Tips for saying no without guilt

This is my response to this reader question from last year’s annual survey.

How do you say no to things without having guilt – requests for play dates, extra curricular activities etc?

There were also many other comments and questions around fitting everything in, how many activities should kids do and how do you find time as a family with the kids all going different places.

This is something that I constantly have to manage in our home and it is still a work in progress for me. I say no far more often to things, but I still do carry some guilt with some of the decisions I make, but I am learning to live with it and not allow the guilt to move me away from a decision I know is right. Here are some strategies I use:

Know my goal

My goal for this year is to be a planned, present and patient mother to my beautiful kids. It is very hard to be present or patient if I am constantly on the run and overloaded with activities. This goes for my activities as well as the kids. When opportunities or demands come in for my time, I use my goal as a filter and ask myself if I take on this activity will it help me achieve my goal.

Knowing that my goal benefits the whole family is a powerful tool to not feeling guilty. My family is my first priority so if I have to say no to something to make sure I achieve my goal, I know it is the best decision long term and don’t feel guilty about it.

Avoid the “comparathon”

I have to acknowledge Alice Nicholls from The Whole Daily who I heard use the word “comparathon” at an event recently. Being a marathon runner, I really like the term! No one has my exact set of circumstances, so trying to compare what I am doing to what another mother is doing is completely fruitless. A mother of two who doesn’t work, will have much greater capacity to attend all school social functions, run her kids to 3 -4 after school activities each week. With my set of circumstances, it is just not possible.

Accepting invitations or taking on new activities just because others are is not a good reason to say yes. If I compare myself to others I can feel guilty about the things I am not doing. It is much healthier for me to avoid the comparathon and focus on what I am doing.

Make the kids make the decision

This is a strategy I use for my teenagers. Our teenagers are capable of getting themselves to places on their own, so I am not always required to do the running around. When they ask me if they can go somewhere, often I know it is not the best decision for them to do it, but I want them to come that conclusion on their own, ie I want them to learn to make the right decision.

For example earlier this year the 13 year old rang me from school to ask if he could go to a cricket match directly after school. I knew he had a test the next day which he was a little worried about and more than likely had more homework from the day at school as well. I instantly wanted to say no and I knew he would be disappointed and lots of his friends were going. Instead of making the decision for him, I told him he could make the decision, but he needed to consider if he would still have enough time for homework and studying for his test. He didn’t like hearing what I had to say and I knew he wouldn’t, but he decided not to go.

As a parent I need to help him to develop his decision making skills and I want to teach him that it is okay to say no. The best way to do this, is to get him to practice making these decisions.

Positive self talk

Sometimes it is not until a little while after I say no to a request or invitation that I start to feel guilty or feel that I may be missing out. Positive self talk is super helpful to me at this point. Instead of dwelling on the negative emotions, I reflect on what a tough but great decision I have made. I look forward and think about how this decision will have a positive long term affect on me and my family. I remind myself of times when I have over committed and how bad that feels and compare the two situations. While I still may feel some guilt or missing out factor, I know it is a much better situation than taking too much on – I just might need to remind myself that regularly for a little time!

Remembering I am the adult

Saying no to the kids can be hard when you know it is going to make them sad, but agreeing to let them do something just to avoid this is not helpful. Kids by nature are self centred, they don’t necessarily see what they want to do in the broader picture of family life. As the adult and the parent, I need to take everyone’s needs into consideration with my decisions. A yes to one child, can mean no to another or mean added busyness for the whole family.

As the adult sometimes I have to make the tough decisions which make me unpopular. I will say no we cannot have friends over to play, if I think the kids are too tired and would benefit from more rest and quiet time. I don’t love that my decision makes them sad, but using the positive self talk above, I remind myself that it is the best decision and one an adult needs to make.

Saying yes

I have found one way to stop feeling guilty about saying no, is to say yes to many more smaller things. It can actually get quite easy to be in the habit of saying no to kids’ requests that involve work or mess on my part. I try to say yes to many small things so when I need to say no to bigger things, I don’t feel like all I do is say no.

For example already over the holidays I have said yes to these things:

  • Can they get the blow up pool out? I run through my mind, lots of work, will only be out for a short time, I would rather not – but said yes, they can do it but need to be responsible for packing it up.
  • Can they go shopping and spend their pocket money? Would add another hour to my shopping trip which wasn’t planned, but was completely doable so said yes.
  • Can they have some extra technology time to play the new game one child has just bought? They had spend lots of time outside as well so this seemed reasonable.

So if I have to say no to requests later in these school holidays, the kids won’t feel like all I do is say no  and I won’t feel guilty about saying no as I have said yes to lots of requests that have allowed them to have fun.

How do you go about saying no without feeling guilty?