What to do When Your Kid Says “NO!”

After listening to my podcast interview with Ignore It! author Catherine Pearlman, I got a great question from a listener:

What if the child doesn’t just whine and complain but outright refuses to do what you’re asking—just flat out says “No.” How do you ignore that?

My teenage boys rarely use an outright “no,” but instead have their own disrespectful response: completely ignoring my request! Being ignored is just as impolite as being told no, in my book.  

Here are three strategies I’ve found helpful:

#1 Word things in a way that makes saying “no” (or ignoring your request) impossible:

I have made the mistake thousands of times of asking my kids a question for which the only correct answer is “yes.”

“Do you want to take a shower?”
“Do you want to head to bed?”
“Do you want to take the trash out?”

Their internal – and sometimes external – truthful answer is, of course, “No!” They don’t want to take a shower, go to bed, or take the trash out. SO WHY DO I KEEP ASKING MY KIDS QUESTIONS LIKE THAT?

I’ve learned to reframe these questions into statements that focus on letting them know what is required as well as what I am willing to do or allow once the required task is done. Despite what they want us to believe (and how we sometimes behave as parents), many of the things our kids like and enjoy are privileges, not “rights.”

As parents, we can decide what we will allow our kids to do. We also can decide what we are willing to do for our children. And once we tell them, there is no option of them saying “no.” Their only option is losing one of their precious privileges (internet, anyone?).

Here are the formulas:

Tell them what you’re willing to allow them to do:

“You can _______ after you __________.”

Examples:

“You can use your phone after you clip your nails.”

“You can watch TV after you finish emptying the dishwasher.”

“You can play outside after you finish your homework.”

Tell them what you’re willing to do for them:

“I will ___________ if you/once you ______________.”

Examples:

“I will take you out for ice cream if you’ve finished your science project by 4:30.”

“I will reactivate your phone once your grades are at a 3.0 average.”

“We will watch a movie together tonight if you get your laundry washed and put away by 7:00.”

Note: for a chore or homework assignment, there must be time deadline. Otherwise, you may be driving to the ice cream shop at 11 p.m. Allowing our kids to decide when to do whatever it is we’ve asked gives them autonomy. But do not remind them or badger them. Just one statement. Whether they do or do not complete the task on time, they will learn a lesson.

#2 Give kids a choice rather than a command.

Just like adults, kids like to have some control and autonomy over their own life, so another helpful strategy is giving them the opportunity to choose what or when to do something you need or want them to do (if there are some options).

You’ll need to think ahead, though, because this won’t work if you need a specific chore done right NOW:

Examples:

Do you want to get your homework done before or after snack time?

Would you like to take the trash out now or after dinner?

Would you rather walk the dog or set the table?

You need to get nine hours of sleep a night. When would you like to go to bed and wake up?

This strategy is so much more pleasant to implement than the traditional “SET THE TABLE RIGHT NOW!”

#3 Pick your battles and communicate your values.

We make a lot of requests of our kids, but how can they distinguish which rules are really important to us when they get a daily laundry list of commands?

For those rules that fall into your non-negotiable, too-important-to-budge-on category, I recommend taking time to explain the “why” behind the request. But before you do, figure out — with your parenting partner — what you’re willing to fight for. Then, take the time to communicate with your child why you have a particular rule. What is the family value that you are trying to impart by having this rule or procedure? Take time to talk through it with your kids, not in the heat of an argument but when everyone is calm.

Next, stand firm! Make sure your child learns through experience that you have mastered Ignore It! on this topic and that no amount of whining, complaining, or “everyone else”-ing will cause you to budge. For me, enough sleep and no electronics in their rooms are battles I’m willing to stand firm on. No amount of whining, complaining, and hearing about what “everyone else” allows their kids to do will make me budge on those rules for my high schoolers. My kids know why we have these rules — I’ve shared the brain science and statistics with them. I think many parents give up on even some important rules because they get such pushback from their teens, and that’s why so many teens aren’t getting enough sleep! My kids jokingly say to me, “I know, studies have shown…” because I’ve talked with them about the reasons behind both our bedtime and screen rules.

Be sure to address only one behavior at a time, as it will take a while for you to get in the habit of changing your wording. Try writing out what you’re going to say on an index card so you are prepared when you next get to use your new technique!

Ignore It! works as a strategy to extinguish many undesirable behaviors, but for defiant behaviors you are trying to change, these three techniques can be helpful. I’d love to hear from you if you try one! Share your story in the comments or send me an email.

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