Like most parents today, we want to give our kids different experiences and opportunities: club volleyball, swimming lessons, ballet recitals, theater camp. We want them to try new things so they can figure out what they love and what feeds their souls. We never want to say no to a new class or experience or hobby.
Except, of course, that’s not real life. In real life we have to say no sometimes.
Recently I (Erin) had to say no to something my kids wanted to do very badly. My two older kids take music lessons. Their teachers don’t just put on an annual recital, they put on an annual rock concert, complete with a full band of adult musicians, professional lighting and sound.
This year, for a variety of reasons, the cost of the music recital went up something like 200%. When my husband and I saw the final tally for our two kids to participate, we both blanched.
Could we write the check for the recital fees? Yes, with a little creative budgeting for the month. But did we want to write the check? No. Like every single family on earth, we make choices about how to spend our money, and dropping a substantial amount on a two-hour music show – an amount roughly equivalent to two full weeks of summer camp – wasn’t a choice we could get behind.
My husband and I agonized for days over the situation. No matter the mental gymnastics, we couldn’t get to a place where it felt OK to spend the money. But if we opted out, would we be denying our kids a valuable life experience? What if this was the event that would cause them to develop a lifelong love of music?
After a week of hand wringing my husband and I decided to act like grownups, do the right thing for our family, and say no to the recital. And then a few days later, I got mad at myself. Mad for feeling so guilty, for literally losing sleep over the choice. Mad for spinning my wheels so pointlessly.
Because here’s real life, friends: We all have limits. If we don’t police them, no one will.
This is one of those hard, tricky parts of parenting: we must decide what is OK for our families and what is not. And when we’re faced with a decision that tests our limits, we need to take stock of the options, make a choice, and then own it and move on. This is a critical skill we’ve got to master for our own well-being and our kids’, because if we don’t, the world and its myriad enticements and demands are going to trample all over those limits. (And it works in multiple contexts, including work and school volunteering.)
Here’s something that might help you take heart when faced with one of these tough choices: literally every single parent has been in your shoes at one time or another and had to say no to something for their kids. We asked, and our friends cheerfully chimed in about their own “no” moments:*
Expensive Camps/Sports/Classes (often involving horses!):
“I’m about to say no to pony camp for the second year in a row. It’s $700 per week per kid – and I have two kids – and it’s only three hours per day. That’s $93 per pony hour!”
“For me it was my son’s music class. It was an extra $300 per session which was totally out of our budget as a one-income household. We love music in our home and encourage music appreciation so we were bummed. Fortunately my son is only two and we were able to replace it with a soccer clinic which runs us $65 per season and he’s still a happy camper.”
“I said a hard no to horseback riding – both because it’s insanely expensive and geographically undesirable for us. She does the equestrian track at sleepaway camp, so she has her own horse and rides 6 hours a day for three blissed out weeks. She’d like to ride more but accepts this ‘compromise.’ I can’t even believe I’m calling three weeks at sleepaway camp in CO a compromise!”
The Neverending Flow of Social Invitations:
“I decline birthday parties and playdates for my oldest child regularly. As a full-time working mom with two other kids, I just don’t have the energy or desire to cart my 6-year-old to a dozen things on the weekends. Weekends are for family, and I need them to be stress-free since the week is so packed and frantic. He gets upset sometimes, but he also understands the importance of family time. And I also make sure we never have to decline an invitation from his close circle of friends.”
“I say no to activities and playdates all the time for financial or exhaustion reasons- and my daughter almost always acquiesces once the circumstances are explained to her. Some I just keep the details from her and she doesn’t know what she’s missing! Sanity first!” [Editor’s Note: “Sanity First!” is our new official motto.]
Activities That Are Inappropriate or Potentially Dangerous:
“I said no to a makeup party’ because 5-year-olds have no business being at a makeup party. I said no and told her ‘In our family, 5 year olds don’t do makeup parties… that’s not right and I don’t care what other people think,’ and that was the end of it. I didn’t feel bad at all, and my girl went on with her life after 5 minutes of complaining and realization that I wasn’t going to budge.”
“I showed [my children] news reports of kids with long-term issues from concussions. I told them that if this was their passion and something they just have to do in life, then we will talk about it. But I’m not going into tackle football casually and coming out with brain injuries.”
Club Sports/Teams/Activities That Eat Up Time:
“My daughter really wanted to do dance team this year, but it’s over 15 hours per week. And she’s only in third grade! Plus I have two other kids – we just could not make this work logistically. We compromised by signing her up for three separate dance classes, and agreed to revisit the team option next year if she still badly wants to do it.”
“Baseball. Once they are 9 years old the games last 3 freaking hours.”
* * *
We have two big takeaways from all of the above. First and foremost, our kids are going to handle the “nos” just fine, and in fact it’s good for them. It keeps them from being those entitled little monsters everyone is always talking about on the news and social media. My own kids took the news about the music recital like champs. My 9-year-old in particular is starting to have a better understanding about budgeting and making choices, and he really got the idea that this particular activity was too expensive and would impact our ability to do other things.
Second, be prepared for some social fallout from your decisions. This part of owning your choices. Different families have different limits. If you’re saying no to a sport or a party or an event that many other parents are saying yes to, they may feel judged or defensive even if you’re not judging them. And they might judge you for your choice too.
This is where we channel our very favorite Amy Poehler quote of all time: “Good for her. Not for me.” In other words, don’t be a jerk about your decision, but don’t apologize for it either. Your family, your limits. Full stop.
As Heather always says, “Parenting is not for the faint of heart.” Never apologize for knowing – and enforcing – your limits. You’re doing a great job. We are cheerleading for you all the way.
* When we first started writing this article we planned to edit this list down to two or three examples. Then as they started rolling in, we realized we should share them all. Because this is such a UNIVERSAL part of parenting. It truly made Erin feel more confident in her decision-making to read stories about how other parents had been there/done that. We hope these anecdotes do the same for you.