I once watched an episode of Modern Family where Cameron and Mitchell insisted no one, including themselves, tell their kiddo, Lily, “no.” Claire, Lily’s aunt, wants to punish Lily for flicking lights on and off in Claire’s home, leading to an argument about the differences in Claire’s and Cameron’s (and Mitchell’s) parenting techniques. Cam gets his hand stuck down the sink drain and panics, since Lily is still running around flicking on and off light switches and blissfully unaware which switches turn on lights and which turn on sink disposals. Claire stands haughtily watching the scene unfurl, feeling her point -that sometimes kids need to be told, “no!”- had been made when Lily flipped on the switch closest to the sink. Fortunately for Cam’s digits, it was just another light switch and his hand was safe. It’s a good episode, worth a watch.
This is a pretty clear example of a time when “NO!!!” is the absolute right response to a child’s behavior, or at least would have been had the disposal switch actually been in Lily’s path of light switch destruction. Strong boundaries set in place by parents lead to stronger children. Rules allow children the chance to better prepared for the real world, where rules will be aplenty. They teach kids how to act in social situations, provide a sense of structure and stability, encourage cooperation and competence, and, as I always tell my clients and students a parent’s Number 1 job is – they keep kids safe. The idea of never telling your kiddo “no” is not only an example of maladaptive, black and white thinking, it also sets children up to be unmanageable students and, down the road, unmanageable employees.
Now we have that settled, there are exceptions to every rule and certain opportunities where alternative, more relaxed interventions are appropriate. A parent’s desire to use a light and breezy tone when able is certainly encouraged by many who work with youngsters. This can allow children to feel empowered in the situation, or that they have choices in what happens next.
When situations arise where, perhaps, a lighter tone might get the job done, here are some suggestions with which you might replace a version of “No!”:
“Stop hitting” –> “Please keep your hands to yourself”
“Don’t say that” –> “Please choose another word”
“Quit whining & crying” –> “Please use your words”
“I can’t hear you” –> “Please speak louder/more clearly”
“I won’t buy you that” –> “Instead of that, what if we ____.”
“Don’t get upset” –> “It’s okay to feel that way, but ____.”
“That’s not for you” –> “That’s ____’s. Can I offer you____.”
“Stop playing” –> “Maybe we can play later after ____”/”We have to go.”