When No Meant No
Can America's Woes Be Relegated to One Word?
I grew up in an era where the word no meant no. I am a Baby Boomer (children born between the years 1945-1965), the first generation of a prosperous, modern America. World War II had just ended, jobs were plentiful, and for the first time since the Great Depression, parents had some extra change in their pockets. I am convinced the difference between my generation of prosperity and recent generations of prosperity is in the word no. My family never had money, but even my friends’ wealthy parents dispensed good old-fashioned child-rearing without money being a factor in the equation. In other words, when parents said no they meant no. Children were not ‘paid off’ for being good- it was simply expected. Likewise, my grandparents from the WWII generation (or as retired journalist and author, Tom Brokaw, penned them, “The Greatest Generation”) were raised on the belief that a good life is all about hard work and education. My parents and step-parents worked hard to earn jobs and careers that would give their children a roof over their heads and three square meals. Nothing was ever taken for granted, nor were we given everything we wanted. Consequently, my generation was taught firm guidelines in the home that gave us a formula for gaining independence and responsibility for future success. We didn’t say, “You owe me,” we said, “How do I earn it?” We weren’t a generation of entitlement; we were a generation of earners.
When I was a child, I had the same bedtime every night. If I wasn’t tired, my mother said I could read a book, but I had to be in bed. We only received presents on special days like birthdays and Christmas. I never asked my mother for a toy when we went shopping. We weren’t allowed to eat candy or drink sodas, except during special events and holidays. I knew exactly what to expect every day and it made me feel secure and loved. If I whined for something my parents couldn’t afford before I was of an age to get a real job, they simply said, “No, we don’t have the money for that, but if you want to earn it, you can mow lawns, babysit, get a paper route, or even do extra chores.” We never thought to argue our parents out of the word no. I grew up in a blended family of six kids. You bet we would get extra jobs if we wanted something. That is simply how it worked. We grew up respecting our parents; what they said was law. I can’t imagine even trying to talk my parents out of a no. I still thank my mother on a continuous basis for giving me the tools to make it successfully on my own. I haven’t relied on anyone to give me food and shelter since I left the house at eighteen years old. My strong sense of self can never be challenged because I have earned everything to make my life my own.
I spent 36 years educating two generations of school-aged children. You could even say I have become a social researcher. I can write studies on the behaviors of the children who were given everything they ever wanted juxtaposed to the children who had to earn everything because their parents didn’t have it to give. In my classroom, the word no meant no for all children, and it never wavered. At the beginning of each school year in which I taught, a few parents invariably called my principal, “We are not sure we want our child to stay in Mrs. Kato’s class. She is very strict. My child is not used to such high expectations.” And my principal always answered, “Give her a month, then we can talk.” After a month, those same parents never pulled their child out of my class. By the first conference in November, parents told me that their child loved and respected me, and that their behavior at home changed for the better. I taught the way I was parented because it worked for me. My indulged students realized I didn’t give praise or prizes unless they had done something to earn such merits. They became independent, happy learners, who gained self-esteem by what they accomplished on their own, not by how many prizes or compliments they received in a day.
We can take this same premise and look at how it works in our society. You can find a plethora of business studies that show how Millennials (children born approximately 10 to 20 years before the year 2000) are not equipped for the demands of the competitive market place in America. They do not possess the drive to be self-starters. Many of these young workers call in sick for any reason and don’t see the need to keep good references for building a strong resume. They think there will always be someone out there to rescue them or give them another job. Their doting parents and ineffectual teachers told them that they were ‘special’ no matter what they did or didn’t do. I often hired college students to intern in my classroom for credits, but an average attendance rate hovered around 40-60 percent until I had to let them go. At that age, it never occurred to me to miss work or other school commitments because I didn’t feel like going in that day. I knew I had to take responsibility for my own life with a strong work ethic because that’s how I learned to survive. (I do recognize that it is much harder for young people to support themselves in today’s economy, but that only means they need to be more motivated to work hard in school to have a chance at a better life.)
Of course there are always wonderful, responsible young people doing great things in any generation. I hope and pray the brightest of our youth will continue to improve our country’s moral fiber and economic standing for generations to come. The point of this essay is the assertion that American households have become too comfortable with material wealth and privilege. I believe America gained wisdom when the housing market crashed around six years ago. Too many lenders were not saying no to people who couldn’t afford the loans. Our country’s strong line for effective economic practices was simply not drawn indelibly in the sand. I am astounded at the number of young people who live at home well into their 30’s. In some cases, their parents are still not saying no. It’s as if parents are afraid to let their children struggle. I taught two generations of children that the very definition of learning is struggling. If you don’t struggle, you have nothing new to figure out; hence, no learning occurs. Maybe it’s time all of us need to take a good hard look at what no really means. I’m sure without the word no in my life, I wouldn’t have worked nearly as hard to make my life meaningful and secure.