Your children don’t listen: How to say “no” so they hear it

and don’t try any tricks on you

You tell them “No!” a hundred times a day. No, don’t touch that, don’t go there, don’t put that in your mouth … And sometimes you feel like they don’t understand you at all and all your efforts are wasted? Or maybe they understand all too well and they’re just pushing your buttons. What do you think? Maybe so. Especially if you’re using one of the four ways parents say “no” that don’t work.
And yet that doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to tell your child “no.” Hardly! Come see what we mean.

The first “No”

The very first “no” typically comes out of you when your baby is around 5 or 6 months and starting to get into mischief. Imagine they get a handful of diaper rash cream and try to shove it in their mouth.

No, no, sweetie, don’t do that.
No! Don’t put that in your mouth.

We say it automatically, not even particularly expecting our little one to understand. We don’t say it harshly or in anger; it just comes out as we try to stop them from whatever they’re doing. We don’t see it as an order at all.

But our little one gets more and more active, and by the time they’re a little over a year old, they’re almost impossible to keep track of. And this type of “no” becomes more and more frequent.

No, no, no, don’t go there.
You’re not allowed.
No, watch out, it’s going to fall on you!
Don’t do that!

And now we’re barking orders left and right. Well-intentioned ones, true, but in most cases completely unnecessary. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to repeat them so often, would we?

So does saying “No, no, no!” work on kids or not?

That’s a complicated question. It does work, but maybe not the way we would like it to. Imagine how you would feel hearing:

“No, no, no! Don’t tell your kids ‘no’ all the time! Don’t do it!”

Did that help you understand the situation better so you can do what we suggest, or do you feel more like getting up and doing something else?

Kids feel like that with us often. Our daily repetitions of “no, no, no” have no weight with them at all. It sounds like we’re setting boundaries, but really we’re just giving senseless orders. They have no real reason to obey.

For one thing, they know we’re going to say it a bunch more times. For another thing, they haven’t heard anything about what we really want.

But they do notice our reactions. They can see that when we don’t like something, we say “No!” Sometimes we even yell it.

Soon enough they start doing the same.

Do you remember the first time your little one said “no”? Maybe about 12 to 18 months? And soon they were saying it all the time. Great! They probably learned it from you.

That’s not a criticism, but it’s good to keep in mind. Because when you know where something is coming from, you have a much greater chance of helping them unlearn that empty “no” habit. (In a minute we’ll talk about how.)

First, though, we need to say one important thing.

Do you feel like this type of “No!” usually works on your child?

It might get us our way some of the time, but only because our little one gets scared. They don’t want Mommy and Daddy to be mad. They don’t want trouble. But can you guess what they’re going to do later when you’re not around?

Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, after all.

When you were little, didn’t you secretly do things your parents expressly forbid you to do? Played with something you weren’t supposed to touch? Colored on the wall with markers? At least once?

The second “No”: Moralizing

This type of “no” usually follows close behind the first one. Our baby gets a little older and we want to teach them about what is okay and what is not.

No, we don’t do that, dear.
No, we don’t touch that.
No, no, we don’t put crayons in our mouths.
No, no, we mustn’t do that.

Now it sounds like we’ve explained things.

But make no mistake, we haven’t actually told them anything about what we want. We’ve just spouted some generalities about what we do and don’t do. We don’t do this, we don’t do that, we don’t say this, we don’t touch that. But why? What’s the problem with it? Little ones have no idea.

And yet they have a natural drive to understand the world around them.

Think about how many times their stream of “Why?” questions has pushed you into a corner. Or if they haven’t reached that stage yet, they’re still paying attention and taking in so much more than we realize. And their drive to understand us is just as strong.

All those blanket statements “we don’t do this” sound pretty mystifying. They don’t help our little ones understand us at all. Sometimes they don’t make a bit of sense to a young child. Think about it:

Why is Mommy saying rocks aren’t for putting in your mouth if we just watched a toddler on the playground putting rocks in his mouth? Why is she saying “we don’t touch that” if she was touching it herself a minute ago? Why does Daddy say “we don’t use bad words” if he used one yesterday in the car?

What should they believe? You or their own two eyes (and ears)?

