Elements of a Confident Kid… Saying “No!”
– 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.