When Parents Are The Problem

From Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are

After winning baseball games, our team sponsor – the local Hess station – promised the players free Avalanches, those frozen drinks with the fun (artificial) flavors and colors. One night, my son’s team played particularly well. It had been a hard game, and even my kid made an out and (uncharacteristically) added three points to the scoreboard. Usually, I try to opt out of these kinds of mass-eating-crap-before-dinner kinds of events, but everyone was stoked, so we went.

Before we even left the field, I noticed one heavy-set kid eating a hot dog that his mother had purchased for him from the concession stand. I’m surprised I noticed him except it was hard not to. This kid was going at it, and he put away that hot-dog in three bites. I know this because I watched him: Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Gone.

photo from horizontal.integration @

Later, at the Hess Station, while the boys were reveling in mixing their (artificially flavored and colored) cherry and cola and blueberry drinks, I saw hot-dog boy again. Only now he had a 64-ounce Avalanche in his left hand and not one, but two extra large Snickers bars in his right hand. At that point, I heard hot-dog boy say (actually, it was more like a loud whine), “I’m still hungry! Can we go across the street and get a hot dog?’ (I thought Snickers were supposed to “really satisfy you.”)

Hot-dog boy’s parents tried (briefly) to reason with their son, to no avail. He begged, he pleaded. He got louder, insisting on how hungry he was. In fact, he was not just hungry, he was starving. The word “no” was clearly not in their lexicon, and hot-dog boy and his parents were last seen walking across the street, presumably to get another hot-dog from the fast food joint across the way.

I’ve been thinking about this whole scenario for a while now. And I’ve been trying really hard not to be judgmental. In fact, I’ve been thinking of a million reasons to justify the allowances they made for their more than a little husky son.

I’m thinking, maybe they didn’t want to make a scene, so they just went along, that they don’t usually behave like this – these parents – but this one time, this one day, they were tired. Maybe they didn’t have food in the house, so they shrugged their shoulders and gave in. I mean, we did, right? Usually, hubby and I take our son straight home after baseball games, but on that day, we said, let’s go buy crap and celebrate with everyone.

I wondered if it was a full-time working parent “thing”: I have seen that many times before, the guilt some parents seem to have in saying no to their children. They don’t want to be the heavies. On weekends, they want to have fun, not discipline.

I considered that maybe the parents liked keeping their kid stuffed. When his mouth was full, he was quiet. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious or demanding, so why not cork him up with some candy or gum or a hot-dog and get a little peace of mind. Truthfully, I don’t know the deal, and it doesn’t matter.

My husband and I have a guiding principle: our child is here to augment our lives, not control us. Granted, it’s easy to have this guiding principle when you have only one child. We have him outnumbered; he can never beat us.

I know others do not share our adult-centered worldview, and I see variations of this “child-running-the-show” theme all the time. I see kids screaming at their parents in the mall, demanding expensive name-brand clothing, shoes and accessories. These kids relentlessly work their parents, generally declaring they won’t be “cool” or have social lives if they don’t have the “right” clothes or purse or game system or cellphone. And that’s okay. That’s what kids do. They cry. They get dramatic. They stomp around. What surprises me is when the parents of these children-behaving-badly cave in to their children’s demands, thus passively accepting their children’s disrespect and assuring a repeat performance in the future.

When I witness these uncomfortable public displays, I often picture myself, a spectator at some weird circus. I can’t help but imagine the child standing center-ring in an over-sized red jacket, black chaps and tall boots acting as a ringmaster. The child is always holding a whip and a microphone. This child is a performer in a well-rehearsed routine. At the same time, I imagine the parents as white fluffy dogs, standing on their scrappy hind legs, being told to wait and then jump and run in a circle. It is a pretty pathetic show.

image by id-iom at

You can be sure that as a kid, I asked my parents for all kinds of stuff. And guess what. They generally said no. No, you can’t have a pony. No, you can’t have those jeans. No, you can’t see that movie. No, you can’t sleep at your friend’s house on a school night. No, you can’t eat dessert before dinner. I heard a lot of “no’s” while growing up. I don’t hear too many no’s these days.

What I saw that night at the Hess station was a child masterfully controlling his parents. He knew how to do it. He’d clearly done it before. He knew just how long and how hard to push, and he knew his parents would ultimately jump. He was the ringmaster. Ick. What adult wants to be controlled by his children? It’s our kids’ jobs to push against the boundaries we set (which feel imposed and unfair to them), but it’s our job to remind our children where the boundaries are and to police the borders. To push the kids back, to remind them to be civilized, and to offer consequences to them when they have overstepped, to say no.

Why is it so hard for so many parents to say no?

18 thoughts on “When Parents Are The Problem

  1. Because I think too many parents have decided that goal is to make sure their kids are happy. Rather than preparing them to be independently functioning persons with good judgment we just give them whatever they want.

