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The Positive No: What “No” Looks Like in Positive Parenting

Ice cream for breakfast; impromptu gifts; cookies for lunch; no responsibilities ever; cake for dinner…oops…hold on…that’s my wish list, and I’m supposed to be writing about kids. 

A lot of people think positive parenting means giving children everything they ask for (i.e., permissive parenting). If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be able to buy a crazy-ton of ice cream. That said, and as my child will readily tell you, there are plenty of limits in our house. And sadly, we don’t have ice cream for breakfast every day. Sigh. We do pretty well with our limits, though. It might be because of the way we manage them (to be clear, I’m not taking credit for that—I had to learn, too).
 
Many years ago, I took an executive negotiation class that completely changed my perspective on “no.” This is where the credit goes. As odd as it sounds, the most successful “no” often sounds surprisingly, um, positive. Encouraging, even.
Who’d have thought executive negotiation tactics would double as positive parenting tools?
 
Before anyone worries that I’m suggesting children should negotiate everything with their parents, I’m not. I do strongly believe, however, that our approach with our children becomes their inner dialogue as they grow. Our words and tone stick with them. I see evidence of that in my own child in the ways she matures and processes various situations. The world will give her plenty of no’s (heck, it already does), so I choose to teach her optimism and hope as tools for resiliency. And more than that, there’s plenty of Internet-searchable evidence that authoritarian parenting causes substantially more harm than good.
 
Now that that’s out of the way, I’m paraphrasing the executive negotiation class I took and translating it to real-life scenarios for raising kids. Here are the key takeaways:
 
  1. Skip the battle. If you know you’re going to a store that has things your child will ask for but you’re not planning to buy them today, offer a preemptive alternative. Different from a “negative no,” which might sound like this, “We’re going to the store now, but you’re not getting anything,” spin it a different way. Try this: “We’re going to the store now. If you see something you like while we’re there, remind me to take a picture of it. We’ll put it on your list.” Helpful hint: Building your child’s trust that something is actually going on his list might not happen overnight. When you do buy something for him at a later date, it helps to verbally add something like, “I remembered that time we went shopping and you put it on your list. That’s how I knew you’d like it.” Reinforce that you’ve paid attention.
  2. Offer some control. People (big and little) often feel the most defensive when they feel they have no control over a situation. With my child, when it’s time to get out of the pool (or off the swings, or whatever), I know better than to spring the news on her and expect immediate compliance. Fair warning helps everyone involved. That said, for a child who can’t tell time, “We’re leaving in five minutes” would be meaningless, but in some situations, it can be helpful for older kids. If your child wants to keep doing what he’s doing but your answer is no, reduce your child’s resistance by trying this: “It’s almost time to go. You pick a number (or give a range you can manage, especially if your child knows lots of numbers). I’ll count to that number while you finish what you’re doing, and then we’ll go. What number would you like?” For what seemed like forever, the highest number my child knew was 31. Counting to her “biggest number” helped her feel like we were staying for the maximum amount of time in her universe of numbers, and the glimmer in her eyes as I counted proved how she loved having that influence on our day.
  3. Agree for a future date. Sometimes, there really isn’t a way to accommodate your child’s request when she wants something. That’s fine. Give her peace of mind by telling her when her request (or a version thereof) will happen, instead. Example: she wants chocolate chips on her French toast. Try this: “Chocolate chips really are delicious! Although I’m not putting them on your breakfast this morning, how about if we plan to make that pumpkin chocolate chip bread you like this weekend?” Again, the part you own is making good on the alternative you’ve suggested. Build trust that you’ll follow through. If she wants to go somewhere you can’t go right now, intentionally let her watch you put in on the calendar for a day you can go. There’s a world of difference for a child between hearing you say, “Sure, another time,” which he likely translates as “Maybe never,” and “Yes, let’s put it on the calendar together. Come look with me for our first available day.” Moreover, apply this to little things while you’re building trust in this area. Nothing is too small when it’s important to your child.
  4. Reframe the “no.” Sometimes, when I’m tired or impatient, I hear myself bark, “No, stop that!” What I fail to teach in those moments, though, is why it’s important for my child to change course. Unless it’s an urgent safety issue, find a positive way to redirect your child. Little and big kids need this. A better option for a little kid might be, for example, “That’s the floor. Let’s find some paper for you to color on, instead.” For a bigger kid, try, “Hmmm, it’s getting close to dinner time, so let’s stay inside now and make a plan to go back out tomorrow.” I hear myself say, “Let’s make a plan…” a lot when the timing or approach my child is using isn’t workable for me. Choose your words wisely.
Note that in all of these examples, there’s no unreasonable negotiating, no cajoling, and no bribing: we’re shopping, but not buying what you want today; you need to stop doing what you’re doing; we’re not having chocolate chips today. BUT, if you work to find a “yes” that you can offer, you might find that:
 
“Yes, we can do that tomorrow.”
and
“We’re all done with it for today, but let’s make a plan to do it again in the morning!”
and
“Let’s wave at the playground as we walk past it today and tell it we’ll see it on Thursday!”
and
“Yes, the next time we’re at the store, you can pick some out.”
 
When all else fails, in executive negotiation terms, find your BANTA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). BANTA means that even if you can’t reach agreement with your child, you can still find something to agree on, even if it’s agreeing that it’s hard to not get what he wants. Sometimes, no just needs to be no. Offer empathy while your child emotionally processes the limit. It’s normal for her to get upset sometimes, and you don’t need to “fix” it; just help her understand that you’re on her side (even when you disagree). Feel her perspective; internalize it. Sit quietly with her while she expresses her disappointment, just listening and understanding, without justifying or defending your position. Be loving in your “no.” Stay with her. Hear her.
 
As always, examine whether you can say “yes,” and say it as often as possible. Sometimes, I catch myself saying no because, gulp, I have the Parental Power to Say No, and I don’t even know why I’ve said it. When I think about it objectively, though, I realize how much more often I can say “yes.” And do you know what I’ve learned? Many things, actually—and among them, that chocolate chips are sometimes an excellent alternative to syrup on French toast.

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