Disciplining Children: If You’re Constantly Saying No, Is Anyone Ever Happy?

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disciplining childrenWhen your kid turns two you pretty much rue the day you ever taught him the word “no.” But parents: it gets worse. Sure all that “No! NO! NOOOOOO!” coming from a tiny, surprisingly resilient being is infuriating. But what really gets me is when I hear myself using the word equally as vehemently and even more regularly.

This is what a typical morning in our household sounds like:

Child 1: “Mommy, can we watch TV?”

Me: “No. No TV in the morning.”

Child 2: “Mommy, can I have a sip of your coffee?”

Me: “No, you can’t. It’s not nice for little girls.”

Child 1: “Can I wear my pajamas to school?”

Me: “No. And anyway, your pajamas smell like pee. Get dressed.”

Child 2: “Can I put on nail polish?”

Me: “No!”

No to sandals in winter. No to tank tops and sundresses. No to coloring tattoos on your forearm. No to popsicles before lunch. No to pulling down all the window shades. No to putting on lipstick. No, no, no, no, no!

It’s even worse when I hear other parents losing control of their “no” reflex – particularly if they’re saying “no” to the one thing I would’ve said “yes” to. It’s negative, it’s overbearing and it makes me nervous. I never wanted to be a no-body – I swear.

So this year I’ve tried to temper my use of the dreaded word. I’ve found that saying “not now” or “later” to an ill-timed or even insane request keeps us all feeling a little more positive and a little less hard done by. If “no” was my invisible electric fence, the lack of it is like an acre of garden in which to run.

Eliminating the “no” eradicates the power struggle that defines so many family relationships. If there is no distinct boundary set, there remains nothing to rebel against. Sure, it may give kids a shred of hope where there may not be a chance in hell, but small kids have notoriously short memories. Also, stalling has always worked for me.

The proliferation of “not now” in our household has made the odd “no” all that more meaningful (it helps if you say it loudly). It has the same effect with my kids today as a four-letter word might have with an adult. In fact, I like that analogy. Let’s ascribe four-letter power to this measly two-letter word. Use it, and you’ll have to put a nickel in the jar.

That’ll make ’em think twice.


  1. Jen

    February 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

    I try to use no sparingly in my house as well. But I don’t replace it with “maybe later” or “not now” because my daughter WILL remember and then I will be screwed (plus, it’s lying to your kids, which I don’t really like). I try and offer options and change the conversation instead. So if my daughter wants to wear her sandals to school in the middle of January I’ll offer her a choice of her sneakers or her boots. If she wants to watch tv when I don’t want her to I’ll point out some toys I know she would like to play with instead.

    I also try and pick my battles. If she wants to put on lipstick while we are hanging in the house I really don’t care (and I keep a stock of sheer lip gloss for exactly that purpose), but she knows that it comes off before we leave the house. The same tactics work well with most of the preschoolers I deal with. I think kids just want the same thing adults do–some say in what goes on in their daily life. If we give them a bit of autonomy, they are much more likely to respect the boundaries we do set and it takes the sting out of the “no”.

    • Ellen

      February 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Some excellent insights and valuable tips. I should’ve interviewed you for the story! Best of luck.

    • Lori B.

      February 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      My thought exactly with regard to the “pick your battles.” Is it really worth the effort of a fight over matching socks??? NO! haha

      I have found that using ‘maybe’ helps. I try not to lie to my daughter, so when I say maybe, I usually mean it and attach some stipulations. For example, my daughter asks after a long day at work on a Wednesday “Can I paint?” My answer would be “Maybe, if you eat dinner without crying and help mommy clean up, then we can paint.” Sure, painting on a weekday evening is not usually what I want to do, but if I get some cooperation out of the deal, it is worth it, and I have kept a committment to my daughter.

      This has backfired on me, though, Me: “Ok, peanut, are you ready for your bath?” Peanut: “Maybe.”

  2. Makenna

    February 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    What about a 9-month old who wants to play with the covered electrical sockets, or try to get into the kitty box? It’s hard to not say no then, and you really should never say “maybe later” to those. I try to take him and put him in his toys, but he doesn’t seem interested, and goes back to doing whatever naughty thing he was doing before.

    Does anyone have any suggestions?

    • CW

      February 2, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      “Yucky! Litter boxes are for kitties” works. So does “Ouch! Outlets can hurt you.” Children respond better to these kinds of statements than ones framed negatively.

  3. Krista

    February 3, 2012 at 12:19 am

    I used something along that line all the time when I was nanny-ing before I had my daughter. I gave the kids options, while not using the word “No.” Not because I’m one of those new-age moms that think denying a child of something will wreck his life, but because the word really does lose meaning after saying it 823402 times during a day. When the same kid who’s been snacking all day only finishes half his dinner and asks “Can I have some ice cream now?” I’d say something like “You can have an apple or a peach.” Lori, my nanny kids NEVER wanted to take baths! So I said things like “Wanna take a bath now or after dinner?”

    • Lori B.

      February 3, 2012 at 10:33 am

      Thanks for the tip! My favorite thing is when I have to bargain with her to get in the bath tub, then when it is time to get out, I have to bargain with her again!!

    • Jen

      February 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

      Lori: My daughter was the same way with baths. Buying a few fun bath toys became a lifesaver. Whenever she complains about taking a bath we simply remind her about her favorite toys and she literally runs to the bathroom. We put a cheap kitchen timer in there too and set it. When it buzzes she knows it’s time to get out. AND she gets out promptly because the one time she refused to get out of the tub when we asked her to she lost bath toy privileges for the next night. She hated that and has never given us trouble since!

  4. NotThumper

    February 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    “It’s even worse when I hear other parents losing control of their “no” reflex – particularly if they’re saying “no” to the one thing I would’ve said “yes” to.”

    I was thinking the same thing. I even thought it when you were listing some of the things you’d say no to, like the tank top or sundress. I would say yes but only if she’ll wear a long sleeved shirt underneath for both and tights with boots for the sundress.
    I also love the idea of the sheer lipgloss someone else mentioned above!

    My daughter is just a baby right now but I used to work in a daycare with 2 year olds so I can attest to the fact that they do remember! 😉

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