Don’t Say No!

Teens are notorious for asking for things. They want CDs, DVDs, MP3s, iPods, and other things that don’t have a lot of vowels. They want tattoos, belly rings, and earrings that you can stick your finger through. They want to drive, work, and move out, and they want it all NOW. That’s what they do, they ask for stuff, and it drives their parents nuts.

Parents are forever having to say, “No,” initiating intense debates that would make the writers of Law & Order jealous. There’s a cellphone commercial that illustrates the phenomenon beautifully by showing a father and a daughter negotiating her curfew at professional auctioneer speed to conserve their airtime minutes and avoid additional charges.

Parents don’t like having to say, “No,” and teens don’t like having to hear, “No.” Both get angry and an argument ensues. Arguments with teenagers only end one way – badly. The teen will either use their newly-acquired logical skills to convince the parent that the parent is completely unfair, old-fashioned and just plain stupid, or they will escalate to such an intolerable level that the parent says, “Yes,” just to shut the kid up. Conversely, parents might use strength and power to terminate the discussion through threat of punishment or by absolutely refusing to participate in the debate, issuing an inflexible, “No,” to shut the kid up. Each of these outcomes are, obviously, undesirable.

The following steps will help parents avoid undesirable outcomes when their teens ask for things the parents are unwilling, unable, or not quite ready to give.

First, don’t just say, “No.” The request may be ridiculous, but don’t just blurt out, “No.” Saying “No” automatically initiates the debate that no one ever wins. Hold your tongue and listen. Pause. Put a thoughtful look on your face. Make some ‘thinking’ noises. Parents sometimes think that this technique takes too much time. However, saying, “No” is never the end of the argument, it’s only the beginning. To say “No,” without thinking is going to cost you 20 minutes, easily, perhaps more.

Next, buy yourself time. What you really want is time to think about how the heck you’re going to prevent them from doing whatever this is and remember, they’re much smarter than you (just ask them, they’ll tell you). You don’t want to enter a battle unarmed.  They’ve been thinking about it for months or weeks. You haven’t had any time to consider it and you need time. The longer that you can go without saying, “No,” the more time you have to think, so really resist saying, “No.” Listen to what they’re saying. Ask questions. Not critical questions designed to “trip them up,” but questions that you would ask if you were really interested and wanted to learn more about it. If they get a chance to talk about it a little more, it may sound less objectionable to you. Also, if they talk long enough about something, they often realize that it’s ridiculous themselves and walk away thinking you were stupid for ever even considering it.

The next step is very important. Ask yourself exactly why you think must say, “No,” and be completely honest. If the problem is that YOU are not ready it, you need to evaluate whether or not it is fair to hold your teen back because YOU are not ready to progress. If the problem is you, figure out what they would have to do to allay your fears. If the problem is them – they’re not responsible or mature enough, they won’t be safe, they’ve never done it before, or whatever the reason is, figure out what you have to do to get your teen ready for it.

Put the responsibility on the teen to get your permission. Parents do this to some degree by telling their children that they have to be “more responsible” or “make better decisions” before they can get a new privilege, but a teen doesn’t know what that means yet. If he knew, he’d do it, but he doesn’t know, so you have to tell him, very specifically, what you are looking for. Say, “You must come home on time for 7 days in a row and then you can have an extra half-hour on Saturdays.” Say, “You need to save up the $55 first, then I’ll take you to get your eyebrow pierced.” Tell them, “I will take you to the mall as soon as your bedroom is clean.” Give them a chance to get a ‘Yes’ out of you, then wait for compliance. If they try to start the argument at any time before they have complied, simply remind them that you did say, “Yes,” and that all you are doing now is waiting for them.

One of two things will generally happen – either the teen will jump through the hoops and demonstrate that they are able to handle it or they will get bored trying and forget about it. If they show you they are capable, you’ll probably want to say, “Yes.” If they lose interest, you won’t actually have to say, “No.” Either way, you’re avoiding the fateful “No” that starts the lose-lose argument, and whenever you can avoid an argument with a teen, it’s a good thing!

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