19 Ways Not to Say ‘No’ to Your Children

If you have ever seen an improv comedy show, you will notice one thing—improvisational actors rarely use the word “No” on stage. This is because “No” will stop the scene dead in its tracks, every single time.

Imagine there are two actors sharing a scene. The first actor says, “Whoa, there must be a zillion stars in the sky.”

The second actor replies, “No, I see none.” That’s it. The idea has been killed and dialogue has nowhere to go.

Instead, actors are trained to respond with the two words at the cornerstone of all improvisation: “Yes, and…” Let’s take a look at the scene above using this concept:

“Whoa, there must be a zillion stars in the sky.”

“Yes, and I think all views from this space station are totally unbelievable.”

You see, agreeing (“Yes”) and building upon an idea (“And”) hastens creativity, collaboration, and humor. These two simple words are where invention begins. It is the reason why this technique has been translated successfully to workplaces.

“We lost the customer, huh?”

“Yes, and I think I understand why it happened. Let’s go over it so we don’t repeat this mistake again.”

The same idea can work in a variety of parenting contexts. As parents, even with the best intentions, we use the word “No” countless times each day. For a child, this can be disempowering and just downright irritating. Obviously, there are many times when “No” is a completely appropriate response, especially where there are immediate health and safety concerns. But we sometimes get stuck in the “No” rather than looking for more ways to say, “Yes, and…”

By using “Yes, and…,” we can:

  1. Respect the budding autonomy of the child
  2. Accept the other person as an equal human being
  3. Reduce triggering defiance or anxiety
  4. Create moments of collaboration, creativity, and silliness with our children
  5. Practice a basic principal of leadership: not one of us is as smart as all of us. As soon as children see that a parent relinquishes being the absolute authority or only one who knows what is right, magic happens.

Here are 19 examples of what “Yes, and” can look like in your household.

  1. Commiserate 

Child: Why do I have to empty the dishwasher? I hate emptying the dishwasher!

Parent: Yes, and then the poor dishwasher has nothing left to do after it’s emptied! Listen, I know what you’re saying. I don’t like cleaning toilets, but I love how it looks when it’s done. How about I help you get started?

Sometimes, it is completely shocking to our children that we don’t enjoy household chores. By commiserating for a minute, we let them see that there are things in life that are miserable, but we do them anyway. It also keeps them from battling back, because you can’t fight when there isn’t an argument.

  1. Offer to switch

Child: School is so boring!! I hate going!!

Parent: Yes, and it is so nice outside I’d rather not go to work today. Want to switch places?

Kids often love to imagine what it will be like to grow up. Give them a chance to fantasize about being you for a change.

  1. Give a reason

Child: Going to bed at 8 is the worst! Jane doesn’t have to go to bed until 9!

Parent: Yes, and poor Joey goes to bed at 3pm. Now, that is really the worst! Imagine going to bed at 3 pm. 🙂 Listen, it seems like your body likes going to sleep at 8 pm. You’ll wake up rested for school and soccer tomorrow.

While social comparison can unleash a sting of guilt on parents, providing reasons often helps children understand why the rules are in place.

  1. Present a solution

Child: Can I go to the party at Mason’s house?

Parent: Yes, and maybe you guys will play laser tag like last time. I will be happy to drive you there as soon as your homework is finished.

Your child knows he (or she) hasn’t done his homework. By presenting him a parameter to get what he wants, you are giving him an opportunity to either accept your parameters or present a solution of his own.

  1. Let “Yes, and…” stand alone

This is technique requires a gentle empathetic tone.

Child: Homework is the worst!

Parent: Yes. And?

Child: I hate doing it!

Parent (nodding empathetically): Yes. And?

Child: Ugh. It’s due tomorrow.

Parent: Yes. And?

Child: I don’t really understand what is happening in math…

This may seem idealized in a way, but consider the underlying message. We are all too often too eager to tell our kids what to do when all they really want is someone to listen to what they have to say. Again, there is no room for sarcasm if this tactic is going to work, but in the end, it could help your children get to the root of what is bothering them.

  1. Set a timer; make it a game

Child: I don’t want to clean my room!

Parent: Yes, and I bet you can’t pick up all of the blue things in the next 2 minutes. Ready? Go!

Who doesn’t love playing beat the clock? By refusing to engage in the power struggle and instead turning the task into a game, you are giving your child a chance to comply in a fun, creative way.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be silly

Child: I want ice cream for breakfast!

