“Respect the no”: 3 reasons to listen when kids say no

"Respect the no": 3 reasons to listen when kids say no
The other day, my toddler was eating strawberries and yogurt for breakfast when, with still a few bites left, he said he wanted to get down. “Here’s another bite,” my husband offered, scooping up the remaining yogurt. Thankfully our toddler didn’t hear him because I whispered to my husband, “Don’t offer him more yogurt—he already said ‘no’.”

My toddler loves to eat, so sometimes we’re incredulous to the times when he doesn’t want to finish his meal. With that in mind, it’s easy for us to dismiss him when he actually says no to food. I’m glad I caught it with the yogurt, but I’m willing to bet we had made the same mistake a few times in the past. I wondered if maybe he doesn’t tell us he’s done because we don’t always listen to him when he does.

In addition to mealtimes, below are a few more examples of when we’re likely to disregard his no’s:

  • Tickling him. It’s so easy to tickle kids—they’re so darn cute, and they’re laughing, right? But tickling can eventually get too much, and being the little people they are, kids can often feel helpless in defending themselves. I try to be mindful of not tickling my toddler when he says no, even amidst laughter.
  • Asking him incessant questions. I doubt any parent actually annoys their kids on purpose, but we often have to pay attention to when they’ve had enough. It could be something as innocent as asking for a hug or suggesting to read a book several times when he already said no.
  • During transitions. Sometimes transitions have to happen—if we have to leave the house by 8:20, we have to leave by 8:20. But other transitions could be a bit more flexible so that if I suggest going to the park and he has already said no, I should just leave it at that and recommend the outing at a later time.

And it’s this last point that this thought began formulating in my mind. SSBE reader An Honest Mom coined the term “respect the no” in a recent comment where she wrote:

Now, the thing that I parrot all day long is, “respect the ‘no.’ ” If J wants someone else’s toy, I encourage him to ask “Can I have that please?” and then he has to respect the yes or the no. The harder part for me, for whatever reason, is defending J’s need to say no sometimes. Chalk it up to wanting to be liked, maybe. So it feels like therapy everytime I ask another kid to respect J’s “No.” Coincidentally, I’m learning to respect the “no” too.

After encouraging my toddler to tell us when he’s done eating only to dismiss him once he does provides little incentive for him to do so again. And while it’s easy to ignore them, it’s imperative that parents listen to kids when they say no because doing so:

1. Teaches kids that they have boundaries.
Especially when it comes to tickling or annoying them, we have to stop when they ask us to stop. When we don’t, we invade their personal space and send the wrong message that adults can simply tickle or annoy the heck out of them with little regard to their feelings.

2. Lets them know that they have a voice.
When we stop because they asked us to, we’re telling them that they’re important and that their words are taken into consideration. While parents have authority, kids can also learn that they have a voice, and that parents and adults aren’t always right.

3. Encourages them to stand up for what’s important to them.
Kids who are encouraged to say “no” when they’re playing with a toy will likely learn how to stand up for what’s important to them. Today it may be a toy, tomorrow it can be their personal values, a job promotion they deserve, or a passion they want to pursue.

We’ve since been more mindful of when our toddler says no. He enjoys tickling and rough housing, but after a while when he’s had enough and wants to stop, we listen and “respect the no.”

How do you handle it when your kids say ‘no’?

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19 thoughts on ““Respect the no”: 3 reasons to listen when kids say no

  1. I have a hard time when I suggest going somewhere (like to the park) and one says yes and the other says no. Then what?! I can’t leave one at home. Sheesh. Kids! 😀 Great post, sometimes it’s hard to remember that they’re little people.

  2. Sidrah says no to 1) if she has a dirty diaper (yes, she does); 2) bananas (first she says yes, then she snubs the banana!); and 3) Nigh-nigh time?

    LOL. Toddler age is such a cute age. But also drives me really crazy with the tantrums, because all of Sidrahs go like this: “I. Want. My. Da. Da.” Aieeeee!

  3. Thanks for the wonderful parenting tips which I appreciate as a gramma.
    (I hated being tickled as a child, and it didn’t stop when I said “no.” My sweet little grandsons, on the other hand, listen to me when I say “no” to such antics.)

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my girlie says “no” to anything even when she means yes. It’s hard for me to understand the difference. Maybe she doesn’t even know what she wants. But I absolutely want to ‘respect the no’ – when I can. I think that if I respect her No and lead by example, then maybe she’ll learn to respect my No.

    • I think you’re right, sounds like she may not know what she wants. My toddler says no a lot more than yes so maybe they think that’s just the go-to response? lol. The examples I describe in the post are clearly him saying ‘no’ though.

