RESTORATIVE PRACTICES BLOG
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Why do we find it so hard to say no? Being a “people-pleaser” I have struggled with this all my life. And I don’t mind telling you it has landed me in some difficult situations, some of which were just downright risky. So why is it so difficult to just assert our true feelings about something and say “No – I disagree,” or “No, Don’t Do that to me,” or “No, I won’t do that for you.” Why are we sometimes so loose with our personal boundaries? Let’s dial back a few years to unpick this a little.
Toddlers are switched on. They get that they can say no and so they do. Without fear or favour. Just “uh uh.” “Nope.” “Not happening.” “NO!”
And then a few months after we are through with the dramatic eye rolls and chuckling to our friends about how cute wee Callie is saying “no” to everything like she is practising for government, we suddenly realise that shit just isn’t going to get done if wee Callie says “no” all the time.
And so we begin to “socialise” them. We manipulate their needs and behaviour for our convenience and we teach them that “no” is not a desirable word. That it isn’t nice, it’s wrong, perhaps even bold. We teach them not to make a fuss, to just button that lip and get on with it. We teach them that grown up’s, people who are bigger than them, have the final say about whether their “no” really matters or not.
Now like all parents and teachers, we don’t get a manual, we often haven’t a clue what we are doing and mostly we are just repeating the histories of our own childhood and educational experiences. We think we are teaching children how to be sociable, how to get along in life with others, but really what we should be doing is teaching them how to explain why they don’t want to sit down for story time, why they don't want to work with that group, why they don't want to share their favourite toy, kiss their auntie (don’t get me started on emotionally coercing kids to kiss random relatives that they don’t want to), or why they don’t want to wait their turn.
Instead we skip this step and go straight to the convenience of a quick fix. A guilting and shaming of the “no” word, of exercising the right to make a choice. We say “don’t defy me,” or “it’s naughty to not do as you are told” or (my worst one) “no one will want to play with you if you don’t share your toys.” We communicate that by saying “no” we risk disconnection or worse, rejection. And what do kids want more than anything else? To belong and connect. And so they conform. They learn to say “yes” when they want to say “no”. And big people are pleased and little people reinforce their belief that “no”’is a bad word.
At the lower end of the continuum this creates teenagers and adults who are overwhelmed by saying yes to too much, who have a fragile ego based on “if I don’t say yes to everything then I will not be good enough to be liked.” But imagine it at the worst end of this continuum. Imagine it for a child who learns not to say no when they are uncomfortable with a predatory adults behaviour, or a teenage girl or boy on a night out who doesn’t want to make a fuss and says yes when they really want to say no, to alcohol, to drugs, to sex. Basically, as children we are often conditioned to say “yes,” to be agreeable, compliant, obedient, helpful and facilitative and this is not helpful for our future ability to manage our personal boundaries, nor to express our needs.
It is in learning the skills to express why we feel resistant to something that we teach children how to recognise their needs and teach them how to ask for them to be met in ways that do not damage relationships. As adults (whether a parent or a teacher) it is within our gift to help children to do this important thinking work, to internalise the skills to recognise their needs, to not apologise for them and to find ways to ask for them to be met without hurting others.
A wonderful frame in which to rethink how a child in front of you who is saying "no" is experiencing the world at that point in time is Ross Greene's "Won't Do Vs Can't Do" Frame. This beautiful map helps us to consider children as vessels who need to be resources, taught, supported, understood, rather than wilfully difficult beings who are trying and testing our patience. In the visual below he considers how switching from a Won't Do Frame to a Can't Do Frame helps us to take a curiosity mindset towards children and ask the right questions to enable them to express needs and find ways of meeting these appropriately. Helping children to explain the reasoning behind their no, is an crucial relationship skill, but more importantly helping children to not feel shame for saying no is a crucial survival skill.
You can find out more about learning the skills to identify and meet needs and how to help children to express them more clearly in our training here
LJ Sayers is a restorative trainer, mum to J, partner to JP, a COVID redundant hugger and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her household.