#TryNo

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Despite the temp­ta­tion for par­ents to say yes to their children’s wish­es, research shows there’s an insid­i­ous side to chas­ing after the newest thing oth­ers have. It fos­ters a sense of defi­cien­cy that can nev­er be ful­ly sat­is­fied. First they want the doll, then all of the acces­sories — and of course the four-sto­ry Bar­bie man­sion.

And so I’ve tak­en on the work of say­ing no some­times. At first, not sur­pris­ing­ly, my daugh­ters, aged 4 and 9, revolt­ed. They called me a bad father and I got plen­ty of mean looks. But over time, they real­ized the fun that comes from a no. Now my daugh­ters pre­tend that their Elsa doll plays with a pack­age of Shop­kins, giv­ing both toys a sec­ond, and bet­ter, life.

It turns out that say­ing no pays off far beyond avoid­ing rais­ing spoiled kids. When we always yield to our children’s wants, we rob them of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to find solu­tions by adapt­ing what they already have. Kids who learn from denial real­ize at an ear­ly age that they won’t always have the per­fect tool for every job. They might not know some­thing, have some­thing, or be some­thing. But that’s not the end of pur­su­ing goals — it’s the begin­ning of acti­vat­ing their resource­ful­ness to find anoth­er way.

Young­sters are nat­u­ral­ly resource­ful. Give tod­dlers a fry­ing pan and all sorts of uses come to their minds. As adults, we’re stuck using it to make a stir-fry. Many years of chas­ing after things we don’t need erodes our own abil­i­ty to make more out of what we already have. It also sets a bad exam­ple for our kids.

In one study, researchers asked ele­men­tary school chil­dren to help Bobo the Bear, a stuffed ani­mal, reach his toy lion using some mate­ri­als: build­ing blocks, a pen­cil, an eras­er, a ball, a mag­net, a toy car and a wood­en box.

As chil­dren grow old­er, their brains devel­op in ways that should make it eas­i­er for them to solve this type of prob­lem. Indeed, the old­est chil­dren in the study (6- and 7-year-olds) reached the cor­rect solu­tion (i.e., using the wood­en box to prop up the build­ing blocks) faster, on aver­age, than the younger par­tic­i­pants, who were 5.

But there was one con­di­tion in the exper­i­ment when the younger chil­dren end­ed up out­per­form­ing the old­er kids. And it had noth­ing to do with innate tal­ents or artis­tic ten­den­cies.

The researchers made a sub­tle change in how they dis­played the mate­ri­als. Instead of lay­ing them all out on the table, the researchers used the wood­en box as a con­tain­er to store every­thing else, such as the mag­net and pen­cil. Upon see­ing the box act­ing like a con­tain­er, the old­er chil­dren strug­gled to expand it to any­thing beyond a con­tain­er. For the younger chil­dren, the box remained just as flex­i­ble a resource as it was before.

Each time we acqui­esce to our kids’ lat­est request to buy some­thing, we sub­tly con­di­tion them that their resources have lim­it­ed uses. An occa­sion­al veto will com­pel them, in this case lit­er­al­ly, to think out­side the box.

In Amer­i­can cul­ture, abun­dance tends to be seen as a sym­bol of suc­cess, prompt­ing some par­ents to say yes to things they can’t real­ly afford. Wit­ness the elab­o­rate com­ing of age par­ties peo­ple across cul­tures and income lev­els throw for their chil­dren, even if it means going into debt.

Many peo­ple who grow up with­out much rec­og­nize resource­ful­ness as an essen­tial skill to get by. Those of us for­tu­nate to live in rel­a­tive abun­dance can ben­e­fit from occa­sion­al­ly expe­ri­enc­ing scarci­ty. To be sure, I’m not sug­gest­ing deny­ing chil­dren a gen­er­ous sup­ply of things they actu­al­ly need like healthy meals, warm clothes and love. But plen­ty of wish­es we cater to teach the wrong mes­sage. By hav­ing chil­dren occa­sion­al­ly expe­ri­ence scarci­ty, we can help them solve prob­lems more effec­tive­ly.

In one study, a set of par­tic­i­pants wrote a brief essay about a time in child­hood when they didn’t have much, while a sec­ond set wrote about grow­ing up hav­ing a lot. After­ward, the researchers pre­sent­ed both groups with a prob­lem that required using Bub­ble Wrap in dif­fer­ent ways. Peo­ple assigned to the scarci­ty group had bet­ter solu­tions com­pared to the abun­dance group.

Why might think­ing about scarci­ty lead peo­ple to view their resources more expan­sive­ly? With abun­dance, peo­ple treat resources as what they appear to be on the sur­face, uti­liz­ing them in tra­di­tion­al ways. But when embrac­ing scarci­ty, they give them­selves free­dom to use resources in new ways. Imag­ine the upside of a week­end full of “nos” — it’s like­ly to be one occu­pied with new expe­ri­ences: invent­ed games, a fam­i­ly dance par­ty or time spent out­doors.

This strat­e­gy has worked won­ders for our fam­i­ly, and I received the ulti­mate com­pli­ment after my old­er daughter’s most recent birth­day par­ty. It was “the best day of my life,” she glee­ful­ly told me. Instead of pay­ing for a par­ty, we had a scav­enger hunt in a near­by park where we asked the kids to scour the area to find things they could use to solve chal­lenges, like mak­ing con­tain­ers to pro­tect an egg from a 10-foot fall. There were three teams of kids, each with their unique com­bi­na­tion from a vari­ety of mate­ri­als, includ­ing news­pa­per, cups, left­over Hal­loween jack-o’-lanterns, dirt, cot­ton and Bub­ble Wrap. The kids, nat­u­ral­ly resource­ful when we let them be, had a blast. And no eggs were bro­ken.

All was good until we got home. “Can I open my presents now?” my daugh­ter asked. “Yes,” I hes­i­tant­ly replied. I’ll have plen­ty of oth­er chances down the road for my next no.