The Overscheduled Parent: Learning to Say No

Eliza Clark
September 16, 2011

Kids are very good at saying no. Or rather, "NOOOOOO." And "No, No, No, No, No!!!!!!!"

We don't like it when their no's are directed at us (which is 90% of the time). We don't like it one bit. And yet, perhaps we can learn something from our children's vigorous objections. They have no problem speaking out loudly and clearly when they don't want to do something. Can their parents say the same?

Experience tells us that, in fact, parents are not nearly as skilled as their toddlers and preschoolers in the fine art of saying no.  Indeed, many parents are afflicted with a bad case of saying yes to lots of things that they shouldn't.  This ranges from demands for a second helping of ice cream from whiny children to gracious requests from our kids' schools that we help out with the annual book fair, the holiday party or the school library maintenance. 

That's how it goes. No sooner do we manage to send our little ones off to preschool and secure a few precious hours for ourselves than the school is kindly asking for our help with x,y and z.

It's hard to say no.  The fact is, schools do need parent volunteers, and it can be very fulfilling and interesting to be involved in the school community.

But as parents we need to learn to listen to our own inner alarm bells as closely as we listen to our kids' protests.  So, here is a quick guide to when to say no:

When you can feel the panic rise at the very idea of taking on another obligation.

When you look at your weekly calendar and can't figure out how you'll be able to get any exercise or do other activities that matter to you.

When you are staying up past your bedtime and becoming sleep-deprived to fulfill volunteer obligations.

When you are missing time with your children in order to help their schools.

When it's just not fun or satisfying anymore.

It's important to remember that it's never too late to say no.  It may not be until a few months into the year that you realize you've taken on too much.  We are all parents, and everyone understands how easy it is to get overwhelmed.  If you need to cut back, let people know.  There is probably someone else in the community who is looking for a way to be more involved.  And if you are working on a project that is taking excessive time, try to think about whether there are ways it could be streamlined to eliminate busywork for everyone. 

Further, know that you are not the only one.  It seems that more and more parents are realizing that they need to put limits on their volunteering.  (If you missed it, see this New York Times article on the subject from last year.)  Just as we are careful not to overschedule our children, we should do ourselves the same favor.

Finally, there's the old trick of turning a "no" into a "yes." Saying no to one more school volunteer project will hopefully mean saying yes to other wonderful things in your life: time with your kids; time for sleep and exercise; time to develop your career and interests. The school will be okay, and you and your family will be the better for it.

From the Parents

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