Personal Finance » Education Funds

The power of saying no to children

“We have compassion. We just don’t believe the safety net should be used as a hammock.” – Allen West

Even though it seems counter-intuitive to the idea of helping; sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to help someone is to say no. It can be the hardest thing in the world to say no to someone who you know is in absolute need of your help, especially when you are in a position where helping them is entirely within your abilities. However, being forced into a situation where you have no choice but to take the tough route is often the most powerful factor in creating long-lasting change.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about five financial lessons I’ve learned from my dad. If you’ve read my posts before, there’s a good chance that you’ll have picked up on the fact that I have a deep admiration for both my parents and in many ways they are the epitome of the values I am building my own life on. We didn’t always get along but as I grow older, my respect for them and understanding of what motivates them has grown and I am blessed that we have such a strong relationship. It’s not always easy though and I think that the fact I live 4000 miles and an ocean away from them definitely helps us appreciate each other in a way that we couldn’t if I still lived close by!

One of the things I appreciate about my parents is that they’ve always allowed me to make my own decisions and supported my choices even when they didn’t agree with me. They’ve watched me fall flat on my face and then supported me in getting back on my feet again, sometimes financially, mostly emotionally and (mostly) without recriminations or an “I told you so”. The knowledge that, no matter what, they would be there to lean on if absolutely necessary has always been a kind of a “safety net” for me. It’s not that I’ve had to lean on them often, or that I make reckless choices but knowing that “net” is there has definitely made walking the tightrope of life a little less daunting. Nine months ago though, everything changed and suddenly I found myself in a situation where, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with the knowledge that even if I needed to turn to my parents for help I wouldn’t be able to.

It’s said that we find our greatest strengths in times of challenge and I believe that’s true. Finding myself in a situation where my safety net no longer existed forced me to a level of independence that I’ve never achieved before and I am definitely much stronger for it. It’s not that I had to manage a disaster, or that I found myself in a place where I needed help and couldn’t ask for it, but the knowledge that I only had myself to rely on forced me to look at my situation in a different light, made me re-evaluate my priorities and gave me a renewed commitment to achieving my financial goals.

As parents, our “job” is to protect our children from harm and to take care of them in every way that we can. However, as our children grow older, it can be hard to refuse to give them the help and support that we gave them as younger children and to force them to stand on their own two feet, especially when we know that they’re in need and we have the ability to help. Whether it’s paying off debts, providing free accommodation, subsidizing expenses or always picking up the bill when going out for dinner, parents often find themselves helping out their adult children and more often than not, helping becomes a habit. I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t help out their children but I wonder if sometimes the most effective way to help is to draw a line in the sand and stand firm in your refusal to be drawn past it. I come across parents all the time who are paying more towards their kids’ expenses than they are towards their own savings goals and parents who are dipping into their own savings in order to help out their children. Regardless of whether the parents are in a position to help or whether they are compromising their own financial future in order to provide assistance, my recent experience of ‘living without the net’ makes me wonder if saying “no” would actually be better in the long run for both the parents and the child. It seems that having no choice but to find your own solution is the most effective way to create permanent change rather than a temporary fix making it a win-win situation for all involved.

What do you think? How much responsibility do parents have to care for their children financially once they reach adulthood? What can we do to help our kids prepare for life ‘without the net’ or should we always be there to step in if necessary? Is there a time and place to say no to children? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.


  1. Jim Yih

    Great article Sarah! I think it is important to teach children that money is a finite resource. I tell my kids often that we do not have trees in our backyards growing unlimited amounts of money. Sometimes it’s easy to say no but sometimes it’s really tough. It’s those tough times that potentially create the most important lessons.

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