Family Therapy: Make an Effort to Tell Kids ‘Yes’ More Than 'No'

Instead of reflexively saying “no” all the time, try this parent-tested approach.

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

Dr. No had to be a parent.

Parents say “no” a lot—I mean, a lot. It’s baked into the cake of parenting without all the fun of the frosting. You do it over and over again, day after day, week after week. And when you repeat something enough, it becomes a habit.

“Mom, can I have a Popsicle?”

“No.”

“Dad, can I feed the dog my spinach?”

“No.”

“Mom, can I build a ramp from this plywood and jump my bike over my sister?”

“No.”

OK, that last one needed an emphatic, “Are you kidding me?” and possibly a quick lesson in physics, but notice how often you say no just because you’re programmed to do it. You’ll be surprised how often it’s your go-to move.

Don’t feel bad about that, by the way. Focusing on negative things is a survival skill; it’s how our brains developed back in the days when we went looking for lunch while lunch looked for us. We say no as a reflex because we think it’s likely to be the safer choice. (It’s also less likely to make a mess in the kitchen.)

But when we focus only on the negative, we miss things that are working well with the kids, too. For example, parents often tell me their kids misbehave all the time. But after they chart the child’s behavior, they come back and say, “Huh. Turns out they’re behaving 95 percent of the time.”

They’re not terrible parents for failing to notice when things are going well. It’s a protective trait to fixate on what happened the last time the kids acted out and on how to handle it the next time. It’s also human to not always have the time or energy to really listen to what the kids are asking. However, kids are intuitive enough to know when you’re not really listening. So they get louder to break through the haze, or they walk away feeling like you don’t care.

I’ve been working with families for 13 years, but the best advice I ever heard for this problem came from outside the field. That mom was the administrator of a city park in Connecticut whose teenagers actually weren’t embarrassed to have her around. (That alone makes her the master.) My children were young at the time, and I ran into her on a day when the kids had put me through the wringer: one crying over my shoulder, one wailing at my feet, and me staring out the window wondering what I’d done with my life. Desperate, I asked how she had such a good relationship with her kids.

Her answer: “I always try to say yes.”

Remnants of my younger daughter’s mashed potatoes dangled in my hair, so I asked her to elaborate. Her point of view was brilliant in its simplicity. When we automatically say no, kids feel like we’re either not really listening or we’re just being mean. So she started with the inclination to say yes and then worked backwards to see if there was a reason to change her mind.

That doesn’t mean saying yes immediately and then having the kids think you lied when you change your mind. It sounds more like this: “I’d like to say yes, but let’s work through it. If you stay at your friend’s house, what would that mean for your homework?” (This can be tricky in a pandemic because you often have to say no to keep everyone safe, but the principle still applies.)

You’ll feel comfortable saying yes more often because you’ve worked through the potential problems first. And if you have to say no, you’ll feel confident in your choice, and your kid will (hopefully) understand why you did. More importantly, they’ll feel like you listened to them. They might still get mad, but at least they’ll know you were trying to be fair and open-minded.

Makes sense, no?

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.

This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent