No Is Not a Bad Word: Tips for Respectfully Saying (and Hearing) It

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By Kim DeMarchi

When I was a child, I was not allowed to say no to my parents—not ever. Their parenting style was authoritarian, the old children-should-do-as-they’re-told-and-not-ask-questions approach to child-rearing. Nonetheless, I found plenty of rebellious ways to say no indirectly, especially as a preteen. (I’ll spare you the details, but it involved a lot of purple eye shadow.) Other children may say no by dawdling, forgetting, or doing a job so ineffectively that you have to finish it yourself or don’t bother to ask them again. Make no mistake…these kids are saying no. Today, as a certified parent educator, I believe that “no” is one of the most important words in a child’s vocabulary. Here’s why:

  • Expressed with respect, no can lessen power struggles. When children are allowed to say no, they are more willing to cooperate because they feel they have some control over their lives.
  • No is empowering. Especially today, as many children must navigate complex social or online situations at a young age, being able to say no is crucial. A child who feels confident saying no can also resist peer pressure to tease another child, cheat, or (as she grows up) sneak out at night.

There is a hitch with no: Parents and children both need to be able to use no in a way that’s kind and respectful. And that takes patience and practice. Ready to experience the Power of No? Here’s how:

  1. Take the negative out of no. Parents often say no with an authoritarian air, a raised voice, or with a tone of disapproval. But no should not be scary. When saying no to your child, use an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental tone of voice.
  2. Explain the reason behind your nos.  A little bit of explanation about your limits can go a long way toward building cooperation. If your 3-year-old wants yet another scoop of ice cream, you might explain that you want to keep her body healthy and strong, so you won’t be able to give her more dessert right now.
  3. To teach a child to say no respectfully practice saying no respectfully yourself. Phrases like “I’m not willing to…” or “I’m unable to…” or “That’s not possible right now because…” all soften no, while still allowing you to clearly and kindly communicate limits.
  4. Laugh your way through no. See if you can come up with a playful way to set limits. Humor always diffuses power struggles or potential power struggles.
  5. Focus on doable solutions that work for your child’s age. Say you ask your 4-year-old to put away his toys, and his response is to whine and yell, emphatically, “NO!” Instead of entering a battle of wills (which isn’t fun for anyone and leads to hurt feelings and irritation), you may respond with “I hear that you don’t want to clean up; it’s no fun to clean up. You can choose if you want to put all your books back on the shelf or all your blocks back in the bin. When would you like to finish the rest?”
  6. Even if your child says no respectfully, he still may need to do what you’ve asked.
  7. Help school-aged children brainstorm positive solutions. As children grow older, practice finding a way forward together. If you’re school-aged child refuses your respectful request, don’t resort to anger. Calmly listen and ask follow-up questions like, Why do you think I make this request? Is there a solution you can think of that would work for both of us? What would you be willing to do instead? Can you propose that in a kind voice? This asks them to think about and articulate their feelings—a skill they’ll have for life!

Meet Kim DeMarchi!  Kim holds a master’s degree in education and is a certified parent educator. Kim’s passion is helping families reduce conflict, foster mutual respect, and create deeper communication and connections. Kim is a cofounder of Empowered Parenting  and is most proud of being mom to teen boy/girl twins. EmpoweredParenting.com

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