Parenting is a delicate balance of knowing how to raise your kids with integrity while also preparing them for the real world. From learning the difference between positive and negative language to what we feed them, there are so many things we have to pay attention to when raising well-adjusted kids.
Sometimes this means doing things that seem counter-intuitive to make sure our kids are actually hearing what we are saying and learning from situations.
What I learned from teaching and in the first couple of years of parenthood is that taking as many opportunities to talk to children without saying “no” is so important. Now as a mother of two, parenting without negative language like “no”,”don’t, and “stop” is an important part of my every single day. It’s all about lessening their use to rewire our kids’ brains for positivity.
Sometimes it’s hard to admit that hearing no is really tough.
And in a very real sense, I by no means want my children to grow up without having ever been told no and my kids still hear no on a daily basis. It is absolutely part of life and one I want them to hear.
However, I have drastically cut down on its use in our home by saying no without actually using the word. And in cutting down, it has made use of the word more effective for us.
So why would I advocate for adopting the “parenting without saying no” approach?
Very simply… because they listen better. And because it makes no more powerful when needed.
The way we are hard wired as humans is to listen to the sentence structure. In fact, in studying linguistics, we often don’t “listen” to what is being said, we only “hear” the intent, many times also not getting the first word. This is called feature-deletion and, according to Stanford, is just one of many linguistic rules in how our brain processes the sentences we hear.
We sometimes hear the first part of a sentence, almost always hear the last part, but rarely hear the middle unless we have our complete attention on the person talking to us. And really, what young child is giving us their undivided attention at all times? So when we add unnecessary negative language we force our children to process the syntax of what we say at least twice.
Beyond just the way we hear, it’s also important for all of us to have clear directions. If we are given vague instructions, it leaves a lot of gray area. Then our kids are wired to ask “what can I do?”
This is because there are a thousand alternatives to “not” doing something, but only one course of action that should be done when told specifically what to do.
So why would we not want to adopt a system that helps our children listen to us better? In fact, why would we not want to rewire our kids’ minds to hear us, to respond, and to feel heard?
Read about and listen to my podcast episode on the power of saying MAYBE.
So how do I remove negative words when talking to my child?
It’s really easy to say no… WAY too easy. So it’s not going to be a cake walk to retrain your mind to ditch negative words and actions like “no”, “stop”, “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. but it is possible. It took me a long time and I am still not perfect. It’s all about practice.
Instead of saying “I can’t talk right now” when I am waiting on hold on the phone and my daughter comes to ask me a question, I say “I am on the phone right now. I can talk to you in a little bit”. I do this because I am focusing on what she is going to hear. If she is not giving me her undivided attention, she may only hear “talk right now”. Instead, I want her to hear “on the phone” and “in a little bit”.
Likewise, if my daughter is in danger and is too close to the street I am not about to yell “Don’t go in the street!” because I don’t want her to hear the last half of it. I want her to hear “Come here please!” or “Move away from the street!” or in a quick pinch “DANGER, MOVE!”
Alternatives to saying no & using negative language with kids
There are numerous examples I could give, but thought some of the best were in the image above. We have also replace “don’t touch” with “please keep your hands to yourself”/”please keep your hands in your pockets” (we go to antique stores a lot).
And my husband is working on not using “my ears don’t hear whining” because she has shut down too many times. Instead, we encourage her to use her words and express her emotions in a way that we can understand.
Read more from Parents with Confidence about adapting your parenting style to your child’s needs.
Is it possible to discipline without saying no?
Yes! This has everything to do with the idea of being intentional with our words and giving clear instructions to our children. Using positive parenting phrases actually has the ability to set clearer boundaries than the word no itself.
Magda Gerber once said “A child who is never told “no” is a neglected child.” And I completely agree, but sometimes it’s also more about how we tell them no, rather than the word itself! We must affirm what our children need to do. Rather than discipline and teach them by telling them what not to do, it’s a lot easier to tell them exactly what we want them to do. In telling a child not to hit, maybe he thinks “Well can I kick?”
When my daughter threw a small wooden ball and it hit me in the forehead instead of saying “NO! Don’t throw that!” I simply said “Ow! That really hurt. Please hold your toys.”
In the end my parenting has become much more intentional by using negative language and “no” less and coming up with a more positive approach. It makes the power of “no” retain its meaning and has created clear boundaries for my children.
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Watch this response to many of your questions & concerns about reducing negative parenting language.
[color-box]**Edited for Author’s Notes:[/color-box]
- The list provided is simply a visual to help say no less. In fact, that is the thesis of my article. In no way have we ditched the word “no” forever. It’s all about finding alternatives and choices, especially in the hard moments as a parent when nothing is working.
