It’s actually OK to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ to children. In fact you need to do so, but many parents, and teachers too, find this difficult, if not impossible. We often talk of children ‘pushing the boundaries’, and this is how they define their relationships with their surroundings, including the people around them, all the way through their childhood and adolescence. But if nobody ever says ‘no’ to them, how do they know where the boundaries are?
Of course you don’t want to be always saying ‘no’, and when dealing with children consistency is essential. This is how the boundaries are established. Lay them down with clear, positive instructions, which you stick to. So often the conversation goes along the lines of, ‘No! Stop that!…. I already told you….. You can’t……. If you do that I will …… I’m sorry…… Don’t cry…..’
Fill in the gaps for yourself!
This generalised scenario reveals a pattern of adult-child interaction that is often played out. Children are expert manipulators, and once they’ve learned this skill they’re constantly refining it. Once they discover a technique that works to get what they want they will use it again and again, and get used to calling the shots. Often they embark on sophisticated negotiations, drawing the adult into justifying and explaining, and as often as not feeling guilty about having said no. Then what often happens is that the adult gives in to the child’s original demand or lets them continue with whatever they were doing in the first place.
Here are some suggestions about saying ‘no’ positively:
- Choose in advance what you’re standing firm on and stick to it, but check first you’re not being unreasonable in your expectations. It’s very easy to say ‘no’ to all sorts of minor things that could be dealt with in a positive way. For example, rather than saying, ‘No, you can’t go out in the garden in your slippers’, say ‘Put your wellies on if you’re going out.’ But in other situations, for example a toddler about to throw a stone at another child, ‘No!’ is the right response.
- Be confident that you are right in saying ‘no’. You’re the adult. You’re in charge of the situation and what you say goes. Stick with your decision.
- Keep it simple – avoid confusing the message by giving lots of detailed explanations. In the stone-throwing situation above you need the child not to throw the stone. A small child can’t process lots of verbal instructions at once, so ‘No! Put the stone down!’ is sufficient. If you say something like, ‘It’s not kind to throw stones. If you throw the stone at Sarah you might hurt her. We shouldn’t throw stones at our friends’, your instruction is more likely to have the opposite effect to what you want because what the child picks up on is ‘throw stones’.
- Repeat the instruction using the same words as you said it the first time. We have a tendency as adults to use different words if someone appears not to understand. With young children they’re more likely to understand if they hear the same words.
- Allow time for them to process the instruction – it takes a young child longer to take an instruction on board.
- Be prepared to deal with a tantrum; keep calm but stand firm! Once children realise that when you (rarely) say ‘no’ you do actually mean it, an important boundary will have been established. They feel more secure and their behaviour will become less challenging.