Womanist Parenting: No Is As Much Of A Loving Answer As Yes
Every woman I know right now is saying “Me Too.” It’s a good thing. But, this isn’t a fad for me. Thriving beyond surviving rape and sexual assault has been a long journey. Part of that journey involves doing what is directly in my control to change the statistics. And that means raising a son who challenges misogyny and toxic masculinity.
I’ve been down the motherhood pathway twice. I have two only children, a 31 year old daughter and a 14 year old son. The best parenting skill I learned from my daughter is the importance of the the irrevocable and final no. Never say no if you aren’t going to enforce it.
Learning that no is final begins with infancy. Learning to understand it as a loving action takes time, energy and patience. I remember the month my son deeply internalized no as a loving and necessary statement clearly. He was, perhaps, 3 or 4 years old.
I was so amazed he could organically make absolute and total sense of the reasoning, that I documented the two conversations in a journal. The following conversations are long. But, it demonstrates that being in relationship involving emotional honesty takes time.
Conversation #1. We were driving home from somewhere. It was close to lunch.
Himself: Can we stop at the french fry shop?
Me: Hmmm. Let me think. (a full block rolls by.)
Himself: Mama? Can we stop at the chip shop?
Me: I’m thinking about it. (another block rolls by.)
Himself: We’re almost at the The French Fry Shop. (I pull over the car.)
Me: You don’t need to remind me. I said I was thinking about it.
Himself: Oh. You didn’t answer.
Me: Because I was thinking about it.
Himself: What are you thinking?
Me: I’m thinking that every fiber of my being wants you to be happy. So, I always want to say yes to you. But, always saying yes to you only makes you happy right now. It might not make you happy in the future. Sometimes, making you happy right now, will make you really unhappy in the future. Like if I let you eat candy every day for every meal. What would happen?
Himself: I would get very sick.
Me: Right. So, you’d be happy. But then you would be unhappy for a really long time because I let you be happy for a really short time. So, what do I have to do?
Himself: You have to say no to candy sometimes.
Me: Right. But I don’t want to say no. I want to say yes and make you happy.
Himself: Oh. (thinking)
Himself: That’s really hard.
Me: It is the very hardest part of being a good Mama. I don’t like saying no. It is not fun. Not at all. But, it’s my job. Sometimes, I have to let you feel disappointed or unhappy so that you can be healthy and happy.
Himself: So what are you thinking?
Me: I’m thinking that you’ve been eating a lot of vegetables. I’m thinking that you did a lot of exercise. I’m thinking it’s a long time since we’ve been to The French Fry Shop. These are all the reasons why…
Himself: We can go to The French Fry Shop?
Me: I don’t see why not. Your Granddad always says, everything in moderation.
I didn’t say yes. I said that there wasn’t any really clear reason why it would be inadvisable. What was important about that conversation is he understood that no is not said lightly and for arbitrary reasons. He understood that I sincerely desire his happiness. He understands that my default answer is always yes. He understood that tough choices are made.
Conversation #2 showed me he understood that circumstances change. What is the right thing to do one day may not be the right thing to do another day.
A few weeks after the first conversation, he asked again to go to The French Fry Shop.
Me: Hmmm. I’m thinking it isn’t the best idea today. What do you think?
Himself: I am not eating very many vegetables.
Me: Yeah. A good diet is important to your health. So is exercise.
Himself: Oh. I watched a lot of tv this week.
Me: (sigh) Yeah.
Himself: No. Not today. Today is not a good day to go to The French Fry Shop.
Me: I think you made a great decision.
Himself: I love you Mama.
Me: I love you.
Himself: I know.
That’s what he said. He said that he knew I loved him. The answer wasn’t an external no. He was given the opportunity to process all the factors involved with the decision. He made a good decision.
In the course of my parenting, I do my best to use three phrases: Yes, No and the phrases “I don’t see why not,” Can you see why not?” and “Here’s why not.” The word yes is reserved for instances when I am 100 percent enthusiastic about honoring the request.
Himself: “May I have more broccoli?”
The phrase “I don’t see why not” is reserved for instances in which I feel neutral or willing to be persuaded. It indicates that we could have a discussion about the request, however, the requestor might want to double check their rationale. More importantly, that they can be trusted to have thought it through.
The phrase “Can you see why not?” is an invitation for a discussion about the request. It signals that the requestor is free to think about their request more deeply and that a discussion is required. It also means that I may have not thought about other factors and am willing to listen to his point of view.
“Here’s why not.” Is for educational purposes without the absolute finality of no. It suggests that it is very likely that even after a prolonged discussion detailing all of the various reasons an action is inadvisable, the person will arrive at an understanding.
The word no is reserved for emergency situations and absolutes. No is for the hand about to grab a block of dry ice; the hand holding a match with dangling hair above a stack very dry kindling; the careening bus coming towards the foot on the edge of a curb. These are no’s.
We think a lot about when to say no. Being able to accept the word no comes from a very deep place based on respect and trust. No means a person has thought about it and has reason why not. They don’t have to share the reason because it is not open for discussion. No is final.
This is the framework upon which destroying misogyny and toxic masculinity is built. I want to come back to the idea of no being an act of trust. Now that he is a teenager, my son and I have begun talking about emotional honesty. Adolescence is hard, so, both of us have to work harder on remembering the bond we have forged with each other.
