The Most Loving Way to Say ‘No’

I share lots of advice about toddler behavior because I know many parents find discipline issues intensely challenging. I was one of them. With my first child, especially, learning to recognize and respond effectively to her tests and limit-pushing behavior (which seemed to spring out of nowhere towards the end of her first year) took a concerted effort.

A father I consulted with recently shared a spot-on analogy that helped me understand my personal struggle and connect some dots.

He and his wife had been handling their toddler’s demands and clinginess with sensitivity, yet her behaviors were becoming more intense and frequent. I was recommending that they be more clear, direct, and unafraid of their child’s strong feelings when it suddenly clicked for him, “Oh, so this is like when someone wants to date you and you’re not interested, but instead of being direct you try to let them down easy…and then they don’t end up getting the message.”

Bingo. That analogy really resonated, because that was once me. I avoided confrontation and saying “no”. I didn’t want to risk hurting anyone’s feelings or make them angry at me. I did not want to be rejected, even when I was basically rejecting that person myself. I played it safe so I would continue to be “liked” and not create waves.

So, I made excuses and more excuses, rather than simply admitting, “Thanks, but I’m not interested in dating you.” Invariably, the guy would keep calling (no texting to hide behind back then, though I’m sure I would have appreciated it!), and I’d need to keep evading and avoiding him. I’d become increasingly annoyed and resentful. Can’t he take a hint? But whose fault was it? Mine, of course.

We can create a similar dynamic with our children. We “string them along” when we are not clear and direct, usually because we don’t want to face the music. Understandably. Screaming, crying and tantrums aren’t music to anyone’s ears, but when we attempt to avoid or tiptoe around our children’s feelings, their undesirable behavior and neediness usually continue (or crop up again later), and then we are the ones who end up screaming. We have only ourselves to blame.

The most loving way to say ‘no’ is directly, confidently and long before we become annoyed or angry. This isn’t about being harsh, and it’s definitely not punitive. It’s simply being decisive — projecting calm conviction.

It is best to use the actual word ‘no’ only occasionally, because children tune it out if we use it too much. It’s also not as respectful or clarifying as “I won’t let you, because that hurts,” or “I can’t let you, because that isn’t safe,” or “I can’t play with you right now. I need to get our dinner ready.”

However, when parents and children are having difficulties because the parents aren’t being direct and clear enough, I encourage them to say (or at least think in terms of) ‘no’, along with a very brief explanation. ‘No’ can help parents (and therefore children) feel more clear. Children will often let us know that they need even more clarity by continuing the limit-pushing behavior. They need to know we mean what we say and are comfortable following through and stopping them.

We can’t be clear with our toddlers if we don’t have clarity ourselves. This is why issues involving safety tend to be the easiest for parents to say ‘no’ to. Much more challenging are less clear-cut issues like:

Weaning

Separations that aren’t absolutely necessary (like we want to go to the bathroom or somewhere else in the house while leaving our child in a safe play area).

Bedtime and sleep issues (even less clear because we’re tired and our defenses our down).

Our child’s preference for one parent while with the other parent

Stalling

Another parent I consulted with recently was struggling to get comfortable setting limits with her toddler, but she was able to help me help her when she told me about the one situation that had always felt crystal clear: Insisting her son hold hands in the parking lot.  Every time she brought up a situation in which she wavered (like when she needed him to finish his bath and sensed he was stalling), I’d remind her, “You’re holding his hand in the parking lot.” That’s how clear we need to be. Remember, there’s always the option of changing our mind (clearly) later.

Also remember that toddlers are incredibly aware, especially tuned in to their parents, and learning all the time.  So the question is never “Are they learning?” It’s “What are they learning?”

  • When we feel uneasy or unsure saying ‘no’ in a particular situation, and perhaps we try to coax, cajole, make it work for our child, she has no choice but to feel uneasy.
  • If we worry about our child’s feelings in response to our boundaries (perhaps we tread lightly or try to console our “poor baby”), she has no choice but to feel uncomfortable with these feelings.
  • When our kids sense us using kid gloves around them, they feel weak and incapable instead of healthy and willful like toddlers need to be, and they have no choice but to continue playing the role we’ve unwittingly chosen for them.

To make matters even murkier, while our children are getting messages from us through our every interaction, we are also getting input from them. So, our hesitancy to address guidance moments directly creates discomfort for our children, which they might express through clingy, needy behavior. Then (Egads!) our fears are confirmed: We see a fragile, anxious, needy child, whom we dare not disappoint. And the cycle continues.