Even if they give in to you, it’s no big victory

They’ve learned that they’re not supposed to do whatever it is, but they still don’t know why. All they know is that Mom and Dad don’t like it when they do this thing. As before, they only obey to avoid making you mad. To stay on your good side. They aren’t doing things out of real understanding or a sense that those things are important. They might take that attitude into other areas of life as well.

“Why didn’t you tell the teacher you needed to use the restroom so badly?”
“Because we aren’t supposed to talk during a test.”

“Why are you going to the meeting if you don’t feel well?”
“I can’t just cancel at the last minute. That’s bad manners.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone that kid at school was being bullied?”
“But we’re not supposed to complain about other kids.”

Have you ever been in a situation like this?

The third “No”: Emotional blackmail

Typically this starts when our little one is around 2 or 3 and goes on into the teen years. It’s basically a slightly more bitter version of the previous moralizing one.

No, you mustn’t do that or Mommy will be sad.
No, no, no, Grandma is going to cry, look.
No! You don’t want to get Daddy upset again. You know he’s stressed right now.
I’m telling you no. I’m disappointed in you.

It’s like our “no” carries more weight if we can put some emotional blackmail into it, right?

And it gets through to our kids, too. They hear that when they do this thing, it causes pain to someone else. Mommy will be sad because of them. But does that unpleasant feeling help them understand the situation and what Mommy and Daddy really want?

No, it does not. What it does do, however, is plant seeds of anxiety into the relationship between parent and child. The child has to do this or that so Mommy won’t be sad, or so Daddy won’t be disappointed.

Are you, by any chance, scared to tell your mom certain things to this day for fear of making her mad? Or upsetting her? Do you feel like you have to tiptoe around your parents? Maybe you have a sense now of where that all started.

The fourth “No”: Disguised

If saying “no” is such a big issue, wouldn’t it be best to just take it out of your vocabulary altogether?

Some parents try their very best to do just that. In their efforts to parent positively and not burden their child with the word “no”, parents say things like:

“Only draw on the paper” (instead of “Don’t draw on the wall”).
“Let’s read a story together” (instead of “Don’t rip the book”).
“Inside voices please” (instead of “Stop that yelling”).
“Take something else” (instead of “No, don’t take that”).

That sounds a lot better than barking empty orders, right? Yet often enough even this more positive spin on the conversation remains empty. Do you know when that happens?

Every time we say “Inside voices please” but we really mean “No more yelling!” the goal is the same: We want them to stop whatever they’re doing. It becomes just another strategy to get them to do what we want. Only this time it’s disguised as respectful communication.

Every time we talk in positives just so we can avoid saying the forbidden word “no”, our communication is lacking in one key ingredient: genuine honesty.

This positive “no” has another thing in common with the regular “no”

Have you ever sighed and thought, “I need to learn how to say ‘no’” (to your boss, a friend, or that pushy neighbor)? Have you ever wondered why so many adults have trouble saying “no”?

We’ve already talked about how a constant stream of “no” teaches children to be afraid and to obey out of fear of getting on our bad side or getting into trouble. And when that fear really settles down inside us, it whispers to us even as adults that we had better obey.

Also, this strategy of framing everything positively never gives children the option of saying “no.” If saying “no” is taboo, then they never get the chance to learn how to say a healthy “no” when they need to. Like when someone stops them on the street to sell them home insurance (or whatever).

How can you tell a child an open, honest “no” in a way that they understand?

It’s not actually that complicated. It’s just that most of us didn’t hear it much growing up ourselves, so we find ourselves hemming and hawing or repeating the same old phrases we’ve already discussed. And those don’t serve us or our children well. So how can you do it differently?

Step 1: Say honestly what you want or don’t want

In most cases you can keep it super simple. No need to overcomplicate things or explain at length, since that may well go in one ear and out the other anyway. For instance:

“I don’t want you to put crayons in your mouth.”

The difference between this and phrases like “Don’t do that,” “We don’t do that,” or “Crayons aren’t for putting in your mouth,” lies in the fact that I’m talking about myself. I’m not putting it all on the child (“You can’t do that”) or hiding behind a general rule (“We don’t do that”). My child hears that this is important to me. This is what I want and what I don’t want.

This kind of openness can be difficult if we aren’t used to it. It’s worth putting into practice, though, even if it’s hard at first. That way, we teach our children that they can talk to us openly and honestly as well. And one day they’ll be able to say a firm, confident, “No thanks” without squirming inside.

