It Seems To Me That Maybe Pretty Much Always Just Means No


I wish I could claim this brilliant line as my own, but it comes from a song by Jack Johnson. ( In case you don’t know the song called Flake, you can listen to it here Its chorus - It seems to me that maybe pretty much always just means no - sums up a truism that comes up often in the lives of busy parents everywhere.  How many times do you say “maybe” to your child in response to one of their requests? If you are like many parents, the answer is a lot. And if you are like many of the parents I work with, you have probably concluded that it isn’t an effective response. By effective I mean that if your response to a request by your child is “maybe,” your child doesn’t just then go about her business and wait for you to make your decision. The more likely response to your “maybe” is for your child to become relentless in his pursuit of the desired “yes”. Most kids interpret “maybe” as an invitation to engage in a marketing blitz that would make Apple executives blush. “Maybe” is red to the bull, honey to the bee, a bone to a dog. It means “Warp Speed Sulu”. I’m sure you know this. You’ve experienced it more than once and yet perhaps you still resort to using “maybe” as a tactic to avoid an unpleasant reaction from your child. 


Most parents use “maybe” as a way to delay saying “no”. Parents rarely relish saying “no” to their children so you reason that “maybe” will serve as a smooth transition from your child’s intense desire for something to the inevitable “no” that will cause them to be unhappy. For some parents it is too hard for you to bear your child’s unhappiness. For others, you fear the tantrum your child will probably throw which will disrupt everything. “No” is difficult so you opt for the delay tactic. Does it work? Not usually.  Your kids are paying very close attention to everything you say and do and they (unlike you) have a remarkable memory for everything you have ever said or done. They see patterns and hypocrisies in your behaviour that you haven’t yet recognised. In other words, you’re not getting away with anything by saying “maybe”. If your “maybe” pretty much just means no, they will know that you are just delaying saying “no.” They will also know that you don’t say what you mean. If you are a parent who vacillates and you have a really persistent child I’m guessing what follows your “maybe”  is a campaign of whining and pleading that is designed to wear you down until you change that “no” in waiting into a “yes”. Kids are good at outlasting busy parents and this is why “maybe” doesn’t usually do the trick of communicating emphatically your real intentions. If you have said “yes” under duress, the self-loathing that follows usually finds its ultimate expression in exasperation with your child. This rarely turns out well.


For the astute reader who has taken a class with me, I expect that at this moment you’re saying “Hang on. Didn’t she tell us to be more positive and not to say “no” all the time. You’re absolutely right!  Parents often say “no” too often so that a child receives too much negative feedback which tends to make them angry and uncooperative or dejected. Children who hear “no” all the time are inclined to be reckless when their parents are out of sight.  I think parents who employ the “maybe” defence are likely those parents who feel bad about saying “no” too often. Yet “no” has an important role in your child’s development. Children who never hear “no” grow up with unrealistic views of their place in the world. They don’t learn to handle disappointment and rejection. So what’s the solution? Say “no”, don’t say “no” - how do you figure it out?


Try this: say “yes” when you can. Many a “no” can be changed into a conditional “yes” by stating when the request can be met i.e. “Yes, you can go to Eliza’s house once your work is finished.” “Yes, you can walk to school with your friend, once I’m sure you know how to do it safely.” “Yes, you can get a body piercing once you are supporting yourself.” Save “no” for when it’s absolutely crystal clear i.e.. “No you may not kill your sister!” “No, you may not go to a party at Peter’s house when his parents are away.” “No, you may not stay home from school because you are not prepared for your test.” Then use “maybe” sparingly for those times when you really need to think about/discuss your child’s request. In this case, tell your child what needs to happen to turn your “maybe” into a “yes” or “no”. i.e. “I need to discuss this with your father/mother to see how he/she feels about it. Also I will need to be assured that these particular concerns of mine are addressed in a satisfactory way. I will get back to you in two days.”


The more you think about the values you want your child to internalise and you make your expectations clear to your child, the easier it is to know when to say “yes”, “no” and “maybe”. Solidify those expectations with rules, routines and family mantras (i.e. “First we do what we have to do, then we do what we want to do.”) Think up a positive affirmation for the times when your child is unhappy with your “no” so that you can remain resolute in the face of their fury (i.e. "This too shall pass.")

Then “maybe” can be up for grabs rather than an ineffective delaying tactic that pretty much just always means “no”.