Exercise Your “No” Muscle

By Margarita Curtis, Head of School

No. It’s a simple word—and one of the first we learn. As parents, we know the frustration—the anguish—of toddlers who exercise a single-word vocabulary assiduously. In their terrible twos, our children used “no” to set boundaries, express preferences, and demand rights. All fair. We were proud, then amused, then frustrated: they were stonewalling, ignoring us, and being unreasonable.

Flash forward a decade. Today, we parents use “no” to help our risk-taking kids choose a steadier path, to communicate our values, and to protect our families from harm. But sometimes our kids don’t see it that way: they hear us stonewalling, ignoring them, and being unreasonable. Sound familiar? 

Just as our toddlers learned new ways—and new words—for expressing their desires, we too must stretch our communications abilities with our now grown children. Assistant Dean of Students Amie Creagh has a phrase that captures this concept well: she calls it “exercising your ‘no’ muscle.”

Mrs. Creagh’s metaphor is apt and extensible: the more we exercise, the easier it gets. The more flexibility we gain in expressing “no,” then the more options we have for doing so. Like a football player in peak shape, the skills we practice—and the muscles we build—allow us to pass or rush, sneak or scramble (and, occasionally, punt!).

We can all get better at saying “no.”  Here are some guidelines we keep in mind at Deerfield:

  • Make sure “actions match rhetoric”—which is an educator’s way of cautioning against the dangers of “do what I say, not what I do.”
  • When saying “no,” provide alternatives and discuss why they might be better choices.
  • Learn to articulate different degrees of “no.” Sometimes a “no” is not a “no”. . . instead it’s a “Yes, but. . .” Use the opportunity to clarify your expectations—and the consequences of falling short.
  • Recognizing that there’s no such thing as trust without risk, make sure you’re modeling the values you want to see in your children. If you want them to trust your judgment when you say “no,” then it’s important to trust them in other arenas: you get what you give.

There’s no denying that “no” is one of the most important lessons we ever learn, but “no” is not the goal. “No” is merely a tool—a method for focusing our desires and resources, a word for emphasizing what’s important to us—distancing us from dangers and distractions along the way. “No” is the first boundary we set for our children, and, as they grow to adulthood, it becomes a boundary that they learn to set for themselves.

With today’s trends of casual connections and easy answers, it comes as no surprise that “no” is more important than ever. Yet let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned from our toddlers: “no” can end or obfuscate an important lesson. “No” can frustrate and alienate. Exercising our skill in saying “no” is energy well spent.

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