Just Saying "No" Isn't Always So

"Just say 'No'" may be good advice when faced with pressure to do something you don't want to do, but it's not always the best thing for parents to do. Probably no other word is more overused by parents who soon discover that "No" loses its power pretty quickly. Even a very young child turns 'parent-deaf' the minute her mom says "No". Older kids don't even bother to ask (because they already know what the answer will be) and often just do what they want.

When kids hear "No" too often, several problems arise. First, they begin to tune parents out. There is a real danger that children will not hear the important messages intended to protect them from harm or danger. A toddler who is constantly told not to touch the flowers or the coffee table or the radio or the stove may not learn that the stove is dangerous and "No stove" must be obeyed. Likewise, a teenager may not understand that the most important message in his parents' prohibitions to "not go out, not hang out with so-and-so, not go to the party and not drink alcohol" is the last one.

Kids also experience constant "No's" as attacks on their autonomy, so they get defensive and try to figure out ways to counterattack. They scream, whine, have tantrums, get sullen and fight back in other ways.

Some kids develop an "I can't do anything" attitude when constantly told no. They may see the world as unsafe and withdraw from it. They may see themselves as not very responsible or capable and stop trying.

Other kids may choose to take unnecessary risks. If their desires are consistently being thwarted, they may decide to take the biggest risk. For example, if a boy who pleads for a motorbike is constantly told "No," he may decide to ask for a BMX bike. Told "No" again, he may choose to sneak out with his friends and ride their motorcycles, risking serious injury.

What can parents do? Say "Yes" to everything? Give in? Certainly not. Giving in results in a permissive style of parenting that doesn't help children learn to deal with limits. Fortunately, there are alternatives to always saying "No."

Tell kids what they can do.
Instead of saying "Stop it, no, not now, knock it off," tell children what they can do. When Becky drags her new doll in the dirt, tell her to put dolly in the carriage or hold it with both hands instead of saying, "No, no, don't drag dolly around."

Stick with the facts.
Rather than saying no and trying to explain yourself, just state the facts and leave off the "No." When Billy asks, "Can I go to Jimmy's house?" instead of saying, "No, we're eating in five minutes," say, "Dinner will be ready in five minutes." With that information, Billy might think to himself, "I guess I can't go now."

Describe the problem.
Sometimes children ask for things when it is not convenient or feasible. Let them know there's a problem. Suppose the family decides to eat at a restaurant and Sharon wants lobster that they can't afford. Instead of saying "No" or "No, don't be ridiculous," Dad should let her know that there is a problem by saying, "I wish I could buy you lobster, but I only have enough money for meals under $10."

Use nonverbal signals.
Often parents can change a child's inappropriate behavior without saying a word. Nonverbal signals like raising your eyebrows, putting up your hand in a "stop" gesture, moving closer to the child and placing your hand firmly on the child's shoulder can communicate disapproval without saying "No."

Give yourself time to think about it.
Instead of automatically saying "No," say to your child, "Let me think about it." This gives you time to deal with your own feelings and lets the child know that her request is being seriously considered.

When possible, say "Yes."
Try to find ways to say "Yes" to your child's requests. You may need to tag on a condition or two, but the child will still appreciate hearing "Yes" instead of "no." For example, Tommy wants to go outside and play even though it's raining. Rather than saying, "No, it's raining outside," say, "Yes, as soon as it stops raining." Sometimes, you can surprise a child by saying "Yes" when he least expects it. You might say, "Sure, let's get our raincoats on and go play in the puddles."

When kids hear "No" all the time, they get their backs up and end up arguing with or not listening to adults. Save "No" for those important times when you want to protect your child from harm. At other times, find other ways to communicate "No," or say "Yes" once in awhile.

Source: Tim Jahn, Human Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 45


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015