    • My daughter did the same thing. I would ask her something and she would say no, even though I knew she meant yes. So I would accept her no and re-ask the question again in five minutes. If the answer was still no, then I left it at that. But I found many times the answer would change to yes. I feel by doing it that way, it helped her learn that the words yes and no were very different and an important tool to learn for communicating in her world.

      • That’s a great idea. I’ll have to try that.

        Last night she spotted a bag of M&M’s and wanted some. So my husband used this as an opportunity to share with her the difference between Yes and No. We asked her if she wanted one, she would say No as she’s trying to grab it. When she said No we put it back in the bag. When she seemed frustrated we asked her if she meant Yes. Then she would say Yes and we would give it to her.

        I’m hoping continuing this practice with random things around the house will help her choose the right word so then we can focus our attention on being respectful of her/our boundaries of the word no.

    • I think you bring up a good point, “she;ll learn to respect my no”. While I feel we should definitely listen to a child’s no, we have to teach them what that means when they say it.

  5. SO TIMELY for me! My toddler just said, “NO!” to me a bit ago when I asked her to nap, she’s been saying it a lot. A few weeks ago I thought to myself, “What do I do when she just flat-out says no?” As with everything else, it’s all about my perception. I love what An Honest Mom wrote, I need to learn to respect the “no” and to think about where it’s coming from. I have been practicing with her and usually when she says “no” I just approach my request from a different angle – “You don’t want to nap? Well I know you’re tired so let’s just go to the room and sit quietly together until you sleep.” She was much more agreeable. Taking that trigger word out (nap, dinner, bath, go) really helps because it takes the focus off what she DOESN’T want to do. I am letting her know I hear and understand her feelings but that we still have something to do, so we sort of meet in the middle. But this post has made me think of WHY I am doing that – because our children have a right to their “no” just as much as adults do. Thank you!

    • I so appreciate this whole conversation! And love your different angle approach. You’re absolutely right that there is often a trigger word. I also often end up saying, “You don’t want to X. And we’re going to S.” This is straight out of Your Confident Baby by Magda Gerber. I love it because it let’s him know that I hear him and that I’m the decider.

  6. I agree that we need to respect our kids’ no. I come from a culture where a child’s no doesn’t matter in the least, it’s what the parents want is what counts which often leads to alot of resentment in the child because they feel their opinion is not important. I’m glad that I now live in an environment where such things don’t happen and I definitely agree that if my child says no, then I’ll find another angle to work it. Thanks for the insightful post!

  7. Totally love this post!! I think how the question is phrased is critical and I try with my three year old to ask open ended questions when he genuinely has a choice (i.e. what do you want to do today?) and frame it as a couple of different options when he doesn’t have as much choice (Do you want me or daddy to brush your teeth?). I usually always respect his no, even when he doesn’t have a choice (like needing to get in the car to go to daycare so I can go to work) but I always acknowledge his feelings, emapthise and try to problem solve it (“you wanted to watch another TV show before we left but we don’t have time. Why don’t you watch it right before dinner tonight?”).
    Have you read Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting ? His approach is not for everyone but is all about respecting kids and allowing them as much control over their lives as possible.

  8. I love this concept; it’s one that we’ve held as important for a long time! I learned when my kids were young to only phrase things that were optional as requests – and when it was a request, and the answer is ‘no’, to abide by that. As a result, my kids listen to me, and know that their words, thoughts, opinions and preferences carry weight. Thanks for sharing this post!

  9. I really enjoyed this post and the “respect the no” concept. I think back to the time I forced Lane to share his toys with a young boy and the boy taunted Lane by waving the toy in his face. Lane cried, and I know he felt voiceless, which made me feel terrible. I’m going to endorse this philosophy in my parenting. I want my child to know that he is an active member in our house, and we respect his emotions.

  10. You know, I hadn’t really thought of it much further than my 2 year old has quite the iron will, but what you’re saying is so logical. I’d hate it if I felt my peers didn’t respect my wishes. Just because he’s short, and sometimes smells funny, it shouldn’t be different (within reason, naturally).
    Nice post. Food for thought rocks.

  11. Great Post! I couldn’t agree more! We are having the same issue with our two year old who is just beginning to communicate with us. She gives up on us frequently because we don’t listen to her!! Thanks for reminding me how important it is that we really listen!

  12. I loved this post! I struggle with the whole “Does he really mean yes when he says no” thing that others mentioned. And I try to remember to act as though he means no when he says it, but I am guilty of continuing to offer him things he just refused (though this may just be part of our food/GI issues thing). I have always been good to let him tell me when he didn’t want to hug or kiss me (or other folks too, I just tend to make up excuses there), but sometimes I find myself peppering him with a barrage of questions and I can see him getting overwhelmed with it.

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