Saying no to a child requires grit, self-control, and stamina

A few months ago my son asked if he could have a candy bar after dinner for dessert. My wife and I reminded him that he’d already had candy two days before and that we have a “one candy per week rule” in our house, so we said no. So he asked again. So we said no again. Then he asked yet again. And we said no again. Then he started whining. “Please, please,” he said. “You never let me have candy! I really want it!” Though we were both annoyed, neither my wife nor I became upset. We simply continued to say no. We didn’t explain why. We didn’t argue with him. We simply repeated the same message.

Eventually, he stopped whining — and then calmly and reasonably asked for a candy bar again. When we said no this time, he said — finally — “Okay.” He was clearly still disappointed, but he just as clearly accepted our answer — and then happily got into his bath and began splashing and playing as he always does.

When he was younger, he would sometimes completely melt down when we denied him something, especially if he was tired. Certainly, the temptation to end such tantrums by giving in was strong. But the few times we did, we quickly learned just how big a mistake we were making: it would practically guarantee another tantrum the very next time we said no. By giving in when he would throw a tantrum we were communicating that throwing a tantrum was an effective way for him to get what he wanted. So we stopped. And then so did his tantrums.

This isn’t to say when parents hold their ground that their children will always stop throwing tantrums. But giving in to tantrums is a sure way to train children to keep having them. And one need only look around at the adults one knows who still throw tantrums when they don’t get their way to understand that tantrum-throwing isn’t an activity restricted only to children.

Sometimes saying no is easy: when the thing he wants is clearly inappropriate (“Can I eat a cookie instead of lunch?”). But sometimes we decide to say no after a split-second deliberation over something we might just as easily have said yes to: “Yes, you can skip your bath tonight,” or “Yes, you watch an extra fifteen minutes of television.” And he seems to be able to sense when we’re not entirely convinced that we should be saying no with an insight that almost makes me believe in mental telepathy.

But as much as I dislike saying no to him, I recognize that it represents and important opportunity for me to teach him how to manage disappointment. In a world where so many adults seem not to have learned this lesson, I’m easily able to view the consequences of this particular kind of parental failure. As a result, I’ve come to realize the biggest obstacle to successfully raising a resilient child is a non-resilient parent.

Saying no to a child requires grit, self-control, and stamina. You have to know why you’re saying no each and every time. It’s easier if the reason seems like a good one. This is why I try not to say no impulsively. Instead, I try to pause when I’m not immediately sure if what he’s asking for is okay and ask myself: Will it put him at risk for being harmed (not using a seatbelt in a car)? Is the lesson that saying no teaches a good one (you can’t eat candy instead of dinner)? I don’t always get it right, and I sometimes have reversed my decision. He’s old enough now that when I explain why I’ve reversed my decision he understands and doesn’t then subsequently continue to test the boundaries I’ve established for appropriate behavior.

Yes, saying no is harder than saying yes. But children who aren’t taught boundaries often become tyrants. And children who become tyrants often grow up to become adults who are tyrants. An entire generation of parents seems to have failed to teach their children how to handle disappointment. I have no evidence that proves it, but from personal observation I’m inclined to believe that this is far more a failure of “nurture” than it is of “nature.”

As parents, we must gird ourselves to be reasonable yet consistent in the way we refuse our children’s wishes. It’s not about being nice or mean, fair or unfair. It’s about teaching a crucial life skill. We must accept that acting-out behavior is the price we must pay to teach it (the more consistent we are, the more likely such behavior will eventually be extinguished). The price of failure is a child who expects too much from the world, who never learns to manage his own disappointment, and who lacks the resilience to be successful in life. And that failure is ours.

Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Happiness in this World.  He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • T H

    Saying no to parents when the patient is their child is just as hard: “No antibiotics,” “No need for admission,” “No, your child doesn’t have asthma and they don’t need inhalers – they need treatment for reflux,” and finally, “No, your child IS obese and needs to be on a diet and exercise program… just like you do.”

  • Pat Brown

    Yes!! What I am most proud of in my life is not the advanced degree, it is the fact that not only did we teach our sons “no”, they are in turn teaching it to THEIR sons!! I am so frustrated by the spoiled brats in this country….those that are still children and worse, those well past voting age!

  • Guest

    The same day I read this post my son challenged me by asking for a little longer TV viewing before bedtime. I said no, no to every request, and then after a little whining he stopped asking! This really works!

  • Leslie Pasinski Drury

    Good article, but I would have added something. After the first no, if you’ve taught him well, there should be no further requests. I admit that there are times when I’ve been caught up in this endless round of begging. When I’m parenting well I say something like, “You’ve asked a second time after hearing me say no, that means you’ve forfeited next week’s candy bar too.”

  • LastoftheZucchiniFlowers

    As your boy gets older you and your wife will find yourselves wanting and needing to answer the ‘why’ part of his questions. This is where it can get dicey. I found that respecting my kids’ intelligence while reasserting our final authority worked best. Often, when presented with facts and rationale kids will back down. Often, not ALWAYS. At those times when even the patience of Job is at the lowest ebb there is the ultimate rationale of: ‘someday when you are a parent you will remember this discussion and understand why we are saying ‘”No” ‘. Until then – you will simply have to deal with our decision. Get ready for the teen years! Wow – talk about needing to say on your toes and CURRENT!