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Disciplining Young Children: Why Simply Saying No Isn’t the Answer

Child cries at dining table while parent attempts to calm child downI recently saw a hot dog commercial that depicts a mom and son shopping in a superstore. You hear the mom saying, “No, no, no, no, no” as the son jumps on a trampoline, plays with drums, rides across the store on a scooter, finds a large kayak, and asks for a case of energy drinks. When the boy picks up the hot dogs, the mom says, “Yes,” and the voice-over declares, “In a world filled with no, it’s nice to finally say yes.”

This commercial caught my attention and made me laugh because it was so true and sounded just like the chorus of “no” I often hear from the moms of young children I’m surrounded by at playgroups, parks, and the pool.

As parents, our job is to teach children what is acceptable, to set limits, and to instill appropriate boundaries, and this often involves chasing our kids around, telling them no. Saying no is an inevitable part of being a caregiver, but the problem with constantly saying no arises when we do so without any explanation or attempt to let kids be kids.

Kids are naturally curious and are driven to explore the world around them. Thus, they get into things they shouldn’t, touch stuff we wish they wouldn’t, and want to try things we’d rather they avoid. There are times we have to tell them no in order to protect them or the things around them, but when we constantly tell them no, we stifle their sense of wonder and deny them opportunities to grow and learn.

In my self-esteem workshops, I often talk about the various messages we hear growing up and how they contribute to the foundation of our sense of identity and our level of self-esteem. When kids are constantly told no, they become susceptible to internalizing this message as “I am bad” or “I am wrong.” This can lead to a lifetime of issues with feeling flawed and inadequate.

It is so important to be aware that our words and actions toward our toddlers play a role in shaping their identities and laying the groundwork for their futures as adults. We must be mindful of how we speak to them and strive to encourage, versus inhibit, their sense of wonder. Before you say “no,” stop and ask yourself, “Is this really hurting anyone or anything?” Maybe there is a way you can bridge the gap between your anxiety and your child’s need to explore, grow, and develop.

If your child wants to use a butter knife, fine; rather than snatching it away, explain that knives are sharp and hold it together as you teach her how to butter the bread. If your child wants to dump water out of a cup, rather than yelling no, redirect him to the bathroom and let him do it over the tub. Or explain that it is not appropriate in a restaurant but they can try it at home during bath time. Allowing children the opportunity to try the things that capture their interest, versus telling them no, helps to instill a sense of independence and capability.

When something is unsafe, instead of simply saying no to kids, attempt to follow the no with an explanation that helps them to learn and understand your reasoning.

When something is unsafe, instead of simply saying no to kids, attempt to follow the no with an explanation that helps them to learn and understand your reasoning. For example, “No, honey. That is not safe and I don’t want you to get hurt.” Or, “No, please don’t touch that because it is breakable.” When kids have a clear understanding of why you are denying them the ability to explore what they are curious about, they are typically better able to attribute the no to external factors, rather than make false assumptions that they are somehow intrinsically flawed in their interests and desires.

If your child wants to touch the grill, gently pull their hand away and explain to them, “This is a grill for cooking food. It gets very hot, so we have to be very careful not to touch it. It cooks the food, but it could hurt your hand.”

By taking the time to provide an explanation, you are not only protecting your child in the moment, but also using the interaction as a teaching opportunity—distracting them from what they were about to do while also giving them information they can learn from and remember in the future.

I’m not saying you should be a pushover with your kids. I recognize parenting is demanding. It’s often hard to follow this advice and appease all of our children’s whims when we are busy tending to everything else on our plates, have had a long day, and have little energy to give. Yet taking the time to consciously say no and effectively redirect children can play a positive role in their development and ultimately make things easier.

Of course, there will be times when kids test your boundaries, push your buttons, or flat-out defy you. In these instances, it is important to be direct and firm with your messages. The “if, then, since” formula can be helpful: “Hitting hurts. If you don’t stop hitting your brother, then you will go to your room.” (Wait a few seconds for the behavior to change.) “Since you did not stop hitting your brother, it’s time to go to your room.” Again, this sends a clear message and gives kids the opportunity to learn the rules and expectations rather than wonder why they are being disciplined or told to stop.

When we treat kids with the same respect we would give a peer, things tend to go more smoothly. Let’s strive to make our go-to responses to our children’s actions be from a place of compassion, calm, and a desire to teach rather than from one of frustration, anxiety, and a need to control. In doing so, not only can we ultimately help foster positive self-esteem in our children, but we may prevent the meltdowns, tantrums, and power struggles that often follow “no.”

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • laird

    July 11th, 2017 at 7:55 AM

    While one wants to make sure that it is an explanation that the child can follow reasonably at his or her age, it can’t be too long winded you know

  • Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    July 12th, 2017 at 4:20 AM

    True, we obviously need to tailor our explanations based on the child’s age, attention span, level of interest, etc. I do, however, think that some people tend to underestimate the ability of children to understand and comprehend. Especially when they are young and don’t yet have our same verbal skills. Even before they are verbal, they are still curious and can comprehend a lot of what we explain.

