Just Say No to Saying ‘No’: Better Ways to Improve a Child’s Behavior

A family of four talking a walk in the park. The two children are walking in front of their parents, smiling and playing with their arms stretched out to the side.“[W]hen you’re little, your life is up. The future is up. Everything you want is up. ‘Wait up! Hold up! Shut up! Mom, I’ll clean up! Let me stay up!’ Parents, of course, are just the opposite. Everything is down. ‘Just calm down. Slow down. Come down here. Sit down. Put that down.’ ”

Whenever I think about parenting, I think of the above quote by Jerry Seinfeld from one of his HBO specials. Doesn’t it just speak to the truth about parenting and the dynamic between kids and parents? As a parent, it can often feel like we spend the entire day trying to wrangle our youthful and energetic counterparts. To do that, it is not uncommon to use words such as “no,” “don’t,” and “stop.” But do you notice a common thread? The words and phrases we tend to fall back on are, at their core, negative. What parent wants to spend the whole day saying “no” to their child? What child wants to spend all day hearing “no”?

As parents, many of us want to encourage our children to explore, grow, and learn, all while staying safe. In service of those goals, it is important to set boundaries and help guide our children to make healthy choices. While a quick “no,” “don’t,” or “stop” is often the fastest way to draw those boundaries and address unwanted behavior, it also may limit growth and can build resentment, rebellion, and frustration (on both sides).

So, if not “no,” then what?

1. Reframe the Boundary as a Positive Directive

Saying “no” tells your child what not to do, but does it teach them what you want them to do instead? The answer is—you guessed it—no. You want to both set the boundary and teach the behavior you want to see. Not only will it be a more positive interaction, but your child will know what you want from them in the future. Some examples:

  • Instead of saying, “No running in the halls,” say, “We walk in the halls.”
  • Instead of saying, “Don’t bounce the ball inside,” say, “We bounce the ball outside.”
  • Instead of saying, “No candy before dinner,” say, “We eat sweets after dinner.”

2. Redirect Your Child

Instead of getting into the “no” power struggle, simply redirect your child’s attention to another, more appropriate activity.

What your child sees you doing is likely to have a much greater impact than you telling them what not to do.

3. Model the Appropriate Behavior

As the saying goes, your actions speak louder than your words. What your child sees you doing is likely to have a much greater impact than you telling them what not to do. I can’t tell you how many times I watch my toddler go to grab our dog’s tail and want to yell out, “No, stop!” Instead, I take a moment to walk over and show her how to pet Cooper while saying, “Cooper likes to have his back pet gently.” Or, “See how Mommy is petting Cooper?” You can also model without directly calling attention to it. Remember, your child is always watching you and taking a cue for how to act. As another example, if you don’t want them to have their phone at the table, you should not have your phone at the table.

4. Give Choices

Children like to feel in control of themselves and their surroundings, and hearing “no” can lead to frustration and sometimes power struggles. To help set boundaries but also give your child room for control, offer a choice. Instead of saying, “No throwing the ball in the house,” try saying, “You can either roll the ball in the house or take it outside to throw it.” This is a strategy I frequently use with my toddler. My daughter often likes to walk independently when we are out, but her walk often turns into a sprint and it can be quite dangerous. So, instead of saying, “No running,” I give her a choice to either walk and hold my hand or be carried. I give her the power of choice, and she is often content with the decision she gets to make.


Of course, it is impossible to refrain from negative directives altogether, and sometimes “no” is an important and necessary response to children. However, recognize that both you and your child are likely to feel better and your child will likely learn more if you use some of the strategies above.

For more ideas to help you achieve desired behavioral outcomes with children, contact a licensed therapist who specializes in this area.


Callner, M. (1998). Jerry Seinfeld: I’m telling you for the last time. [TV Special]. USA: Home Box Office.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Katelyn Alcamo, LCMFT, 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
  • Mom

    December 4th, 2017 at 1:37 PM

    “What your child sees you doing is likely to have a much greater impact than you telling them what not to do” = YES. Be a role model. That is how my parents raised me and how I raise my kid. Show them what you want, be someone they can respect, be a grown up.

  • Thee

    August 27th, 2022 at 2:31 PM

    Would suggest a more inclusive approach of saying both the yes and no : no running in the hall and we walk in halls . And as n when to whatever extent possible share the reasoning behind it … Any intelligent life forms life is run on information n data accepted as okay.. it ought to be our endevaour to have policies behaviours responses in our words thoughts expressions gestures emptions that show enact n share in a way that values of understanding inclusion respect trust engagement are priotized .

  • Thee

    August 27th, 2022 at 2:35 PM

    *Exclusion Culture*
    They bring nine chairs for ten children, and they tell the children that the winner is the one who gets the chair, and whoever remains without a chair is out of the game.
    Then they reduce the number of chairs each time and a child comes out every time
    Until one child remains and he is declared the winner
    The child learns the culture of “Myself, myself, and in order to succeed, I must remove others.”
    And in Japanese kindergartens, they play the game of chairs too
    And they also come with nine chairs for ten kids, with a difference
    That they tell the children that you have more chairs
    If one of you remains without a chair, everyone loses
    All the children try to hug each other
    So that ten children can sit on nine chairs
    And then they reduce the number of chairs successively
    With the rule remaining that they must make sure that no one remains without a chair, or else they will all lose
    The child learns culture
    “I cannot succeed without the help of others to succeed”

    *From Exclusion to Inclusion*
    Thought provoking.

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