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Suing My Parents, Why it's 'No' Way to Go

by on March 10, 2014 6:00 AM

A teenager in New Jersey recently filed suit against her parents alleging that they kicked her out of their home, refused to pay her private school tuition and were waffling on paying college tuition.

The parent's side of the story was that the young woman had been running wild, ignoring curfew and drinking underage, and that she left on her own accord to live with a friend whose parents were more permissive.

The friend's father provided the money to bring the lawsuit on the teenager's behalf and alledgedly also permits underage drinking in his home. Included in the daughter's complaint was that her "Baby Boomer" parents were selfishly spending money on travel or socking it away for retirement rather than keeping her in the lifestyle with which she had become accustomed.

If parents can be sued for setting limits with their teenagers, I'm going to need a lawyer.

I was thinking about the use of the word "no" as a parenting tool the other day when I was in line at Wegman's. The young woman in front of me was juggling checking out with her groceries and an obviously tired toddler who was crying and begging for one of the candy bars in the "impulse" display. Her struggle with wanting the whining to stop and not wanting to reward the negative behavior with sugar was visible on the mother's face. She looked at me and smiled sheepishly as she used every word and several different phrases but never said "no" to set the limit with her child.

No is not a dirty word.

We've all been there. From saying no to the candy in line at the grocery store to establishing rules for acceptable behaviors for teenagers, as parents (and many times as teachers) we help our kids learn boundaries. That behavior or that request or that demand is not acceptable. To keep our kids safe and healthy and to prepare them for life outside of home, they need to learn that there are rules and expectations and lines in the sand. More importantly, children who hear the word no understand that in life there are limits.

I wonder how many times a young woman who sues her parents for money heard the word "no."

It's often not the money or the sugar or a snack too close to dinner that is the reason for saying no. In many instances, hearing no lets a child experience frustration and helps him or her to understand that life isn't about getting what we want just because we want it.

Hearing no and teaching children that there are limits to needs and wants, helps to develop impulse control and self-control. Hearing no provides an understanding of what we face when we leave the sanctity of home and people who love us unconditionally and enter the real world – a world that can be considerably less "yes" friendly.

I wanted to tell that young mother in the line at Wegman's that her use of the word no with her toddler will not only make the teen years a little easier, it will help her child be a better person. Telling a child no is as important to their future success as making them eat vegetables, insisting that they be respectful to siblings and checking homework. While the occasional "yes" makes for a nice surprise and makes the whining stop, it will only make the next "no" even more difficult.

Experts in parenting theorize that setting limits with children while providing information (i.e. a candy bar right now might ruin your appetite for a healthy dinner) and logical consequences helps them learn boundaries as well as cause and effect. Giving in, having a rule but only intermittently enforcing it or sending inconsistent messages about limits may actually reinforce or encourage the entitled behavior.

I sometimes see the results of parenting that didn't include the word no in my classroom at Penn State. There are students who either don't do the work or who think deadlines and due dates don't apply to them. They react with anger and, on some level, confusion when I say "I'm sorry but no. I won't accept your late paper." They aren't used to hearing the word no. Sometimes those same parents call and ask why their child earned a poor grade or why I held little Susie or Johnny to the same attendance standards as their peers.

We don't do our kids any favors by never saying no.

In news reports about the lawsuit, the girl's father, who also happens to be the local police chief, was quoted as saying "I'm a liberal, liberal parent. I wish I could have grown up in my home." When the stakes got high – partying, underage drinking, the girl putting herself at risk – the parents most likely attempted to slam down the rule book. Being unfamiliar with the word "no" the young woman bucked the system, left for a more "yes-friendly" environment and then used our overly litigious system to attempt to get what she wanted.

Ultimately, the judge in this case had the final say and the final no. He dismissed the case and said the daughter was not entitled to additional compensation but said that the college savings account that had been set up for her would remain hers. I predict that she will continue to be frustrated as she finishes high school, moves into college and eventually the work world, and learns that "no" is a fact of life. Like that kid in California who sued his high school teacher because he earned a C+ in chemistry, learned entitlement doesn't just go away.

In Dorothy Law Nolte's poem "Children Learn What They Live" the author suggests that children become what they learn. If they live with anger, jealousy and criticism, they will become angry, jealous and critical. If they live with encouragement, praise and kindness, they will become positive and kind as well.

If children hear the word no, they will learn that there are limits.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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