On Setting Limits
Juliet looked at her mom, her hands already on the paint pot. “Mama? Can we paint some more. Please?”
Her mom, tired and in the middle of signing a school memo, looked at her daughter and sighed. This was supposed to be clean up time. It was getting late, but then again she didn’t want an argument. “Maybe next week, sweetie,” she said, moving to the table and beginning clear up. And then, seeing her little girl’s face begin to crumple, said, “Or maybe even tomorrow. We’ll see.”
This kind of limit setting is what Hand in Hand calls a “workaround.” There is no clean limit. We don’t want to deal with our child getting upset, so we ‘work-around’ saying no. It ends up being almost an emotional bribe,” says Hand in Hand Instructor Kathy Gordon, because of our own feelings underneath the work-around.
“That feeling goes something like, ‘If you don’t get upset, I’ll give you this later’” she says. “Although, if your kiddo is like mine, they’ll hear the ‘deal’ in that work-around and that’s when the endless negotiations start. “How about if we just do it for 5 minutes now and that will be it?” my son might say, as he tries to get around my work-around.”
Why Saying No Feels Hard
Parents get shy saying no because of feelings they have remaining from their own upbringings. Parents raised with a harsh “No,” might, in an effort to spare their own children from them, become non-confrontational. They may be tired and not ready for the pullback that can come with a no. Others may have never heard “No,” from well-meaning parents and don’t know how to say them.
But not saying no can actually be confusing for a child. And it allows little room for their own feelings. When we understand that children benefit from releasing their tension and fears through tantrums and cries, a firm no can be a true gift for them.
Children looking for a pretext to cry may push and push limits. A kindly said no gives them a solid reason to cry. And when we stay close to children while they shed their tears, we can offer the warmth and connection they need to feel better. (There is more about how crying can be good for children in this article, Discovering The Value of a Good Tantrum.)
Children who do not hear no may continue to push, or may internalise the feelings until they crop up next time. “We set parents up for frustration and ultimately failure if we teach them to do work-arounds instead of supporting them in learning to say ‘no’ simply, lovingly, even playfully, and without explanation,” Kathy says.
Because being listened to helps us clear out emotional baggage, exploring how you feel about limits, how limits were set in your house growing up, and what the word no means to you can be useful. Try this in a listening partnership or with someone who can listen well to you.
No Can Be Soft, Can Be Playful
Listening Time is also a place to practice how to say no. As many of us know all too well, this two-letter word can carry a mighty weight and is too often used like a weapon. But a no doesn’t have to be harsh. In fact, you can see just how softly a no can be said, still with authority, in this clip from Hand in Hand’s founder Patty Wipfler, author of the book Listen: Five Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.
Try out saying the lightest no you can during your listening time, or saying it playfully. Try saying the word using lots of warmth and eye contact. Try even saying no, no, no repeatedly until it feels comfortable. Or sing it in your most over dramatic operatic voice. Then, take from the list below, adapt them to common situations in your house, and make them yours.
“In a sense we are reclaiming the word ‘no,’ making it not about a harsh limit but about something that can be light, connecting, playful and yet that holds a firm boundary. Often it’s that clear boundary rather than the vaguer ‘perhaps next week’ that allows a child to access their feelings,” says Kate Orson, author of the book Tears Heal.
A no, doesn’t need to sound mean or be yelled to be effective and it doesn’t have to be avoided. Sometimes, your style of saying no can be so predictable that it becomes a source of humor. “They find it oh so funny every time I resort to the tried and tested ‘I know’ that it’s sort of become our opening into Playlistening, says Megha Mawandia, who always tends towards an “I know you want to xxx, but you can’t,” limit:
“Mom, can I have candy?”
“I know you want to… sorry I can’t let you.”
“Mom, I don’t want to go to school,”
“I know you don’t want to.. sorry, but you have to.”
“Mom, I hate my sister”
“I’m so sorry you feel like that…I know.”
“They start talking about ridiculous things to which I have to then say ‘I know’ to with a straight face,” she says.
Using this approach, the mom described above would say to Juliet, “I know you want to keep painting, but it’s time to tidy up.” When she cries, mom would move in, stay close and support her. There’s more about how to reassure your child when they get upset here.
17 Kind Ways You Can Say No to your Child
Take a deep breath, and try these no nonsense but empathetic ways to say no.
“No.” (The easiest way to say no, or even try, no, no, no.”)
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Oh, honey no.”
“That’s your brother’s…”
“No, you can’t have another.”
“No, not now.”
“I can’t let you do that. I can’t let you hit.”
“No, son, your sister has that pillow.”
“We aren’t doing that now, but I am here.”
“No, you can’t climb into my lap right now. You are right here in front of me. It’s safe.”
“No. No candy/screen time/new toy right now.”
“I know you want them, but I can’t let you have them right now.”
“No, I will pick you up in a little while, but not this minute.”
“No, I won’t let you grab another book from that shelf.”
“No, we’ll get a snack later. No chips right now.”
Kathy Gordon will tell you about a three-step plan for Setting Limits without Yelling or Threats in her next free parenting call. Register here to attend or get the replay. You might also like this free podcast about setting limits on screen time.