I’ve heard the millennial generation called the “me, me, me generation,” though I prefer to think of us as the “yes, we can” generation. When I was growing up, “no” was a word I associated with cautious old people like school principals and fluorescent vest-wearing crossing guards. The first time I saw someone wearing a shirt that read, “What part of NO don’t you understand?” I snorted, but the truth is that there was still a lot about “no” I didn’t understand.
My parents, particularly my workaholic father who left the house at 4:30 a.m. and returned just in time for dinner, never said no to me as a child. They had been Haight-Ashbury hippies, long-haired, unencumbered by underwear and rules. In the 1980s, my parents left behind their days of free love and communal living, but they still believed that people of all ages should be allowed to make their choices, their own mistakes.
I can’t remember a single instance of my father denying one of my requests, however outlandish. He allowed me to play as many rounds of the carnival game as it took to win the biggest prize, a stuffed panda so big I could barely hold it myself. On Sundays, my father let me order the extra large size chocolate malt, so long as I gave him a big sip. During our family meetings, he listened without interrupting to my objections about our allowance and the ban on television in our home. When I was a teenager, my family of five traveled to Jamaica — my idea — because I alone loved Bob Marley and reggae music. My father let me drive his convertible with the top down and drink wine with dinner. The party was always at my house. “If you’re going to break the rules,” my father said, “don’t get caught.”
My limited experience with the word “no” worked very well for me… until it didn’t.
When I wasn’t able to talk my way out of a totally legitimate speeding ticket, my father said, “Did you call the cop ‘sir?’ You should have called him ‘sir.’” When I wasn’t accepted at Yale as an undergraduate, I was mystified. No? Just no? Not even maybe?
A part of me misses that self-assuredness, that sense that I could get anyone to do anything, that I could always extract a yes with enough skillful, focused effort, like my father did in the business world.
I know what you are thinking: young people these days, or what a spoiled brat. I know I am not special, that things cost money, that money takes hard work to earn for most people, including me. But I was groomed to act entitled. I was explicitly told I could do and be anything if I worked hard enough.
I developed excellent self-esteem, work ethics, and interpersonal skills within the gilded palace of my all-affirmative upbringing. But the walls began to crumble when it came time for me to make it in the working world.
There is a well-documented disconnect between entry-level millennials and their baby boomer bosses, who bristle at the millennials’ optimism, which they perceive as overconfidence.
One boss called me audacious, which I had to look up in the dictionary. My dad chuckled when I told him this. A different administrator, noticing my appalled reaction to her denial of my request for a day off, tried to soften the blow by adding, “But it’s true that closed mouths don’t get fed.”
My mouth is rarely closed. I lose my voice a few times a year from all the volume of articulation. I have headed up countless committees, and spearheaded multiple mini-movements in the workplace. I have finally arrived at the foregone conclusion: It really is impossible to get everyone to agree with you, to go along with your plans, no matter how charismatic you are. Nearly 20 years after leaving my childhood home, I have come to accept, and even to celebrate, that the answer is sometimes just plain no.
It took years of working as a classroom teacher for me to learn the value of no. I was tentative at first, shy about saying no, that word I never heard growing up. I tried, “Um, that is not a good idea,” but my boisterous kindergarten students gave me a literal crash course in the importance of rules and boundaries. A classroom simply cannot function without them. When 5-year-olds ask if they can be in charge of the projector or stand on their desks, unless you have cash to replace the equipment or time to spend in the emergency room, the answer is just plain no.
These days I dispense no like candy.
I want my own children (4 and 6 years old) to live in reality in a way I did not. I want them to know that my trust in them and in the world has limits, defined edges.
No, you may not go to the park without me.
No, you may not grow your hair until you can sit on it.
No, you may not not wear a coat.
No, you may not eat dessert first.
No, you may not wear lipstick.
Hell no, you may not have a cell phone. You are 6.
When I deny my students’ and children’s requests, they usually shrug and figure out something else to do. Sometimes they even hug me and gaze into my eyes lovingly. No is not mean or callous or stingy. No can be as loving and generous as yes. It indicates conviction, safety, strength.
I see why my parents didn’t set limits for my sisters and me. We were inherently cautious, empathetic, eager to please. We were moralistic and obsessed with being and doing good. But not every child, and certainly not every adult, possesses these self-regulating qualities. Flipping the script from my childhood, I have found it is better in most situations to start with no and slowly build up, with time and trust, to yes.
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