Last Sunday, my three-year old, recently liberated from the Costco shopping cart, took off running down the aisle.
My first instinct was to yell at him to stop running. Until I saw him peeking through the shelves of the next aisle over, beaming at me from between giant cans of tomato sauce.
What if I just said “yes”?
The aisles of grocery stores are made for running and sliding. Why wouldn’t I want my kid to get a little exercise while I shopped? We just had to set some ground rules. Wait for the aisle to be empty. Pick an object to run to. Run back to me.
Important lesson learned: Whatever your kid is asking, there is almost always a way to say “yes.”
There are a lot of lists of ways to say “yes” while actually saying “no,” or “not now,” or “when you’re much older.” These are of course necessary parenting survival skills. But in this list, there’s no redirection or deferring. You’re really going to let the kid eat chips for dinner, or cut her hair, or stay up late. This piece covers the costs and benefits of saying “yes” to 7 common kid requests, as well as what you’re really giving permission to with each “yes.”
1 | “Can I go outside without a coat?”
This question is one of an entire category of requests that parents say “no” to in order to spare kids from pain or discomfort. You can’t wear pants because it’s 90 degrees outside. You shouldn’t wear last year’s Halloween costume because it’s too tight. You should eat that right now so that you won’t be hungry later.
Kids are early students of cause and effect. At just eight months, they realize that their actions create effects (for example, shaking a rattle makes noise). At three years of age, kids can make and test their own predictions.
So your kid does not need to you to warn him about the discomfort of not wearing a coat. He can predict and test it for himself. And you can stand by the door and let him come back inside as soon as he realizes it’s too cold.
2 | “Can I wear this to school?”
Children are physically capable of dressing themselves between ages three and four, although they may need a little help with socks and zippers. While a child is learning to use the bathroom, a good general rule is that if he can take it off easily, he can wear it.
But parents often squabble over clashing patterns, princess dresses, and other items we don’t want to let our kids wear to school. When we tell preschoolers they can’t wear pajama pants or mismatched socks to preschool, we’re worried about how others might judge our parenting. But we do this at the expense of our kids’ self-expression. Why not let them power clash stripes and polka dots and let them enjoy being kids?
As children age, parents’ wardrobe worries shift. When we tell first grade boys they can’t wear dresses, we’re worried that they will be teased. When we tell eighth-grade girls they can’t wear midriffs, we’re worried about how they’ll be treated, either by their peers or school officials. In both cases, there’s still no reason to police our children’s fashion choices, because it’s now their job to consider the benefits and consequences of their own choices.
3 | “Can I get my hair cut?
Hair grows back. There’s no good reason to say no to this request. And yet, many parents and children suffer through nighttime detangling sessions because parents don’t want to say yes to haircuts.
This question is really a philosophical one for parents. What have you invested in your child’s hair? Do you view your child as your mini-me, a tiny version of your idealized self? Do you love watching the swish of her ponytail on the playground? Do you bask in the compliments his curls get from strangers?
You may have spent years hoping that hair would finally grow in. But it’s not your hair. It’s your child’s hair, and in “allowing” the cut, you’re reinforcing your child’s bodily autonomy.
4 | “Can we eat chips for dinner?”
We say “no” to chips because they’re unhealthy. But you can honor this request while sticking to your family’s rule of making only one (reasonably healthy) meal.
Tell your kids that yes, they can eat chips for dinner if they also make a fresh salsa taste test. Hand them tomatoes, peaches, mangoes, black beans, onions, tomatillos, garlic, and bunches of herbs. Better yet, get them to shop with you for those items. Then, review lessons about knife safety and let them start chopping.
If they want a blind test, pull out the blender so they don’t get clues from the texture. They get practice with knife skills and blenders and creative table setting.
KJ Dell’Antonia and Margaux Laskey of the New York Times argue that “children who cook become children who taste, and sometimes eat.” Early cooking also gives children more knowledge about healthy eating, a “can do” attitude, and closer relationships with other generations.