So, parents are called to be brave and let their children off the hook by giving them direct responses. We must speak to our children’s strengths, rather than fearing their weaknesses. They deserve the truth. And they can handle it, but only if we believe they can.

***

I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by Hebe Aguilera on Flickr)

36 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Brettania says:

    I had always thought to myself how interesting it was that my now 3-year old tests lots of boundaries but never has tested my rule of not going into the street without holding hands. We walk in the neighborhood daily and he always stops and holds out his hand to grab my hand before we cross a street together and he always stops at each driveway to check for cars before we cross over it. So many times I wondered why he takes this limit so seriously but not the others… now I know why. I am now sure that I must seem much more clear, confident and serious about that limit than any other. This gives me great insight to change how I handle other limits! Thanks for a wonderful post.

    1. Thanks, Brettania! And yes, it doesn’t even have to be “serious” per se, but children do need decisiveness from us.

  2. I have struggled with this, but I am getting better. My own mother was (and continues to be) afraid of her own children. (this stems from her lack of self-worth and fear of abandonment). I have always felt anger and resentment toward her (even now as an adult) for not “having a backbone”. My siblings and I cannot express our true opinions and feelings because it will set her into a tailspin or leave us abandoned ourselves (no phone calls for days or weeks). I don’t want the same to happen to me with my own children.

    1. I can relate to you. Glad to hear you’re “getting better”. This is challenging work, but hugely important…and healing for us, too. We can do this.

  3. Again, excellent advice. Funny, I wrote about this today, also: It is helpful to see children as scientists building a causal map of the world with them as chief causal agent, yes? http://ow.ly/xb5hl
    See what you think?

    1. Thank you, Rick! I’m off to teach today, but will look forward to reading your post over the weekend. I always appreciate your perspective.

  4. avatar Louise Ronald says:

    Do you think the same holds true for an aunt — or these days, great-aunt — who only sees the child occasionally?

    1. I think the same hold’s true for anyone caring for a child, Louise. Why not be clear and honest? But your influence will not be nearly as strong as that of the parents (obviously).

  5. I just wanted to pop on to say that I downloaded your book, Elevating Child Care, to my Kindle and I’m devouring it! Thank you so much for a great and inspiring read.

  6. avatar Laurence P says:

    I often felt that when I couldn’t set clear boundaries, it was because I wasn’t confident it would work. Somehow it’s almost unbeleivable to people (and myself) that when you say something to a toddler, he’s listening (even if he doesn’t agree).

    1. YES, Laurence, and that is the key…knowing that he is listening and what we say does matter.

  7. This post is so helpful. I think sometimes I make life hard for us both when I’m ambivalent about the instruction. We generally have no time pressures so I allow ‘just a little bit more’ too often. No wonder she doesn’t know when I really want us to get ready and go.
    Both examples really resonate with me.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog.

    1. You’re so welcome, Alison! Yes, sometimes even that “little bit more” gives children the impression that these limits are murky… or that the choice is theirs. And then a sense of uncertainty can permeate their whole day.

  8. Soooo true, real love needs brave parents!! I am thrilled to let you know I have a paperback copy of your book and I am reading it v e r y s l o w l y relishing every idea!!! So happy!! I even plan to take a picture of me and the book to share all over the world!!!
    The only part of this post I cannot relate to is the part of having to put down someone who wanted to date with me, I wasn´t the kind of girl that everyone wanted to date with, cannot understand why, being myself such a lovely person, lol!
    Much love, Fernanda

    1. You are too adorable, Fernanda! They were lining up for you, I’m sure.

      Thank you for reading the book and sharing your supportive words. I always love hearing from my friend in Argentina!

      Love and blessings,
      Janet

      1. Nooo, belive me, they were not. Better so. I am so happy with my dear husband it was worth all the waiting. Much love, Fernanda

  9. My husband and I are struggling with how to deal with our 20 month old who repeatedly tests us by turning the knobs on the gas stove, and then walking away. This is obviously incredibly dangerous and we have been decidedly calm and firm in directly telling her “I won’t let you touch the stove, it’s not safe”, but she continues to do it with a grin on her face. I know that the times she is doing this is when her defenses are low such as when she is tired, but I can’t seem to get the point across to her that it’s not OK to touch the stove. We never have done a time out before but chose to put her on her room with her door closed for one minute (with an expected upset reaction from her), and that seemed to do the trick for now. Do you have any suggestions of better ways to create a form boundary with her? Thank you, hopefully my house is still standing to read your reply:) Christy

