Gen Rylett explains how saying ‘no’ can truly show love in the family

I’d like to introduce you to our family. It’s a place where there is always room for one more. At the moment there are seven people – and I want each of those seven, plus whichever extras pop up on any given day to feel safe, welcome and like they belong. Love in the family (storge in Greek) is the kind of love that bonds by familiarity, by being together and knowing each other really well; for example, the natural love of a parent for their child. It’s the kind of love that’s there because it’s there.

So how, as parents and carers, can we ensure we’re meeting our children’s needs? If our most basic need is to be loved, how can we help them know that they are loved by us (their deeply flawed parents), and more importantly, loved by the ever-present, always-loving God? Love in the family isn’t always about doing what makes people feel happy, it’s not always about giving others what they want. It’s not about pleasing them or making them like me (although I really hope that they do most of the time!).

For our children to feel secure, to know that they are loved, I think they need to know that we adults are captaining the ship – that we are in charge. I know, personally, at times of crisis and insecurity, remembering that God has got me (and actually the whole world) in his hands, makes me feel more peaceful. And I want my children to grow up feeling the same way. God sets boundaries for his people to keep them safe. To take care of each other and his world. We see this all the way throughout the Old Testament –starting in Genesis, when God tells his children not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the consequence of Eve and Adam choosing their own way: separation.

Again, in Noah’s time, the people were doing bad things all of the time – except Noah and his family – and, again, there were consequences. Noah was separated from all the wrongdoing and was saved. Then there was Jonah, who knew what he should do, but didn’t do it. God rescued him and reminded him. God never gave up on Jonah, rather he set him back on his feet and gave him what he needed.

This is how I want to be as a parent. I want my children to know that I am in charge. That I have their best interests at heart. That I will always pick them up, dust them down and set them back on their feet again.

Setting boundaries

Love in the family sets boundaries. We’ve found over the years that boundaries need to be firm, fair and consistent, because they’ll need to be reinforced again and again. Some examples (which, of course, vary and change as they grow) are what time they go to bed, how and when mealtimes happen, the technology they access, and how we use our time as a family. It means that sometimes I have to say “no”. There are many times when God says “no” to his children. “No” seems like a difficult word to use sometimes. We don’t want to be rude or selfish or unkind or un-fun or unpopular. But actually, as parents, our “no” keeps our children safe, allows them what they need and gives them permission to be children.

I think of God in the Jonah story. And with Adam and Eve. He doesn’t change his mind. His mood or emotions don’t change how he treats his children or what he expects of them. This is definite-ly what I’m aiming for with my parenting and nearly every day I fall desperately short of it. However, a plan always helps. If we were captaining a ship, we would need to know where we were going. And it is the same with parenting. We need to discuss with the adults we parent with what is important.

This is not always straightforward. Sometimes we do not see things in the same way, and in my experience, conversations about this type of thing often end up happening in the middle of the night, which is definitely not the wisest time for a reasonable conversation or for any good plans to be made!

Saying “no”

One of the first times I said “no” to one of our daughters was when she bit me while I was breastfeeding her. So, I stopped feeding her for a moment and that was her first ‘time out’.

We also had to be firm with sleep training. We’d got exhausted and desperate enough to stop feeding her in the night in order to teach her to sleep through. Our method (just our choice – not everyone’s cup of tea) was instead of me feeding her, my husband went in, picked her up, cuddled her, calmed her down and put her back in bed. That first night was awful. If we hadn’t agreed a plan beforehand, I would definitely have given up. There was definitely more crying than sleeping (me as well as the baby!). But by the second night, it wasn’t so awful and by the third, apart from things like teething and illness, we’d pretty much cracked it.

Being firm with our children is not always easy. I often doubt myself and wonder if I’ve got things wrong. Sometimes I definitely get it wrong and I always apologise when I realise. I think apologising to our kids when we’ve got it wrong is really powerful. It shows them that we’re not perfect, we don’t think we’re perfect, and that it’s OK to be wrong. I think it’s also a good antidote to shame.

We say “no” to staying up too late and to lots of other things too. It’s not about spoiling our children’s fun, it keeps them out of dangerous situations and it protects them from things that are harmful, or that they’re just not ready for. For example: “No, you can’t watch a movie or play a computer game that’s rated 15 while you’re only 9.” This one is so hard. Saying “no” to things like these affects who my children can play with and whose houses I’m happy for them to go to. Short term at least, sometimes my “no” affects my children’s happiness.

But this is the thing about being captain of the ship, about having a right authority over our children. Love says “no” when we can see that exposure to things our children are not ready for can be harmful to their mental and emotional health. Some-times my “no” is to teach my children responsible ways of living. Sometimes my “no” is to prevent harm. Sometimes my “no” is to defend my children.

It’s difficult as our children grow up and games consoles, mobile phones and social media become more and more part of their lives. Our children are living very different lives compared to us at their age. However, if we’ve been having conversations and setting boundaries as they grow up, conversations about things such as technology are just a continuation of this pattern. We gave our eldest a phone recently, but it came with a very detailed contract including advice to THINK before messaging – is it Thoughtful, Helpful, Interesting, Necessary and Kind? (We borrowed the THINK principle from Mike Pilavachi at Soul Survivor.)

As adults, we find saying “no” hard. It’s hard to say “no” to one more drink, to overworking or overeating. But I want my children to grow up able to say “no” for themselves. “No” to unhelpful relationships. To drugs. To the idol of comparison. To pressure. I think they need to grow up seeing a powerful “no” used to protect them. And in order for them to be able to say a confident “no”, I need to have modelled tiny “no”s and confident “no”s and consistent “no”s throughout their childhood.

I want them to grow up understanding (and able to accept) that God will sometimes say “no” to them too. God’s “no” doesn’t mean “I haven’t heard you”. It’s so hard for us to get our heads around this. One of the most striking examples in the Bible of God saying “no” is when Jesus cried out to his Father on the cross “with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7,ESV). Jesus was heard, and the answer he was given? “No.” I want my children to be used to hearing “no”. To be used to the fact that someone bigger than them with more experience and more love is captaining their ship. I want them to grow up knowing that we can hold on to God, knowing that he hears us and that he cares for us and that he is always at work; he does not forget us or fail us just because he tells us “no”.