- Also, the phrasing of “negative language” and “positive language” simply refers to the grammatical English term in that the sentence is or is not negative.
- For more responses, such as one to the “we will not buy that” alternative, please watch the video. It explains how we say no, divert attention, and create boundaries with our words. Thank you all for your great feedback and responses!
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Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 5 children living on a farm in New England. She believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience and has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development. She is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!
Love this, first came across this concept On a parenting course called family nuturing…..it seemed an alien concept and took alot of faith not too dismiss it….. But it does work and really lessens the amount of tantrums I had with my toddler and still works to a degree now he’s 13. However it is so easy to slip back into old habits, so thankyou for a reminder to use “no” less.
I remember first realizing it in my high school classroom and these 16 year olds were just needing so much to be validated with a yes and they needed so much to understand when they were not getting their desired outcomes. It’s been beautiful applying it to my toddler because I definitely see a behavior change when I use “no” less and help talk her through it more. So glad that it could be a good little reminder for you 🙂
Actually, this a very effective method for tweens as well as toddlers. My two years old and six months will benefit immensely.
It absolutely is! When I taught high school, it was the best way for me to effectively communicate with them as 15 and 16 year olds.
Could I just say that I agree with nearly all of this and I TRY (at least I hope I do!) to use positive phrasing as much as is possible both at home and at work. The word “No” just invites opposition whether you are dealing with children or adults. My offering to you would be to make an exception for “stop” commands. I believe that “stop” is actually a positive command word (unlike “no”, “don’t”, etc.) and can therefore be used, when appropriate, to create an effect (usually immediate in nature), as in “Stop hitting.” The follow-up should always include redirection and/or an explanation (e.g. moving the child on to an acceptable alternative and/or explaining that we want our friends to have happy faces and hitting only makes sad faces). It is also a powerful word to teach children to use in situations where they may need to express or draw immediate attention to their feelings and opinions with other children (and adults), e.g. “stop pushing/shouting at/biting me”.
As I mention in the post, we haven’t eliminated all negative phrasing because there is a time and place for every word for sure. Our daughter benefits from “Hands in your pockets” or “We keep our hands to ourselves” more than stop hitting. And even with not using “stop” very much, she very much understands how to articulate it and tell someone when she doesn’t like what they are doing. I say definitely do what works best with each child, because they are all different and respond to our directions differently!
This is a really interesting idea. Recently my son has started talking back witha tinge of attitude in his voice and using some not nice words like stupid and boring and on occasionally hate. I am going to try this method for the next week as I think it will take me a while to get in the swing of things. Thanks for the article. Truly very helpful.
I am so glad you like it! Like I said in the post, we still use no and other “negative” words as parents, but they are fewer and further between. I think the best benefit of working to parent without saying no is that it benefits us a parents. Both of us take more time to think a situation through before reacting or responding… so in turn in benefits her. We don’t typically get really upset anymore, but approach things with a clearer perspective! My daughter picked up the word “crap” somewhere and we have been asking her to “pick a new word. Why no say ‘Oh my goodness!'” And it has really helped her know what is appropriate in our home and a great alternative to use.
Thank you for this post. I used this strategy a lot when my kids were young. I think the concept will be effect with my team at work.
You are welcome! That is great you are going to try it at work. I found it to be really effective with my HS students.
Young adults today whine and throw a fit when things don’t go their way because they have not been told no. This is nonsense that is turning us into a bunch of petulant children in adult bodies.
Brian, I mention that we do tell our children No and even in the classroom, I still used the word no. However, there are many instances when opening conversation to help our children understand why they are being told that they should not/cannot do something is important. In fact, I have seen less whining both in my own children and in my older students when I aim to use positive language and open communication more often than shutting down the situation with No.
It’s also still saying no but in a way that kids understand.
If you tell me all the things in the world I cannot do but don’t tell me what I can do… I have no clue what to do. But if you tell me all the things I CAN do, I’ll have the tools to make it happen!
It’s not the saying of “no” that builds great children. It’s the setting of boundaries and TEACHING instead of PUNISHING.
Exactly! If we guide and teach, they’re less likely to be a “behavior problem” and are more well equipped to understand.
