How Telling Your Kids ‘No’ Prepares Them For Life
It’s obvious by now that kids who are never told “no” turn into spoiled teens and entitled adults. Giving kids whatever they want might have a cognitive effect, too: Rice University management professor Scott Sonenshein says that it turns them into lazy thinkers.
If you get everything you want, he argues in a new column in the New York Times, then you never learn to work with what you’ve got. “When we always yield to our children’s wants, we rob them of the opportunity to find solutions by adapting what they already have,” he writes. It’s kind of like using GPS all the time: if you only get around by listening to the Google Lady, you don’t give your brain a chance to build a mental map.
With kids, Sonenshein says, it’s not that you shouldn’t provide for their core needs, like healthy food, warm clothes and lots of love. But setting boundaries doesn’t just guide more responsible behavior, through a process called “socialization” — it also has a way of opening their minds. “By having children occasionally experience scarcity, we can help them solve problems more effectively,” he says.
This is the sort of thing that artists and writers have talked about for a long time. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have quipped that “small rooms discipline the mind,” and Robert Frost thought that writing free verse — where there’s no formal structure — is the poetic equivalent of playing tennis with the net down.
Sohenshein points to a couple of studies that underscore all this — and how the idea of scarcity can continue to help us as adults. The most compelling is a 2015 paper by Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois and Meng Zhu at Johns Hopkins. Over the course of six experiments, participants were split into two groups: one was asked to write a short essay about a time growing up where they had scarce resources, and another to write on a time where they had lots. They then completed various creative thinking tasks, like coming up with different uses for bubble wrap or building a prototype toy. In each case, the scarcity group outperformed the abundant one — they consistently saw things in new ways.
By establishing boundaries, Sohenshein says, we open minds. “Kids who learn from denial realize at an early age that they won’t always have the perfect tool for every job,” he observes. “They might not know something, have something, or be something. But that’s not the end of pursuing goals — it’s the beginning of activating their resourcefulness to find another way.”