4 Ways to Make Your ‘No’ Mean No

Experts agree that the key to making "no" stick has to do with consistency with parenting — but nobody said it was easy!

1. Rules & Consequences

“Factors such as work stress, how tired you are and not wanting to be embarrassed by your child’s behavior all play a role in how consistent we are from day to day,” says Donna Shea, director of the Peter Pan Center in Ayer. The center, a 2013 Boston Parents Paper Best of the Best winner, offers education programs for kids with behavioral and social challenges. “The worst thing you can do is become a parental ‘slot machine,’” says Shea. “It’s just like gambling. Kids will keep putting quarters in the slot machine – having tantrums – because sometimes it pays off.”


Shea encourages families to have a list of rules, and make sure the consequences fit the crime. “For example, going to bed early for breaking the rule about how much time you can play a video game doesn’t make sense,” she says. “But losing video game privileges for the next day does.”


2. How Often Do You Say No?


Stacy McHugh, a trainer with the nonprofit COMPASS for kids in Lexington, advises parents to limit how many times they say no to a young child to “protect the value of ‘no.’” First and foremost,  she says, “no” should be used for matters of safety. In other cases, parents should tell children what they want them to do instead of what they don’t want. For instance, if a child is jumping on the couch, you might say, “The couch is for sitting.” But when it comes to safety, McHugh says, by all means, say, “No, don’t touch the stove!”


According to Karen Lowe, who runs a private counseling practice in Chelmsford and is a mother of four children, “What helps in my experience is to limit how many times you say no. In our house it was three times. You say it once in a firm tone. In case they were distracted, you say no the second time. If it happens a third time, it’s a time-out for a minute each year of their age.”


3. Pick Your Battles


For issues that aren’t matters of safety, McHugh recommends giving choices where either outcome is OK. For example, “Do you want to wear your sneakers or your boots?”


Shea also urges parents to “try to say yes to things that make sense or are small things.” Then, when saying no, to say, “I am now being firm and my answer is no.”


4. Consistent and Positive


Make sure you are on the same page with your spouse. “It’s crucial to have that talk about your family rules and consequences,” says Shea. “If one of you gives in – maybe because dad doesn’t get to see them all day or even all week – it sets your family up for behavioral troubles.”


For more advice on establishing rules, read "Making Kids Self-Responsible."

Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper. 

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01 Nov 2013

By Mary Alice Cookson