  2. This really hits home for me. I didn’t want to be the parent who never said no. Truth be told, I am that parent. And it’s hard to admit to it. I make excuses to myself to try to feel better. I did as I was reading your words. I don’t say no. My kids rule me. Why? How did this happen? When did this start? I grew up with more “no” than “yes” to my asking of things. I saw children like you’ve described and said, ” Not my kids.” Yet here I am admitting in a public way that I do this. I rarely say no. Mostly because I hate the whining that happens when I do. But as an intelligent person, I know I created the vicious cycle.

    1. I think you are brave to be so honest. There are some really good ideas here that people have that might help you stick to your guns. The great thing about kids is that it is rarely too late to start over: You can explain that you don’t like how you have been running the show and you want to make some changes – just like I do in the classroom when things aren’t going the way I’d like. I tell my students what I’m think, explain my new idea and the rationale behind it, and – guess what – 99% of the time, they are right there with me! Best of luck to you, darlin’!

  3. I have actually always found saying ‘no’ easier than saying ‘yes’ and all the aftermath and precendence that will create. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of requests and a lot of whining. But we are pretty good at staying firm with ‘no’ when we mean it. (we could use work on holding firm with our consequences but that probably for another topic.)

    As the girls get older the requests become more frequent but because we managed a lot of their exposure and expectations when they were young, I still don’t think they know all the things they might be able to ask for. I have virtually never bought them some sort of toy or trinket ‘just because’ so they don’t have an expectation that they will get something. We could go through a toy store or gift shop and to them it was virtually a museum of fun things to look at. They didn’t even realize there was an option to take something home.

    They didn’t see commercial children’s television until they were 5 or 6 years old so they didn’t even know about all the things they could possibly ask for. By that time, they had seen commericals on news programs and we’d already talked about how commericals tried to make you want things you might not even need (backed up of course by the ‘Free to Be You and Me’ CD) so by the time they saw the barrage of commericals during children’s programs, they were already kind of smirking about how the commerical just wanted to them to want its product. We did see a change to the Christmas lists once that exposure happened.

    And on Christmas lists, we have a policy that Santa takes a list of 3 requests. That means they need to think a bit harder about what they really want to ask for. It also ends up meaning that they typically get everything on that list. But it’s coming from Santa, not us (sometimes they are specifically things they know we would say no to), so there isn’t too much of a change in how they think we’ll respond to unending requests for things.

  4. Honestly, I don’t do it because I feel it is my obligation to make my daughters happy. I’m overwhelmed most of the time. I want quiet. She knows it. ( it’s really only one of my girls that this is a problem with)

  5. My two middle girls “the Kates” we call them, are our “step over” kids. You know the ones, the child that is more headstrong then the others, who when they were little you would take a big step over when they threw a temper tantrum on the floor. Three out of the five kids are good with “no”, perhaps a little whining, but no is no. To the Kates, no is maybe. Both should really be lawyers! Or maybe it’s the name? They will argue a point to death. After a while, you just give in, because it’s just easier. However, there are certain things we are firm on, and they know it. We don’t change the rules for any of them.

    I look at it this way, my job is a life coach. Everything they learn from me they are going to need to know when they are out in the world on their own. They aren’t going to get that job promotion by whining and begging, hard work makes that happen. They can scream all they want, but they’re not getting those jeans if they don’t have the money, so they work for it. You have ISS, because you fell asleep in math, well that sucks doesn’t it. So, you want another hot dog, then don’t come crying to me when someone picks on you, because you’re fat. Either except who you are or don’t eat it. Every action has a consequence. That’s what I teach them. Wow! It sounds a bit harsh, now that I wrote it! LOL! But I’m a realist, and after raising five radically different kids, I’ve learned some stuff. You are doing them an injustice by not being up front, and honest with them. Although, we do compromise a lot (I’ll give you this if you do that, so it seems as if they are working towards something), no means no.

  6. I had a friend over a couple weeks ago who was telling me she had a couple other friends she wanted to bring over to see a house where the baby doesn’t get to be in charge.

    I never said no to Jake…ever. I’m paying for it now. He’s 13 and a holy terror. He has no respect for authority, takes no responsibility for his actions and will hound you to the point of pulling out your hair if he doesn’t get what he wants.

    I’m doing the opposite with Liam. He has 2 set nap times a day and whether he sleeps or not, he is in his crib during those times. He eats only at meal and snack times, only in his high chair. If he freaks out in a store we leave. He’s still pretty young, but he’s already learning there is no benefit to fighting. He wont win. Granted I’m much older this time around and have a great deal more patience than I did when I had Jake, but I refuse to be the parent you are looking at with disgust.

  7. Here’s one of my best tools in my parenting toolbag: when one of my four kids (ages 9 to 3) make a request, I say, “I’ll think about it”, and I really do. If they bug me when I’m thinking it over, I tell them that if they bug me again I’ll have to say “no” automatically, so it’s worthwhile for them to not bother me and let me think about it.

    I try to say “yes” when there’s no good reason to say “no”. So in the backdrop of 1) saying “yes” when I can, and 2) them knowing I’ll really think about and consider their request, when I actually do say “no” they are able to take it pretty well. At that point I am firm and consistent, so they know that pushing it won’t get them anywhere, and accepting the “no” nicely will continue to allow me to say “yes” when I can.

