There's no single right way to parent. However, it's useful to reflect on what your parenting philosophy is, and how it affects your relationship with your child. Here's a parenting philosophy that works for me, and that's rooted in cognitive-behavioral psychology and the science of child development.
When my child asks me something, I try to say "yes," unless there is really good reason not to. I call this philosophy "Yes Parenting." Here's the psychology behind why I follow this approach, and why you might consider it.
1. To encourage creativity.
Yesterday, my four-year-old asked if she could paint a picture with nail polish. I said yes, but explained we didn't want to use up the whole bottle. So, she did a mixed media picture with markers and some nail polish.
This type of creativity is natural to kids but can easily be trained out of them. Their creative accomplishments will be greatest if they don't follow conventions. Creativity is all about using resources in unconventional ways.
Another example: About a month ago, my kid went through a stage of painting her legs. She painted herself as a tiger, a robot, flamingo, ostrich, and all sorts of things. We only had regular kids paint and I didn't love the idea of her putting that on her skin, but it was fine. She took photos and videos of her work and then quickly washed it off anyway. She did a great job, and it ended up being joyful for all of us.
2. To encourage your child to ask for what they want.
We'll all heard the phrase "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Many adults struggle to ask for what they want. Even worse than this, some people struggle to feel any agency in their lives.
In my life and career, there have been so many situations in which I've expected to receive a No answer but have got a surprising Yes.
Of course, factors like privilege play a role in this, but so does having the confidence and skills to ask. Basic behavioral psychology tells us that behaviors that are rewarded increase, and those that are ignored or punished will decrease. I want my child to ask directly for what she wants, so I reward it.
Sometimes merely asking for what you want is enough. Sometimes you need to make a compelling case. If you want kids to learn this skill, reward them with a "yes" when they do.
3. Saying "yes" most of the time can help children handle "no."
You might be wondering if I'm a pushover. I'm not. If you reserve saying "no" only for times when there is a good reason for it, your child will come to understand that.
If you say "no" because you can't be bothered, the request is slightly inconvenient or messy, or it seems like a strange idea, then "no" is more confusing. No could mean a huge variety of things.
When I say, "No, you can't play with that child at the playground because they're not wearing a mask," my child knows there's a good reason.
Saying "yes" doesn't mean you drop everything and bend to your child's every wish right away. However, when you look for ways to say yes, you can do it in a way that suits everyone. For example, my daughter asked if we could make a Batman costume for her Barbie. I have no idea how to do that! So, I said, yes but let's practice making some easier outfits first.
She often asks me if I can do an activity with her when I'm needing to get something else done, like working. So, sometimes I'll look for how to do a quick version of what she wants. For example, yesterday she asked if she could do a new experiment out of a book of STEAM experiments. I didn't have the time and energy to do a new one, so I offered her the choice of redoing several we'd done before that I knew were quick to set up.
Sometimes I'll say, "Yes, as soon as I've finished my work, we'll draw a picture together. I'll look forward to that."
When you make these types of promises, follow through. When you teach your kids that you're reliable, they learn delayed gratification. Most importantly, even if you think they forgot about it, you need to remember and follow through. Delayed gratification is such an important skill for life and health, and kids learn it from having reliable parents.
4. If kids ask for what they want rather than sneak it, you can steer them.
If kids expect their parents to say no, they're more likely to sneak. When they sneak, you can't shepherd them into good choices. When I got the nail polish question, I could remind her we didn't want to run out of nail polish for her nails.
When kids want to do slightly odd things and you let them, they'll often lose interest. For example, I take a DHA/EPA supplement that's an oil-filled capsule. This week she has been asking to feed it to me. She likes gently squeezing the capsule for some reason. No doubt, by next week she will have moved on from wanting to do this.
5. Saying yes is freeing and inspiring for parents too.
Even though my kid is a normal four-year-old, her creative ideas are inspiring to me. Being surrounded by all her creativity (art projects, or scenes she acts out with her toys that incorporate materials from around our home), helps inspire my creativity.
The way she mixes up things that don't go together makes me feel freer to do the same.
I also enjoy looking for ways to say yes, and it helps me feel less uptight about possessions. Because I try to say yes to things I'm not sure I can do (e.g., making a Batman costume for Barbie), it causes me to challenge myself. All of this seems to flow on to my work and life decisions. It helps me be better at being spontaneous and direct.
Looking for ways to say yes also seems to make me feel like I have more energy.
Is this approach right for everyone?
I don't think there's a universally best parenting style. To a large extent, you need to parent to your child's nature. You need to experiment. I've learned that almost all the requests my kid makes are pretty reasonable, or at least we can identify a reasonable version of the request.
Try checking in with yourself about the percentage of times you say yes to your children.