How to Say No Positively
“No” is a power-packed word, quick on the lips, easy to say. Your child will hear you use this word often, and you will hear it from your child as well. It’s necessary for a parent to learn how to say “no” to a child so the child can later say “no” to himself.
All children—and some adults—have difficulty delaying gratification. “I want it now” is a driving desire, especially in toddlers. Learning to accept “no” from someone else is a prelude to saying “no” to herself. What gets children (and adults) into trouble is a knee-jerk, impulsive reaction to a want, an immediate “yes” without taking time to run it through their internal sensor and consider the necessity of saying “no” to themselves. Learn how to say no to teach positive messages with these 18 strategies.
1. Strike a Balance
Too many no’s and too many yes’s cripple a child’s self-discipline. It’s important to achieve the right blend of yes’s, and no’s in a child’s environment. If you rarely say “no” to your child, the few times that you do, he’ll disintegrate because he’s not used to being frustrated. If his whole day is full of “no’s,” the child believes the world is a negative place to be and will grow up a negative person. The real world will always be full of yes’s, and no’s. In many homes, children soon learn who the yes parent is and who’s more likely to say “no.” Even the Ten Commandments have do’s and don’ts.
2. No’s Grow Too
The art of how to say no develops along with your baby. During the first year, a baby’s needs and wants are the same, so that you are mainly a “yes” parent. During the second year, a baby’s wants are not always safe or healthy, so you become a “yes” and “no” parent. From nine to fourteen months, how to say no is straight forward. We call them “low energy no’s.”
Between fourteen and eighteen months, as babies click into overdrive, they get easily frustrated and are likely to protest being steered in a direction other than the one they want to go. This is when you will need both high energy no’s and very creative alternatives. By eighteen months, how to say no can begin to be more matter-of-fact. Parents can begin to convey an attitude of “that’s life, and I’m confident you can deal with it.” By two-years-of-age toddlers are experts at how to say no.
3. Use Creative Alternatives To Say No Positively
One morning when she was eighteen- months-old, our daughter Lauren, who was going through an impulsive phase, flitted around the house climbing and getting into everything. She was endangering herself and trashing the house. After the twentieth “no,” I was tired of hearing that word, and so was Lauren.
On the wall in one of our children’s bedrooms, I noticed a poster of a kitten stuck out on a limb at the top of a tree. The caption read, “Lord, protect me from myself.” I realized that Lauren needed rescuing from her impulsive self. She needed a change of environment. We spent the rest of the day outside. Parks and play-yards provide space and a “yes” environment in which to roam and climb.
If you find yourself isolated with a curious toddler who is flitting from thing to thing with you chasing him around the house saying “no,” consider changing to something more fun. Go outside; take along a book, plant yourself in a safe location, and let him run.
The fewer “no’s,” the better your day goes.
4. Teach Stop Signs
Even in the early months, teach baby to recognize body language that means “stop.” Your baby needs to be exposed to “stop” body language long before hearing the “no” word. The first nip on your nipple during breastfeeding will invoke an “ouch” sign on your face; the first time your baby reaches for something dangerous, your face will register alarm. You are likely to get the best results from your stop signs if your baby has been used to positive body language so that any change makes him sit up and take notice.
Your “no’s” will be more meaningful during toddlerhood if your baby sees a lot of “yes” body language: looks of pride and approval, gestures of delight and pleasure, eye-to-eye contact, hugs, tickles, and a sparkly face that says “I love you, you’re great!” We have noticed those attachment-parented children, because they spend hours a day in arms and in face-to-face contact, easily learn to read parents’ faces and body language. Having lots of face-to-face contact in the early months makes face-to-face communication easier in the months and years to come. Some children are so impressed by body language that you can get your point across without even saying a word. An expressive mother of a connected two-year-old told us: “Usually, all I have to do is glance at her with a slight frown on my face, and she stops misbehaving.”
5. Teach Stop Sounds
Often a change in your mood or body language is not enough to redirect impulsive actions. Words are needed to say no positively. Children soon learn which discipline words carry more power and demand a quicker response than others. And children soon learn which tone of voice means business and which allows for some latitude. Arm yourself with a variety of “stop-what-you’re-doing” sounds so that you can choose one that fits the occasion. Tailor the intensity of the sound to the gravity of the behavior. Save the really big sounds for true danger.
