The Art of Saying No

You know how there are certain things kids say that will almost certainly draw a negative response from a parent? Things like “Everybody else is allowed to _____,” or “Nothing good ever happens in my life,” or “Drew’s parents don’t make him _____.” 

Similarly, there are things parents can say that will almost certainly draw a negative response from a child. Things like “no.” There are others, of course, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that this is the universal least favorite word of children of all ages.

I am a big believer in no. Watching parents interact with children and teenagers in my office sometimes leaves me wondering if saying no has become a lost art. Parents often seem hesitant to disappoint their kids or to make them angry. While there are certainly times that it makes sense to resolve a conflict with a child collaboratively, it is essential that parents be able to say no. Children of all ages count on their parents to set limits. Self-control develops slowly across the entire span of childhood into young adulthood. Young people cannot always set appropriate limits on their own behavior; they need the help of adults.

Kids often have a different take on parents’ willingness to say no. In a recent session, a young client of mine stated

No, no, no. That’s all my mother ever says. – Daniel, age 6

To many a child’s dismay, a lot of requests that children make can be handled with a simple “no” response. Here are some examples:

  • Can Joel and I stay up all night and watch a full season of Walking Dead?
  • I’m tired of cereal. Can I have potato chips for breakfast?
  • Can I borrow your new sweater to wear to the dance-a-thon?

There would be nothing wrong with adding an explanation in any of the scenarios above. It would be fine, for example, to say

  • No. You guys have a game tomorrow; you need to get some sleep.
  • No. Breakfast is an important meal; I want you to eat something more nutritious than chips.
  • No. I don’t want my new sweater to get all sweaty.

Depending on the particular child and his mood at the moment, he may receive no relatively graciously or he may react negatively. Offering an explanation may or may not increase the likelihood of a gracious response. Once you have said no, it is important to stick to the limit you have set. The time to consider whether saying no is worth risking a battle with your child is before you say it. If you have any hesitation at all about saying no, simply tell your child you want a few minutes to think about the request. Ask yourself this question: Is it important enough to say no that I will follow through no matter how negatively my child responds? If not, consider whether saying yes would be such a bad idea.

Take, for example, the request to stay up all night to binge-watch a television show. It isn’t necessary to think of this request in all-or-nothing terms; this type of request lends itself nicely to meeting in the middle. Instead of no, you could say “All night is too much; you boys have a game tomorrow. Start watching now, and you can get through three episodes by midnight. Then it’s lights out.”

Think about the request to have potato chips for breakfast. Imagine Nichola woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and you need to take her to school early because you have to meet an important client. If your gut tells you that at this particular moment, Nichola is not in the mood to accept no without a fight and you know that you are in a time crunch, what harm would be done by saying, instead of no, “You know what? I am going to let you have chips as a special treat this morning, as long as you eat something healthy with them. How about I get you a yogurt?”

Here are some additional examples of creative ways to say no that may be more easily accepted by young people:

Gary: Mom, can I stay up and watch the game on Wednesday? I know it starts late but it’s the championship. Mom: We can watch the first half together on Wednesday night, and we’ll watch the second half as soon as I get home from work on Thursday.”

Brianna: Why don’t we ever have anything good for dinner? Can we pleeeeease have burgers tonight? Dad: I already have lasagna in the oven for tonight. What night should we grill burgers?

Mason: Joey is driving everybody to his mountain house after the prom. Can I go? Dad: I am uncomfortable with a car full of teens on winding roads late at night. What other ideas have you guys come up with?

Penelope: My coach wants me to sign up for a point guard clinic. It only costs $250. Mom: That’s a lot of money on top of the league fees. Any ideas how you could earn that money?

Note that in each of these examples, Mom or Dad is denying the child’s request. Mom is not allowing Gary to stay up late to watch the game, Brianna is not getting a burger for dinner tonight, Dad is not allowing Mason to go to the mountains after prom, and Penelope is not getting to attend the clinic at her mother’s expense. While none of these more creative ways of saying no guarantees a pleasant response from a young person, they do communicate openness to finding a way to say yes – yes to a similar activity, yes at another time, yes in a different way.

Therein lies the art of saying no. There is no question about whether parents have to say it. The challenge is to decide when and how to do so. Sometimes, the best course is simply to say the word. Sometimes, it is best to offer an explanation. Sometimes, suggesting an alternative that would allow you to say yes works best. When in doubt, take a deep breath and take a few minutes to think through the decision. Finally, remember that, however you choose to say it, no means no.

[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]


About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Preschool/Nursery School and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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