recent feature in the New York Times about spas that cater to children made me sad. But not exactly for the reasons you’d expect. It was because of this quote, from a mom of one of the pint-sized spa-goers:

“I don’t want them to feel that my saying ‘No’ means that I don’t love them.”  New York Times, January 3, 2015

It’s sad that parental love has been hijacked by an underlying belief that our children cannot be disappointed or inconvenienced in order to feel loved.

Sad that parents may not understand that “Saying No” is a powerful tool through which children learn about boundaries and identity.

Sad that parents may be uncomfortable with a word that is crucial to keeping their children safe.

In trying to find a way to frame some of my thoughts about parental love, I’m reminded of a poem about love. It was once required reading—meaning it was something asked of me by an adult who believed it would be good for me. So with an apology to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I’ll use some of her words from 150 years ago (in italics) as a way to ground my thoughts today. Her sonnet begins:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
As a parent:

  • I love you when I say ‘No’ to the candy at the checkout counter and ‘Yes’ to the fresh fruit we just chose together.
  • I love you when I say ‘No’ to more TV and say ‘Yes’ to a tuck-in ritual that includes a special snuggle.
  • I love you when I say ‘No’ to adding on one more after school activity and say ‘Yes’ to your own creative spirit and need for downtime.
  • I love you when I say ‘No’ to a party with no chaperones so that you can say ‘Yes’ to a safe space to enjoy your friends and explore the complexity of teen relationships without the risk of alcohol or sexual demands.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach.

As a parent:

  • I love you to the depth of long nights helping you through sick tummies and every malady physical and emotional that disrupts your childhood sleep.
  • I love you to the breadth of your interests and explorations helping you find the resources to expand as your mind and spirit are called.
  •  I love you to the height of your celebrations, be it the feather you found in the yard, or the trophy or grade you worked hard to earn.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need…
I love thee freely…
I love thee purely…
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

As a parent:

  • I love you as I watch your quiet sleep and as you run in sunshine.
  • I love you purely without the need to compare you, your gifts or your skills to another.
  • I love you freely not because you earn my love, but because it is a gift I give of myself.
  •  I love you with the passion and intensity of a she-bear placing herself between cub and threat. I will be your advocate if I feel you need a voice beyond your ability and I will stand with you as you find your own voice.
  • And I love you with the conviction to find my own voice—in the face of discomfort, social pressure, exhaustion, I will try.

We may hate to say ‘no’ for many reasons. Maybe to dodge our child’s emotional reaction or we want to be more friend than leader or maybe we’re just tired—with a barrage of outside influences, it can be exhausting. Yet, learning to say a quiet firm ‘No’ is a gift we give to our children and to ourselves. I promise you, the most secure children and young adults understand that they have been deeply loved through the No’s of parenting.

The sonnet in closing:
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! – and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

As a parent—what more can I say?
Dr. Y