Elements of a Confident Kid… Saying “No!”

Elements of a Confident Kids by Jennifer Miller

Elements...Saying %22No!%22 Illustration by Jennifer Miller


– used to give a negative answer or reply to a question, request, or offer 1

About Children and the Evolution of “No.”

If your child was anything like mine between the ages of two and three, “No! No! No!” was a favorite and often used word. For the most part, while children are in their early school years, we want them to say “Yes!” — Yes to learning challenges, to making new friends and to our requests. And then, when they reach the tween and teen years, our children face high risk challenges such as peer pressure, substance use and sexual identity formation and exploration. In those years, we want them to be clear on when and how to say “No.” But there is no such thing as “Just saying no to drugs.” Children who have the ability to say “No.” when the stakes are high have had plenty of practice throughout their childhood to assert their needs, beliefs and choices in small ways. A confident kid has those opportunities to say no to friends who want her to leave the yard without telling an adult, to a teacher when she has not done her homework (and accepts the consequences) and to a parent offering seconds at dinner when she has a full belly.

Strategies for Promoting Assertiveness and the Ability to Say “No”

Parents can model assertiveness by setting and being consistent with boundaries, a critical part of a parent’s role. Families can be clear about which rules are “untouchable,” in other words, there will be no changes or negotiations. Those rules are often related to a child’s safety. For example, we don’t leave our house on a bike without a helmet.

Parents can also play the role of coach when a child comes to them with a social dilemma. Perhaps a close friend was being mean to another at recess and your son didn’t know what to say or do. Instead of skipping to a solution, play coach. Here are a few easy steps you can take.

  • Deeply listen to what your child is saying. Wait until they have fully finished their story.
  • Ask clarifying questions so that you allow your child to tell as much of the story as possible.
  • Ask him, “What were you feeling when that happened?”
  • If he is unable to articulate what he was feeling, offer a feeling guess in a question format. For example, “It sounds like you were worried about the other child and confused about what to do. Is that right? Was there anything else you were feeling?”

Then, you might ask, “What could you have said to the child who was being mean? What could you have said to the child who was on the receiving end?” Allow your child thinking time. If possible, encourage several ideas versus just one.

This kind of coaching can allow a child to reflect deeply on a situation and help him internalize values and beliefs about what he feels is right and wrong. It also helps him to begin to shape how his actions can be informed by those values and beliefs. This can be a powerful way for a parent to teach responsible decision making and support a child’s moral development.

John Gottman, author of the book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child; The Heart of Parenting,2 found in his research that children who were coached about their emotions in their early life internalized the ability to pick up on social cues and express emotions appropriately and communicate them effectively later in the tween and teen years.

Create practice opportunities. Look for ways in which your child can assert herself. Encourage conversations with other adults. For instance, when speaking with neighbors include your child in the conversation. Model and then allow your child to order from the menu at a restaurant. Offering chances to speak in simple ways among adults can go a long way toward giving your child the confidence to be assertive in a variety of settings. Practice with your child saying “No” when there are small disagreements between friends. Children benefit by hearing simple language they can use. “I can’t go to the park without an adult.”

Begin to talk with children at every age each time they come to a situation in which they are confused or the path is unclear. And talking about peer pressure can begin as soon as children are in school since they may feel compelled to actions simply because others are making a particular choice. Practice words your child can use. “No, I don’t want to do that.” Teach your child to respect when others tell them “No” the very first time it’s said. “No, I don’t want to be tickled.” No really does mean no. Children need practice respecting others wishes when they say “No.”

Cultivate a responsive environment. When children do assert themselves, take them seriously. You may not agree with what they are saying and you may not allow them to do what they are asserting, however they likely have strong feelings and need to express them. Allowing your child to be heard when they are asserting themselves makes them feel like they have a voice and can use it when they feel strongly about a situation. You can model respectful assertions and encourage them to do the same. A good rule of thumb in any household is “Do no harm through words or actions.”

Saying “No” when something is not right can be a true challenge for adults in social situations more less your child who is still learning to navigate friendships and social groups. Provide a safe space for practice at home and you will prepare your children with this critical life skill.


1. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved on 10-21-2014 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/no.

2. Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child; The Heart of Parenting. NY: Simon and Schuster.

7 Comments on “Elements of a Confident Kid… Saying “No!””

  1. I would imagine that the most important thing, that you’ve barely touched on, is that the kids need some success saying no to US. It seems kind of obvious that the kids who can’t or don’t say no to peers and the wrong sorts of influences have never had any success with saying no at home. Parents need to lose far more of the conflicts with their kids than they do, that’s where real confidence would come from, and when doesn’t happen, the rest of your ideas here don’t have as good a chance at helping as we might hope.

      • Pretty much everything. Surely it’s not a stretch to imagine that most of the “nos” kids might like to say would be directed at their caregivers! Examples are pretty much everything parents wish their kids would do – mealtimes, bedtimes, cleaning, you name it. I think the kids should be able to schedule most things for themselves. Maybe it’s not ideal, but making it all happen the way WE want it to requires too much force and doesn’t give the self-power and autonomy we want them to have when they face bad influences later. I agree with all your reasons and the desired outcomes, I just see US, parents, as the main people who train kids to take orders and not stand up for themselves.

      • Great points. Thank you! You are quite a thoughtful reader and parent. Sounds like they got a lot of practice in being assertive. How did rules, doing no harm and contributing to a family community play in?

      • aha! I wanted no force or punishments, so we could have no rules. It’s all in the past now, my girls are 16 and 20. It was really quite amazing, it seems if you don’t punish them young, once they’re old enough to talk and reason, you may never have to! We didn’t, and things just got easier, all the way through, even in the teen years.

  2. . . . so now I’m wondering if my sort of input doesn’t kill the normal comment threads . . . this should have been 200 comments deep by now, wouldn’t you think? In the future, I’ll wait a few days before I pipe in to rain on everyone’s parade.

    Sorry if that’s really it . . .

  3. Oh please don’t stop! Your comments stir debate and dialogue! That’s exactly how we are all going to grow as people and as parents! Keep it coming! I agree with your position on punishment. It breeds fear and mistrust and doesn’t teach the lesson that is truly intended. There are logical consequences for choices, however, and they are ways to repair mistakes and harm caused so those are areas that help parents guide children to take responsibility for their behavior. I so appreciate your comments!!!

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