Monday, December 05, 2011

Be careful with "no"

(cross-posted with

I've been pondering lately the question of "what have my children taught me?" (Asked by the facilitator of my parents' group). One lesson I'm working on learning is to be careful with my "nos."

Here's the thinking: Whining is hell on earth. Listening to children whine makes one irritated, tense, embarrassed. Why do children whine? Well, we tend to encourage it. Many of us say "no" reflexively to whatever random thing a child is proposing. Then, the child starts whining or throwing a tantrum and we eventually say "yes." Because we probably didn't really care. Yes, you can play for 5 more minutes. I only wanted to leave the playground because I was bored. Yes, you can have jam on your pizza crusts. Why not?

The lesson the child learns is what any good negotiator (or dungeon master) knows. Don't take the first offer. Torture produces a much better confession. Find out for sure what the parent cares about and doesn't care about. Whine enough and "no" turns into "yes."

So what is a parent to do? Grow a spine, perhaps -- but the best negotiators know that confrontation often leaves your opponent with no choice but aggression. Here's another framework:

If you are going to say no, be willing to defend it to the death. Well, not death, but to the point of a public, grocery-throwing temper tantrum.

Otherwise, consider a "yes." Or at least pause before you automatically say "no." Stall by asking "why do you think that would be fun?" or "tell me more about that idea." Because if you're going to say yes eventually under duress, you may as well say it before the kid realizes that screaming is the way to go. In other words, be careful with each "no."

This is obviously easier said than done. But I am trying to be judicious with my flat-out refusals. Sam, my 2-year-old, got himself out of his car seat straps last night. That was a definite "we are pulling this car over" no. But when he wanted to have a bite of my birthday cake before lunch, I realized this was going to escalate rapidly, and wasn't that big a deal. He's a good eater, shoveling in tomatoes, oranges and other foods that his 4-year-old brother won't touch. When I realized that I didn't care enough about lunch order enforcement to endure a temper tantrum during my birthday lunch, I went ahead and said yes fairly quickly. After all, I have been known to eat junk food before meals as well.

When do you say "no" and when do you say "yes"?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Your advice to avoid the reflexive "no" is good. I have occasionally backed myself into a corner when I insisted on something that turned out to be more important to my son than I had realized.

It helps to have a "redo" option. When we've backed into a situation that is not working for anyone, we have sometimes explicitly backed up to an earlier point and restarted from there. It helps if there is a physical action involved ("Let's start over from getting out of bed") and everyone moves forward cautiously to try to get to a better endpoint.

Nother Barb said...

Birthdays are special, so since he's a healthy eater, I would absolutely say Yes to cake before lunch, but add that it's "for a special treat". My son eventually could tell when the time was ripe to request something "for a special treat", giving me more oppurtunities to say Yes, and making all the "No"s more palatable to him.

Nother Barb said...

I noticed that my son said "No" a lot, but rarely said "Yes". I started thinking about that; we say No a lot, but think of all the ways we have to indicate "Yes": nodding, saying sure, okay, uh-huh, yeah, or going on with a conversation. I started replacing or enhancing those with the word "Yes" more often, and he started being more agreeable, too!

Anonymous said...

I listen to the challenges to my "no"s. If they are well thought out, not harmful, etc., then I will change to a conditional yes (sometimes), or make a counteroffer and negotiate some more. During my childhood no meant NO! and, natural introvert and conflict-averse person that I am, I tend not to challenge authority. I could have used some training in this area, so I'm affording my kids the opportunity to learn how to negotiate to their advantage, within reason.

Anonymous said...

I could have written this myself 10 years poor DH had to listen many times. At the vantage of my currebt position of mom of a 15 year old I can firmly say that this will not discourage whining. Being self aware is a good thing but it doesn't have any good effect on your child.

Our children know us and can tell if we are mindlessly saying no or that sounds interesting. Zif you are suggesting that we actually listen to our children at all intense extraverted gifted mom might ne able to do that but I'm still not sure if that is a good thing or not. I think that is possibly an association causation confusion.

I wish every person would actually consentrate on whatever anyone else in their sound space was saying or nicely say that they are enjoying the physical companionship but not availible for attention right at the momnent. I would feel more at home.

As for stopping the behavior of whining I've seen other Moms consistiently do the 'instant deaf' approach with consistient praise for non whiney negotiation with success.

At our house we had to eventually adopt the goal of explisitly teaching DS to take no for an answer gracefully. Life isn't fair and I have come to see that creating childhood as an exception isn't nescessary or helpful. Or possible. Pick your battles of course but at home when you have extra patience give arbitrariness a try.