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How to Say No (Without Saying No)


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Barbara Aria
Redbook Magazine Logo
"No." Kids hate to hear it, and you hate to say it — but how else can you keep them safe and well-behaved? Try one of these smart alternatives to just saying no.

The average toddler hears the word no an astonishing 400 times a day, according to experts. That's not only tiresome for you but it can also be harmful to your child: According to studies, kids who hear no too much have poorer language skills than children whose parents offer more positive feedback. "Plus, saying no can become ineffective when it's overused — a little like crying wolf," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that studies infants and toddlers. Some kids simply start to ignore the word; others slip into a red-faced rage the minute that dreaded syllable crosses your lips.

So what's a mom to do — let her child run amok without any limits? Well, no! "Parents can break out of the yes-no tug-of-war by coming up with new ways to set limits," says Howard Gardner, an adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Changing Minds. Here, five positive ways to answer your child in the negative.

Say yes, sort of

Your kid asks you for candy while you're shopping. You say, "No candy before dinner." He stomps his feet. You say no again, more sharply this time. Before you know it, he's having a five-alarm tantrum in aisle four. Sound familiar? "Some kids can't understand or learn the reason for the rule if they only hear the word no," says Bruce Grellong, Ph.D., chief psychologist at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City. So next time, try reframing your no as a yes. For example, you could say to your child, "Yes, you can have candy after dinner. Let's go look for an apple for now."

Explain yourself and your feelings

Consider explaining to your child why her behavior — such as banging on the table over and over again — is so bothersome to you. You might tell her, "You're hurting the table when you bang on it, and that makes me sad. Please stop." Although it may feel futile to reason with a toddler, you're actually teaching her something: "You're showing your child that what she does affects other people around her — and you're giving her a crash course in empathy," says Leigh Thompson, a professor of dispute resolution at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and a mother of three. "It may take a while for your kid to develop concern for others' feelings, but reminding her of your perspective will help her along," she says.

Give him a choice

Your preschooler is throwing his ball in the living room, and you're bracing yourself for the sound of something crashing. Instead of saying, "No! No balls indoors," try saying, "You can roll the ball indoors or take it outside and throw it — your choice." Why? By offering him an option, you help your child feel like he has some power over the situation. "For kids between the ages of 1 and 3, this also encourages them to make simple choices and develop a sense of independence and competence," says Lerner. Just avoid overwhelming a young child with too many options: For toddlers and preschoolers, two is just right.

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