Amen, Brian. I’m an elementary teacher (very positive, by the way–my specialty is building community in my classroom and working with kids who have behavior issues due to trauma) who has to deal with the fallout from this type of parenting. PLEASE–while we want to be positive with our kids and use a lot of encouragement, redirection, and gentleness, there is a time for (dare I say it?) a loud, sharp “No!” Kids need (and want) to be given boundaries, and when a child is in imminent danger or being wantonly disrespectful, he or she needs to know that the behavior is unacceptable. An effective parent knows how to use every tool in her parenting “tool belt” with confidence and facility.
agree! I work in a school and it appears we cannot use the word no with the students . (young students). Thought positive is probably a better choice, sometimes they need to hear the word “no u cannot do that.” plain and simple! My kids heard it and they turned out to be well rounded citizens!
I try to practice this with my 1.5yr old but I notice other people like her grand father who lives with us constantly saying “no”. It drives me crazy. Any ideas for how to get others to stop? Or how to explain it easily?
I typically try to explain (not in the moment) that we have found that when we tried something new where we tried to tell her what to do rather than what not to do, she responded better. And then I just ask if they would try to implement this method on being mindful with words and trying to use no less since it can illicit a negative response and see if it works for them.
In general, explaining how it’s effective and that you would appreciate them trying it out for x number of days is better than saying in the moment that they shouldn’t use the word no.
I would also emphasize that it’s not about not disciplining or never hearing no, but it’s about trying to connect with the child and the situation better. Plus it’s about not being a barrier like with the word no, but a facilitator with “this is what I want you to do”.
Hope this helps!
Say no to ‘no’!!!
… or any other negative word. It can become a positive way of life for the parent/adult and the child sure does benefit!
It is a part of mindfulness and a growth mindset (vs, fixed).
It definitely does. It makes more mindful approaches to parenting as well to be able to use it less.
This is certainly true. No and don’t just do not work as well as short explaining statements. Thanks. I saw this on a round up of the top 57 posts. Congratulations!
Angeline van Heerden
OMG, It is a lot harder than it sounds like, I tried it ever since I saw this video…. Not easy… But love this concept, will keep working on it… <3
It definitely has a huge learning curve! So glad you like it and I do promise that it gets easier over time. Even then, we’re never perfect and sometimes no is the only way to say it! 😉
Some day I need to stop telling this story so as not to embarrass my oldest, but a very clear example of how limited a command “no touching” is happened to me when she was about 3. We were in a public restroom and I was in the habit of reminding her not to touch things in there, so I said, don’t touch the handrail, and she walked right over to it and licked it with her tongue. In this case “keep your hands to yourself” might not have worked either, but this is a great story to illustrate to those who don’t see the significance of stating what you want the child to do being much more effective than telling them don’t.
I got a nice laugh out of your story though! Such a great illustration how kids definitely need clear guidance as to what to do. Thanks for sharing! 😀
I disagree. I teach Grades 6-12. The rapport that I establish with students is that of trust, respect, sland truth. The fact is, we live in a world with much negativity. The vast majority of the people our students will encounter have absolutely no problem with saying “no.” I would rather “train,” or “condition” my students to be able to handle the real life situations they will encounter in a a mannor that will lead to their success.
There is always a better way to say something, or a kinder way to handle a situation, but what percentage of the population will actually treat other that way in real life?
Plus, children need to learn to respect no. For instance, boy goes to party, starts to fool around with girl, girl says “no.” She is not going to say, “Let’s go sit on the swing in the park instead.” She will say no – a command that society expects the boy to follow immediately.
There is always a need for balance, not too negative, but firm/direct enough. I just do not believe that this article illustrates that balance well enough, just as those who do agree with this article will feel the same way about my response.
No is always still suitable in certain situations. Like I said, we use no less but have not completely eliminated it from our family’s interactions. This article was not intended to show the balance per se, rather present options for the parents struggling to set boundaries with just no. Same goes for when I was teaching sophomores; I didn’t always use positive phrasing, but many times I did because then when I said no it had more power. In the workplace, a great leader and boss is one that gives clear direction and is not authoritarian, so I actually have chosen to model a world of boundaries that have “no’s”, but show possibilities, room for improvement, and one that encourages rather than shuts down.
This is really about focusing on desired behaviors, teaching children what they should do instead of focusing on what they did wrong.. When we focus on the undesired behavior we are unknowingly encouraging the behavior we want reduced or don’t want. It’s not about sheltering them from all that is bad in the world because as children grow we support them and teach them pro social skills to deal with people who might be negative or are unkind. There is a ton of research to support this. Schools use Postivte Behavior Intervention Support all the time. This is part of that. Teaching, modeling, and reinforcing the behavior you want to see. If all our parents raised their children like Kara I’d be out of a job.
