Saturday October 1st 2022

Alternatives to saying NO!

Parenting tips that work

Finding real solutions for real parents

Last year, my three-year-old daughter and I were constantly at loggerheads. I found myself telling her off every few minutes, dealing with tantrums when I refused requests and getting frustrated when she simply didn’t listen.

As an enthusiastic and ‘hands-on’ mother, I had read numerous theories about discipline, positive reinforcement and democratic parenting. However, in practice, nothing really seemed to work – our relationship was dominated by negative communication.

The first word that many children utter is “no”. This is hardly surprising, considering how many dangers we’re always warning them against, how often we nag them to do something and how many times we play “the bad policeman” card when they don’t get what they want.

South African education and parenting expert Robin Booth says that there are healthier ways to parent your child – and to ensure that everybody’s needs are met.

To improve our parenting skills – and relationships with our children – it’s important to understand why we say no so often, how this creates negative consequences for both parent and child and what we can do to find workable parenting solutions for everyday triggers and scenarios.

“The only reason we say ‘no’ at any point in time, is because we do not know how to say ‘yes’, while (still) keeping our boundaries in place and meeting the child’s needs at the same time,” says Booth, who specialises in conscious parenting, is principal of Synergy School in Cape Town and founded the SynEDgy Schooling Approach.

“You have just not currently found the way or the skills to have your need and their need exist at the same time and in the same space. The reason why this is entrenched in parenting, is that we have not been shown alternatives which work.”

But I’m the parent!

Our society is founded on hierarchies; you’re either on the top or bottom rung of the ladder. We are boss or employee, manager or labourer, big brother or baby sister, winner or loser.

Traditionally, parenting follows this societal norm, with parents as authority figures and children taught to listen and follow instructions.

As a mom or dad, you might therefore be concerned about “giving in” to your child if you don’t say “no” – or don’t want to end up negotiating everything when a simple “no” might seem good enough.

However, fairness and understanding are far greater tools to get a child to cooperate with you, explains Booth.

“When a child feels that you really understand his perspective and that you are acting out of the context of fairness, it’ll be far easier for you to refuse their request later on.

“Being consistently fair and understanding nurtures a positive relationship based on respect and dignity. This in turn, builds up a positive emotional bank account, which you can draw on when you need to deny any future requests.”

The resistance that your child shows when you say no to them is influenced by how fair your child feels you are, says Booth, and whether they feel that you also have their best interest sat heart.

“Then your ‘no’, said in a firm and gentle tone, will be taken seriously, with less story and long negotiations.”

Booth is a firm believer that the words we use will either encourage a child to cooperate with us, or shut them down to rebel. As a parent, the ideal scenario is being able to respectfully put boundaries in place and support and empower our children by finding other ways of dealing with situations.

You might ask if we’re not simply “hiding” the boundaries we set for our children behind clever, nice words. But Booth argues that boundaries are in place precisely because certain needs are prioritised – such as getting a good night’s sleep instead of staying up late every night, or safety being more important than having fun jumping around in the backseat of a moving car.

These boundaries differ from person to person, but too often, saying “no!” becomes an “emotionally charged” event and is based on power. Boundaries can be put in place with respect and dignity and don’t have to be created with angry or harsh words.

The benefits of positive communication

  • Find the solution more quickly
  • Both you and your child are inspired and energised
  • You open up the possibility of finding solutions which you, as the adult, didn’t think about!
  • Your child becomes a creative problem-solver instead of you solving their problems
  • Finding alternatives creates a sense of cooperation and sharing, as opposed to shutting down and denial
  • Creates a sense in the child that you also understand them and their needs – and want what’s best for them
  • You still state your needs without undermining theirs
  • It shows everyone that there is nothing wrong. It’s just that you have not yet found the solution!

Ask yourself what you’d prefer to do – spend time dealing with negativity or spend time in finding a solution that works for everyone?

Common “no” triggers

Every day, we face situations that prompt us to say “no” to our children. These might happen regularly at the same time of day – before or after supper, at bedtime, or during the school run – or be once-off situations that can easily escalate into tears and tantrums.

  • Can I go to my friend’s house now? (late afternoon)
  • I want to watch TV instead of going to bed!
  • Can I eat dessert before supper?
  • I want to shower instead of bathing!
  • Can I play first and then do my homework?
  • Can I invite Susan to come play now?
  • I want another chocolate
  • I want to stay longer at the party!
  • Please will you help me to draw this now?
  • Can you take me to the shops now?
  • I want to wear my pink dress (in winter).

Booth says that there are many times when we can’t give a child what he or she desires. Simply saying “no” each time, however, is experienced as a “call to attack”, which means that children then “mobilise their energy” into a counter-attack!

A better way to handle things

It may take a while to break free of former parenting patterns, but with a little practice, it’s possible to find workable ways to deal with virtually any situation in which you want one thing – and your child wants another.

Booth suggests asking yourself the following questions first :

  • What probable future are you expecting in this situation? In other words, what future consequence is behind your reason for saying no?
  • What core needs have to be met so that this ‘future’ doesn’t happen? If those core needs of yours were met, would this situation still be an issue for you?
  • State these core needs as requirements, or pose the problem you face in order to find a solution.

