December 2, 2023
December 2, 2023

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When Did Telling a Child ‘No’ Become Verboten?

Picture this: A mom is in a medical office waiting room with both of her children, ages 2 and 4. While she is waiting for her appointment, her children are running amok. They are kicking the doors, throwing the magazines on the floor, tearing them apart, climbing on the furniture and jumping from chair to chair. The older child is pushing and acting aggressively towards the younger child, who is howling as a result.

Embarrassed, mom is chasing after her kids, picking up the magazines, asking for Scotch tape to repair what has been torn, and wiping the scuff marks on the doors and walls. She weakly tells the kids to stop, but they ignore her. These behaviors continue until they are all called into the inner office, where mom apologizes for her kids’ behaviors, saying, “Kids will be kids.” A teaching opportunity has been missed.

Now picture these same kids at the local drugstore. There are toys, candy and all manner of attractive items placed at the children’s eye level, near the cashier. We’ve all been witness to the outcome— screaming kids insisting on getting yet another yellow school bus or a pack of M&Ms, and embarrassed moms and dads who are unable to say “no” and stick to it, ultimately giving in and purchasing these unnecessary items. Another missed teaching opportunity.

Picture how mom feels, now recognizing how out-of-control her children are, and attempting some behavioral changes. Her older son wants cookies right before dinner, and she says, “no.” He keeps pressing her, over and over, and she keeps saying “no.” Her son escalates his whining and crying, and mom, at the end of her rope, finally gives in. A third missed teaching opportunity.

What has this child actually learned? That his relentless whining and crying have the power to change his mommy’s “no” to a “yes.” This was not at all what Mom intended for him to learn!

Now picture these same kids on a playdate, at the home of a friend. They engage in similar destructive behaviors, tearing apart the home and screaming at the unfairness of not getting what they want, until the playdate is over and they go home, never to be asked over again.

Finally, picture these same kids at school. They have difficulty learning how to accept rules of game play and have problems during recess, becoming upset when they don’t get to go first, don’t get the position they would like to play or the color token they want. They don’t ever seem to be happy with what they have.

Some parents think that the best way to keep their children happy is to give them everything they want. Of course, all children should feel happy and safe; however, in order to achieve this goal, a child must be taught that there are certain things that they cannot do, and that there are things that they do not need.

Teaching a child to accept “no” is extremely important for psychosocial and emotional development, as well as for their personal safety. It helps the child to gain control of their innate impulsivity, to learn how to behave appropriately, and to tolerate disappointment. When a child is told that they cannot touch the hot stove, they are learning that certain items in their environments are not safe and that they are being told “no” for their own protection. When they are told that they cannot hit their siblings or jump on the furniture, they are learning to inhibit inappropriate physical behaviors.

In the same way, when they are told that they cannot do, or have, something that they want, they are learning to experience the emotions associated with disappointment, such as sadness and anger. They get an opportunity to learn how to accept disappointment and express the resulting emotions in acceptable ways. They learn to use the language of emotions to express their feelings to those around them. At first they may have a tantrum; but as they develop, they learn that they can be angry and sad, in reasonable ways.

They also learn that they can become upset and then recover and move on. This is a critical skill, as we all experience disappointments in life, and need to develop the ability to get over them and to be able to move on. When the child keeps pressing their parents to give them what they shouldn’t have, it is OK for the parent to state, “Talking about cookies [or whatever item it is] is finished.”

It is important for a child to learn that they cannot have everything they see or want, and that this is OK. It helps them to develop flexibility and adaptability, which enables them to engage with their peers and the adults in their environment successfully. In addition, when they do get what they’ve been wanting, they are able to be grateful and enjoy the experience more fully. It allows them to be satisfied and happy for what they have, and strive for what they want. These are extremely important skills to learn in order to be able to function as a part of their family, classroom, group of friends, and ultimately, in their jobs and communities. Saying “no” should not be verboten, but should be looked at as a teaching opportunity.

Lisa H. Bernholz-Balsam, MS, CCC-SLP/A, is a speech and language therapist at The Springboard School at Lubavitch on the Palisades, a multidisciplinary program for bright young children with developmental challenges. The unique curriculum, which focuses on social skills and emotional and behavioral regulation, provides the tools for success in a mainstream environment. Learn more at

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