Why We Must Say 'Yes' To Children Saying 'No'

Most of us don’t want to – in fact, may dread – getting into conflict with the children we live or work with.
Given the nature of my work, many people are surprised when I tell them that me and my son argue quite a lot.
I do believe in the notion of ‘peaceful’ or ‘unconditional’ parenting, but I don’t think we have to be tied to it as complete philosophy.

Conflict and disagreements are a natural part of relationships and, so long as we manage and model them properly, I don’t think it’s harmful to expose kids to them.
On the contrary, I think it’s misleading and dishonest not to. Long into – and potentially for all of – adulthood, many people spend far too much of their lives predisposed to being a ‘people pleaser’ for fear of conflict. Let’s not insist that our kids become one too.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in raising children to co-operate. And to know how to behave appropriately in different situations. And to choose their own battles; we all know from the job of working, and especially of living with them that there are some that are just not worth fighting.
But I equally think it’s not our job to raise children who are easy to parent, or who are compliant learners etc.
And here’s why.

There’s a big difference between pro-social skills and mindless obedience.
There’s a big difference between a child being controlled – by threats, sanctions, fear, shame etc., (as so many in classrooms are, for example; ‘traffic lights’ and rain clouds are not as benign as we might think) – and one who has mastered the skills for self-control; skills that external measures – whether they be threats, bribes or window-dressed as ‘incentives’ – will never instil in a child.

A disagreeable or argumentative child may not always be good company, or easy to spend time with.
But I can confidently say that some of the environments that young people are experiencing have the capacity for harm.
Not all, but many secondary schools, for example, demand unnatural silence, rigid uniform checks, that whole classes accept punishments for misdemeanours which aren’t theirs, and timekeeping so tight that many adolescents must choose between emptying their bladder and detention.

These measures aren’t just immoral, they’re unsafe.
I attended some training in Child Exploitation recently, and it struck me that our kids are not just as risk of being groomed by criminals, but by childhoods which teach them to unquestionably submit to perceived authority and blindly follow instructions. They’re wonderfully pliable when they have no sense of their own voice, agency or autonomy.

I’m not suggesting we raise little anarchists, and I’ll say again that it’s healthy and necessary for children to possess the skills to manage their behaviours and their relationships independently.

But being able to lead with their own values, and not someone else’s, equips them to live a moral life.
Being able to carve their own pathway and not just follow the one that’s expected of them, armours them with resilience.
Being able to communicate and action their own beliefs makes for strong leaders.
And belief in their own autonomy equips them to protect and defend their rights; rights that, whether we like it or not, are theirs.
And to say ‘no’. Even when it means p***ing someone off.

So let’s not automatically see qualities like defiance, opposition or argumentativeness as problems.
They might just turn out to be a kid’s greatest asset.  

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