Children - The Everlasting Nay
( Originally Published 1916 )
YOUNG children can easily be bulldozed into accepting the denial of their wishes, unless they are unusually strong-minded or stubborn. Later it becomes a struggle between parents and children; and many mothers can be nagged into submission. Very few of us can reverse ourselves gracefully, so that we usually adhere to our " No " even when we should like to change it to a " Yes."
Lawrence came running up to the porch, where his mother and a visitor were sewing. Pausing long enough to satisfy the conventions, he asked breathlessly, " Mother, may I take off my shoes and stockings and go barefoot this afternoon? " The negative answer came short and sharp. Then Lawrence began to tease. " You Iet me Monday and last week," he reminded her. " I know I did," said mother; " but not this after-noon." There was no reason given, and none required, apparently. It was merely a question of having the last word. Of course, mother had the last word; it would never do to reverse her decision. And certainly it would not do to let Lawrence take advantage of the presence of the company. Mother was not going to spoil her son by letting him think that he could get what he wanted by just nagging for it long enough. When she said " No," she meant that; and her boy would soon learn to understand that she meant what she said.
Lawrence took his departure sulking and resentful. When he was beyond hearing the visitor asked, " Why didn't you let him go barefoot? You evidently don't object on principle, and there is nothing in the weather, and the ground is dry enough." The mother was not proud of her position. She had to confess that she had no good reason for objecting, only a sort of lingering memory of the time Lawrence had cut his toe some weeks ago. But he had gone barefoot several times since; there was really no objection. But having said No, she had to stick to it, had she not? " Perhaps," suggested the friend, " it's just a habit of denying children's requests because so many of them are foolish and unreasonable? " The mother admitted that probably it was.
"You remind me," said the visitor, " of Arnold Bennett's Mr. Povey in his Old Wives' Tale. You remember that every time his boy asked for something he had great difficulty in overcoming the impulse to say ` No.' "
Mr. Povey and Lawrence's mother are very much like most other grown-ups who have had to do with little children. We all know how utterly unreasonable are the hundred requests that a young child can make in a day. And if you don't know what the child is going to ask for next, the chances are very good in favor of guessing that it will be something that simply cannot be granted. Is it any wonder then that we acquire that impulse to say " No " ? Nine times out of ten that is the right answer; and if it happens to be the wrong answer the tenth time, why—it will be time enough to readjust ourselves then.
Although we hate the idea of bulldozing the young children, we get the habit of saying " No " before considering the merits of the request. Notwithstanding our chagrin on being nagged again and again into making concessions to our children, we get the habit of saying " No." However much we may regret it the moment after, we obey that impulse and still say " No."
But that is not the worst of it. For presently young children become a little older ; and some day they begin to " reason." Then they will classify their parents, as they will classify all their acquaintances, and they will put us into pigeon-holes that we should hate to occupy. They will size us up as arbitrary—as deciding problems that come up without regard to right and justice. They will sort us with the contrary—as opposing high endeavor and the joy of life.
Even before the days of adolescence children will make up their minds about the kind of people with whom they are obliged to live. And if you are both arbitrary and contrary—as you must be if you have the habit of saying " No " before taking circumstances into consideration—they will learn to have their way without taking the pains to consult you in advance. Richard, not yet five, on being reproached for going to a forbidden part of the beach with his companions without getting permission, said " We thought you wouldn't let us go, so we did not ask you." That was genuine as well as naive. And that is the attitude to which children are inevitably driven by the everlasting nay—excepting that in time it ceases to be naive.
At the time in the child's development when it is most difficult to retain his confidence and sympathy, our record for being arbitrary and contrary will present a real obstacle to a close understanding. At the time when crowding questions should drive him home for counsel and guidance, all confidence in our judgment will have been destroyed.
Again and again, in your intercourse with children, you will find it advisable and necessary to say " No." Well then, say it; and stick to it! The great problem is to say "No" nine times without getting the habit, to say " No " nine times and then be still able to say " Yes," if need be, the tenth time. In other words, we must avoid getting the habit of giving children any stereotyped answer. Every request and every question must be met with the freshness of a new situation, and treated on its merits. Only thus can we expect to retain the children's confidence in our judgment and in our reasonableness.