Updated on 01.23.17

How and Why to Tell Your Kids ‘No’

Hearing 'no' for an answer helps kids learn resiliency, negotiation skills, and how to cope with disappointment.

Do you ever get sick of telling your kids “no” all the time? Do you feel bad saying “no,” even though you know you should?

This is me, 24/7, 365 days per year. My five- and seven-year-old girls ask for at least 100 things per day, and get a big fat “no” around 95% of the time.

It’s not that I don’t want my kids to be happy; it’s that they ask for crazy things. My oldest has a list of expensive toys and gadgets she asks for every day.

A cell phone at age seven? No. Your own laptop? No. This mechanical dog thingy that’s 99 bucks? No.

Then there’s the regular stuff they ask for. On any given day, they ask if they can have snacks at least 15 times. I’ll be cleaning up the dinner table, and they’ll ask if they can have a snack.

“Nooooooooo!”

“Can the dog get on my bed?”

“Nooooooooooooo!”

“Can I take my Baby Alive in the bath tub?”

“Nooooooooooooooooooo!”

By the end of the day, I get so sick of hearing myself say “no” that I’m desperate to tell them yes.

Saying ‘No’ to Save Money

Sometimes I say “no” because their requests are unreasonable, but other times it’s mere self-preservation. If my kids made the financial decisions around here, we’d be living in a van down by the river.

I mentioned my kids wanting pricey gadgets before, but that’s just the start. They also want us to have new cars, a bigger house, and pretty much anything they see advertised on TV.

Worse, we’d go out to dinner every night if they called the shots. They like my cooking, but they’d still rather have pricey meals at restaurants like Benihana, Chili’s, or Outback Steakhouse any day of the week.

My youngest loves sushi. My oldest asks for crab legs all…the…time. Keep in mind, she’s only had crab legs once…and it was several years ago!

Somehow – some way – I’ve raised children who have a taste for the finer things in life. And this is despite the fact we’re debt-free, have only one car, and live in a modest home. Most of our clothing is from garage sales or consignment shops, and my kids only get new stuff around Christmas and their birthdays.

I don’t know how it happened, but my guess is their environment comes into play. We may not have a lot of stuff, but we live in affluent area where most people are well off. And since other kids have “stuff,” they want it, too.

But, I just keep sticking to my time-honored response: “No.” Because no matter what, my goal as a parent is raising adults who can handle real life. Adulthood isn’t easy, but it’s even harder for people who expect everything to go their way all the time. If my kids want to have lots of nice stuff one day, they need to do well in school, get jobs, and pay for it themselves.

The Importance of Saying ‘No’

While I’m confident in the number of times I tell my kids “no,” and I’m fine breaking their little hearts sometimes, I wanted to hear what the experts had to say. So I asked some psychologists whether it’s ok to tell your kids “no” so much.

It turns out, telling your kids “no” is one habit you’ll probably want to stick with if you want to raise responsible, level-headed adults. At least, that’s what Dr. Barbara Greenberg, clinical psychologist and author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual, told me.

Kids need to learn to delay gratification, Greenberg said, and that’s impossible when all they hear is “yes.” When they don’t learn to delay gratification, kids grow up with a low tolerance for frustration that can extend well into adulthood, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

Kids who never hear “no” are more likely to lack empathy for others as well, she said, because their needs were always met instantly and were considered most important. “Imagine being in a relationship with someone who expects a ‘yes’ to everything,” Greenberg said. “That would certainly make relationships difficult, if not impossible.”

Not only that, but kids who never hear “no” may also lack negotiating skills, because they weren’t forced to argue their case in the face of a parent’s “no” verdict.

Finally, we need to learn healthy ways to cope when things don’t go our way – and that doesn’t happen when all you hear is yes. “We must all have the ability to deal with disappointment, which is a resiliency skill,” Greenberg said.

The bottom line: Kids who grow up never hearing “no” for an answer are more likely to lack grit, resiliency, and the ability to cope with disappointment.

The Art of Saying ‘No’

But, are all “nos” the same? Not by a long shot. Another clinical psychologist I spoke to, Dr. Isaura Gonzalez, said most of our negative responses to children’s requests could be lightened up a little.

“We tend to get into the habit of saying no, when we really mean not now, in a bit, maybe later, or after dinner,” Gonzalez said.

As an example, your kid might ask to get on the internet and receive an immediate “no,” when what you really meant was “after you finish your homework.”

If you get tired of just saying “no” all the time, try making your “no” sound like a “yes,” said Karen Lock Kolp, early childhood education expert and host of the ‘We Turned Out Okay’ podcast.

When your child asks to watch a movie, play another video game, or play a while longer with their friends, but now isn’t a good time, give them a negative response that doesn’t flat-out shoot down the idea. For example, “You can play with your friends some more, but not until your homework is done.”

“Doing this communicates no, but without using the word itself,” said Kolp.

You can also substitute phrases that sound gentler if you want, said Greenberg. Responses like “that’s not possible now” or even “maybe at another time” can be helpful when you’re sick of saying “no.”

The bottom line: You can keep your kids in line and teach them resiliency without running around yelling “no” all the time. You just need to learn to rephrase some of your negative responses so kids understand your motives better.

The Bottom Line

According to the experts, I may have the hang of this parenting thing after all. Kids need to hear “no” in some form. Not only does hearing “no” teach them to delay gratification, but it helps them build the grit they need to get through life’s ups and downs.

Plus, there are real-world consequences that come with constantly saying “yes” to kids – and some of them are financial ones. We’ve all seen parents who give their kids everything to the detriment of their own financial lives, and it rarely works out well.

As for my kids, I truly believe they’ll be the world’s best negotiators one day. When I say “no,” they almost always offer to clean their rooms or walk the dog to turn my “no” into a “yes.”

And when my daughter wants to buy something, she’ll find a way to raise the money herself. She offers to do chores for money, and even sells her toys. Right now, she’s making bracelets to sell in our spring garage sale, and she has around 15 completed. Talk about planning ahead!

She may dislike my rules right now, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate it when she grows up able to fend for herself. Until that day comes, I’m sticking with “no” as much as I can.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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Do you get sick of telling your kids “no?” How often do you tell them “yes?”

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