By Dianna Flett

Girl saying no


No. It’s one of the shortest words in the English language yet, for many of us, it’s a difficult thing to say. Here are four common reasons why:

  • We worry people might consider us unfriendly or unkind.
  • We feel guilty for saying no when someone needs our help.
  • We’re concerned that others might stop liking us.
  • We don’t like to show our limitations and let others know we really aren’t super moms and dads.

Studies show that most of us have an inherent desire to be liked and will go out of our way to avoid conflict with others. When we present workshops to teach values based decision making (see earlier blogs), we always work in a couple of exercises to help our students learn to say no. Learning to say no is a great skill that supports staying true to our personal values when we’re faced with complicated decisions and pressures to do something we don’t want to do.

We don’t often consider teaching our children to say no. More likely than not we teach our kids that accepting the unwanted cookie or the uncomfortable hug from a distant auntie is the nice or polite thing to do. There is a benefit to teaching our kids they have the right to reject things they don’t want to do or experience. It has significant implications for their futures.

Of course, there are right and wrong ways to say no. There are also right and wrong occasions to exercise the skill when you’re young. When we give our children a task or chore it isn’t appropriate they say no to doing what they’re asked to do. But if there are situations where you find they can exercise a choice, I’d suggest allowing them to use a simple phrase like:

“No thank you, but that you for offering.”

Perhaps it is saying no to a second helping of something at dinner. Perhaps you let them say no to a play date or a club at school. Knowing they have the right to say no is empowering at any age. With a simple phrase like, “No thank you, but that you for offering,” you give them a polite but direct way to say no and teach them they have a right to set boundaries and make their voice heard.

As children get older, and closer to their teen years, the ability to say no has greater ramifications. It may manifest in saying no to sharing homework with someone or saying no to someone asking to copy from them. Maybe they feel strong enough to step away from situations where the kids are “all doing it” whatever “it” is.

The sentences we give and practice with tweens for uncomfortable social situations are direct and clear. It helps for them to have concrete things to say and practice saying with roll playing at home, especially before a big event like a first party, overnight school trip or perhaps a first date. Things like:

  • “No. That won’t work for me.”
  • “No. I’m not ready to do that right now.”
  • “No. I’m good at a lot of things but that’s not one of them.”
  • “No. I don’t feel good about that.”
  • “No. I need to think about that because it doesn’t sound right to me.”

It is important to understand that “no” is a complete sentence they are allowed to use even with adults when it is necessary. We also suggest parents and caregivers give children the ability to use them as a back-up reason for making the right choice.

  • “No. My mom would kill me if I did that.”
  • “No. If my mom or dad found out, I’d lose my phone for a year.”
  • “No. My grandma will be able to tell in a second if I did that.”

We all believe our children are equipped to stand up and say no to things we’ve taught them to avoid and we believe they’ll do the right thing. But peer pressure becomes a remarkable force in middle and high school. Having your children practice saying no before their tween years and giving them your consent to use you as the blame guy is a tactic that can help them in hard times when they are standing alone.

There is one thing to avoid when saying no and that’s the follow-on word “sorry.” We don’t have to be sorry for saying no to things we don’t want to do. We don’t have to feel guilty because we’ve done nothing wrong. It’s OK for all of us to have limits, to put ourselves first, and make our mental and physical health a priority. If we continue to make withdrawals from our personal “bank” we are eventually going to run out of what we have to give.

Teaching your children to say no politely and firmly is a tremendous skill that will serve them well into their adult years. Many of us wish we had learned to do it earlier.