because she has said ‘no’ to this teacher before. But again, if I hadn’t. Not good at all.

    Wonderful comments — and thought provoking.