    1. Oh, gosh, I hope it’s still standing!

      Regarding the stove, talk is not enough for toddlers, but punishments don’t help either. Children this age are explorers and testers and if their exploration isn’t safe, it is up to us to prevent the behavior. The safest bet would be to prevent her access to the kitchen by placing a gate over the doorway. If she has access, this will likely continue to be an issue…but you can diffuse the situation by calmly “underreacting”…being very nonchalant and saying something like: “Please don’t do that, it isn’t safe.”. Right now it sounds like your daughter knows that turning this knob is “pushing your buttons”, and a way to get negative attention. This isn’t a healthy or fair position to put her in, in my opinion.

      1. Can you remove the knobs? Just place them somewhere she can’t reach but where you can access them when you need them. You can tell her they will go back on when she is ready, meaning when she is old enough to know that she can’t touch them. I would wait until she (and you) have pretty much forgotten about the issue.

  10. Just bought your book, looking forward to reading it!

  11. Once I caught my then preschooler about to jump of the couch. He looked so guilty and then asked, “Can I jump?” I replied, “Son, if you have to ask, I am thinking you already know the answer to that one.” Days later we found ourselves in a bit of a power struggle. I looked at him and asked, “Son, who is the boss here?” He looked me dead in the eye and replied, “If you have to ask…” Lesson learned. Boundaries are a good thing.

  12. Thank you so much for your reply, and your guidance on your site. I feel like every article helps me to be a better mother. Regarding our dilemma, I think you’re right that she is trying to get negative attention. This usually happens when she is tired and as I’m cleaning up the kitchen in the evening before bath time… Usually after I’ve told her that I can’t pick her up because I have to finish the dishes… Instead of just crying for not getting her way this is her reaction. I think the only way to stop the behavior is to get a gate like you suggested, but doesn’t that seem like a punishment too? Do I put the gate up as a result/natural consequence to that behavior, while maintaining calm and nonchalant, or do I leave it up all the time and completely restrict her access to the kitchen? She enjoys playing with cups/scrub brush on the floor while I cook and helps tear lettuce with me. I’m learning that this is all a dance to get it right:)

    1. Hi Christy, maybe there is something else here, not only driving your attention in a negative way. Because she is experiencing a frustration that is not been named. I would acknowledge her feelings first, before offering her a firm and calm limit. Bending down and looking her in the eyes I would name her struggle first using the “sports broadcast technique”. Very slowly, pausing, giving her time to process and really caring about her feelings I would say something like: “You want me to hold you. You might be tired. I am busy doing the dishes now. You don’t like that. I can understand you”. And only then, if she insists, I would add: “but I wont let you touch the stove”, showing her my open hand as a “human barrier” between her body and the stove. This might take some time and some repetition too, she may need to cry a bit, to express her frustration, you can always take another 2 minutes to offer yourself as a supportive and respectful presence, validate her feelings and reasure you are firm with your decision about the stove. Offering an alternative always helps. Such as “(I won’t let you touch the stove)…, but you can play with the cups on the floor”. Regarding the gate, she will probably need you to acknowledge her feelings too, once she can see you are leaving her outside the kitchen. The more we acknowledge, the better and easier it goes. Hope this helps, Love, Fernanda

    2. Could you give her a little task, like handing her a towel and a plastic cup to dry and put away? And say how you would love to pick her up WHEN your work is done, and she can ‘help’ you. We put cups in a low cabinet (Montessori style) when our kids were little, so they could get out their own plates and cups.

  13. I too have a 20 month old son. He is very independent and very strong willed. He was the easiest, chillest baby for the first 14 months and we were completely unprepared for what would happen over the next 6 months. I have been reading everything you have written over the past weeks, finally fed up with experimenting with different techniques, feeling frustrated our son isn’t responding after weeks/months of working to correct particular behaviors, and constantly second-guessing myself.

    One behavior that is particularly frustrating, is his throwing, in particular at mealtime. He throws food, his utensils, and his sippy cups. The behavior is inconsistent. Some meals he doesn’t throw much of anything. Some meals he throws everything. Sometimes he throws food when he is done with a particular course. Sometimes he will throw a handful, eats a handful, then throws another handful. That makes preventing the throwing before it happens impossible. The unpredictability, coupled with his incredible arm (he can easily throw these items 8 to 10′), make the behavior very frustrating.

