It often seems to parents that ‘No’ is the least effective word in the English language!
Why is it
so hard to say ‘No’ and have it taken seriously?
Psychologist Caroline Deacon advises how to make this simple little word mean what
One of the most important gifts you can give a child is an understanding of boundaries
which help them to learn how to control their own behaviour. Self-control develops
through laying down connections in the frontal cortex, and this part of the brain
is still developing until the early twenties. So your child will need your help with
boundaries for some years to come!
When children challenge your authority, they are testing: ’Is this no really a no?
What will happen if I don’t comply? If I just keep pushing, will they change their
minds?’ The more you give in, the more often you will be challenged further down
the line. Children also push at boundaries when they want attention, so how you respond
to a confrontation is also important.
Can reasoning ever work?
It’s generally believed that saying ‘no’ too often can desensitise the word and make
confrontation more likely. Negotiation is about explaining whysomething isn’t allowed,
and offering alternatives. This isn’t weakness: it’s a crucial part of learning for
Research suggests that the most effective form of parenting is
authoritative rather than authoritarian. In practical terms, this means laying down
boundaries, but being willing to explain these boundaries and negotiate.
Interestingly, research also indicates that a combination of reasoning and punishment
keeps bad behaviour at bay the longest. Psychologists spent a month recording children’s
behaviour, focusing on sibling squabbles and general disobedience. They found
reasoning or punishment to be equally effective at subduing bad behaviour. But significantly,
when both were used simultaneously, the time between bouts of naughtiness almost
So for maximum effectiveness, it’s best to have both negotiation
strategies and negative sanctions in your toolbox.
How to negotiate
Aim to use a short, clear and concise message to explain why they should (or should
not) do something. Just like adults, children accept disappointment more readily
when it’s couched in positive terms. Get down to their level if possible and maintain
Holding your arms open, palms upwards, conveys inclusion. And keep the tone of your
voice positive and animated. Try these techniques:
Inclusivity to show you’re on their side. Use the words ‘Let’s’ or ‘We’.
- Let’s be gentle.
- Let’s try with a proper voice.
- I don’t understand that voice.
- We use words, not our hands.
Humour to take the heat out of the situation.
-Oh dear, Mr Grump is back – and here comes Mummy to chase him away!
Empathy to show how you understand their point of view, and that you’re listening.
-I know you want that biscuit but…
Bargaining to offer an alternative.
-Mummy needs her phone, but you can have this instead.
- So let’s agree. If you agree to do x, then I’ll do y.
When it’s something they want and you’re reluctant to let them have it, but are considering
saying yes, treat this as an opportunity to develop positive negotiation skills.
Don’t rely on promises, such as ‘I promise to tidy my room after I’ve had half an
hour more watching TV’. Wait for children to keep their side of the bargain before
you keep yours. You are the adult and are the ultimate authority. Be explicit so
your child can learn from the experience: ‘We made a bargain – you can have extra
time playing as soon as you’ve tidied your room. Agreed?’
If your child is trying get you to change your mind about something
which has already been negotiated, don’t go over old ground. It’s time to use the
‘broken record technique’ which is far easier and more effective than just saying
It involves repeating yourself over and over in a flat and unemotional tone of voice.
‘No, you cannot have any more IPad time. No, you cannot have any more playing time.
No…’ You get the picture! This is extra powerful if your body language also suggests
disinterest through loss of eye contact, which implies that your focus is moving
When it all goes to pieces
If you continually give in without negotiating something in return,
children learn that all they have to do is nag for long enough. If it’s getting too
much, walk away, lock yourself in the bathroom, do whatever you need to do to regroup,
and then use the broken
It’s hard work, so take care of yourself. Take time out when you need to. If you
find yourself continually returning to that vicious cycle of being nagged at until
you give in, take time when you’re not tired, emotional or busy to sit down and evaluate
going wrong, and how you can fi x it.
The problems will either be physical or emotional. Physical reasons for poor behaviour
could be hunger or tiredness, while psychological ones include jealousy, attention-seeking
and even boredom. If you can see a pattern, ask yourself if there could be
ways to head it off, like giving kids a snack straight after school to avoid a hunger
Crime and punishment
The word ‘discipline’ has negative connotations, but it shares a root with ‘disciple’
and originally it meant ‘training to engender self-control and an ordered way of
life’. If you have that idea in mind when you think about punishment, you can’t go
Sanctions such as loss of privileges, time out and so on, work best.
If children know what the sanctions are and when to expect them, they are more likely
to behave to avoid consequences. So being tough and consistent will lead to an easier
life in the long term. And it will also mean your child has learnt self-control,
which is your ultimate aim. The 123 Magic system, developed by Dr Phelan,
is simple to use and effective as a warning that sanctions are about to happen. Visit
Physical punishment should always be avoided.
Because I said so!
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the ultimate parental put down, but don’t feel bad about
it. Children need to learn to self-control themselves and ‘because I said so’ is
going to happen to them in life –at work, at school, on the roads – so it’s not a
bad lesson to learn that sometimes you just have to obey rules without question.
Where better to learn how to cope with disappointment, rules and regulations, than
in a safe,
At the end of the day, you’re the adult – you do know better.
In theory it sounds straightforward, but in practice most parents will feel there
are times when nothing is working. Here are some common scenarios
WHEN YOU SAY NO, AND THEN YOUR PARTNER UNDERMINES YOU BY SAYING YES
A common misapprehension about joint parenting is that both parents have to be equally
strict. But you can’t be – you are different people and you have different ideas.
It’s quite okay to feel differently and it’s good for children to understand that
people are not all the same. But what you must do is to respect each other’s differences,
and not undermine each other.
The only way to do this is to communicate. Constantly. Make sure you don’t end up
being good parent/bad parent and that you both have things you say no about, even
if they are different. If you
find your kids are pitting you against each other, sit down when they’re not around
and think about where the flash points are.
WHEN IT’S EASIER TO DO JOBS LIKE TIDYING YOURSELF
It’s always going to be easier and quicker to do things yourself, so decide how important
it is that your child does the task you have in mind. If you really would rather
tidy up after them and it stresses you out to leave it for them, accept that, and
decide that tidying is your job. But you must find some other responsibility for
them which will involve sanctions/rewards – preferably one which
won’t stress you out if it’s not done immediately or properly. Don’t give in because
you’re tired, don’t want a confrontation or don’t want to be a nag. Be clear about
consequences and stick to them.
WHEN YOU GIVE IN TO AVOID A TANTRUM
Perhaps you don’t like to see your child unhappy – or you don’t want your child to
hate you. All parents hate it when their child is upset: it’s in our biology. But
children do have to learn how to deal
with disappointment and frustration, and making it all better is really not going
to help them in the long run.
Note that children who learn to accept delayed gratification have been found to have
significantly higher IQs!
Caroline Deacon is author of Teach Yourself - Your Toddler’s Development (Hodder).