If we use please as our command word, how do we than teach them later in life that they can say No when asked to do something in a please statement “Please go do….”?
You’re more than welcome to choose a different command word that works for you! We are just currently modeling politeness when asking, so please was my natural choice. But we also model questions and answers daily as well. It’s just up to you!
I strongly disagree with this premise when it comes to raising young boys. I think young boys need to hear “no” a lot, and the “no” has to be followed by the young boy not getting what ever it was that the “no” was meant for. That way when they go to high school and college and a young woman tells them “no”, they have been raised to understand that it really means “no”. To but it really bluntly, this approach seems to me to raise a generation of young men that when they hear “no” will think they can negotiate their way into rape territory.
Follow up thought which pretty much contradicts my initial response: When a young boy hears “No” it should be in situations where it is clear that absolutely no negotiation will be tolerated. Thus the few “no’s” that are used become more effective?
Absolutely Riaz! That’s exactly what we do with our kids. We found that as we told our children no without using the word all of the time, the instances when it was 100% needed it became more effective. I am absolutely not against using the word no, I think there is a real place in our lives for it. I just think as mothers and caregivers, we sometimes get caught in cycles of telling our kids no, and not saying yes or not giving very clear boundaries. “So if not that, then can I ____?” types of situations. Many times when we use positive phrasing to tell our kids no (or my students/kids I take care of) I am setting a firmer boundary and trying to ensure that there is less room for them to try to negotiate because I have told them exactly what i want from them. Anyways, No still has its place and can definitely be much more effective as we use it more sparingly.
Useful tips for parents
Thank you for this helpful tip.
Your premise is one of positively redirecting the child; I agree it is far better to tell a child what s/he SHOULD do instead of what not to do.
Great article! My husband and I also use this method. A simple way we explain how it works to others is by saying, “When setting boundaries, we focus on the behaviors and actions we want instead of those that we don’t want.”
My hubby and I are both life coaches, and in all of our coaching with others, adults are SO programmed to focus on what they don’t want and their limitations, that they have trouble figuring out what they want. We work to retrain their brains to focus on what they WANT so they can unlock all of their potential. ? And I believe that negative mentality starts being trained at birth. If parents are consistently telling babies/kids what they can’t do (negative language as you said above), then that’s how they learn to view the world. Then they meet people like my hubby and me asking them what they WANT in life, and they look at us like a deer in headlights. They never thought like that before. I believe it’s all connected!
Anyway, thanks for this article! It’s another one to add to our repertoire of resources for parents!
Your comment was such a ray of sunshine when reading through it this morning. I am so glad you found it to be a helpful resource. It was such a powerful tool with my high school kids and has really shifted our family dynamics with little ones even more.
I am a baby boomer, and as I grew up I remember my Mom saying “Because I said so” , when I would ask her why she said “no”.
This is a good reason to explain why do or not do anything. I was really frustrated by getting that
same answer, but I figired it out. Nowadays we talk more than we used to, and I’m glad.
This is great! Reminds me of what my mom has always taught me. Im glad this post is out there.
Becky | Bringing up the Berneys
I’ve just found this post, and it’s brilliant! – I partially did this anyway without realising, but the word “no” is still largely used in our household. I’m hoping that I can hone this advice and phrase my sentences better as opposed to saying “no” off the bat!
Hi I just went through your article I found it very interesting because it has made me realize where i’m going wrong , i learnt a lot from it. Thanks
I understand the notion behind this, and I do think it is an excellent idea. However, children still need to hear adults say “no,” or “stop,” occasionally. The reason for this is because, when they have a romantic interest, and they try to push their romantic interest into doing something that the other person is not ready for, their romantic interest is probably not going to say, “let’s go for a walk in the park instead.” Instead, they are simply going to say something like, “no, I’m not ready for that yet!” Or when one of their friends doesn’t feel comfortable trying a dangerous behavior or activity, that friend is probably not going to say something like, “let’s make a batch of cupcakes instead.” Instead, that friend is most likely going to say something like, “no, I don’t feel comfortable doing that!”
Absolutely. I wrote this several years ago (2014 I believe) and we still do it often. It usually means as adults we are articulating things better and our kids also have gotten very good at articulating feelings being just saying no which I think is also helpful. But one of the other things we do and teach is to say “no, stop” if they feel uncomfortable in any way. (Like I mention in the post, we still very much say no. It is just more impactful and powerful using it less!) We also point out to our children that even when someone doesn’t say it out loud, their actions and body cues might being saying “no stop” even if they aren’t using their voice… or for the toddlers in the family that don’t have a voice!