Although the Bible says things that are mysterious or hidden (like “a time, times, and half a time,” Daniel 7:25), it also says things that seem blatantly obvious (for instance, “where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,” Proverbs 14:4).
Among the seemingly obvious things, Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37). It is straightforward, yet many people, including parents, fail to practice it consistently. As a consequence, we witness trouble — on domestic flights, in church hallways, and at restaurants — wherever children are testing whether the parents’ no really means no.
Consequences ensue when a parent says, “No, you may not . . . ” but the child delays, or fusses, or whines, or simply disobeys, and the parents bow to it. Understanding yes and no are profound prerequisites for experiencing and appreciating mercy and grace, and there’s nothing we want more for our children.
1. Rewarded behavior becomes repeated behavior.
First, when the child’s whining results in his getting what he wants, the parent has rewarded the whining. According to natural laws God has designed into the universe, rewarded behaviors are strengthened, not weakened. Those parents will get more of what they reward — whining, delaying, fussing.
Children make a pattern of whining, because we reward them for it. What reward? Having their own will override the will of an authority. This is what the sinful nature desires.
Train up a child in the way he should go. (Proverbs 22:6)
2. Inconsistent words become mistrusted words.
Second, when a parent says no, but doesn’t enforce the no, the parent’s current and future words are compromised, if not altogether gutted of meaning. The child no longer knows for sure which words can be believed. Does no mean no, or does it mean maybe?
When parents are inconsistent, the child doesn’t know when the parents mean what they say, and when they don’t. Instructions, including individual words like no, are emptied of meaning.
Parents, say what you mean, and mean what you say. The child is profoundly helped to know he can trust you and your words. It is healthy for the child to have complete confidence that you mean what you say when you say things like, “No, you may not stay up longer; get your pajamas on.” The child is served to know that you will do what you say you will do if he doesn’t start moving toward his pajamas.
No shouldn’t mean no most of the time, but all of the time. Every time. Zero idle threats. But note: certainty is not severity. A sure and swift response from parents need not mean harshness.
Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart. (Proverbs 29:17)
3. Subverted authority develops into disregarded authority.
Third, the child’s authority ascends to a place higher than the parents’ — and this progression leads to chaos. Yes, parents may grant children authority to make certain decisions under the approval of the parents given in advance (for example, “Johnny, you may choose which Bible story we will read tonight”). In this case, the parents still retain appropriate God-given jurisdiction.
But when the parents’ instructions are overruled by the child, a mutiny has occurred on the ship of the household.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Ephesians 6:1)
4. Disregarding parental authority leads to disregarding spiritual authority.
Fourth, failure to enforce your instructions as a parent teaches and models disregard for God’s instructions as Father. Modeling obedience to God’s command for parents to discipline their children shows the children that you accept your own instruction from God.
Consistent adherence to yes and no teaches that we live in a God-designed cause-and-effect universe where actions have consequences. A child cannot sin with impunity, and the earlier his parents help him learn it, the better off he will be the rest of his life. To the unpracticed parent, this may feel tough, but it is love. And it is profoundly unloving to treat our children otherwise.
Gently, firmly, and consistently saying no to the fleshly impulses of a child teaches him the value of saying no to his own stubborn impulses. A high aim of developing such self-control is not merely to foster stoic toughness, but to enable the child to see that there is something infinitely more desirable to be seen elsewhere; namely, in Jesus. With hope, we give the child a gift by having him raise his eyes from his own self-will to behold someone else, his parent, and through his parent to see Someone Else.
Discipline your son, for there is hope. (Proverbs 19:18)
5. A loving, consistent “no” will shape your children.
Fifth, if disobedience is not met with a prompt response each and every time, disobedience takes root and grows. Vigilance is the parent’s calling. Correction is a high priority: drop what you’re doing and kindly correct the child.
Make sure you have the child’s attention. Look him eye to eye, and let him know he has your attention. One of the simplest and most effective tools I discovered both as an elementary school teacher and as a parent was the short question, “What did I say?” It shows that I still mean what I said a moment earlier.
Don’t issue commands unless you are first willing to consistently, tenaciously enforce them. “No” does not mean fuss a little harder, whine a little louder, throw a bigger hissy fit, or put up arguments. Get obedience first; then consider appeals from the child.
My wife and I used to say to our children, “When you ask for something, we’ll consider it. If you whine, permission is automatically denied.” You should not be surprised to know that our consistent practice of that policy put an end to whining. Further, “If you continue to whine after permission is denied, worse consequences will follow swiftly and surely.”
Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Proverbs 13:24)
Let Your Loving “Yes” Be Frequent
I hasten to add that the word no is much more palatable when spoken and enforced by a parent who also often says yes. We had a lot of playfulness and humor in our home, with dad laughing at himself first. Such playfulness provides an overall environment and context in which no seems generally less restrictive. Keep rules to a minimum.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)
And pray. Ask God to help your children learn from you that yes and no are not to be confused.