How to say “NO” without saying “no” to your child


“No” is a word that many parents use when “disciplining” (or trying to discipline) their kids:

“No hitting!”

“No running, please!”

“No fighting!”

“No tantrums!”

“No, no, no!”

In fact, according to “The Kid Counselor” and licensed private-practice play therapist Brenna Hicks, research shows that “toddlers typically hear the word ‘no’ 400 times daily.”  That is a bit too often, don’t you think?

This is why Hicks, along with other positive parenting advocates and educators, encourages parents to learn to say “no” without actually using the word “no.”  From learning things not to say to your child to what say instead, parenting without negative language like “no”, ”don’t”, and “stop” is also an important part when raising well-adjusted kids.

Know when to say “no”

Parents should be aware that saying “no” to a child without actually saying “no” is totally possible but not entirely applicable to every situation.

“While it’s true that we should always try to be positive in dealing with our children, what I think is more important is for our children to understand why we are saying no,” said Rosanne Unson, owner of The Learning Basket.  Saying “no” without saying “no” is part of disciplining your child. Dr. Lucille Montes, a licensed physician, psychologist and guidance counselor who holds clinic in the Makati and Alabang areas, emphasizes that knowing when to “say” no to your child is all part of discipline.

“Discipline means making a disciple of your child, meaning, you exert positive influence because of your bond and his love for you — this is the best way to shape his behavior,” she explains.

Hence, Dr. Montes says parents should think about which scenarios are ideal for inculcating the virtues they want in their children.   “Usually, when parent and child are having fun together — when there is no conflict — that’s when the teachings are best absorbed,” she adds.

Too many “no’s”?

Dr. Montes advises parents to examine themselves and check if they have too many “no’s” for their kids.  “Some parents have too many rules, such that their children are deprived of opportunities to explore, learn and mature,” she explains.  She advises parents to limit their “no’s” to where it matters. If matters don’t concern being morally right or the kids aren’t in danger of getting hurt, she says parents should be more flexible, such as in discussions about bedtime, mealtime,…

Different ways to say “no”
Here are some ways to say “no” to your child — without using the word “no”: 

1. Rephrase

 “Rephrasing our statements is one way of saying ‘no’ to our children in a positive way,” Unson explains. “For example, instead of saying, ‘No hitting!’ we say, ‘Hands are for hugging, not for hitting.’” When your child asks to go out and play, but it is very close to dinner time. If you simply respond by saying no, it can sometimes create a tantrum. Instead of that, you can rephrase your response to, “Yes, you can go out and play after dinner”. This not only allows for a positive response, but also helps the child understand the rules and reason behind your answer.

2. Validate
Parents can validate their children’s feelings while saying “no” to them at the same time. For example, when your child hits another kid because he took one of his toys, you can say, “I know you’re really upset that X got your toy. What should you do instead of hitting when you’re mad?”

3. Explain
Explain why we do not allow something also makes our children understand the logic behind our “no”.  For example: “Chocolates before dinner is not healthy.”
“The key here is to use ten words or less as children tend to space out when we explain too much,” Unson discloses.

4. Give choices
Unson and Uyquiengco, whose Positive Discipline workshops are well-attended and received by parents, cite one of their favorite Positive Discipline tools as another positive way of saying “no” — giving choices.

For example, instead of saying, “No writing on walls!” opt to say, “I can see that you love drawing.  Would you like to draw on your whiteboard or on a piece of paper?”

Giving children choices helps them feel in control of their situations, reducing power struggles.  When your child is skating through the house on his ‘heelys’, it can be natural to say, “No skates in the house”.  However, giving a choice can help minimize the rebellious response, such as, “You can choose to skate in the driveway or on the sidewalk.  Which do you choose?”

5. Understand and teach acceptable behavior
Dr. Montes expounds on giving a child choices by encouraging parents to teach “alternative behaviors” to their children.  “If the child is exhibiting unacceptable behavior, the best is always to offer an alternative behavior,” she explains. “The alternative behavior can be taught beforehand for predictable typical situations.”

For example, teach your child that when he or she is angry, he or she can say, “I am angry now, may I go to my room please?”.  “If the child is too young to speak coherently, address the behavior when it is happening and provide the words for your child,” Dr. Montes expounds.  

When a toddler is having a tantrum, the parent can say, “I know you’re upset about something.  Can you come with me to a quiet corner to calm down.” Doing so consistently will help the child incorporate that statement into his or her language and thinking pattern. 

Some children have a difficult time stopping certain behaviors because they do not know what to do instead.  Offering suggestions to replace behaviors that you want to minimize can help the child understand an alternative.  For example, children are notorious for what my family called ‘incessant noises’. Banging on tables, seats, floors, etc. can be frustrating for adults and normal for kids.  Energy needs to be expelled, even if it is necessary to sit quietly. Try suggesting making small circles with their feet rather than kicking the seat, or make it lighthearted by asking, “How can we make that foot stop”?

6. Tone of Voice
Children often learn what is okay and what is not largely by the way we sound when we respond.  Therefore, we can communicate to the child that we are not pleased with their behavior without having to actually tell them “no”.  There are very simple ways to change your language regarding setting limits. Hopefully, with new determination and knowledge, you are eliminate all of the “nos” your children hear and replace them with more effective responses.

7. Observe your child
To end, Dr. Montes emphasizes the importance of observing your child, especially his or her “readiness” to learn or respond to certain situations.  “The child’s developmental level must be taken into account when it comes to discipline,” she explains. At the end of the day, remember that getting to know your child is a crucial factor in making the discipline process easier.

It’s also important to note that discipline involves teaching our children, not just getting them to obey rules.  The word “discipline” actually comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning “teaching.” Let us, therefore, strive to be the best teachers to our kids.

Tina Santiago-Rodriguez (2015, May 12) – Stop Saying “No”!- Tips for Positive Parenting from Smartparenting
Hicks, B. (2008, Feb 3) – Stop Saying “No”! – Tips for Positive Parenting from Thekidcounselor

Alternatives to your negative language with your kids

There are numerous examples on what not to say and what to say. We have consolidated the most common and simplest ones in the sheet below.  We hope this cheat sheet helps you through some of those tough moments when you want to react with frustration instead of love.

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