“[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.”
3. 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.
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