“Please can I? Can I? Huh? Can I? Can I? Puh-leeeze?!”
“You never let me do anything! It’s not fair! You only do things for my sister!”
“Everybody else gets to do it. Why are you always so mean?”
Setting limits with kids can be challenging. They may beg, bargain, cry, accuse, or demand relentlessly in ways that are wearing for parents. Some parents may give in just to avoid a battle. Others feel guilty for disappointing their children. Still others find themselves saying no at the top of their lungs.
Saying no is an important responsibility for parents. Our nos teach kids important lessons about life and getting along.
Here are seven situations when you may need to say no to your kids and some suggestions for how to do it.
1) Say no when their actions might hurt someone or break something
Preventing harm is the number one reason to say no. Children may have trouble anticipating bad outcomes, so they need adult guidance to help them make sensible choices. This kind of no helps kids learn to think ahead.
Offering an alternative can redirect kids toward safer activities. Example: “No, you can’t jump on the couch. Someone could get hurt on the sharp table, or the couch might break. If you want to jump around, please go outside.”
2) Say no when they could do it on their own
Sometimes kids ask parents to do things for them that they could do on their own. While there’s nothing wrong with an occasional favor from a parent, children need practice to become competent and to see themselves as contributing in positive ways to the family. This kind of no helps kids learn to be capable.
Offer training or support, if needed, but encourage your child to own the responsibility. Example: “No, it’s your turn to set the table. Do you remember how to do it? I’ll do one place as an example that you can copy.”
3) Say no when it’s a want, not a need
We’re constantly bombarded with ads but buying everything that appeals isn’t healthy or wise. While an occasional just-because treat can be fun, you certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to buy everything that strikes your child’s fancy. This kind of no helps children learn to tolerate disappointment and recognize that they can like something without owning it.
You can acknowledge your child’s wish while not giving in to buying an unneeded item. Example: “No, we’re not going to buy it, but I can see why you like it! It’s very shiny.”
4) Say no when plans change
Life happens. Even when we intend to do something our children want, sometimes circumstances get in the way. This kind of no helps children learn patience and flexibility.
Making a specific new plan can help your child cope with the delay. Example: “No, we can’t do that tonight. I was hoping we could, but then Aunt Margaret came by, and now it’s too close to bedtime. Let’s make a plan to do it tomorrow. Do you want to do it in the morning or the afternoon?”
5) Say no when someone else’s needs (temporarily) matter more
Kids are naturally self-centered, but considering someone else’s needs enables them move past that. This kind of no helps children learn generosity.
Painting a vivid picture of the other person’s feelings makes it easier for kids to embrace kind choices. Example: “No, you can’t go with your friends on Saturday. It sounds fun, but we have Grandma’s birthday party. We love Grandma so we want to make sure she has a good time on her birthday. I know she’s looking forward to spending time with you. She would feel hurt if you didn’t come.”
6) Say no when you’ll resent doing something
Resentment is poison in any relationship. It’s usually better not to do something than to do it with bitterness and anger. This kind of no helps children learn about healthy boundaries or compromise.
You may be able to suggest a more do-able alternative to make your no easier for your child to accept. Example: “No, you can’t sign up for travel soccer because I don’t want to spend all day Saturday driving to far-away games. Saturday is our family time. I’d be happy to sign you up for the local team, which is less of a commitment for parents.”
7) Say no when it’s against your values
We teach our children about our values through the choices we make. Sometimes you may feel—and your child may loudly protest—that you’re the only parent making a certain decision, but you need to true to your cherished beliefs. This kind of no teaches children about priorities and integrity.
It may help to explain to your child the rationale behind your (unpopular) choice, but don’t feel like you have to convince your child that you are right. You are, after all, the parent. Example: “No, you can’t get a cell phone. I don’t think they’re appropriate for children your age, and I don’t want it to interfere with your schoolwork or family time.”
Your child won’t thank you for saying no, but sometimes a no is the best thing you can do for your child. Mountains of research show that the parenting style that is most beneficial for children involves a combination of warmth and limits. As an adult, you have a breadth of knowledge and experience that your child just doesn’t. You can empathize, compromise, redirect, or explain to soften the no, but for your child’s sake, don’t be afraid to say no when necessary.
For in-depth examples of ways to say no to children of different ages, check out PT blogger Susan Newman’s newly updated, thoughtful and thorough guide, The Book of No. The book addresses the many reasons we’re tempted to avoid saying no and offers specific scripts to use to set limits as parents and in other areas of our lives.