6. Master “The Look”
You can learn how to say no without saying a word. I have noticed that master disciplinarians use a look of disapproval that stops the behavior but preserves the child’s self-image. Martha, after disciplining eight children, has mastered “the look”: head turned a bit, eyes penetrating, just the right facial gesture and tone of voice to convey to the child, “I don’t like what you’re doing, but I still feel connected to you. I know that you know better.” Remember, your eyes will disclose what you are really thinking and feeling. If you are feeling anger or contempt toward your child, that’s what she will read in your eyes. If one or both of you recognize this is happening, you will have to apologize for the harshness of the feelings communicated toward her person by “the look.”
Be sure that stop signs and stop sounds stop the behavior and not the growth of self-worth in your child. Your child should understand that you disapprove of the behavior, not the child. To be certain, you strike the right note in disapproval discipline, follow the look with a hug, a smile, or a forthright explanation, “I don’t like what you did, but I like you.”
7. Create Alternatives
Constantly saying “no” causes this word to lose its punch. Since stop sounds are used mainly to protect, try using more specific words that fit the situation. Consider this example: When a toddler is about to reach into the cat litter box, your first reaction is to say “no,” but follow it up with an explanation: “Dirty! Make you sick.” Next time the child goes for the litter box (and he will do it again), instead of “no,” say, “Dirty! Make you sick.” That and a disgusted expression on your face will help the child learn the why as well as the what of good behavior, and the litter box will lose its attraction. (We are assuming that the litter box is kept in a location well away from the toddler’s beaten path. Litter, like sand, is irresistible to babies.)
Non-Triggering “No” Words for Toddlers
Babies start reaching for “no-nos” around six months. Coincidentally, one day two-year-old Lauren came prancing into our study clutching a bag of peanuts. Instead of grabbing the peanuts from her and shouting “no” (they are on our chokable food list for children under three), Martha looked Lauren straight in the eyes and calmly said, “Not for Lauren.” Her tone of voice and concerned look stopped Lauren in her tracks. Martha picked Lauren up (still clutching the peanuts) and headed off for the pantry, where they found a safer snack. By using our standard “not for Lauren” phrase and giving her a safe alternative, she didn’t have time to consider throwing a fit, which a “no” surely would have produced.
In any family, there will be items that are “not for” the little one. When you use this phrase calmly and consistently from early on, you, learn how to say no so that toddler understands you are protecting him. How to say no sometimes requires other words than just no. “No” is so easy to say. It requires no thought. It’s knee-jerk automatic yet irritatingly oppressive. Saying “cannot” communicates more, and you’ll use it more thoughtfully (i.e., in situations where baby truly cannot proceed). You’re respecting his mind as you protect his body.
In our experience, babies respond to “stop” better than “no.” It gets the child’s attention and stops behavior long enough for you to plan other strategies. “Stop” is protective rather than punitive. “No” invites a clash of wills, but even strong-willed children will usually stop momentarily to evaluate a “stop” order as if they sense danger ahead. Strong-minded children often ignore “no” if they’ve heard it a thousand times before. Even “stop” loses its command value if overused.
8. How to Say No Requires Use of “The Voice”
Besides mastering “the look,” reserve a special tone of voice for how to say no on those occasions when you must get your point across. A veteran disciplinarian shared her secret with us: “I am an easy-going mommy, but my children know just by my tone of voice when they have crossed the line. One day our two-year-old was misbehaving, and our four-year-old said, “Don’t mess with Mommy when she talks like that!”
9. Give Positive Subs
How to say no often requires presenting a positive with your negative: “You can’t have the knife, but you can have the ball.” Use a convincing expression to market the “can-do” in order to soften the “can’t do.” “You can’t go across the street,” you say with a matter-of-fact tone of voice, then carefully state, “You can help Mommy sweep the sidewalk.” There is a bit of creative marketing in every mother.
10. Avoid Set-Ups
If you’re taking your child along with you to a toy store to buy a birthday present for your child’s friend, realize that you are setting yourself up for a confrontation. Your child is likely to want to buy everything in the store. To avoid the inevitable “No, you can’t have that toy,” before you go into the store, tell him that you are there to buy a birthday present and not a toy for him so that he is programmed not to expect a toy.
