It’s one of every parent’s worst nightmares: the day when their sweet, innocent child learns the word “no.” Suddenly, the answer to everything becomes “no,” even when they weren’t being asked a question that the word could be a valid answer for.
When you think about it, though, it’s not hard to figure out where they’ve picked up the word and why they seem to say it so often—it’s because they heard it from you. For parents of young children, “no” is a word that’s used often and easily.
“No, you can’t eat that crayon.”
“No, you can’t ride the cat.”
“No, you can’t scale the fireplace.”
Young children just don’t know their boundaries yet and there are a lot of things they’ll try to do, even though it’s obvious to you that they can’t.
“No” is the word that naturally escapes any parent’s lips when they see their child doing something that could very easily land them in the hospital, but did you know that saying it too much could be giving them a negative outlook on life?
For most parents, “no” tends to be a quick response and one that comes to mind with such ease that most probably don’t even realize how often they say it. It’s also a response that tends to come without any further explanation, meaning that kids know that what they’ve done is somehow bad, but they have no idea why.
Without any reasoning behind it, the word “no” can lead to confusion, frustration, and even anger, which can lead to a variety of reactions from a child.
-Mumble “no” to your child then walk away, and your kids will probably stop taking the word seriously at some point in time because it comes without any consequence to them.
-Blurt it out with no explanation enough times and your child might take it upon themselves to find out what’s wrong with what they did, and they’ll do so by testing you until they get the answer they crave.
-Eventually, the word might even make them feel bad enough that hearing it will result in an automatic, explosive temper tantrum.
So, what’s a parent to do? There are obviously some boundaries that have to be set, and a world without “no” would result in a child who behaves as if they were raised by wolves. However, a home without “no” doesn’t have to mean it’s a home without any rules, boundaries, or discipline. In fact, there are plenty of ways to put your foot down without it.
Kara Carrero is a blogger and mother of three who says that how you say things to kids is the key to helping them understand you. “The way we are hard wired as humans is to listen to the sentence structure,” she says .
“We sometimes hear the first part of a sentence, almost always hear the last part, but rarely hear the middle unless we have our complete attention on the person talking to us. And really, what young child is giving us their undivided attention at all times?”
Using this method, instead of saying “We can’t play now,” you might say “We can play after dinner.”
Even though you did truly tell your child “no” to their request to play, it was done in a way that sounds less harsh to them and they’ll feel better because they know they’ll be given time to play later. The answer also gives them a brief explanation as to why you’re saying no to them—because dinner’s almost ready.
In addition to feeling more positive, responding to children with more than just “no” can even help them out later on in life. We all know that life doesn’t always work in our favor and, by teaching children that there are other options when the answer is “no,” they’ll be better prepared to find solutions and alternatives to their problems when they’re older.
After all, no one likes a screaming, sulking toddler—why would anyone appreciate those behaviors in an adult?
Here are some other tactics for telling your child “no” just a little bit less.
One of the most important things we teach our children is the art of “please” and “thank you,” and it’s just as crucial to say these words to them, too. You may also have more luck cutting out negatives like “don’t” and “stop” from your sentences.
Instead of saying “Stop running,” try using “Please walk in the house.” The message is still conveyed directly and will probably sound a little bit nicer to them, as well.
Share Your Feelings Too
When your child has just hit you in the head with a plastic bat for the fifth time in a row, it can be easy to yell out “Quit it!” in frustration. Children don’t often respond well to sudden outbursts, though, so you’ll need to put your request in different terms.
Next time, try explaining how their actions make you feel—”It hurts when you hit my head. Please be more careful with your bat.”
Shutting down a request from your child can often leave them feeling frustrated, so giving them different choices instead of saying no can help them reevaluate what they want.
Let’s say today’s request is candy before dinner. Instead of telling them no, give them an option—”Dinner’s almost ready, but it seems like you really want candy, so it can be your choice. Would you rather have one piece now or have two after dinner?”
The next time you want your child to stop doing something you don’t want them to, it may help them feel better if you also give them alternatives.
For example, we all know kids love to throw balls in the house, but it’s not something that really ever ends well. Instead of telling them to stop, try saying “Please throw the ball in the backyard or out on the driveway instead of the house.”
Make It Fun
If you can’t think of any alternatives to what your child wants to do, try making a fun game out of their request.
If your child is asking for candy for the third time in a row, put on your best monster face, curl your hands into claws, and pretend you’re on the lookout for kids who eat candy before dinner. You can give them a chase around the house, and they’ll probably forget what they were asking for because you’ll be having too much fun.
Use Past Examples
Sometimes kids do something bad once and learn a lesson, and other times it takes them a few times to realize that something isn’t the greatest idea. The next time they go for it, try giving them a gentle reminder of what happened last time. “Remember when you got sick the last time you ate a cookie before dinner? How about we save it for dessert this time?”
A word of caution, though—it’s best not to use this technique when it comes to something they got in trouble for, as it could make them upset to relive it.
When it comes to your kids, sportscasting is a term that refers to verbalizing your observations in a factual way to help your child understand different experiences.
When you see your child pushing food on the floor, you might say “You’re throwing your food on the floor instead of eating it. Since that tells me you’re done eating, I’ll put the food away now.” By stating these facts, you help your child understand what message their actions are conveying to you.
Just Agree With Them
When you’re met with a plea for cookies before dinner, you might find success with acknowledging the request—with a catch, though.
“Sure, you can have a cookie–after dinner,” is definitely denying your child’s demands in the moment, but it’s a compromise that works out for both of you in the end. We can’t guarantee it won’t be met with more pleas and whining, but at least you have plenty of other options if it is.