I am a fairly strict parent. 'No' is pretty much my stock answer to my son's requests - usually uttered to give me thinking time to suggest a compromise, or just because the 'ask' contravenes My Rules (most of which aren't mine at all, but legacies from my own upbringing).
I only gave any thought to the amount of time I spend saying 'no' when I read about children's author, Claire Carpenter's experiment to 'free parent' and say 'yes' to her children for 24 hours.
'After every request I told my children (Alex, six, and Tom, eight) to think hard about the consequences of what they wanted and stressed that they have to live with those consequences,' Claire told me, adding it was a 'brilliant experiment' that had made her 'question her parenting style'.
I was sceptical, thinking it sounded very much like 'child led parenting' – something I've always thoroughly disapproved of, associating it with precocious little brats, lentil-weaving parents and, um, Suri Cruise.
But could it have its merits? Could I learn something from giving my child a free rein for a day (if only how to sit on my hands and restrain myself from boxing his ears).
So in the middle of the Easter holidays, I scheduled in a 'saying yes' day. Although I'd told William, eight, about Claire and her experiment, I hadn't told him WHEN I was planning on doing the same (I'm not that silly). Our holidays were pretty frenetic, as I work from home with no childcare, so William, on the whole, has to fit in with my work schedule when he's home from school.
Here's how it panned out:
7am William got up, came into my room and asked if he could go on his computer. I said yes – usually I would start huffing and puffing about how early it was, and how much time he spends online, which generally would result in stomping and flouncing and me eventually relenting just to stop his whining. Minutes later he was squealing and laughing and chatting to his friend on Skype whilst they both watched the same Dr Who DVDs on their respective computers, whilst I had a nice lay in and a leisurely coffee.
8am Breakfast. William asked if he could bring his computer to the dining table and stay chatting to his friend whilst he ate. I said yes. He looked a little surprised, and instead decided not to 'in case I get porridge on the screen'. (Result!).
I then had to start work, so left him pretty much to his own devices whilst I made some calls. Every now and then, he would pop in and ask if he could help himself to juice or a biscuit. Each time I nodded.
Lunchtime is always something of a battleground. William sees mealtimes as nothing more than an interruption to whatever fun he is having. Because it was the holidays, and because I was working and needed a break, I told him he could choose somewhere to go for lunch, silently praying he would pick somewhere local and cheap.
He plumped for the garden centre café. Three bites into a £5 baguette, he said he was full, and if he ate any more he would not have room for his (already purchased) piece of cake. Usually, a row would break out at this point; I'd insist the sandwich was eaten, he would sulk, I'd get totally wound up and probably insist we leave. Instead I said 'ok', gave him his cake and wrapped the baguette up, suggesting we take it home, and he could eat it later in the afternoon. Row averted.
After lunch I was in a hurry to get back to work, but William wanted to look around the aquatic centre. Again 'no' was on my lips. We'd been out an hour already, and I had a ton of work to do. But I said yes, and we spent 30 minutes looking at the fish. I found myself relaxing, not looking at my watch and actually enjoying our time together. Hmmm...
When we got home, William went back on his computer, and was telling his friend via Skype about the lovely lunch we'd had and all the fish we has seen. I returned to my desk feeling pretty chilled...
Bath time came, and William asked if he could climb in himself. This is a routine question and one I always say no to. We have a very deep, free standing bath and I am terrified of him slipping and banging his head. Through gritted teeth I said 'yes' and muttered 'but be careful' under my breath. He learned over, turned on the cold tap full blast ('in case the hot tap burns my leg') and very carefully got in.
'I TOLD you I could do it,' he said.
At bedtime he asked if he could stay up late as it was the holidays. This had been a nightly request since the start of the break, and one I'd always said no to, which, again, had resulted in squabbling, as most of his friends were having pretty much a free rein and were all on Club Penguin and Skype until nine or 10, whilst he had to log off early and go to sleep.
This night, I told him yes, as long as he had cleaned his teeth and was ready for bed. He wandered into my room around 10 saying his friends had all logged off and were going to bed and he was tired and was going to, too.
"It's been a nice day today, Mummy," he told me.
And it had. I guess my attempts at saying yes were all very much Free Parenting Lite – I'd hardly had any major issues to deal with, for instance, wanting to play outside on his own, or asking to cycle on the pavement outside our house (which would have all been a resolute no).
But it was interesting to note the positive effects of saying Yes to the stuff that was pretty inconsequential. A bit like picking your battles – letting him choose where to have lunch made him feel grown up and important, and more inclined to behave well once there; letting him take the half eaten sandwich home to finish avoided our regular spat over 'you're wasting my money' and 'you've barely eaten', whilst letting him drag out the visit with a look round the aquarium actually gave us some quality time together, and meant when I returned to my desk, I did so actually feeling like I'd had a nice lunch break, rather than a frenetic, bad tempered 'grabbed' lunch.
And the bath and bedtimes 'yeses' made me realise that he CAN make good decisions for himself; he is not going to willfully put himself in a position of danger.
There's no way I'd ever embrace child-led parenting full time – kids need boundaries and discipline as far as I'm concerned, but sometimes, saying yes isn't just easier – it has its benefits. But the main thing I realised, was that I had got into the habit of saying 'no' for no actual good reason. I might not be saying Yes for 24 hours again any time soon, but I'm certainly going to try and take a step back and 'relax' my parenting style just a tad.
Have you ever tried this? Would you? Do you think relaxing boundaries makes parents and children more relaxed and children more able to make decisions for themselves?