Booth provides a typical real-life example of how to explore your ‘future’ concerns and identify your core needs :

Parent : “Okay, it’s time to have your bath.”
Child : “But mom, can I shower tonight instead?”

You know that she’ll get her hair wet in the shower and so go to bed with damp hair, which obviously isn’t a good idea.

Parent : “Sorry, no.”

Here you’re answering “no” because of the probable future that you see in the scenario – wet hair – and your core need, which is for your child to stay healthy and have a good sleep by going to bed with dry hair.

Therefore, the only reason that you’re saying no, says Booth, is that you don’t have the current skills – or solution – to make sure that your needs (the result) and your child’s needs are both met.

A positive and solution-driven way to address this scenario would be to express what you see happening (the probable future) and your core needs :

Parent : “Well, I am worried about your hair getting wet in the shower and having you go to bed with wet hair. Show me how you can keep your hair dry and if I am convinced that it’ll work, then I’m happy for you to shower.”

Child : “I have a swimming cap. If I put it on, then my hair won’t get wet.”

Parent : “That’s a great idea! I hadn’t thought about that.”

Rising to the challenge – together

There are several ways to help you communicate better with your child and find solutions to ensure that everybody’s needs are met. Booth suggests some excellent tips :

Share information with your child

By doing this, you’re helping your child to understand that there are particular reasons, now, why their desires can’t be met. Try to find a way to make it happen at a different time, if you can.

If your child says, “Can I go and play outside?” and it is time for supper, you could say : “We’re going to be having supper now. You can eat first and then play outside afterwards, if you still feel like doing that after supper?”

Accept their feelings

Children have feelings, just as adults do. Booth says that children often feel anger towards their parents because they feel that their moms and dads don’t understand their feelings or needs.

Describe the problem

The problem is not your child – or what she is asking for or doesn’t want to do. The problem is that you don’t know how to make the situation work; what you and she need are in conflict, so this is what you need to explain to your child.

If your little one asks you to read her a story now, but you are chopping carrots, then perhaps say, “I’d love to read you a story. The problem now is that I have to prepare supper. Can we read the story after I have finished, or before bedtime?”

Use ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’, where possible

You have to first know what your needs actually are and then you can help your child towards both of you having your needs met.

If your child says, “Can I go and watch a movie now?”, then instead of saying, “No, you can’t”, you could reply, “Yes, you may, as soon as you’ve finished tidying up this puzzle.”

Take time out to think

Often, your reply is based on feeling rushed into giving an answer right now. Instead, give yourself time to formulate a “creative solution”, says Booth.

Perhaps your child asks if you can bake some muffins together. Instead of saying, “No, not now, mommy is busy,” rather say, “I love baking with you. Let me think about it while I get dressed and once I am dressed, I will tell you if I can.”

What do we need to make this work?

This is a very empowering way to involve your child in finding solutions. If you let her know what the concern or challenge is, and give her the opportunity to find a solution, then she has not only been part of the process, but may be able to have her desire met.

An example would be if your child wants to ride her bike in the passage, but she lined up her dolls there this morning. Instead of saying, “No, you can’t – your dolls are in the way and you’ll fall!”, you could reply, “I am worried about you falling over your dolls if you ride your bike here. Can you show me how to make the passage safe for you to ride? If you can, then you may ride your bike here.”

If your child then replies that moving the dolls to an alternative location would solve the problem – then problem solved!

What you CAN do, instead of what you CAN’T!

Instead of saying ‘no’ or pointing out the negative in what your child is doing, try a different approach.

If your child is swinging on her bunk bed, then instead of saying, “no” or “stop that!”, explain what the object (bunk bed) is used for and then suggest alternatives for the action (swinging).

So, you’ll explain that bunk beds are for reading or sleeping, and that swinging is for the jungle gym outside, or somewhere else appropriate. Then ask your child where she’d like to swing instead, based on the choices you’ve given her.

Are there age-specific ways to find alternatives to “no”?

All that varies is the child’s ability to engage you back verbally, says Booth. The more verbal they are, the more they can take on the challenge of finding solutions – and young children will still be able to find solutions to easier problems.

“A child who becomes more experienced in problem solving will be able to take on more complex problems. The skills are the same though, even from age 3 upwards. For the younger, pre-verbal ones, one can use different skills such as describing, sharing information, acknowledging feelings (their needs), etc.”

Relationships are an essential part of being human, says Booth. Successful relationships depend on successful communication and parenting is all about that relationship between mom or dad and child.

There is a lot of thinking that argues that a child’s core family relationships lead to her becoming a far more stable and secure child. This, in turn, enables her to relate to – and work – with an increasingly complex and fast-paced world.

South African education and conscious parenting expert Robin Booth is principal of Synergy School ( , founder of the SynEDgy Schooling Approach and life and executive coach. Sign up for Robin’s free newsletter, with lots of tips and skills, at

© Beth Cooper, 2010. First published in Living & Loving magazine.