The Beauty of Saying No to Children

Saying no to children has merit

I don’t know where I came up with it, but when I had my first child about 10 years ago I wanted to try not to use the word “no” with him. Maybe I thought that if I didn’t tell him “no” then he wouldn’t shout it at me. Maybe I had some misguided view about the evil nature of no that I had somehow gleaned from an attachment parenting book. The internet wasn’t that big of deal back then, so I certainly didn’t glean it from some preachy Facebook group.

Well, I set off avoiding the word no. Instead I would redirect, guide or use different language. My favorite was, “Thank you for not doing that,” when something needed to be stopped.

As time has worn on, and I have added three other children to my family, things have changed. Maybe I have lost patience with life in general or parenting “techniques” in particular. Maybe I have grown old and bitter and…dare I say it… LAZY?! As it turned out, parenting is a lot harder and longer than any natural birth ever was. Whatever the reason, now, as a mom of four with all of them out of the toddler phase, I no longer fear no. In fact, I embrace it for the beautiful word that it really is.

While I reject the idea that parents must somehow toughen up their kids for the real world by being cruel to them, there is no denying the fact that one of my goals as a parent is to raise my children into functional adults who are able to find happiness in the world around them. The grim reality is that the world they will live in will not always redirect them or give them a kindly “Thanks, but no thanks,” every time it shuts them down.

Related: The Guilt of Saying No

Sometimes I think parents get so caught up in raising children that are happy right now, that they forget that the goal of parenting is not happy children in the moment, but happy, kind, resilient, and functional adults for the future.

In fact, there are several reasons that parents decide not to use the word no with their children, namely:

  • They don’t want to be subjected to their kids’ upset/anger
  • They want to uphold a constant positive state to their child’s upbringing
  • They’re compensating for guilt related to past experiences with their kids
  • They have an unhealthy desire to be friends with their kids
  • They believe their kids should have everything they want
  • They want their kids to have more than they did as children themselves
  • They don’t want their kids to be deprived as they may have been

And we have all started to see it. We notice the entitled children who have never heard the word no before. We seem them demand from their parents, we see them throw temper tantrums in the store, and we see them in our own homes when they come over for a playdate and you tell them no, they can’t have that piece of chocolate and they dare ask you, “But why?”

Parents who teach their children in the affirmative form of parenting whereas they tell their children “no” in a variety of ways teach their children that everything can be questioned. That there always has to be a reason beyond “Because I said so.” Sometimes it simply is because it’s not safe or feasible and that’s just the way it is. Sometimes when these children go out into the real world. they are met with an unbelievable sense of entitlement–because they’ve never been taught how to handle and deal with, “No.” As much as we’d love to have an answer for everything, that’s not the way the world works, and there’s futility we don’t want our children to have seeking things they’ll never receive.

And, in all honestly, that’s not how the world works. When they go to school, they will hear no from their teachers. When they go to work, they will hear no. What about when they are in college, being intimate with someone for the first time and he or she tells them no? What then? Will they feel entitled to know why he or she doesn’t want to be a part of the situation? Will they be able to adequately handle the rejection?

Why do future happy, kind, resilient and functional adults need to hear the word no as children? If you need an answer to that question, just look around at adults. Go for a drive in bad traffic. Take a trip to the DMV. Watch a sports event. Watch a grown up not get their way, and see what happens.

The world is full of adults who never learned how to properly deal with the word, “no.” Some are crushed and then crumble under the weight of the universe shouting a loud and firm, “NO!” in their direction. Many others are filled with anger when they don’t get what they want, when they want it. Frankly, I see grown ups like this and shudder a little inside. I sincerely hope that these are not the kind of children I am raising.

I have to admit, I don’t know the answers. There is a very good chance that I am royally fouling this up. But every time my kids freak out because they are told “no,” I wonder if I am far too often saying, “yes,” not because it is right or called for but because I fear upsetting them. Fear of our children and their moods should never be the guiding factor behind our parenting.

Related: Not Helping, He’s Parenting: A Look At Why Moms Mother But Dads Help

So I say, “no,” frequently. I say it without guilt or remorse. “No, I will not buy that for you.” “No, you may not participate in that activity.” “No, we have other responsibilities to take care of before that can happen.” “No, you didn’t clean your room as requested.”

