Saying No To Your Child

Yep, sometimes you have to do it.  Saying NO to your child is something all of us parents know and hate.  It seems guaranteed to provoke a tantrum, especially when your child is in that difficult two-to-three-years age range.  However, saying NO to your child in a constructive and proactive way can actually head off the tantrums and lead to a child feeling MORE powerful rather than less.

So how can we guide and correct our children’s behavior in a way that doesn’t lead to one long drawn-out power struggle?

1. Set boundaries

Kids crave boundaries.  This seems very counterintuitive for those of us in the trenches of kid-raising (because kids are professional boundary-pushers).  Once they understand them, the presence of boundaries makes kids feel very safe.  Predictable limits make their lives, well, predictable.

When kids know the rules, they can predict with reasonable accuracy what will happen when they behave certain ways.  When they DON’T know the rules (or worse, when there ARE no rules) they never know what’s going to happen.  Sometimes bad behavior is punished, sometimes it’s rewarded (because even negative attention can be rewarding) and sometimes it’s ignored.  Not knowing what will happen is stressful.

Consider how you would feel if your boss at work were inconsistent in your feedback.  Sometimes your work is praised, other times ignored, other times criticized, and you’re not sure why.  That would be very stressful.  Not knowing what to expect is difficult for everyone, including kids.

Even though kids will push the boundaries, a predictable response from Mom and Dad gives them the unspoken message that we love them enough to keep them safe, that there are consistent rules that apply in society, and that they are NOT above the rules.

(Taking a lesson from recent current events, I would submit that many of our young people’s problems are a direct result of them not understanding deep down inside that they are NOT above the law and that the law DOES apply to them.)

2. Give choices

Whenever you possibly can, DON’T tell your kids what to do.  Give them two or three equally acceptable choices, then let THEM choose which they want to do.  It’s important that whatever they choose is perfectly fine with you.

For example, when your kids are getting dressed in the morning, even if they barely know their colors, let them pick their clothes.  Hold up two shirts and ask them which they want to wear.  Jeans or sweatpants?  Skirt or shorts?  White socks or green ones?  Who cares what they’re wearing?  Guess what.  THEY DO.  It is much more important to them than it is to you.

Even if they’re too little to dress themselves, if they picked their clothes they have made a good choice.  When kids make good choices they learn an important life lesson.  They CAN make good choices.  This builds self-respect and a feeling that they are effective.  Everyone needs to feel effective.  It also gives them a much-needed feeling of control.

3. Redirect

What happens when they what something that isn’t on the parent-approved list?  That’s an example of boundary-pushing and is absolutely normal.  You just say “Sorry, pumpkin pie is not on our list of breakfast choices today.  Do you want cereal or a bagel?”

This is the traffic equivalent of presenting a detour sign instead of a roadblock.  This is a very sophisticated way of saying “no” that flies under the radar with kids.  It doesn’t feel like “no,” and offering choices again right away makes the child again feel like they are in control of the situation.

After a whole day of offering choices to your child, sometimes it’s time to pull rank and deliver marching orders.  If your child is balking at taking a bath you can say “Hey.  You got to choose all day long, now it’s my turn to choose.  We’re going to take a bath now.  While the tub is filling up, do you think you can pick out some good books to read before bed?”  Here again we’re offering choices as a redirection for not letting them choose something (no bath) that isn’t on the parent-approved list of options.

Kids are smart.  Believe me, I know what I’m talking about, from personal experience!  Luckily they also generally come equipped with parents dedicated to helping them grow up safe and healthy.  Saying NO to our kids is definitely on the un-fun parent job list, but if you do it right, it can be used to INCREASE a child’s sense of control and effectiveness, not shoot it down.

For more parenting ideas like this, please check out the “Love and Logic” parenting series of books by Foster Cline and Jim and Charles Fay.  They are available from local bookstores and also from

QUESTION:  What was the most creative redirect you ever pulled on your child?


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