We have a small challenge for you: count the number of times you say "no" on a given day. Your baby pulls the cat's fur, your toddler throws a ball at her brother, your child whines for a cookie before dinner—the temptation to say no is almost irresistible. It rolls off the tongue. It feels like the easiest way to get your point across.
But what if there was an even better way to communicate your message? What if you could choose words that connect you to your kids and make you feel more confident and effective? You can, mama.
When you have the impulse to say no, see if you can find words that accomplish these goals instead.
1. Connect with what your child is feeling or trying to do.
The biggest reason to pick a more thoughtful response is that "no" skips a powerful step in human interactions, attuning. Attuning means letting the other person know you understand.
Instead of no, we should send the message, "I get you. I see what you're trying to do. I'm going to set and hold a limit, but I do understand where you're coming from."
Take a break from: "No, don't hit me!"
Instead try: "You were really upset and you hit me (say this while blocking little hands from hitting you again). I can see how frustrated you are, but it's not okay to hit people because it hurts You could tell Try telling me with your words how you feel."
2. Use words with information.
"No," tells kids what not to do, rather than what to do. There isn't much information in a no to helping the child move forward in a more productive way. It doesn't guide the child to better choices.
Take a break from: "No, we don't do that."
Instead try: "At the table, we always sit on our bottoms or our knees. And we park all our toys and electronics. Mommy's going to put her phone away while you park that train set somewhere safe."
3. Explain why.
Kids value reasoning just as much as adults do, and "no" is lacking in explanation. Explaining why helps kids learn to make better choices in the future.
Take a break from: "No, don't touch that."
Instead try: "That isn't a toy, so we will leave it on the shelf. It's delicate and it could break if we touch or play with it."
4. Keep communication open.
No matter what age you are, when someone sternly says "no," your reaction will be to either shut down or push back harder and rebel. Both reactions lead to power struggles and resentment, rather than opening a conversation for learning and guiding.
Take a break from: "No, we don't say that to people."
Instead try: "You wanted space, I can see that. You shoved your friend and he fell down. What could you have said instead? Let's check in and see if he's okay."
5. Vary your words and be specific to the moment.
Kids tend to ignore "no" when they hear it repeatedly. It becomes like background noise. They also start to say "no" to parents, siblings, and friends when they hear it all the time.
Take a break from: "No, don't eat dessert before dinner."
Instead try: "We'll have carrots now and a cookie after dinner so your tummy has room."
6. Keep the tone neutral and non-judgmental.
If we say "no" to babies and young children in a harsh, reprimanding way, over time they get repeated messages that they've done something bad, or even that they themselves are bad.
Instead, we can give them the message that we understand them, believe they have good intentions and are trying to figure out the world.
We're not suggesting permissiveness. You can still be clear and hold limits without a lot of no's. Unless someone is in immediate danger (a toddler is about to hit a friend or touch something unsafe), first attune. If you start this way, the next words out of your mouth will naturally have more information. Your child won't feel defensive, so it's easier for her to hear you. For example,
Take a break from: "No, don't do that!"
Instead try: "Seems fun to throw the ball in here, huh? I get it. We can only roll balls in the house so we don't break anything" or "My glasses look interesting to you, don't they? But my glasses are not a toy. They're for daddy only."
7. Say that it's not okay, but in a new way.
Kids' brains are programmed to experiment and test. Lots of little ones keep going back to these forbidden things and, all the while, parents get louder and sterner in an attempt to get through to them.
It's not the child being "bad," it's her mind consumed with the never-ending task of figuring out the world. If immediate safety is the issue, do what you need to to keep everyone safe first.
Take a break from: "No!!"
Instead try: "Stop!" or "Freeze!"
The idea of replacing "no" is to work towards our greater goals as parents. Instead of escalating, let your child know you understand why she's persisting. When you do this, she'll be much more open to learning the rules and understanding what you're trying to teach—she'll be more likely to make good choices, even when no one is watching.
Be kind to yourself and don't worry if you sometimes say "no, " mama. For many parents, the word is a reflex. You heard it growing up, or absorbed it as the standard way to get kids to know right from wrong. It takes conscious practice to change.
When you feel a "no" coming on, replace it with information. You may still need to hold a limit repeatedly, remove the glasses yourself, or take the ball and put it up high. But the underlying message is, "I understand you and I'm here to support and guide."