“No” Is Not a Four-letter Word

Children need to know that their parents are able to say “no” and mean it. However, it is unusual for them to thank us for having the strength to set limits for them.  Instead, they usually do all they can to test those limits.  This can be confusing. Why are our children so testy when we are doing what is best for them?  Limits provide the security they need to develop self-confidence.

Those children who lack external controls often misbehave in various ways.  It is their attempt to force us to provide the limits that will allow them to feel confident about their place in the world.  Children with little or no external controls also often suffer from low self-esteem.  It appears that children test us to make sure that the limits are firm enough to provide the security they need.  Each youngster seems to have his or her own special testing routine. Some kids use anger, some use guilt, and some are sneaky.  Others prefer to forget things as a way of testing our resolve when we say “no”.

I wish I could say that children will give us a vote of confidence after they have tested our limits and found them to be strong. But they never say, “Thanks, Dad, I feel a lot more secure now that I know you mean what you say.  I appreciate you loving me enough to set limits.”  Instead, they may pout, complain, stomp around, run to their rooms, whine or talk back.  This often leaves parents angry and confused.  It helps to remember that children hear the word “no” far too often.  In fact, it has been shown that parents of two year-olds typically say “no”, in some form, about 77% of the time.  No wonder our children get sick of hearing it.  The word “no” just seems to be a “call to arms”.  In other words, “no” is a fighting word.

Youngsters often wage war against “no” in a very subtle way.  They try to get the parent to do all of the thinking while they stand back and judge the quality of the work.  They know that parents who are busy reasoning with them have neither the time nor energy to win the battles.  Caring parents feel guilty about saying “no” and are soon hooked into lots of thinking and explaining. All the youngster has to do is interrupt from time to time with, “But Dad, it’s just not fair! You just don’t understand.”  In no time, the parent, who is doing all the work, is worn down to the point of giving in:  “Oh, all right. Take it! But this is the last time.  Don’t ask me again.”  You can turn the tables on children, forcing them to do most of the thinking.  This happens when you replace “no” to one thing by saying “yes” to something else. This is called using “thinking words” instead of “fighting words”. Compare the two approaches in the following examples:

Fighting words:  “You can’t go out to play until you practice your lessons.”

Thinking words:  “Yes, you may go out to play as soon as you practice your lessons.”


Fighting words: “You can’t watch television until your chores are done.”

Thinking words: “You may watch TV as soon as your chores are done.”

Most youngsters try to argue when confronted with “thinking words”.  However, you now have the ammunition to win since you started the conversation with “yes” instead of “no”. You no longer need to feel guilty.  And, you no longer need to justify or explain your position.  You now hold the “state–of-the-art” in arguing in your hands.  No matter what your youngster says, simply agree that it is probably true. Then add the word “and” followed by your first sentence. 

Teen:  “I need the car to go to the mall.”

Dad:  “Feel free to use it as soon as your gas bill is paid.”

Teen:  “But Dad.  I promised my friends.”

Dad:  “I’m sure that’s true…and feel free to use it as soon as you get your gas bill paid.”

Teen:  “Yea, but then I won’t have money for the shoes I want.”

Dad: “I’ll bet that’s true , too….and feel free to use it as soon as your gas bill is paid.”

Teen: “All you think about is money!”

Dad:  “That could be true…and…feel free…..”

Teen:  “Yea, I know…Don’t say it again!”


This technique is so good that it probably could be used with adults at work!!!