Recently, I was doing some consensual maintenance work in his room. I have to admit, I had other things on my mind: the value of women’s work; the hopelessness of dusting, laundry & dishes; the art work which should have been getting done; the phone calls I needed to make; the grant I needed to write; the invisible ways women revolutionize the world. Let’s call it the generalized anxiety which makes me feel pressed to get this shit done so I can do more important things. We all have this experience.
As I joyfully exited the room, I knocked over a picture frame which was a gift from a dear friend. The glass broke. All I could see in front of me was the extra fifteen minutes of cleaning I had to do. I brought it out and said, “This is why I’m always re-arranging your night stand. See what happened? My dress caught the edge of the frame!”
As the words came out of my mouth, I wished I could shove them back inside. I had never done anything like that before. He looked so sad. What made it worse was that I could see him processing all the times we discussed his aesthetics versus my aesthetics. I saw him searching for solutions.
In that moment, I realized I had allowed my inner mess to establish precedence over what I believe is the most important thing in my life right now. (Building and maintaining a loving, healthy relationship with my son.) More importantly, I was not modeling for him the behavior I wished for him to use in his relationships outside of the home.
So, I apologized. “To be perfectly honest, my anger wasn’t about you. When I knocked over your picture frame, I was embarrassed. I felt badly because I know how much that picture means to you. Rather than admit my embarrassment and sadness, I tried to use our past conversations to make me “not guilty” for damaging your property. I promise to try to do better in the future.”
He thought for a minute. Then he said, “I understand. I do that also sometimes.”
“It’s really hard to be where you are emotionally when it’s painful.” I replied.
“I don’t like it either,” he said, “especially when my hormones are doing all the talking.”
We smiled and hugged. It struck me that one of the most important things we can do as parent and child is to accept and recognize that both of us are learning, growing and changing everyday. That this minute will be a very different from the minute yet to come. We are completely new people in every second of every day. We are never perfect we are always in process.
This transfers over to relationships outside of the home. We must train our sons to be present in their emotions minute by minute. We must train our sons to communicate emotionally, deeply and honestly. We must tend to the people in our lives with careful attention and listen for what they are saying underneath what they are actually saying.
The first time he was able to fully understand that he was saying something different on top of what he was actually feeling impressed me so much I wrote it down. We were watching tv. It seemed a lot like the tv show we had watched the night before. I said so.
Himself: This is a different episode.
Me: (jokingly) I get it, you really loved that episode and wanted to see it again. “
Himself: (shouting loudly) IT. IS. NOT. Y E S T E R D A Y’s episode was from the point of view of the female cast members, this episode is from the point of view from the male cast members.
Me: (humbly and sorrowfully) Sorry. I can trust you. Always. I am so very sorry I wasn’t fully paying attention. And I am even more sorry for not being in your truth.
Himself: (sheepishly) I’m sorry I yelled. In all emotional honesty, I think I’m having a testosterone burst. And, I’m really nervous about going away to camp next week.”
Me: Wow! Yeah. Hormones can really mess with you. And so can Mamas. And so can new things, like going away by yourself for the first time ever for three whole weeks.
Himself: Yeah. I’m going to be watching that testosterone.
We laughed. We went back to watching television. I thought, he’s going to be an amazing man.
As I contemplate my son becoming a sexual person and entering into a relationship, I realize that his expectation is to be in relationship with someone who knows how to say yes, this is why not or no. If he isn’t, he’s going to need to know how to help a partner grow into deep, meaningful emotional honesty. I imagine it’s going to be very hard for him. But, I think whomever he finds might be willing to go on this journey with him.
Meanwhile, we prepare for that day by having strange discussions.
Me: So, like… how do you think you’d go about having your first kiss?
Himself: I’m thinking I’d say something like, ‘it would be really awesome to kiss you. What do you think?’
Me: What if the person says, “Mmm, I think I’m catching something.” What do you say then?
Himself: “Oh. I don’t know. Maybe ‘are you trying to say no without hurting my feelings or are you worried about my health?
Me: What do you think they’ll say?
Himself: I dunno.
Me: What do you hope they’ll say?
Himself: (chuckles) Well, of course, “I don’t want you to get sick.”
Me: What would you say to that?
Himself: Then, it’s up to you. If you don’t feel well, maybe there will be another time. But, I think my immune system is pretty strong,”
Me: What if she says, “No. I don’t feel well.”
Himself: “Yeah, better not to take chances. That’s better for both of us. Let’s be healthy. ”
Me: How would you communicate that your feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they didn’t want to kiss you?
Himself: I need to think about that. That’s important. Girls sometimes make excuses so they don’t look rude. I need to figure out how to tell them they aren’t being rude just because they don’t want to do something.
These kinds of discussions are critical. In the same way, I had to sit him down and teach him how to most likely survive a police encounter, I must also teach him how not to be a perpetuator of violence against women.
We teach our sons to be in relationship by being in honest relationships. Honest relationships are fragile. They are also resilient, strong and in need of constant attention. Boys must learn early that no is as much of a loving answer as yes. This is womanist parenting.