To say “no” or not to say “no”? That is a hotly debated question in playgroups and on parenting discussion boards these days. It seems that most parents fall into two categories: those who avoid saying “no”, afraid that it is too harsh and will lead to resentment and rebellion, and those who feel that saying “no” is a necessity, but are unsure of its effectiveness and even feel guilty about overusing it.
I was recently part of a conversation in which one mother commented, “I don’t like saying ‘no’. I just try to redirect my daughter and only say ‘no’ if she’s doing something dangerous”. Another mother responded, “I feel like all I do is say ‘no’! But it doesn’t work anyway. My son just tunes me out”.
Wherever you fall on this topic, your little one will encounter the word “no” at some point, whether it’s at school, at a friend’s house, or out in the community. Learning to listen and respond appropriately when limits are established is an important life skill.
So where exactly should we draw the line between behavior that warrants a “no” and behavior that should be ignored or redirected? If we choose to say “no”, how can we do so more effectively? What if “no” could actually be delivered in a way that would encourage good behavior, instead of only as a reprimand or punishment for bad behavior?
These guidelines will help you use the word “no” as an effective teaching tool to establish boundaries and promote better behavior:
Pay attention to your tone of voice
Although you may use “no” in a variety of contexts, change the way you say “no” based on the situation and level of urgency. If your child is doing something that isn’t dangerous, but is against your house rules, such as putting her feet on the table or grabbing your phone, say “no” in a neutral tone, as a way of informing her that she’s doing something unacceptable. Reserve a firm “no” or raising your voice for situations where you want your child to freeze in his tracks and listen to you, such as if he is moving towards a hot stove or throwing a fork at a sibling.
Explain why and follow through
When you say “no”, provide a brief explanation as to why the behavior is inappropriate or why your child cannot have what he wants. For example, “No jumping on the couch. You could fall and hurt yourself” or “No, you can’t have candy right now, because we are about to have dinner”. After establishing the reason for saying “no”, follow through. Admittedly, following through is the hardest part; stopping in the middle of cooking dinner to get little Annie off the couch or dealing with Adam’s tantrum after being denied candy can be exhausting. However, the effort put into following through will pay off in the long run, when Annie gets off the couch as soon as you say “no” and Adam waits until after dinner to eat his candy. Once you establish boundaries, be consistent. When you tell Lucy that she can only have one lollipop, don’t negotiate and give her “just one more.”
Teach appropriate behavior to replace inappropriate behavior
We often assume that children know right from wrong and should therefore be able to exhibit self-control and follow rules. However, even once your son understands that it is wrong to hit, bite, or throw things, his impulse control may still be developing. In addition, your daughter might know that she’s supposed to wear boots in the winter, but asserts her independence by demanding to wear flip-flops. It may help to think of these instances as “teachable moments,” especially with younger children who are still experimenting with limits and learning how to behave and communicate. If your child hits when he doesn’t get his way, try giving him a choice of things he can do instead. For example, “You can’t go outside right now, but you can play with your Legos or dinosaurs” or “You can’t wear flip flops, but you can wear brown or purple boots”. Proactively giving children choices helps them have some control and independence, while keeping their options acceptable to you, too. Additionally, provide children who are learning to communicate and express their feelings with appropriate language to replace inappropriate behavior. When we simply tell a child to “use your words”, we are assuming they know which words to use. It may help to be more specific. For example, “We don’t hit. If you want the ball, you can ask: “Can I have the ball please?”
While most parents establish consequences for not listening (“If you do that one more time, I will take your toy away”), we often overlook the importance of reinforcing appropriate behavior. If a child is told “no”, immediately listens, and accepts that they can’t do/have something, rewarding them will make it more likely that they will listen again. Consider the following example: Annie is jumping on the couch. Her mother tells her, “No jumping. You could fall and hurt yourself” and immediately follows through by picking her up and putting her down on the ground. The next day, Annie jumps on the couch, her mom says “no”, and Annie stops and gets down herself. Annie’s mother gives her a high five and tickles her. By following through and praising Annie, her mother has taught her that she needs to listen and is rewarded when she does.
Click here to read our blog “The Difference Between a Bribe and Positive Reinforcement”
Make sure to say “yes”, too
This last guideline is as much for parents as it is for children. It’s important for children to be children, and sometimes that means eating ice cream for dinner and wearing a tutu to the grocery store. But it’s even more important for overworked, overwhelmed parents to let go and have fun now and then. As a mom, I feel like I’m too lenient one moment and too strict the next. Whether you say “no” once in awhile or feel like it’s every other word you say, striking a balance between saying “no” and saying “yes” can be the most important guideline to follow.