It’s OK to Say No

It was just a few generations ago that authoritarian parenting was prevalent and children were to be “seen and not heard”.  In recent decades, there has been a trend towards positive and gentle parenting techniques and respect for the child as an individual and with basic human rights.

These positive changes in parenting practices can, unfortunately, lead to misunderstanding of a child’s developmental needs. 

We might easily understand that an infant fussing for a taste of honey should be denied because their bodies are not developmentally ready for it (it puts them at risk for infant botulism).   But it is much more difficult to identify what choices and freedoms our children are developmentally able to handle.  It’s important to understand that a child’s prefrontal lobes (the decision-making center of the brain) are undeveloped.  We should offer our children developmentally appropriate decision-making opportunities when possible.  And when not possible, we need to make the decisions for our child with respect and love and without guilt.

To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.   
Dr. Maria Montessori

There is a healthy balance between the “yeses” and the “nos”.  Too many nos/negatives can stifle development and can inhibit connection between parent or caregiver and child.  (One UCLA study found that a one-year-old hears an average of 400 “nos” a day!)  Too many yeses and a child struggles to respect boundaries and to make healthy decisions.  A lack of boundaries can also increase anxiety and feelings of insecurity, entitlement, and narcissism.  (Krissy Pozatek, MSW) 

Kids need you to say ‘no.’ Children are not emotionally or developmentally equipped to make major decisions or rules or to self-regulate.  That’s your job.  And if you don’t do it, your child will feel a sense of confusion and internal chaos.  Lori Freson, LMFT

As parents, we guide our children on their journey towards independence and adulthood.  Commonplace in the adult world (both personal and professional life) are disappointment, delayed gratification, discomfort and even denial.  Our children need to have realistic expectations for how the world works and how to successfully navigate the challenges. 

If children don’t hear ‘no’ at home, imagine how it will feel when they hear it in the workplace. Protective parenting has created children who feel entitled and who are psychologically fragile because they have too much power and lack resilience because they’ve never experienced failure. Robin Berman, psychiatrist and author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child With Love and Limits)

preschool child and science experiment
Boundaries allow children the freedom to enjoy their environment and form peaceful relationships with friends.

‘No’ Involves Healthy Boundaries

Before You Say No, Ask Yourself if You CAN and SHOULD Say Yes?

child cleaning windows at preschool
Saying “yes” to your child’s offer to help may take more time and effort, but it builds connection!

Reframe the No’s

Imagine if you every time you went to your supervisor at work with a request, they said, “No, we can’t do that.”  How would it make you feel?  Now, what if they instead said, “Great idea, let me think on that,” or “Let’s discuss that at our next meeting.”  The word “no” immediately stirs up negative feelings, while the latter responses may be disappointing but let you know you are valued.

When we see negative behavior, it’s easy to jump in with:

  • Don’t . . .
  • Stop . . .
  • No . . .

But what if we change our narrative from:

  • Don’t hit your sister to Be gentle with her
  • No ice cream to You can have ice cream tomorrow
  • No jumping on the couch to Would you like to jump on the trampoline with me?
  • Stop screaming to We can use our loud voice outside

Say “No” Gently & Firmly

There are times when the only answer you can give your child is a firm but gentle “No”.  It is important not to feel guilty about this, and to be consistent in following through.

Have you experienced a scene similar to this?

Child: Mommy, I want that toy!
Parent (reframing the ‘No’):
That would be a nice birthday gift!
No, I want it now!
We can’t get that today, I’m sorry.
Child (becoming emotional):
Parent (becoming embarrassed):
Now, honey, I already told you can’t have it.
Child (crying):
I want the toy!
Parent (compromising a little to avoid conflict):
Well, what about if I get you this toy instead?
No, only that one!

At this point, a parent may acquiesce simply to avoid further drama, and give the child the toy:

Parent: Well . . . this time I will get it for you, but next time you need to listen to me!

Or, they may continue to try to negotiate with their child:
Parent: Please stop screaming and listen to me.  We can get that toy for your birthday next month.

But, what if the parent gets down at eye level with their child and offers a short, gentle and firm answer:
Parent: I know that you want that toy, but we will not be getting it today.  Mommy said no.

For young children, it’s important to be concise in your response.  With an older child, a little more conversation can be offered, such as, “I know that makes you sad and I would love to give you a hug if that would help you feel better.  Now, we are going to take ten deep breaths and then we are going to finish our shopping.”   And then, if the child continues to be emotional or insistent, the parent simply takes their child by the hand, exits the store, and leaves for home.  Gentle, consistent, and firm.

This last method can be used earlier in the conversation, before it escalates.  For example:

Child: Mommy, I want that toy!
Parent (reframing the ‘No’):
That would be a nice birthday gift!
No, I want it now!
Parent (getting down at eye level and speaking gently but firmly):
I know that you want that toy, but we will not be getting it today.  Mommy said no.


It is important for our children to understand that there are times when our answer is “No,” and to be able to process the “No” in a healthy way. 


Parenting is not a democracy . . . you have to be very respectful of children’s feelings and understand them, but you have to draw the line and set boundaries.   Robin Berman, psychologist and author

child playing outside at preschool
Sometimes, a gentle, loving and firm “no” is necessary.


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