In this specific case, you’ve also allowed them some whimsy – chips for dinner! – while also eating reasonably healthy. Look at that ingredient list. It’s salad. The kids just happily made salad for dinner.
5 | “Can I decorate my room?”
You may have spent nine months or more pinning, planning, and decorating the perfect nursery. So when your kid asks if he can have that Lego Batman poster, you reflexively say “no.”
Gabrielle Blair’s endlessly creative blog Design Mom is a great resource for parents who don’t want to sacrifice good design once they have children. What you’re saying “yes” to when you let their kids decorate their rooms is not wall-to-wall Frozen paraphernalia. (Blair has a strict “No character” policy in her own home.) Instead, you’re saying “yes” to your kids’ interests.
Blair advises that parents handle kids’ decorating requests like more like designers. Designers take their clients’ interests in mind and come up with possibilities that the clients may never have thought of. You can do the same thing, making a list with your child about ideas for the room and then guide your child’s choices with a limited set of wallpaper designs, paint colors, and light fixtures to choose from.
If you take this route, though, you need to be prepared to go multiple rounds with your kid clients, just as a real designer would. Your job isn’t to choose decorations for your child’s room, but to help your child develop a space that reflects her interests.
6 | “Can I stay up late?”
If we acknowledge that our children are increasingly autonomous humans who can understand the consequences of their actions, we need to start saying “yes” to a lot more requests, even when we don’t want to.
Children’s bedtimes are often non-negotiable, with countless parenting sources stressing the need for a regimented sleep schedule. One potential consequence of such rigid adherence to the sleep schedule is that children don’t get to experience the consequences – both good and bad – of staying up late.
Without an occasional lapse in bedtime, it’s hard for kids to understand exactly why they have bedtimes in the first place. Without actual experience, kids tend to hear “bedtime” as “because I said so,” no matter how thoroughly we articulate the consequences of missed sleep. Better to just let them miss sleep and suffer the consequences.
Parents do a quick cost-benefit analysis every time we decide whether to binge-watch Netflix’s latest offering instead of going to bed. Why not occasionally extend this kind of decision-making to our children, too?
7 | “Can I touch that?”
Questions about how to decorate a room or when to go to bed fall to parents because these are our homes, and we are the ultimate decision-makers about what happens in them. But for some of the questions our children put to us, we do not have the final authority over the consequences.
At the toy store, your kid walks over to something shiny and slowly moves his hand toward it while cocking an eyebrow in your direction. You shout out “don’t touch!” But what if you didn’t? What if you let your kid touch it? What lessons might he learn?
If he picks up the toy, carefully inspects it, and places it back on the shelf, he’s learned a browsing technique that most adult humans use daily. If he picks up the toy and drops it, he will learn that it if you break it, you buy it. If he picks up the toy and dashes out of the store with it, he’ll learn the embarrassing consequences of shoplifting. In all of these cases, your child learns that in some situations, you are not the ultimate authority figure.
Imagine if you took this approach at museums, too. What if you said “yes” to touching the statue? Your child would quickly learn, through an alarm or docent scolding, that his actions have consequences. This is not to argue that we should let children destroy the world’s masterpieces. But we can teach our children that our permission isn’t always enough. We can teach them that we are not the ultimate authority figures, that different spaces come with different rules. If only the same policy worked on the adults who behave badly at museums.
“Can” versus “May”
Eagle-eyed parents may have noticed that grammatically, these questions should be phrased as “may,” because that’s the word we teach children to use when seeking permission.
But these questions are intentionally “can”ned.
First, your children can do all of the things on this list, and have probably been capable of each item for longer than you realize.
Second, although your children are asking permission, in these cases permission is not yours to give. In saying “yes” to these questions, we’re not giving permission. We’re acknowledging our kids’ bodily autonomy and growing independence.