It is still hard to disappoint my children. It isn’t my favorite thing. But I am quite sure that avoiding the word no or striving to be a mom who always says yes is the beginning of long, dark, and dirty hole.

I don’t want children who think the world owes them anything. I don’t want children who can’t cope with disappointment. I don’t want children who are enraged every time they don’t get what they want. Part of raising children who can handle life is saying, “no,” as often as needed. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them. It is one of the ways I show that I do.

PS — For the record, even if you don’t say “no” to your toddler, they will learn that word and employ it anyway. It gives us an awesome opportunity as adults to find patience when the world (or our child) shouts “NO!” in our direction. Full circle parenting.


Image: fizkes/Shutterstock

6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Saying No to Children”

  1. I agree with you entirely! As a kindergarten teacher I have pondered the use of the word “No” in my classroom. Like you mentioned above, redirection or positive praise does go a long way, but I have found like you there are times when a child needs to hear “no”. Every year I have a new great bunch of 12 5 year olds come into my classroom. Throughout the year I can begin to see which children are taught boundaries and respect at home, and which children don’t have them at all. Those children who don’t have boundaries, or who do not hear “no” involve much more redirection and hand held guidance to teach them the expectations of the classroom.
    I am fully prepared and ready to teach these kiddos the term “no” and boundaries and have done it many times. The problem I come across with teaching these concepts is it delays the learning and academics for the rest of the class. I can feel and see the children who listen the first time, waiting on me with the kiddos who do not understand sharing, listening the first time, and respecting each other. They are anxiously waiting to learn while I am backtracking with the kids who are used to their way always. The idea of No teaches so much to these darling kiddos. We learn to set goals

  2. and work towards something we can’t have right away. We learn to work together for success as a group. No when used in moderation and properly teaches great boundaries for these darling kids to prepare them for delayed gratification and team work throughout their education process and life!

  3. Saying “No” to kids is really not easy but sometimes we have to say it. I don’t see anything wrong in saying “no” to kids but for as long we say it politely and nicely then it’s fine.

  4. I got some version of anti-no propaganda from Dr. Sear’s “The Baby Book.” I love a lot of what’s in that book about attachment, but some of it is distinctly anti-feminist, and some is decent advice people just take to the extremes. I think the anti-no stuff is an example of the latter.

    In the section about baby proofing, Dr. Sears talks about how creating an environment that is safe means you aren’t exhausting yourself and your child’s patience by dramatically shouting “NO!” to prevent every little danger. He argued that basic baby-proofing could lead to a peaceful, liberating environment that allows a child to explore freely without the need to police every action.

    That made sense to me, but I could see how someone might read that, and mis-remember it later as an edict to put freedom above all else always.

  5. Saying “no” to young children is important for them because it forces them to learn to cope with whatever feelings the no creates. Whether it is anger, disappointment, frustration, or sadness these emotions must be felt in order to understand them, and if allowed to, will develop a child’s coping skills to learn that they can work through these kinds of feelings and that things will be okay if they do not get their way.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly! And, I don’t feel bad about saying no either. Babies Love their parents unconditionally. It’s their job to pull on the heartstrings and test the boundaries. It’s our job to stand firm, so that when they grow they don’t find a massive disconnect between the way they are treated by us and the other people they come across (which would undermine their confidence).
    Regarding Cynthia’s note on baby-proofing, it reminded me that we have never put locks on our cupboards, nor kept everything breakable out of reach. I think this has been good practice, because our babies have been told from a very young age that certain things are off-limits, even though they can reach them. It has made us say no, gently and consistently and helped them develop self-control. It’s amazing how few times you have to say it before it sinks in. It also forces us to be aware of where our babies are and what they are up to, rather than feeling the whole house is a giant playpen so they can just amuse themselves without our involvement. Final point: if you are there to ensure they stay safe, you can let your kids try ‘dangerous’ things, like jumping off the sofa onto a cushion. It gives them a chance to learn their boundaries and has often surprised me to find out just how capable my kids are of making safe decisions. So sometimes yes IS the answer – but never because we fear upsetting them or falling out of favour!

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