The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 3, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Simply saying 'no' too easy for parents

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — It wasn't a vow so much as it was an idea.

I wanted a memorable holiday break without having set plans and schedules to follow. There's plenty of that during the school year, and I'm a big believer in the restorative value of downtime.

In order to encourage an awesome break, I half-promised myself that we would try to do any activities the kids suggested. The word "no" was going to be on hiatus, as far as I could manage. I would allow messes and grand schemes and sugar before noon -- it was going to be the very best break ever.

You probably know me well enough to know that before half of the first day was done, I was nervously chewing my lip at the disasters that had sprouted around us.

Messes? I hadn't fully anticipated what they would mean. Grand schemes? I hadn't grasped their powers to induce sibling arguments. Sugar before noon? I needed sugar before sunrise if I was going to manage this break successfully.

My plan was going to need some attitude adjustments.

I didn't want to sacrifice the spirit of the idea, though. There had to be a way to say yes to some outlandish requests without sending my patience and sanity flying out the window.

The main obstacle was my own comfort. I didn't want to clean up after a marathon painting spree, and I didn't want to be stuck with the detritus of a massive stuffed-animal tea party. I didn't feel it was fair to allow donuts for breakfast without at least knowing the kids would have something colorful and fresh for lunch.

Basically, the day still had to satisfy my need for less maid duty while meeting the children's physical needs for health and safety. And I had no idea how to make it happen.

The solution was revealed without much ado. My daughters wanted to build a couch-cushion fort, and I had some reservations. Instead of saying no, though, I voiced my concerns.

"There's something that worries me," I said. "I'm afraid I'll end up cleaning the mess without any help, and that's no fun."

Instead of being deterred, my kids seemed to blossom. They put their heads together and were quick to promise their own clean-up services. The girls also suggested making the fort in their bedroom, so the mess wouldn't be in the way.

"But then I wouldn't have a place to sit, with all the cushions upstairs!" My oldest daughter became a detective, seeing a mystery that needed solving.

"I know!" she said. "We'll use blankets around my bunk bed and THAT will be our fort! And we'll clean it up if you can help us build it!"

And so it was. For days following, if there was an activity I felt I couldn't say yes to without reservation, I switched my tactics and stated my concern.

The girls painted on huge, open paper sacks when I didn't have time to monitor the craft closely. They layered their own bundles of snow-clothing when they wanted to go outside and I was busy with the baby. They made their own peanut-butter sandwiches and carrot sticks after having had animal crackers for breakfast.

Through saying yes more often than no, creativity was able to flourish. Through allowing conversation about how to make the activity acceptable to all of us, we learned how to compromise and brainstorm.

And through it all, I found I could survive without an injection of sugar before sunrise.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.