Do your kids suffer from discipline deficit disorder? (Hint: Symptoms include "the gimmes" and a "me first" attitude.) If you can't say "No" and stick to your guns, chances are they do, says psychologist David Walsh, whose recent book about the complaint has—to his shock—launched a burgeoning grass-roots movement to stamp it out. In Minnesota, Walsh's home state, a "Say Yes to No" coalition of educators and PTA parents sent "tool kits" touting the book (No: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It) to 2,500 principals before school began last week. Their next goal is to get it on the reading list of every child-tending grown-up in the state, sparking a sharing of war stories about how to tame "I want" behavior.
Walsh says he's "overwhelmed" at the response, which inspired a rush to paperback four months ahead of schedule and a packed calendar of speaking engagements. School principals from Indiana, South Carolina, and several other states are getting set to work No into teacher training sessions. And at an annual gathering in October, more than 1,000 Boy Scout troop leaders from Minnesota and Wisconsin will be offered workshops on the guide, which equips grown-ups with sample dialogues for beating back all kinds of challenges. "It's just such a readable, common-sense approach to raising self-reliant children," says Joann Knuth, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.
Shared struggle. The child-parent struggle is older than the "my dog ate my homework" excuse, of course. But it's exacerbated, says No, by 45 hours or so of screen time each week that plug "more, easy, fast, and fun" and by harried working parents' craving for harmony when they're home. "Large corporations trying to market to kids don't make money off delayed gratification," says Angela Duckworth, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and mother of two youngsters. And given that everyone else's parents allow a later curfew and violent video games, "there's fear you're going to say no and your child will turn against you," says Rosie Loeffler-Kemp of Duluth, president of the Minnesota State Parent Teacher Association and mother of four. When parents read the book and see that this is a shared struggle, she believes, they'll gain the necessary courage to convey their family values and set limits.
The payoff, says Walsh: kids with the ability to say "No" to themselves, plus patience, good judgment, and the cool to move on—without a meltdown—when they don't get three desserts or an unchaperoned weekend at the beach. "How is it that [children have] a sense of who they are, what they can do, and what the world is about?" asks Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. "They get that by internalizing parental prohibitions," she says.
A related urge that parents are taught to squelch is the desire to intervene with a quick fix for every tough assignment or disappointment. A student who misses the year-end spelling prize because he chose not to study has an opportunity to develop thicker skin and learn an important lesson in self-discipline, for example—but not if Mom calls up to berate the teacher. "Parent involvement is critical, but I don't see them wanting to let their kids experience consequences," says Kim Westra, a fourth-grade teacher at Salem Hills Elementary in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., who makes independent work a huge focus in her classroom. Research published by Duckworth hints at one price. Self-discipline, she found, was a better predictor of academic success in eighth graders than IQ, measured by such factors as final grades, attendance, standardized test scores, and success at getting into a selective high school program.
Understanding the rationale for standing firm doesn't necessarily make parenting choices easier. Westra and her husband, long proponents of the no-cable, bare-bones approach to television, have been deliberating whether or not to give in as their daughter approaches the social preteen years. "Does it take that big, huge plasma TV to get the kids over?" Westra wonders. The resounding response from parents of teenagers she has polled: Yes.
EASING THE PAIN
Putting your foot down firmly can hurt you as well as the kids. Here are a few ways to make "No!" less agonizing for everyone:
Be realistic. If you learn about child development, you'll set expectations kids can meet.
Be consistent. When the lines you draw keep moving, anger and resistance are bound to result.
Demonstrate. Saying "No" will be less of an issue if you model the generosity and patience you value.
Don't accept rudeness. Table the discussion if a child's language or actions are discourteous.
Partner with the teacher. Ask about expectations, and reinforce them to the extent that you can.
Show warmth, too. Catch them being good.