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Finding the Right Way to Say No

In a popular Discover Card ad, actors say no in a variety of ways: “C’mon, now, no,” “No way,” “Uh-uh,” “Nyet!” It’s fun to see alternative ways to set a boundary with others since it’s often so difficult to do so comfortably in real life.

What do we say when a friend asks us to a social engagement that we don’t want to attend or to do a favor we don’t have time for? Coming up with the right words and the right tone can be a challenge, whether you are three years old or thirty. Having the ability to say no kindly and effectively is a skill that is important for children to learn starting at an early age, and they need adult coaching and encouragement.

Young children need to learn to defend their play spaces – “I’m playing here” – and prevent others from taking their materials: “I’m using this now.” One of the situations that typically comes up in the home involves setting limits about possessions. In their exploration of the environment, younger children often take valued possessions from an older sibling or knock down a tower they are building. The spontaneous reaction might be hitting. However, with enough support, a parent can teach an older child to say no by suggesting phrases like “You can play with this later” and “You can’t touch this, I’ll give you something else to play with.” Doing this in the home builds their skills for handling similar situations at school or on a team in a kind but firm way. Parents need to consistently support children’s abilities to set boundaries.

You can role-play scenarios at home that offer children chances to say no in all kinds of situations. Practice is the key to gaining confidence. Make up a game where you take something from your child and she tells you that you can’t have it. Encourage soft-spoken children to respond in a loud voice so they’ll be heard.

With older children, make up scenarios that help them try out different ways of responding to events with discernment. “I don’t want to do that, it’s going to hurt our friend’s feelings.” “That doesn’t sound safe, so I can’t do it.” “I don’t think that’s right.” Of course, we need to teach children to tell adults about unsafe situations.

Ultimately, one of the most important ways to help children learn to say no successfully is role-modeling that ability in your own life and talking to children about how we learned to do it.


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