How to say “NO” to kids

A two-year-old child tries to persuade his dad to let him have a cookie right before dinner. His dad says no.

A ten-year-old child promises to complete her homework if her mom lets her play a video game first. Her mom says that homework comes first.

A fifteen year old comes home after curfew. The next night his parents need to remind him that coming home late means not going out for the next two evenings.

When you say “no” to your children, do they automatically accept your answer? Probably not! It’s natural for children to test their parents’ decisions, especially when testing has previously resulted in getting Mom or Dad to give in. In fact, children will often go through some predictable maneuvers in an attempt to get Mom and Dad to change their minds. Do these sound familiar?


One maneuver is begging or pleading“I wanna cookie! I wanna cookie!” or “Please let me play this video game for just 15 minutes! Please!” The goal of children in this stage is to ‘bug’ parents enough to get them to change their minds.

If begging and pleading are not successful, children may try promising or negotiating. “I promise I’ll get right down to my homework as soon as I’m finished! Please just this once?” Or “It wasn’t my fault that I’m late!  I’ll come home early the next two times.” Here the goal is to use logic and sincerity to make a rational appeal.

If children are still unsuccessful at persuading parents to give in, they may try guilting or threatening. “You’re mean! I hate you!”  “ None of my other friends have this rule!  It’s not fair! You’re ruining my life!” At this stage, the goal is to make parents feel lousy. Children want parents to regard themselves as too strict and thus responsible for their children’s unhappiness.

If the first three maneuvers don’t work, children will often show their unhappiness (and attempt to punish parents) by rebelling or isolating themselves. “I didn’t want to play that game anyway!” [slams door]  “This whole family is STUPID!” Depending on their age, children may resort to crying, stomping, yelling, or cursing. Doors may be slammed or household items thrown. Some children may choose to withdraw, mope, or stew overtly in silence.


Often, parents give in to these maneuvers because they are busy, tired, or feel they don’t have the energy to listen to the complaints anymore. Sometimes it just seems easier to give in. They may change their minds to avoid confrontation or to restore peace and harmony to the family. Parents may be swayed by the seemingly rational arguments presented. They may also change their minds because they want their children to be happy.


Although some of these may appear to be good reasons for ‘giving in’, the long term effects on children are not positive. The main message children receive when parents give in is that arguing long enough and hard enough will be rewarded. They learn that parents don’t always mean what they say and begin to question the meaning of parental rules, limits and boundaries. They conclude that no decision is final. In short, children learn that when parents say no, it doesn’t always mean no.


When parents stand firm children conclude that they can count on their parents to keep their word and that they mean what they say. Although children may be initially angry when parents stand firm, the long- term effect will be one that strengthens the parent/child relationship. Children unconsciously internalize that parental love is too strong to let arguing change a valid decision into a poor one, even though it might be easier. Children also learn that some decisions are final. They begin to realize that no matter how much they argue, it won’t change their parents’ minds. Once they discover their attempts are futile, the arguing and complaining will begin to decrease.


No! It’s hard to stand firm in the face of the emotional barrage children heap upon parents to coax them to ‘give in’. However, it’s comforting to know that the parent/child relationship is strengthened when parents keep their word and remain consistent. In addition, being able to anticipate the maneuvers children go through helps parents prepare for them. Knowing the predictability and the reasons for these maneuvers will assist parents in remaining calm, detaching themselves from the situation and, most importantly, standing firm.


An important rule of thumb for parents is to stand firm whenever an agreement has been made. These are non-negotiable times. When parents give in, children learn that deals aren’t always kept and arguing is rewarded. In the example of the fifteen year old coming home after curfew the parent and child had a previous arrangement that missing curfew would result in not going our for two evenings. Parents need to follow through on their part of all agreements and stand firm regardless of the argument presented. When parents question the importance of a particular house rule, consider changing it at a later time, not when the agreement has been broken.

There are times, however, when it is appropriate for parents to change their minds. When no previous agreement has been made, it is important to listen to and consider children’s reasons. In the case of the two year old wanting a cookie before dinner, it might be reasonable to say “yes” on a night that dinner is an hour late. When changing one’s decision it is crucial to evaluate only the child’s first argument and then make a decision. Parents then need to communicate to the child their reason for allowing an exception to the rule. The message sent to the child is that ‘I value what you say and consider your reasons thoughtfully’. When parents continue to listen beyond the first reason, they are teaching the child that it is arguing long and hard that will change their minds.


It is helpful to recognize that arguing with parental decisions is a normal and predictable process that all children go through to test out their environment. Giving in to a child’s maneuvers, however, will only encourage future arguments. Children learn that continued debating will be rewarded. When standing firm, the goal for parents goes beyond holding children to the rules of the family. It is also to teach children that some decisions are final and that they can count on parents to keep their word. The long-term effect on children when parents stand firm is to create a predictable environment where trust is developed. Parents who withstand the emotional barrage notice children arguing less and accepting parental decisions more readily. Most importantly, persevering parents are rewarded with an improved parent/child relationship based on dependability and trust.


February 28, 2011. Uncategorized.

One Comment

  1. carolyn dierberger replied:

    I completely agree! Parents need to stand firm in any decisdion that is made. Children want and need to know their boundaries. This helps create a safe environment for the children.

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