    One of my favorite personal examples was on a drive to the airport when my daughter was about two. I was explaining in great detail what was going to happen when we got there; how we were going to drop off our bags, go through what’s called security and a metal detector, find our gate, etc. My daughter was silent for a few minutes and my mom rolled her eyes and said, “She’s totally bored and doesn’t know what you are talking about.” A few minutes later my daughter, who apparently had been deep in thought about what she heard, spoke up and said, “I think I saw that security thing on Peppa Pig.” For me it reaffirmed that kids may not always show interest or communicate in response to what we explain, but their brains are always absorbing and processing the lessons we instill in them.

    So we do need to be careful not to beat a dead horse or over-explain, but don’t underestimate children’s capacity to understand, even from a young age.

  • Marco B

    July 11th, 2017 at 11:08 AM

    Well there are situations though that do not call for having to have an explanation. You say no and that’s the way it is because I’m the parent and you are the child. I know that as they get older this won’t always fly quite as well, but for now, I’m going with that.

  • Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    July 12th, 2017 at 7:47 AM

    Yes, “I’m the parent and you are the child and grown ups make the decisions” is definitely an acceptable explanation at times; however, I want to point out that problems can arise when you exclusively use this rationale as your default messaging without taking the time to provide more useful reasoning when appropriate, such as “That’s dangerous,” “We don’t have time for that,” “It’s making me too nervous when you do that,” etc.

    Research in developmental psychology identifies four different parenting styles, including Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Uninvolved.

    I’m currently reading a book called The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know about Raising Confident, Capable Kids. The authors do a nice job in providing an overview of the different parenting styles and they are in line with what I suggest in my article regarding the most effective ways to say no (as an authoritative versus authoritarian parent):

    The authors state that authoritarian parents “are demanding and not responsive. They want obedience and have high standards….Children of authoritarian parents tend to do well in school but sometimes suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and poor social skills….Children aren’t encouraged to ask why; they are encouraged to do as they are told. There are some challenges associated with authoritarian parenting. First, being very controlling can make kids rebel. Second, not offering much support apart from “Because I said so,” “Pull up your socks,” “Straighten up,” and “It’s my way or the highway” leaves kids on their own to regulate their emotions, which, when coupled with fear and shame, can be confusing and upsetting.”

    The authors describe authoritative parents, on the other hand, as ones who “are demanding but also responsive. They set high standards as well but are supportive in their discipline. Children of authoritative parents are rated more socially and intellectually competent than those of other parents.” These are the parents who take the time to give explanations about why they are saying no, requesting the socks be pulled up, or are holding firm on a certain position.

    While I do agree that it’s acceptable and important at times to establish the boundaries and make it clear that you, as the parent, are in charge of the rules, I want to highlight the fact that being too authoritative as a parent can sometimes result in children facing problems with self-esteem, poor coping skills, and an inability to manage their emotions effectively. My goal is to encourage parents to be more mindful in how they discipline and recognize that taking the time to add in a sentence that gives children better understanding can go along way in their social and emotional development.

  • Jeanette

    July 12th, 2017 at 7:54 AM

    For goodness sake we all need some clarification every now and then!

  • Lisabett

    July 13th, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    Young children take everything that we teach them and then they take that with them for the rest of their lives. I think that it is perfectly acceptable to begin while they are young to show them the difference between right and wrong. It is good for them to know why you expect them to behave in a certain way too and of course you will have to lay the framework different for a three year old than you would for a 15 year old but there is definitely a right way to do it so that everyone learns and takes something positive from the situation. Why give up a chance to have a real teachable moment?

  • Luca

    July 17th, 2017 at 2:10 PM

    There is a part of me that sometimes just wants to scream out why on earth did you have children if you are not committed to teaching them how to be kind and respectful human beings? Life, it isn’t something that you just have to learn on your own. Much of what we say and do and how we interact with others has to do with how we have been taught to behave.

    And this is the key. The things that we teach our kids at home, like kindness and respect these are the things that they are then going to take out into the world with them and bless others with.

    So I kind of feel like it is my responsibility to teach them what they need to know so that they can contribute in a positive way to society.

  • linda

    July 19th, 2017 at 11:35 PM

    Discipline is the major problem for parents these days specially for moms. We can’t teach them 1 few days so it is better to teach everyday in each situation because kids are just like the plants, they would grow how you make them.

  • Tina

    July 21st, 2018 at 7:36 AM

    Great reminder! Thank you. Have you read the Positive Discipline series? I started with the one for toddlers and then the one for preschoolers. It’s very good and aligns with what you’re saying here.

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