    Like everything else in life, I think it’s about balance – not rushing to say “no” too quickly or often, and at the same time not thinking that by always saying “yes” we’re making them happy. I learned that children (conciously or subconciously) need to know that their parents are in charge, that their needs and requests are considered, and that there are clear and consistent boundaries. Children grow up happy in the long run when we give them this framework and help them learn to be in control of their own behavior and reactions. Probably much more happy then when they are succeeding in badgering their parents to buy them one more hot-dog, avalanche, or whatever is the craving of the moment.

  8. “No” is a hard word to say and to hear…dashed expectations, hopes shredded, hearts broken. “Yes” brings instant smiles, hugs and quiet(for the moment). It’s all to do with impulse control…the parent’s impulse control. A “Yes” often means instant peace for that instant.

    So “No” can be said many ways…but for children to be truly mentally healthy and whole it must be said sometimes.

    Children don’t/can’t distinguish between “need” and “want” but parents can. The only way a young child is going to learn to make that distinction as an adult is on the heels of learning it as a child.

    At this point, with a 13 year old, the answer is often something quite different from “Yes” or “No” in my household. It is usually a discussion that begins with, a series of questions and (hopefully) thoughtful responses. Questions such as: Do you need it? Why do want it? Can YOU afford it? How could you earn the money for it? Is that a healthy choice for you to make? and why?

    AND my favorite for when I am on the fence about something:
    “Make a logical argument for your case and I’ll consider it.”

  9. …interesting twist to my story. My daughter just texted from her friend’s house (where they have been doing their homework) and asked if she and her friend could have an overnight..tonight. On a schoolnight.

    Here was her argument, “We promise to be in bed by 9 o’clock and if it doesn’t go well, we’ll never be able to do it again on a schoolnight. This is our chance to show you we’re good children.”

    What the heck…here is how it balances out for me….
    One the one hand if we do it and it doesn’t work out we risk having one potentially VERY tired day at school tomorrow and possiblty worrying that she is NOT a good child (not true, of course).

    On the other hand, if this works out well…
    We gain her knowing she lived up to her bargain, she still gets enough sleep to be fresh in the morning.

    Either way -We gain her feeling as if she was trusted and listened to and she made a strong argument. (and, lets face it, “cool factor” goes way up for mom for trying it)

  10. Jeepers! It’s tough growing up! You have learn what’s right and wrong! To understand good and evil; to learn self-esteem, to understand trust and the ups and downs of life. And yes, the id and the super-ego; obeying rules. As my grandson says, “Without rules, there would be chaos.”

    “No” can be a good word! It can inspire you to stand up for what you believe. Yup! We are all human beings. We grow, we mature, we take suggestions, and we decide what’s best for us. So saying no to your child for the proper reasons is important. Hail! Hail! to parenthood.

  11. Not only are they letting this kid get his way by caving to his tantrum, the requests for junk food; ice cream, hot dogs, soda, etc, are harmful to this kid’s health. If he is already “husky” as you say, he will most likely become obese if his parents keep letting him eat this way. Not only are they enabling bad behavior, but also condoning bad eating habits. (Child obesity post maybe?)

  12. I don’t have a problem saying NO. In fact, I think it can sometimes become my default answer. After watching the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carey I decided to try to say YES more often to see where it would take me. I found the answer YES took me outside to shoot hoops with my son. It had me playing countless games of Connect Four, Guess Who and Spin Uno. It dragged me away from my book or computer, my selfish means to escape, and led me to connect with those I love the most. Being very health conscious, I am not one to say YES to a lot of junk food, but sometimes what kids REALLY want is connection and time with their parents. So, although NO can might be appropriate to help set limitations (in my book one hot dog is plenty), don’t forget YES can open doors for potential missed moments of connection that will last longer and have a much more positive impact than a treat.

  13. Such an interesting topic for me as a teacher too. I want to add one tidbit:

    “How the Kids Took Over” is a documentary about how kids have been taught how to be excellent winers, debaters, and demanders through advertising. Commercials teach kids how to get their parents to say yes. It’s their strategy to be able to sell more.

    So it may help people to know they are facing million dollar campaigns. I think it is harder to say “no” now than ever before.

    If you google the doc name you can watch the whole thing for free. I found it eye-opening.

  14. Lovely write-up.

    Mothers please don’t clobber me …..this is a father’s approach to keep the smiles and continue with laughter….

    My wife is usually is the one who says NO means NO…and she means it no matter what…

    But i have a different approach when my wifey NO does not work…which is rarely….to avoid messing the moment, i tell my son (now 4) Yes !!!

    He wants a chocolate ….my smart talk ….ok done …u wanna have the yellow one or the blue one….kiddo is now in thinkin’ mode….not fighting mode…yellow..ok fine yellow….we go to church, u will not run around, we come back u eat ur lunch without fuss….okie then which movie do u wanna catch….tom , sherk or ……now we are one team planning movies, where he wants to sit in the car….etc…the chocolate is long forgotten……

    yeah i know takes effort…but for now it works and keeps the smiles…rather than directing all their energy to the chocolate, use instead in someplace useful.

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