We don’t want to leave it at that empty statement of what we want or don’t want, though. We need to take the next step.

Step 2: Tell them why

“I don’t want you to put crayons in your mouth. They could give you an upset stomach. I’m worried you might choke.”

Now they know the reasoning behind it all, or why it’s important to you.

You just have to stay honest. Don’t make things up like parents of young children often do. Like, “It might make the crayon sick if you chew on it.” The crayon isn’t going to get sick. It might get a bit slobbery and not color as well, or it might make a mess on your table. If that’s what bothers you, then say that. But no fibbing. Not unless you want your little one to try the same thing on you in a day or two.

Honesty is contagious

and your children will send it back to you like a boomerang. Just like all the other parenting strategies we’ve discussed.

Here are a few more examples to help you get started.

“I don’t want to let you climb that ladder. It’s quite high and I’m worried you’ll hurt yourself.”

“I want the cushions picked up. I don’t like it when people step on them and they get dirty.”

“I don’t want to let you play with my lipstick. I’m sorry, but it’s my favorite. I’ll let you hold it, but I don’t want you to stick it in your mouth, all right? I don’t want it to get messed up.”

Don’t try to use these as model sentences you repeat word for word. That’s not what they’re for. The idea is to infuse your relationship with your children with openness and the courage to say things with sensitivity, but directly. Especially if you want your children to do the same.

Tell your child honestly what is on your mind.

Okay, but how can you tell anything to a baby?

So does all of this make sense to you, but you feel like you would have to wait until your baby is older? And for now you need to say “no” sometimes?

If so, there’s no reason to think that your baby will understand, “No, don’t do that, sweetie, no, no, no,” any better than if you tell them what you want and why. Consider:

I finished ironing and went to lie down with the baby on the blanket. I changed her diaper and put the cream on her rash. All done. I decided to put some of the cream from the big tube into a travel-sized container. The baby watched me intently the whole time. Then she reached out her hands, showing she was also interested in the cream. I looked at her, took a deep breath and went for it:

“I can see you like the rash cream and you’d like to play with it, hm? I’ll let you hold it, but it’s only for touching, okay? If you put it in your mouth, I’m worried it would make you sick.

So I handed her the cream. A 6-month-old baby puts EVERYTHING in their mouth. That’s just how they’re built. My little girl lay on her tummy and held the tube of cream. She turned it back and forth, watching it go up and down, around and around, until she caught sight of another toy on the blanket. That one went straight into her mouth. But she didn’t put the cream near her mouth even once. Unbelievable.

• Lucie

Please keep in mind that not all babies will respond the same way. They may not be developmentally ready for some things, and you can’t reasonably expect it of them. What’s important is to communicate with honesty and empathy. When they do that, parents are often surprised at how much their young children can understand.

Simply put, it’s not about how old they are. The best time to start with open, honest communication is right now. In some ways, it’s actually much simpler with babies. Can you guess why?

We haven’t already established patterns of barking orders, moralizing, or other strong-arm tactics, and they haven’t established automatic responses to those things (like stomping, yelling, or ignoring us). They’re ready to actually listen to us!

If we don’t mess this up with “No! Don’t do that!” and “We don’t do that!”, soon enough we’ll be working things out together like pros, whether our little one can talk or not.

And what if we’ve already messed things up?

Do you remember what we said in the beginning? Many of the things we don’t like our children doing they actually learned from us. (Maybe even not listening to us. Who wants to listen to a constant stream of “no” all day?)

And they learned it through good old imitation. Coming back to us like a boomerang.

If we taught them – with our actions and reactions, however well-intentioned – to yell “No!” and not do what we say, or else do what we say only out of fear (and then sneak around behind our backs), then we can unteach them the same way. Step by step. Through imitation.

That’s good news for us parents, because it means we have at least some opportunity to course correct if we don’t like where we’re headed.

All you have to do is make up your mind to try being open and then not give up after the first time, shaking your head that it will never work for your family. Think about it. Your little one spent two, three, four, or more years learning to yell “No!” and found tricks to get around you instead of saying clearly what they want. Are they going to unlearn that in a day?

The two steps you learned today can help you get started.