Mom, can I have a cookie? No, it will spoil your supper.
Dad, can I go over to Tracey’s? No.
Mom, can I use the car? No.
Parenting expert Barbara Coloroso writes in her book The Kids Are Worth It
that when parents say “No” too frequently, it can dilute the importance of the word and its message: “Kids learn not to take us seriously on the big no because we keep changing our minds on the little ones.”
To help retain the power of the word no for when it matters most, Coloroso recommends that parents use the following 3 alternatives to saying no:
1. “Yes, later”
Mom, can I have a cookie? Yes, later.
It’s worth noting that the mother didn’t say, No, you can have one later. The five year old in this case is ready to fight against a no, but it’s not so easy to fight Yes, later.
But, mom, I’m so hungry. OK, have one cookie.
It’s already later, even if it’s just a few seconds. The important thing is that you have not changed a no to a yes – it was a yes all along.
2. “Give me a minute”
Dad, can I go over to Tracy’s? Give me a minute.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for a minute to develop your own case.
Maybe you’re thinking that it might be nice to have some quiet for a little while (Yes, you can go.), or that there’s a lot to do before dinner guests arrive (No, you can’t go.).
Coloroso writes that many parents find themselves saying no without knowing why: “No just sounded good. Then we have to try to defend it.”
This way, at least when you say no, you’ll know why you’re saying it.
3. “Convince me”
Mom, can I use the car? Convince me.
Coloroso notes that she uses this alternative mostly with adolescents, but that it can be used with any kid who is verbal: “Why should I spend all my energy at my age trying to convince my adolescent she can’t have the car; let her spend all her youthful energy convincing me she should.”
Mom, all my friends … I’m not convinced.
But you let Maria. I’m not convinced.
Mom, if you don’t let us use the car, you’ll have to drive us to play practice. I’m convinced!
For Coloroso, these alternatives are important because they save the power of no for truly important instances, like when a teenage son asks, Mom, can I stay out all night with my friends?
A good answer is No and he’ll probably ask, Why not?
The typical response is Because I said so, but this isn’t a very good reason: “He could go out the back window after you’ve locked the front door, and he still won’t know why you said no.”
A better approach is to tell him why, and in Coloroso’s view there are four reasons: “sex, jail, drugs, and personal safety.”
Son, you can’t stay out all night because of sex, drugs, jail, and personal safety.
You don’t trust me!
Oh, yes, I do. I trust you from the moment you walk out the door in the morning until you walk back in the evening. It takes less than 10 minutes to get involved in sex, jail, or drugs, and I trust that you’re not. See, I trust you a whole lot. But after midnight in this community, after everything else is closed down, there isn’t a whole lot else left to do besides sex, jail, or drugs, and I don’t want to put you in a position you can’t handle yet.
Coloroso acknowledges that teenagers aren’t going to appear very impressed.
But some will be relieved because they can now tell their friends, I can’t go because they won’t let me. You get to take the blame while their own emotional and moral backbone is developing.
It’s worth remembering that children have their own free will and are subject to peer pressure, and no matter what their parents say, some kids will still go out the back window.
For Coloroso, the important thing is that parents give an explanation that is meaningful with the no, so that children can begin to develop their own internal moral structure that enables them to function creatively and responsibly in society.
“These are the children who will also have the spine to stand up and speak out against injustices.”