Parent: Yes, and you can try to scoop it out yourself and make a super awesome multi-decker sundae this afternoon as a special treat. Maybe we can even make it try to touch the ceiling!

Again, your child knows she isn’t going to get ice cream for breakfast, but by taking her request and running with it to the silly extreme, you invite her to journey with you to the ends of your creativity.

  1. Think about why you are saying no

Child: Can we go to the movies?

(Pause)

Parent: Yes, and it will be especially fun to get there early and grab your favorite seat in the front row. How about we wait until Friday night so you don’t have school the next day and you can stay up a little later? What would you like to see?

We get so caught up in the “No” that sometimes it simply slips out when we could have actually said yes. While improv actors don’t seem to pause, sometimes taking a minute before answering will help you naturally say “Yes, and” more often.

  1. “Yes, and” don’t always have to come together

Child: One more episode. Please!

Parent: Yes, you can watch one more episode tomorrow after your homework is done. And what do you think is going to happen next?

Sometimes it’s okay for the “And” part to follow the condition of the “Yes.”

  1. Set the time for the “Yes”

Child: Can I have a snack [10 minutes before dinner]?

Parent: Yes, a snack sounds great! And you can certainly have one tomorrow after school. Do you want to plan one out now?

There always seems to be an implied “right now” when a child has a request. Catch your kids off guard by taking away that implication.

  1. Ask for time and give a deadline

Child: Can I get a phone?

Parent: Yes, I can see why having a phone would be helpful. And I need some time to think about it. Can we talk more about it tomorrow night?

There is nothing wrong with buying a little time to think through a situation. Just be sure to give yourself a deadline to revisit the topic so you can truly think it through without being bombarded repeatedly by the request.

  1. Put the “onus” back on them

Child: Can I get the new video game?

Parent: Yes, I saw that Ninja Fish is out and I know you’d love to play it. And I would love to help you make a plan to earn the money for it.

“Onus” is a term often used in the military, literally meaning the responsibility is on us. Empowering your kids to be critical thinkers and take the reigns of responsibility will serve them well in the long run.

  1. Redirect the enthusiasm

Child (4-years-old): Can I make lunch on the stove?

Parent: Yes, and wouldn’t it be fun to prepare an entire picnic on the floor for our stuffed animal friends? Let’s do it together in your play kitchen… what do you say?

There is nothing worse than unintentionally squelching children’s enthusiasm for a task than telling them they can’t do it. Use these golden opportunities to teach them how to (safely) perform a task.

  1. Work together

Child: Mowing the lawn is awful!

Parent: Yes, and pulling the weeds is even worse. I hear you! How about I start pulling weeds while you start mowing?

Work goes by so much faster when you are with someone else; isolating jobs like lawn mowing or dishwashing are tough for social kids. Instead, take the time to work near each other.

  1. Flip the script

Child: I hate broccoli!

Parent: Yes, and imagine how the broccoli feels about you biting its head off! Ack! Not the jaws of death! Show me your jaws! Let me show you mine! Okay, how about we show your broccoli some mercy and eat it gently?

Sometimes looking at something from a different perspective diffuses the situation enough for silliness to take over.

  1. Trade places

Child: Why are you so mean?

Parent: Yes, and I think I’m being a little cranky too. Maybe I should send myself to my room?

Pre-adolescents are especially prone to laughter about the thought of you being in “time out,” and best of all, will generally leave you alone “until you’re ready to behave.”

  1. Give them their own version

Child: I want to play on the phone!

Parent: Yes, and wouldn’t it be fun to play on a really old style rotary phone? Oh, you don’t know what that is… let me tell (or show) you about it!

Pretend play is a vital stage of development for children. Rather than simply saying, “No” to them playing on a phone, providing them with a real version of what they are interested in gives them a chance to engage with their environment in a safe way.

  1. Show some love – karaoke style

Child: You never let me do anything fun!

Parent: Yes, and it’s all because I love you. (Put your hand in the form of a phone to your ear and start singing, “I just called to say I LOVE YOU!” by Stevie Wonder.)

Expressing love even when your child is not reciprocating is an important factor in giving your child a strong sense of self-confidence. When children are confident that you will love them when they are the least loveable, that confidence will extend to other areas of their life.

  1. Let go and live a little

Child: Please can we have some chocolate chip cookies?

Parent: Yes, and grab a couple for me too please!

Every once in a while, it’s okay to just say “Yes.” Forget about rephrasing; forget about timelines and parameters. Just say “Yes,” especially when chocolate is involved.

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