Does "No" Mean "No" in Your House?
Meaning of "No"
A Short Story
Although this is going to be an article about parenting, let’s start with pets for a minute. I have a dear friend who has a dog that is about a year old. The pup is adorable and mischievous. The other day I was visiting, and he grabbed a disposable mask off the table, raced to the door, and began chewing it. Rather than chase her adorable pup (and he really was cute), she cheerfully told him “no” and held out a treat. The dog came bounding over; the paper mask was forgotten, and my friend scooped up the mask and threw it away.
“Why did you give him a treat?” I asked. Her response was quick: It was less work to lure her dog with a treat than to chase him until she could grab the mask out of his mouth. The question becomes, “Is it really less work, or is it temporarily less work?” After all (and it happened more than once while I was there), we all know the dog is going to snatch napkins and other items from the table again. Why should he think there is a problem with this behavior? He is going to be rewarded with a biscuit.
Not surprisingly, the reactions of children in a similar situation are identical to the puppy’s response. If a parent says “no”, but his actions reinforce “yes”, the child does not realize that “no” means “no”. The truth is the child’s reaction is correct and reasonable based on the parent’s response.
Saying "No" Is Not Hard
Although saying "no" is not difficult, children can interpret it the wrong way for several reasons:
- Parents become agitated and as they scream to be heard, the impact of what they are saying does not register.
- Parents are not always united in their responses. If mom says one thing and dad another, children hear and react to the answer they want. It is important to be united and consistent.
- Parents back down or change their minds. (Yes, once in a while you can do it, but make it rare.)
- Have a consequence if "no" is being ignored. That will make it apparent you mean what you say.
My husband and I are pretty calm most of the time. I rarely recall us yelling, so our kids were not exposed to a lot of screaming. Even when our children occasionally became loud, we were usually able to calm them easily. If the kids were told they could not do something we would give them a reason and stay firm. However, I have, on occasion, seen other parents scream over a child's temper tantrum while telling their kids "no". In my opinion, it is usually not effective.
Be United and Consistent
If you are the only parent around at the time, the situation is easy because your decision should carry more weight than your child's desires. (Although I have seen situations where the kids rule.) However, what happens if your spouse is there, and the two of you do not agree?
If you find yourself in this situation often, plan ahead. Decide which parent will be making the decisions that day and which parent will support them. In the alternative, you could agree that whichever parent makes the decision first, the other parent will support it. I prefer option one because you can rotate the decision-making process without having a race to see who makes it.
Don't Get in the Habit of Changing Your Mind
Sometimes parents change their minds and that is acceptable. However, you do not want to put yourself in a position where your child thinks he can talk you out of a decision he does not like. Generally, you should stay firm when you say "no" unless there is a valid reason for changing your mind. (Your child pouting or yelling should not be that reason.)
Be Prepared to Enforce "No" With a Consequence, If Necessary
Sometimes a consequence is not a punishment or reaction that you devise. It could even come from the child who is trying to change your mind. One instance comes to mind when my child suggested the consequence. One night after work, we went to a casual restaurant hoping for a quick meal. We went early, but my children had a slice of pizza 45 minutes before we decided to go.
There were lots of sandwiches on the menu. but the restaurant had entrees too. My older son, who was probably just off the children’s menu and not a great eater, wanted a steak. We told him he could get a sandwich because we knew he would not eat very much and had recently eaten a snack.
Usually, he was an easy child, but he was determined to get his way that evening. Although we were calm, he finally got annoyed, and said, “Well, then I won’t eat anything.” Since we knew he had a snack earlier, we told him that worked for us, and then informed his younger brother that he could not share his food with his brother when the meal came. There was no arguing or raised voices, and we insisted that my son follow through on his threat.
I felt sorry for my older son and did not enjoy my own meal that much. However, we stuck to our decision. When we got home, I offered him a bowl of cereal (which he barely ate), and his behavior at the restaurant was never mentioned again. In fact, he has ordered steak many times at a good restaurant, but I do not think he has ever ordered it when he was not hungry, so I guess the lesson stayed in his mind.
Kids Remember "No" Means "No"
A week later, I arranged to go to and from a ball game with one of my son’s friends and his father. My husband was meeting us at the game but had a meeting afterwards. I made dinner earlier in the day, but the friend’s father indicated that he was going to stop at Boston Chicken to pick up dinner. He asked if we wanted anything, and my son asked for chicken too. I told him I already made dinner, and his friend’s dad went in to get their meal.
While waiting in the car, the friend asked my child, “Why don’t you ask your mom if you can have chicken again?"
My son replied, "When my mom says "no", she means "no". His response made me so happy that I told him he could have Boston Chicken the following night.
Saying “no” successfully will save you aggravation later. If you are consistent, your children will be less likely to question your decisions on a regular basis, and you may avoid some future arguments.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 Abby Slutsky