It was supposed to be an uneventful trip to the store to buy soap. But, while at the register, I glanced over and noticed a mother and her darling little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years of age. I smiled and remembered when my now-teenaged son was that small.
As the cashier rang up my soap, I heard the little boy say to his mother, “I want to eat it.” Then he said it again, only louder…and again. A tantrum was in the making.
The mother without ever raising her voice gently tried to calm the child, but his protests continued.
“I want to eat it!”
Yeah, this is a bit embarrassing, I thought, but good for her for not caving in.
“I want to eat it,” then became, “I want it back!” Now the little boy was jumping up and down, tugging on his mother’s sleeve, his tiny face knitted into a scowl.
By now most of us in earshot — basically the entire store — were deep into Minnesota nice, pretending not to notice. The mom held her ground and the child imploded.
The little boy began beating his mother with his tiny fists…and then sank his teeth into her arm.
At first I was embarrassed for the mom, and then I felt sorry for her. Now all I could do was pray.
‘We don’t have a prayer’
“It’s almost uncanny how similar the stories are,” says Dr. David Walsh, author of the book “No: Why Kids of All Ages Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.”
I caught up with Walsh by phone between flights. He’s in the middle of a nationwide speaking tour as part of his Say Yes to No campaign launched in Minnesota last fall, an initiative aimed at helping parents and educators in a nutshell…say no.
And unfortunately, Walsh tells me, he’s heard stories like this before.
Like the time a colleague of his witnessed an outburst while on a plane heading to an educators’ conference. Seated across the aisle was a mother sipping a soda, and alongside her was her young daughter, about 3 years old. The little girl wanted a sip of the soda, but the mother said no. The girl continued to pester the mother, but she again said no, only to relent after the child slapped her.
“If that little boy can punch his mother and a girl can slap her mother, and get away with it with no repercussions, can you imagine what things are going to be like when they are 15 or 16 years old?” says Walsh. “If we can’t say no when they’re three, we don’t have a prayer when they’re 15.”
In what has become his marketing mantra, Walsh asserts a slow cultural shift that allows for “more, easy, fast and fun” is what has led to such behavior.
“I think a lot of parents have almost become allergic to their kids’ unhappiness, so they end up saying yes when they should be saying no.”
Struck a nerve
But Walsh, a psychologist and president and founder of the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and Family, is not so much focused on assessing blame as he is on providing solutions. He has spent this school year speaking in crowded cafeterias and auditoriums to parents and educators throughout Minnesota, as part of his Say Yes to No initiative which involves reading the “No” book, taking part in group discussions, and then putting the book’s techniques into practice. (Disclosure: I appear in the campaign’s video.) Initially 200 Minnesota public and private schools signed on with the campaign. Walsh says that number has since doubled.
“No” appears to have struck a nerve. The book is now in its ninth printing, and has sold 85,000 copies within the last year (compared to Walsh’s national bestseller, “Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen,” which just surpassed the 100,000 mark after four years).
Walsh has speaking engagements booked out as far as July 2009, and he is the process of training three additional speakers to keep up with Say Yes to No speaking requests. In addition, he is now getting requests from groups he’s never heard from before.
“Most of the work I’ve done has been in the education and public arena,” says Walsh, “But I’m now getting invitations from colleges and universities and business groups who are trying to figure out what is going on. Colleges and universities see kids coming in with good GPAs, but still not cutting it, and business groups are very concerned about what they see as a real lack of a work ethic among young people: the ability to work hard, to be responsible, to cooperate in teams, delay gratification and have realistic expectations.”
In a word: discipline, the cornerstone of the Say Yes to No campaign, and what many business leaders see as an integral part of raising a work force that has the intellectual capacity, social skills, and personal integrity to compete globally.
“I think people realize things are out of balance and for the sake of our kids we need to rebalance things,” says Walsh.
In the coming months, Walsh says Say Yes to No will expand to school districts in the entire state of Michigan, Allen County in Fort Wayne Indiana, and possibly even parts of southern California. And translation rights for the “No” book have been acquired in nine different foreign languages, including German, Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Chinese and Portuguese.
“It’s energizing work,” says Walsh.
He has his work cut out for him. And if the premise of acquiring balance by saying no is to be believed, then as parents, so do we.
Walsh shared the story of one mother who, after one of his many parent discussion groups, stood up and said to others in the room, “I know now I’m not alone.”
Dr. David Walsh will speak March 17 at 6:30pm at Oak Grove Middle school, 1300 West 106th St., Bloomington.