Children don’t know much about the world, but they are equipped with immense curiosity that leads them to discover what the world is like. However, the world also contains many possible dangers. Part of a parent’s job is to warn children of dangers, while at the same time preserving their natural ability to explore and learn. Previous chapters have presented many ways to gently guide and direct children without having to flatly say “No.”
However, there are times when your best choice will be to say “No.” Part of a parent’s job is to occasionally turn children down when they ask for things. Like every other interaction with your child, this can either be a “problem,” or an opportunity to enhance your child’s development in a small way.
Even though it’s sometimes necessary, none of us enjoys it when someone else says “No” to what we want. Whenever we say “No” to the children, we can immediately offer ideas about what they can do, to refocus their attention on something else they can enjoy.
Find Something Else that Satisfies the Child’s Purpose.
When there is a limit, parents need a way to get the message across clearly. Occasionally you can get the message across that there is a limit simply by stating a positive alternative.
Example: Mark, almost 2, is sitting in our circle drive playing with a pile of dirt. I want to get a bit of exercise walking around.
Mark looks up at me and says “Play dirt.”
“Do you like playing with the dirt?” I respond.
“Do you want mommy to play too?” I backtrack what Mark has said. This lets him know his message was received. Otherwise he’ll keep telling me “Momma play.”
“Mommy wants to walk now, Mark,” I say pleasantly. “Mommy will walk around the circle and see you again in a little bit.”
It would have been easy to say “No Mark, I’m not going to play with you.” and focus his attention on what he’s not getting. This is much more likely to get complaints and grumpiness in response.
Instead, I tell Mark what I want to do in a very matter of fact way, and direct his attention to something else that he will probably like in the future–that I’ll see him again in a little bit.
Example: Mark and I are walking along at a shopping center. I am very pregnant, and a bit tired. Mark is almost two, and quite good on his feet.
“Momma hold,” “up.”
“Mommy is too tired to hold you, Mark. Mommy will hold your hand, though.” I offer as I reach for his hand. He reaches his hand out to hold mine and we walk along. By offering him an alternative kind of “holding” he could get, it was easy to refocus his attention without having to say “No.”
When you need to say No, do it clearly and quickly. Then refocus the child’s attention.
Several families had just come out of “the caves,” where we had all enjoyed an hour-long tour. Shirley, 6, made a bee-line for the gift shop and started finding things she wanted.
“I want this. Can I have this? Will you buy this?” she started asking excitedly, darting around the store. Her frame of mind was clearly on finding anything to buy, not on enjoying looking at the trinkets.
Mark, also 6, said, “I want to go to the gift shop.”
“That’s fine, Mark,” I respond. “We won’t buy anything, but you can have a good time looking at all the things.”
“OK.” said Mark.
In the shop, Mark begins to get enticed by the tourist trinkets. “Can we buy this, Mommy? Just this one thing?”
“No Mark. I already told you. We’re just looking.”
“Please, please,” asked Mark, beginning to sound whiney.
“Mark, if you keep talking about buying things, we’ll have to leave. If you want to stay and just look around and see what they have, we can do that.”
Later, outside the gift shop, as we started walking toward a picnic area, Shirley walked up to her mom and asked to buy something.
“I don’t have any money, Shirley.” her mom said, perhaps reluctant to say “No” outright.
Perceiving money as the only limitation to buying, Shirley ran off to find someone else in our group with money. She knew that my husband, Steve, had money, so she went to ask him for some. When Steve said “No,” Shirley returned to again ask her mother to buy something. Shirley’s mother paused, then said hesitantly, “Well,…I don’t know if we’ll be going back that way, Shirley.”
Now Shirley focused her energy on how to go back that way. She began to look for someone who would go back with her. Her mother then said, “I don’t think we’ll be buying anything, Shirley,” in a noncommittal voice.
Shirley kept attempting to make it possible to buy something, talking about who might have money and who might go back to the shop with her, etc.
Shirley is demonstrating good problem-solving skills and tenacity, but they’re being misapplied, since she will ultimately be turned down. Shirley’s mother never gave her a clear “No.” In trying to gracefully turn Shirley down, her mother simply rechannelled Shirley’s energy into finding a new way to make buying something possible. Shirley didn’t understand that this meant “No,” so she kept trying to make it happen. As her frustration increased, she got more and more whiny and pleading, clearly unhappy. While she demonstrated a good deal of creativity and persistence, these skills were paired with an unpleasant state.
Saying “No,” to a child, is like removing an adhesive bandage: doing it quickly and as soon as possible makes it hurt less. A friendly and firmly stated “We aren’t going to buy anything, Shirley,” would short-circuit much of Shirley’s frantic, whiny behavior. Then a “But you can look around if you want to,” can refocus her attention on something enjoyable she can do.
The saga continued. Shirley whined and fussed some more, until Steve finally said (nicely) “I don’t want to listen to your whining, Shirley. Would you like to go in the car and fuss? If you want to fuss, you can do it there.”
“Or, if you are ready to feel better now, you can stay here.”I added.
“I’m not fussing,” insisted Shirley in a whiny voice.
“I call that fussing and I don’t want to listen to it,” Steve responded. “I’ll open the car for you if you’d like to fuss in there.” Steve goes to open the car.
Shirley got very quiet, and sat on the picnic table bench.She was still frowning, and looked sad, but she was quiet–a definite improvement from her previous whining.
“I’ll carry you to the car, Shirley,” her grandfather said.
“Well, wait a minute,” I said. “I think she’s deciding to feel better, but I’m not quite sure yet.” I want to encourage Shirley’s shift in the direction we want, even if she’s not all the way there yet.
We wait a few moments. Shirley remains quiet.
The other kids have been eating apple slices around the picnic table. I ask of everyone, “Who would like some apple?… Would you like some apple, Shirley?”
“I want some.” says Shirley in a whiny voice, with a frown.
“Can you ask more nicely?” I ask.
“Please can I have some apple,” insists Shirley in an equally whiney voice.
“OK. You can have some.” I want to acknowledge that Shirley had changed her words already in response to my request. She added a “please.” I hadn’t made it clear that I wanted her to change her tone of voice, so I proceeded. “I’d like to have you ask in a voice that sounds better, and then I’ll give you some. You can use your happy voice. I’ve heard you use it before.”
I wait a bit. Soon grandma asks, “Whose apple is this?”
“That’s for Shirley,” I answer. “I’m just waiting for her to ask with her happy voice.”
“Can I have some apple?” asks Shirley, in a pleasant voice this time.
“Sure. Here you are, Shirley.” I hand the apple to Shirley, and am friendly, but not making a big deal about it.
Mark, 6, asked me later on. “Why don’t we buy any of those things?”
His dad explains, “Well, Mark, those toys are usually overpriced in a place like that. You can buy the same thing for less money somewhere else. Also they usually fall apart and break really fast.”
I add, “Yes. It costs money to send you through the cave, and we thought you’d like that a lot more than spending money on toys that would break really fast.” Mark had been comparing getting trinkets to not getting trinkets. I am shifting his comparison so that he appreciates what he did get–the experience of the caves.
Excerpted from Connirae’s four CD audio seminar “Successful Parenting,” where you’ll find even more of these simple and easy ways to make parenting more fun and rewarding, for both you and your children – of all ages!