What if we gave our children helpful boundaries by telling them what they could do, showing them their guardrails, instead of always insisting they not do something, making them wonder what their boundaries actually are?
This is where shifting to positive language comes into play instead of always saying no as a parent. We want to teach out children firm boundaries, let our NO be more effective when needed, and parent without no as much as possible to give a clear understanding of what’s expected of our children.
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 the journey of parenthood (now with 5 very different children) is that taking as many opportunities to talk to children without saying “no” is so important. Parenting without negative language like “no”, “don’t, and “stop” is an important part of my every single day.
One of my children in fact will always be the one to say “but if I can’t hit, can I kick?” and they totally miss the bigger picture of respecting another person’s boundaries. We say that he doesn’t respond well to no, but it’s not because we never use it, but rather because his brain immediately asks him what he can do and how he can proceed. Not using no as much as possible is all about lessening their use to rewire our kids’ brains for positivity and healthy boundaries. And especially in his case, it’s created a better avenue of communication.
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?
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. I can talk to you when done”. 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 “talk when done”.
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!” or “Move!” or in a quick pinch “DANGER!”. And of course, a quick no in front of each of those imperatives is totally helpful in those instances. It’s about the way our children hear in the moment of need.
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).
There has been the phrase “my ears don’t hear whining” used in the past but it was ditched because our oldest 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, though 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 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!