Feel like you tell your child no all the time? Don’t fight with your kids over everything. Instead, be choosy when setting limits with children to avoid struggles.
“Don’t jump on the couch.”
“You can’t have another snack.”
“Stop hitting your brother.”
Sometimes it seems like we say “no” (in its various forms) all day. We get from policing kids and telling them what they can and can’t do. And the more we tell them not do something, the more it feels like they misbehave and need to hear it more.
Saying “no” can even been our default response to their behavior. Especially when every action seems to warrant another reprimand.
Sometimes we even assume we’re doing our job as parents when we harp on our kids. We’re supposed to keep them out of trouble, right? Guide them away from what not to do?
Why we shouldn’t always say “no”
While our role is to teach our kids their boundaries, we’re not stuck saying policing them all day. I’m learning we can spend a majority of our day not saying “no” and instead enjoy the time with our kids. Besides, we make these mistakes when we tell them what not to do all the time:
We don’t honor their spirit and curiosity
We’re so quick to react with a “no” that we don’t pause and evaluate what our kids are doing. We tell them not to run without acknowledging that running isn’t bad, just not through a busy mall.
We’re in constant battle mode
Even though it feels like we’re just doing our job, it doesn’t feel good to reprimand our kids all the time. We hover and highlight what they shouldn’t be doing. And it becomes even more wearisome when they continue to misbehave.
Our kids don’t understand what’s off limits
When everything warrants a “no,” it’s hard for kids to decide what’s actually off limits. Running across the street shouldn’t bear the same weight as making a mess of their stuffed animals.
How to be choosy when setting limits with children
Letting a few things go doesn’t mean you’ll be permissive and will let them get away with everything. The key is to stop reacting with a quick “no” and instead see if you even need to say it in the first place. Here’s how:
Ask yourself if it’s that bad
We react too quickly with our kids sometimes. Maybe we’re distracted or frustrated about something else and take it out on them (link-unfair reasons). Or we fear the worst and overprotect. Or we assume we’re doing our job by deflecting any potential scrape or misbehavior.
Instead, ask yourself whether your child’s behavior is that bad. Maybe your kids are acting rowdy and loud at home. It’s tempting to tell them to knock it off and be quiet.
But see what they’re doing: they’re playing and using their imagination. They’re not disturbing others around them within their own walls. There’s no real danger to their behavior. And can you find an alternative, such as stepping into another room?
Weigh the pros and cons of telling them “no” before you do. You might find that what you’re telling them not to do isn’t so bad after all.
Prevent misbehavior in the first place
I had been telling my three-year-old twins to stop stepping on the books on the floor. It seemed like I had said it five times and was getting upset at repeating myself.
As frustrating as it was that they didn’t listen the first time, I realized I was also to blame. I was, after all, the one who had laid the books on the floor.
We can slash the number of times we say “no” by preventing the behavior to begin with. If I had stacked the books on the coffee table, I wouldn’t even need to tell my kids to stop stepping on them.
Think of the times you’ve said to stop playing with your phone when you could’ve tucked it out of their reach. Or to stay away from the sharp table corners you could’ve baby proofed.
And sometimes preventing misbehavior means meeting your child’s needs to begin with. Kids tend to act up when they’re sleepy, hungry, or need attention. Maybe they’re overstimulated, or feel upset about the new baby. Meet her needs first to prevent her from acting up at all.
Your child’s actions may be appropriate
If you’re like me, you might feel a little paranoid at the playground. Those high play structures with no rails. Ladders your kids want to climb. And sand galore your child is determined to get all over herself.
Before you say “no,” think about whether her actions are actually good for her. As difficult as it is to let go of control, it’s important they take risks. This is how they build confidence, regulate their emotions and learn risk tolerance.
By saying “no” all the time, we’re deciding for them what’s okay or not. We’re diminishing their confidence with our doubts. And we don’t allow them to overcome their fears.
Often we do need to say “no” for their safety and maturity. They may not be old enough to climb the structure meant for five-year-olds. But in other cases, see if you can let go and allow your child the freedom to learn and play.
Maybe it’s sitting on the sidelines at the playground. Or standing nearby instead of holding on to them every minute. Or even changing your language from paranoid phrases to more constructive feedback. (“Make sure you’re always gripping the ladder.”)
And don’t hold the same expectations of your child as you would an adult. Sometimes we forget our kids are still kids and feel inclined to jump and run. Or that hitting is a common behavior for kids learning social skills. We’re not dealing with adults who already know these things. Our kids still need us to teach them what’s appropriate or not.
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Don’t see your interaction as a power struggle
The hard part about saying “no” all day is that our relationship with our kids changes with it. When your child misbehaves, don’t see it is as another way she’s testing you. Don’t get defensive, or take it personal.
Instead, switch to teacher mode and use the opportunity to guide your child on what to do or not. You may still have to say “no,” but at least you’ll have said it from a firm but gentle teaching mode. Not one from frustration and anger.
They’re bound to do something that can get you angry or test your patience. Put yourself in teacher mode and think about your goals. Your goals probably aren’t to “win” arguments or show your child who’s boss. Instead, you’re showing her how to interact with her brother or understand what’s off limits.
Say “yes” more often
With so much “no” filling your day, try the other route and say “yes” more often.
Maybe you’re afraid saying “yes” will teach your kids they can take advantage of you and get anything they want. Or you might hesitate saying “yes” because you don’t want to disrupt your routine.
But ask yourself if you can actually say “yes” to your child without causing much harm. Is it that bad that they’re running down the hall when there’s no one else around? Will your day be that disrupted if you go to the park like they asked?
Choose helpful phrases to establish limits
One of the ways I’m less patient with my kids is when I’m trying to get them to cooperate.
For anyone who has ever had to convince their kids to do something, you know what I’m talking about. From putting on their shoes already (seriously, why does it take five minutes?!) to not whining because they have to take a bath, it can feel like most of my day is one long nag session.
Authors Rachel Norman and Lauren Tamm know this all too well.
Their book, Helpful Phrases: How to Gain Cooperation from Toddlers and Preschoolers Without Lectures (affiliate link) shares a ton of effective ways to respond to your kids, get them to listen and reduce the power struggles that can often weigh the whole day down.
One of the best lessons I learned from this book was the power of short phrases. Don’t we all sometimes go on and on with our kids, telling them not to do this and that only to have them do it all over again?
Turns out, there are advantages to saying shorter phrases when getting our kids to cooperate.
You’ll also learn which phrases you should be using that will turn your child’s behavior around. I’ve seen my own kids go from defensive and angry to quiet and ready to be comforted, all from changing the way I spoke to them.
If you can relate to the struggle of getting your kids to cooperate and want a better way to communicate with them, this book is for you.
This isn’t a call to be more permissive, or to turn the other way when our kids misbehave. But we can take it too far and assume every response should be a “no” or some form of discipline.
Instead, ask yourself if your child’s behavior is bad enough to warrant that discipline. Prevent misbehavior in the first place to avoid even having to say “no.”
Your child’s behavior may be appropriate and even necessary to his growing development. Avoid power struggles by focusing more on his needs and less on taking it personal.
And try saying “yes” more often. You might surprise yourself how much more carefree and easy your day will be.
Get more tips:
- How to Set Limits with Your Baby (And Almost Toddler)
- 7 Techniques to Discipline Children
- How to Encourage Delayed Gratification in Children
- When Your Child Seems to Ruin Everyone’s Day
- A Better but Not Always Easier Alternative to Timeouts
Tell me in the comments: What were some of the recent reasons you told your child “no”? How do you explain what’s off limits?
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