Say “No” without saying “No”

“No” is a word that is too easy to say. Listen to adults around children and observe how often the word “no” comes out as the first word in a sentence. It can be surprising! Then, an eye-opener is listening to one’s own talk become aware of how often “no” is the first word said in a sentence. Even in talk between adults, that “no” word slips out as the first word in a sentence more often than we realize.

“No” is a word we model for children so they can learn when to say “no” also. They will need to be able to say “no” as they grow. So, the goal is to model the word “no” without using it as a knee-jerk reaction and impulsively over using the word. Sometimes “no” starts a power struggle with a child – something we don’t want to start.

Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at  Zero to Three explains,  ‘No might seem like the ultimate limit-setting tool because it feels final and non-negotiable which might be why, according to one UCLA study, the average toddler hears that word some 400 times a day. But, it does nothing to help young children with their main developmental task of figuring out acceptable ways of doing what they have to do developmentally – explore their world. This reaction to the no trend can be seen in children from different cultures and across all eras.”  Another resource is from a University of California Los Angeles study  confirming an average toddler hears the word ‘no’ more than 400 times a day!

So, here are a few ways to say “no” without saying “no” .

Pause  Pause before speaking to be able to reply to the child without “no” being the first word out of the mouth. Just pausing for a short 6 seconds can give our brains enough time to avoid the word “no” and word our reply so that we will get the result we are seeking.

Sign Language  Learn the sign for “no”, teach it to a child and use it sparingly. This can be over used also so the same modeling applies here as a  verbal “no”.

Say “yes”   When a child asks for something say “yes” letting them know WHEN that request can happen. For example, if a child wants to leave the table and play with a truck, one can say “Yes, you can play with the truck as soon as you finish your meal/clean up your area.” We have not said “no” but this approach reminds the child what needs to happen first. Notice finishing a meal or cleaning up the area is part of a daily routine.

Another example might be a child wants to go outside. Instead of saying “No, you can’t go outside right now.” you might say “Yes, you can go outside when you get your coat on/put the art away/after music.” Just a reminder of the expectations and when going outside can happen.  “Some kids can’t understand or learn the reason for the rule if they only hear the word no,” says Bruce Grellong, Ph.D., chief psychologist at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City.

Give a Choice  When a young child runs inside, you may first want to say “NO! NO! No, no, no!” Instead give the child a simple choice: “You can walk inside or you can go outdoors to run.”  When the child is offered a choice, the child is given power. A child loves to make their own decision and this is a good way for them to be able to make a decision.  “For kids between the ages of 1 and 3, this also encourages them to make simple choices and develop a sense of independence and competence,” says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that studies infants and toddlers. Just avoid overwhelming a young child with too many options.”

Be consistent  Whatever the daily routine and basic rules are, be consistent. A child can self regulate better when they know what is expected and how the day will progress. This feeling of security and trust will help to diminish the number of sentences that start with “no”.

Be Considerate of the Child   There is no reason to be rude. For example, a child picks up a stapler that is left on the table. Many young children are fascinated with a stapler. So instead of running over and grabbing the stapler from the child and emotionally saying “no” so the child becomes upset, talk calmly and choose to take a few minutes to talk about and explore the stapler.  A little time can be spent stapling some paper or junk mail. You can show the child where the stapler’s home is and the child can put it away with you. All done without tears and “no”.

Be Silly  I listened to a keynote address given by Harvey Karp, M.D. who is the author of the DVD and book “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”. One tip he shares is be silly and act like incompetent. Even defiant toddlers will take pity on the adult and help.  The trick is to convince the child that you should be helped, not resisted. One example is to be forgetful. If she doesn’t want to eat a banana, you can forget how to take the peel off. After bumbling around a bit the child will come to your rescue. If it’s clean up time, forget where the cars go or how to match up the blocks with their shape on the shelf. I’ve found young children will rush to show me. Of course, they may give me a funny look, too. Be sure to smile and say “thank you”.

Create an Alternative  When a toddler is about to put soap in their mouth, your first reaction is to say “no,” but follow it up with an explanation: “Yucky! Make you sick.” Next time the toddler goes for the soap, instead of “no,” say “Yucky! Make you sick.” The repetition will help the child learn. 

Respect and Cooperation    The “no” word will almost vanish if you use positive approaches such as:

  1.  Rather than sounding demanding “No, no, no, bring me the marker.” say “Would you give me the marker, please?” Then “thank you” when the child brings it to you.
  2. Be specific in what is expected. Instead of “Clean up the toys” say “Let’s put the blocks on the shelf” or “Time to put the crayons in the crayon box.”.
  3. Show and tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. Instead of “No! Don’t hit the puppy!” say and show how to “Touch the puppy softly” instead. Model what touching the puppy softly looks like and do it together. Guide her hand in a soft stroking motion. Just by doing this enough times, and she’ll begin to figure it out for herself.
  4. Acknowledge the child’s feelings calmly. When a child wants to play with the fire truck now, you might say “You are really sad/mad that you don’t have the fire truck right now.” Now encourage the child problem solve on how to get a turn to play with the fire truck instead of hitting the child who has it.
There are more wonderful tips to say “no” without saying “no”. I’ll post them in another post.


“In the end, it’s not what you’ve done for your children, it’s what you’ve taught your children to do for themselves.”  Anonymous

A  link to more tips from Dr. Karp:

The Happiest Toddler on the Block





About admin

I'm Cathie. Welcome to my little early childhood corner! I have been involved with young children and their teachers for over 20 years: teaching, supervising, training, presenting, serving on state and community boards and councils. I love sharing quality early childhood ideas that are engaging! Thank you for joining me on this new adventure,
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