11. “No” Is a Child’s Word Too
Prepare yourself to be on the receiving end of “no.” Your two-year-old has just run out the door. You ask her to come back. She yells, “no!” Your first reaction is likely to be, “This little pip-squeak is not going to talk back to me that way. I’ll show her who’s boss…” (In our family, being disrespectful is a real “no-no.”) Understanding what’s behind that two-year-old and that two-letter word will help you accept this normal toddler behavior.
Don’t take “no” personally. Saying “no” is important for a child’s development and for establishing his identity as an individual. This is not defiance or rejection of your authority. Some parents feel they cannot tolerate any “no’s” at all from their children, thinking that to permit this would undermine their authority. They wind up curtailing an important process of self-emergence. Children have to experiment with where their mother leaves off and where they begin. Parents can learn to respect individual wishes and still stay in charge and maintain limits.
As your child gets older, the ability to get along with peers in certain situations (stealing, cheating, drugs, and so on) will depend on her ability to learn how to say no. By eighteen months, Lauren had surmised that “no” meant we wanted her to stop what she was doing. One day she was happily playing with water at the kitchen sink. As she saw me approaching, and in anticipation of me stopping her play, she blurted out an emphatic, “No, Dad!” Lauren had staked out her territory, and she had concluded she had a right to do this. Her “no” meant she was guarding her space.
12. How to Say No and Be Funny
One afternoon I (Martha) walked into the TV room and saw Matthew and his friend watching a video that the older children had rented and watched the day before. (Later, I found out Matthew had also watched it at that time.) I took one look at the movie and realized I would have to ask him to turn it off. Besides, it was the middle of the day, and the boys should have been playing outside.
As I stood watching the movie for a few moments planning my course of action, I caught the flavor of the character in the movie and, in a spurt of inspiration, decided to use humor to say no. As I clicked off the TV, I spun around on my heels and launched into a monologue using the character’s facial expressions, accent, and hand gestures. I must have done a good job of impersonating this actor because both boys sat staring at me wide-eyed as though they couldn’t believe their mom was capable of such improvised insanity. They both jumped up and headed out the door as the voice of this character told them to find something better to do. They were still laughing.
13. Personalize “No”
We are convinced Lauren is destined for public relations. Her “no, dad” was the diplomatic way for how to say no. By adding “dad” she personalized her message. Rather than giving a dictatorial “no,” we add the child’s name. If you tend to shout, a personalized address at least softens the sound and respects the listener. Some parents confuse respecting the child with granting him equal power, but this is not a power issue. The person with the power should respect the person taken charge of. That consideration holds true in parenting; it holds true in other relationships as well.
14. Have a “Yes” Day
Jill, the mother of five-year-old Andrew, confided to me, “I don’t like what’s happening to me. I want to enjoy being a mother, but our whole day is spent in conflict with each other. Andrew won’t mind when I ask him to do even the simplest things. I’m becoming a cranky person, and I want to be a happy mother.” I advised her, “Tell Andrew exactly what you want. Say ‘I want to be a happy Mommy, not a cranky Mommy (or ask Andrew, ‘Would you rather have a happy Mommy or a cranky Mommy?’).
To help me be a happy Mommy, we’re going to have yes days. Every time I ask you to do something and you say ‘yes Mommy,’ I’m going to put a yes on the chart. At the end of the day, if there are more yes’s than no’s, that’s a yes day, and we’ll do something special together.'” (Or, let Andrew mark yes on his own chart.) Soon Andrew will realize that the happy Mommy is more fun to be with than the cranky Mommy, which will motivate him to continue having yes days.
15. How to Say No and Be Considerate
When you have to stop a behavior, there is no reason to be rude. For example, your baby discovers the tape dispenser someone left out. This is a wonderful toy. Instead of descending on him and snatching it from his hands, causing him to wail pitifully as you carry him off, you can take a few moments to explore it with him. Then you say “bye-bye” to the tape and hand him a decent length of the fascinating stuff to compensate for not getting the whole roll as you head off for a perhaps less interesting but more age-appropriate activity.
