How to Say No to Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Grade Schoolers Without Saying “No”

There are times in parenting when saying no as a form of child discipline doesn't make sense. It's better to offer choices and help kids develop reason.

The word “no” feels critical to child discipline for many parents. It’s the hard stop that precedes punishment, or when keeping a child from something they desire, saying no may even the punishment itself. But a firm denial isn’t always the best tactic, particularly for parents hoping to teach a child life skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and even arguing. Those skills are instrumental in maturing, and the use of a “soft” no can help cultivate more thoughtful and intuitive kids. When done well, denial can even be met without a meltdown.

“The main thing to keep your child from flipping out is being empathetic. That helps to soften a parent’s refusal,” says Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No. In practice, the soft, empathetic no takes many forms. Regardless of which method a parent uses, it’s essential to consider the child’s age.

Don’t Give Kids a Consolation Prize

There is no way to really gauge a toddler’s potential reaction to any situation. In fact, Newman points out that a toddler will often go off the rails even when a parent says yes. A calm parent, though, can get on a kid’s level and help them calm down without a “no.” It starts by making them feel like they’re part of the decision and asking questions that lead to a no. This is a method of deflection and distraction and works by offering choices in line with the parents’ wishes and tolerances rather than the child’s. It works well, though Newman cautions that simply changing subjects robs the child of closure.

Many parents will resort to giving a child a consolation prize. Not the thing they wanted, but the thing that will make them quiet. Newman notes such tactics simply create an expectation of gratification and an association in the child’s mind that they’re going to be rewarded for future denials. “It seems parents today don’t want to disappoint their kids, even if it’s just of a few minutes. That’s detrimental for the kid,” she says.

That disappointment will very likely translate into a kid throwing a fit. Newman says to let it. In fact, in hindsight, most meltdowns are the source of future laughs.

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“In the moment, a freak out doesn’t seem humorous. But some of these things will become part of family lore: You’re going to be rehashing the time your child freaked out in the grocery store,” says Newman.

Offer Preschoolers Options

Once a child reaches preschool age, he or she is beginning to learn to reason — and manipulation. This is a good thing for their development and can work in a parent’s favor. In situations where parents need to give a denial, it helps to offer up alternatives to the requested activity, or allow a child to sort through pros and cons of what they want, with a little nudge toward the negative to help a kid arrive at the desired outcome.

If a parent is denying a request for something monetary, like the purchase of a toy, the parent can use the opportunity to explain money to the child, advising them to save. This stalls the denial and allows a child to spend time thinking about whether the end result is worth the effort.

“You let the child feel like he or she is a participant in a decision,” says Newman, emphasizing that constantly caving to a child’s wants can have consequences. “You’re trying to raise a thinking, feeling, independent, responsible child. If you’re giving in to your child all the time because it’s quicker and easier, you’re really not doing your child a service because you’re not teaching him how to behave.”

Build No Into Grade Schooler’s Expectations

Once a child enters the grade-school years, their understanding of denial is better honed, but so is their ability to counter. At this point, a sharp, curt “no” sends a strong signal that can shut down an argument with finality. Still, when a parent immediately turns to shutting down a child’s request, they can really be missing a learning opportunity.

“Flat-out nos are not learning opportunities. An older child has language capabilities and understands concepts, so you have to offer rationale and explanations,” says Newman. “You have a lot of opportunities to explain situations, to talk about pros and cons of what the child wants to do. It gives kids an opportunity to state their case and learn how to argue.”

It’s all about setting limits. Older children can be involved with establishing agreed-upon boundaries with parents. That way, mom and dad don’t even need to say no. The denial is built into the expectations.

“Kids like boundaries and they like to know what the limits are, even though they don’t act that way,” says Newman.