    We have tried sportscasting, ignoring, explaining his that it isn’t safe, nice, “we don’t throw ____” and even trying “Big boys don’t throw”…

    PLEASE HELP!

    Thanks, Rachel

    1. Cheeky munchkin. My toddler did a bit of mealtime throwing. If he throws food calmly take the food away, take him out of the high chair. Wait half an hour and try again. He won’t starve. If he throws food again remove him etc

  14. I’m struggling with the “Ups” and my little girl wanting to be picked up at times such as me making dinner. If I go down to her level and kneel, talk her through it…she becomes an Octupus! This has become more over last month…I’m expecting in 3 months…and the “ups” will need to be minimized or better timed. Thoughts?

  15. Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for writing this. After about a year of reading everything you write and most important: implementing, everything i read 🙂 I still have troubles with limit settings.
    i see my child (almost 3 now) very differently, I talk to her directly and ask questions (not only to her care giver anymore), i apologize whenever relevant and ask for her opinion… i ask for permission to get something she owns (like a bag of crisps…) and completely respect her “no”.
    Validation is well implemented now as well
    “no” when i’m unsure of what i do makes me doubt (like, is the limit very necessary?”) and on the other hand, i don’t want to be permissive – of course she senses my stress, which makes the limit settings a bit chaotic

    also, this is quite the opposite of limit settings but to me it’s the same: get the child cooperation to do something when he/she doesn’t want to: brush her teeth… how would you gently do that? (we already model, explain…)

    thank you very much

  16. I have always tried to be consistant with my ‘limits’ but i am finding it hard as my toddler gets older. E.g sometimes it is ok to have some of my food and sometimes it isnt. Does anyone have any advice on how to communicate this to my daughter? Is it ok to expect her to be able to understand more complex rules like when she can try my food (when we are in a restaurant) and when she cant (when she has finished her breakfast and i am eating mine)?

  17. I’m a grandmother now, my children are grown. I remember dinner time – preparation, feeding, cleaning up etc – to be the most stressful time of the day. The adult is busy, the child is attention seeking. I found that on the days I could prepare the meal earlier in the day, even if that just meant preparing the vegetables, dinner time was easier, especially with a new baby.

  18. avatar Amanda Lester says:

    Is there ever an appropriate age to enforce time outs or consequences? My girls are 4,5,6 and I feel like I start out the day so well and try my best to implement your suggestions but their behavior almost seems to get worse sometimes! They just keep pushing and pushing me until I get so upset! I try to ignore or talk to them calmly but they completely ignore me and keep doing it. I feel like their old enough now that they should be understanding things more easily and listening better. Help me please!!!

  19. I love this and this kind of approach worked brilliantly with my first but my second is so defiant bad head strong. No matter how many times I ask to stop climbing on the sofa, jumping on the table etc, he continues. What advice do you have for when the other advice doesn’t work. Eventually I just end up yelling and then feel awful about it.

    1. That is *and* head strong, there is nothing bad about being head strong!

  20. Janet,

    I love this article and am frequently inspired by your work. As a long time early educator, you keep me returning, always, returning back around to my core values as a teacher and a parent. As stress from work and parenting mounts up through the week, you keep my heart alive!

    But, one thing that troubles me is a phrase like “I won’t let you…” On the one hand I understand its value in a context of a child confidently knowing that you (or other adults) are there to help and support the child. On the other hand, in my experience children have varying notions and relationships to adults as caregivers and sometimes very mixed notions of the relationship of caregiving and power. Framing like “I won’t let you…” sounds like it’s begging for a struggle, inviting a conflict of wills.

    As a practice, I try to avoid mentioning myself when I set limits. I try–as much as I can–to talk in more detail about the specifics of the situation (and not over there kid’s heads). I try to express a confident, on their side body language, straight into “It’s not available because…” or “It’s too risky b/c…” (in a community culture of a little bit risky can be fun, medium risk needs an adult, etc.). Another strategy I try, when my toddler feels up to it, is “it’s not available bc x…” and then a leap into a story about mouse (or the character d’jour) who did the same thing and, say, bumped their head. Usually the tempered rambling of the story gets us to move on to something else. It doubles the message and talks about the limit in an impersonal way. When I’m at my best, I might revisit this story again before bedtime.

    I welcome feedback on these strategies and write in hopes of dialogue for learning (at least my own. 😉 ).

    Best to you, in your life and endeavors,
    g

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