Use the Littlest Discipline Word – No


Positive parents appreciate the value of the word no. They depend on the word often, as they base decisions on their youngster's welfare, and not on how much he nags, pleads, sulks, even threatens until be gets a yes. "Love your kids enough to say no when needed," affirms Betty, mother of Judy and Rick from Missouri. "Yes can sometimes be the coward's way out."

No is among the smallest of words, but it speaks one of life's biggest lessons: You can't always have what you want. And the younger a person is when she grasps that lesson, the smoother her life will be. That is why better parents aren't afraid to say no, be it in response to a two-year-old's climbing onto the table, a four-year-old's sobbing for more ice cream, or a fifteen-year-old's, "Can I go to the quadruple drive-in feature with Rocky tonight? I promise I'll be back in time to study for exams tomorrow."

Bob from Cleveland asserts that the word no must become a comfortable part of a parent's vocabulary. "The kids have to see that life is not a candy store with all the shelves open all the time. When I was growing up, my father put certain restrictions on me, and I really didn't enjoy them too much at the time. As I got older, though, I could understand why he was doing some of them. I've come to believe that telling kids no for certain things is natural."

Even if saying no comes naturally to parents, the kids generally aren't happy about hearing it. Can we really expect them to be? Self-denial is a quality that is developed from the outside in. That is, kids need parents to impose early limits on them, and only with many years will they more completely be able to self-regulate their desires. Even so, do any grown-ups exist who are able to deny themselves everything that is harmful to them? The most self-denying of us occasionally need to be told no by somebody else.

Despite their outward displeasure, kids do appreciate a firm stand. That's what Linda, mother to Kevin (sixteen), Heather (thirteen), and Megan (nine), thinks. "Children don't want carte blanche on anything they want to do. I believe they want that limit set. They want to push you, but they want to know that limit is there so they can test it. They want to respect you." Linda believes that children are more content when a parent draws a definite line and stands by it. Otherwise, they'll spend a lot of time relentlessly poking and prodding to see just where the boundaries are, making themselves and us agitated in the process.

For example, a three-year-old will relentlessly badger you to go outside if he thinks you'll weaken and ultimately let him go. He'll learn quickly to persist as long as necessary to get you to crack. Similarly, a two-year-old may not accept her first evening with a baby-sitter, or maybe her first ten evenings. The kindest way for you to say, "No, you can't go with us," is quietly to tell her once that you'll be back, kiss her, and then leave. Regardless how many times and how many ways you tell your daughter no, as long as you're still at home struggling vainly to convince her to enjoy the baby-sitter―who is probably thinking, 'This job is not worth two dollars an hour'―she will cling to the notion that no isn't really no yet.

Young children are born to resist no. Their world is a self-centered one, guided by impulse. The younger they learn that your no's are definite and not maybe's, the more content they, and you, will be.

Lucille, looking back over her eighteen children and forty-five years of motherhood, regretted that she required a few years, and a few kids, to understand the worth of no. "Our biggest failures as parents were when we were afraid to say no and make the kids unhappy. When we saw that there was no way to make them completely happy with our decisions, we began to stick with our discipline better. And the younger kids turned out happier because we did."

Other parents cite additional long-term benefits of a firm no. Dudley, father of three, observes, "The hardest times of parenting can also turn out to be the most rewarding, I'm referring specifically to those times when we did not allow our children to do something, much against their wishes―such as go to a party where we knew there would be alcohol―and perhaps ended up being key people in changing the whole party around by influencing other parents and their children. Then, too, after much arguing and bitterness, to have your child tell you that he thinks you did the right thing is a wonderful feeling." Dudley's counsel: Persevere in a prudent, however unpopular, decision. Others, your kids included, will often come around to the wisdom of your judgment.

Sometimes our wisdom is apparent to our children after only a few hours. Nancy from Cleveland tells this story. "About three weeks ago our seventh grader was going to the zoo on a school trip. All week long he talked about how everyone was wearing jams [a colorful pair of shorts]. I kept saying we'll see what the weather's like. Zoo day came with forty-five degrees and rain. He insisted on wearing jams, but I said no jams. He said if he couldn't wear jams, he wouldn't go. I said, 'Fine, don't go.' He even called a friend who said be was wearing jams. Finally be went to the zoo in jeans and was happy be did. The first thing be said getting off the bus was, 'Thanks, Mom, for making me wear jeans.' " Parents don't always have to wait years for our no's to be appreciated.

Betty from St. Louis asserts that a parent's no can be a youngster's earliest tool for resisting peer pressure. "I tried not to let myself be blackmailed into the everyone-has-one or everyone-is-going type of argument. Saying no when I felt uneasy about something or knew it was not a good thing for our children helped me to teach them at an early age that one doesn't always need to go along with the group. I felt it helped build the strength that was needed later to stand up to peer pressure." Other parents reinforced Betty's words. They said to their kids, in essence, "If your friends or anybody else is pushing you to do something you don't want to do, tell them that your mother [father] said no. Blame us. Tell them we'll ground you for six months if we ever found out what you did." To competent parents, no can work to the good even when it is never actually spoken.

Many young parents today have been made unduly nervous by experts who somberly warn: "Never tell your toddler no. It stifles his natural curiosity." Strong parents, especially the older ones, vehemently disagree with such simplistic advice. First of all, it's not easy to dampen the built-in inquisitiveness of little children, especially not with a mere no, which to most toddlers is a bothersome verbal mosquito and nothing more. Secondly, as we've said, no is part of the real world. It's a statement of existence kids must learn to accept. And the sooner they learn this, the easier life will be for them.

Should you present your reasons underlying your no? Once, or maybe even twice, if you suspect you truly weren't heard or understood the first time through. Any more than that is just asking for an argument, as no triggers a reflex in kids to ask "Why?" and "Why?" is only the forerunner of more "Why?" 's. To shut down these verbal merry-go-rounds, you might try a response favored by one father: "I gave you my reasons. You didn't like them." And then cease the discussion. Walk away. Or, give the kids the same dumb look they give you whenever you ask them why they did something. If these fail, you could try the words of a popular poster, "What part of no didn't you understand?"

No will elegantly speak for itself if it isn't buried beneath a mound of rationales and justifications that typically only spur more arguing and further convince your kids that "You say no just to say no." We know that's not true. Someday so will they.



Ray Guarendi. "Use the Littlest Discipline Word - No." In Back To The Family (New York: Villard Books, 1990), 191-194.

Reprinted with permission of Ray Guarendi.


Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.

Copyright © 1990 Ray Guarendi

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