16. When You Say It, Mean It
Follow through on your directives. For months we said to Lauren that in order to have bedtime stories, she had to submit to toothbrushing. And for months, it worked, sometimes easily, sometimes with a certain amount of coaxing and saying, “okay, no stories…” one night, she decided to test me (Martha). I could tell by the set of her jaw and firmly shut lips that she finally was “calling my bluff.” So rather than proceed with my coaxing and humoring, I calmly said, “okay, no stories!” I turned off the lights and carried her to bed. She fussed a bit as I lay there with her because she realized I had called her bluff, and now the lights were out—the irreversible sign that the next step was to go to sleep. After that, toothbrushing went unchallenged, and stories were reinstated.
17. Are You a Mother Who Can’t Say No?
In their zeal to give their children everything they need, some parents risk giving their children everything they want. Mothers who practice attachment parenting risk becoming totally “yes” mothers, with how to say no being foreign to their parenting style. It is important for the mother to feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to her little one from the very beginning.
In fact, it begins when she teaches her newborn to latch on to the breast correctly. It is the mother’s first discipline situation— to show baby how to latch on properly so that he can get fed sufficiently and she can avoid sore nipples. Some mothers cannot do this. They are afraid to be assertive for fear of causing baby to cry. They would rather let the baby do it wrong and put up with the pain. She will say ‘no’ early on when he yanks her hair or bites the breast while nursing. By telling him to stop because it hurts, she is beginning to teach boundaries.
“No” is Not Negative
Serious learning how to say no comes with toddlerhood. Besides the literal word ‘no,’ there are many ways to communicate that something is not safe or appropriate. Whether she says “stop that” or “put it down” or “not safe,” or she physically redirects her toddler’s activity, she is consistently and gently redirecting behavior and teaching boundaries. Whatever the terminology, saying ‘no’ is not a negative thing. It is a way of giving, and it takes a lot of effort.
Mothers who can’t learn how to say no will have a big problem on their hands down the line. They become the moms that we see getting yanked around like puppets by their preschoolers. When mothers begin saying ‘no’ at the appropriate times—confidently, firmly, and lovingly—it does not threaten the child. It might wrinkle him for a few minutes because he doesn’t like hearing ‘stop’ or ‘wait’ or whatever the word might be that you pick.
18. When Your Child Won’t Accept No
Children, especially those with a strong will, try to wear parents down. They are convinced they must have something, or their world can’t go on. They pester and badger until you say “yes” just to stop the wear and tear on your nerves. This is faulty discipline. If, however, your child’s request seems reasonable after careful listening, be willing to negotiate. Sometimes you may find it wise to change your mind after saying “no.”
While you want your child to believe your “no” means no, you also want your child to feel you are approachable and flexible. It helps to hold your “no” until you’ve heard your child out. If you sense your child is uncharacteristically crushed or angry at your “no,” listen to her side. Maybe she has a point you hadn’t considered, or her request is a bigger deal to her than you imagined. Be open to reversing your decision, if warranted. Make sure, though, that she realizes it was not her “wear down” tactics that got the reversal of your decision.
Erin and Tuffy
Our daughter Erin seems destined to become a trial lawyer; she pleads her case with logic and emotion. Eventually, we learned how to say no without discouraging Erin’s creative persistence. When Erin wanted a horse, we said: “no” (we had too many dependents already). Erin persisted. By trial and error, we’ve learned that any big wish in a child, no matter how ridiculous, merits hearing the child’s viewpoint.
We listened attentively and empathetically while Erin presented her horse wish. We countered, “Erin, we understand why you want a horse. You could have a lot of fun riding and grooming a horse, and some of your friends have horses.” We wanted Erin to feel we understood her point of view. “But we have to say no; we will not change our minds. Now let’s sit down and calmly work this out.”
Letting the child know her request is non-negotiable diffuses the child’s steam and saves you from getting worn down. “You are not yet ready to care for a horse.” We enumerated the responsibilities that went along with the fun of owning a horse. “When you have finished another six months of lessons, and you show us that you can be responsible for a horse, we’ll talk about it then.” Nine months later, Tuffy was added to our list of dependents. Erin got her horse, and she learned some valuable lessons in life: how to delay her gratification, and with privileges come responsibilities.
For more information, see The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten