As parents, we try to look for ways to say "yes" to our child's requests, allowing them to explore their world and develop their independence. Often, however, our answer must be either "no" or "not yet". When declining or postponing a young child's request, whether because we are unavailable at the moment or because the request itself is unacceptable in some manner, there are a variety of ways to get the message across without a direct "no".
These variations acknowledge the child's requests, validate their desires and emotions, and give them a clear picture of what options are open to them. Because the focus is on acknowledgement and positive phrasing, the child is likely to be more receptive to the response and less likely to experience overwhelming emotions and melt down as they otherwise might in the face of a simple "no".
Using age-appropriate phrasing, consider the following alternatives:
The answer to the request may be yes, but perhaps that exact moment is not the best time. In that case, postpone the request using a variation of the following phrases:
"When your pajamas are on, then we can read a story."
Yes, after ___.
"Yes, we can go to the park after your toys are back in their basket."
I can help you with that after ___.
"I will get you a glass of milk after I finish washing these pots."
Right now I am ___. Would you like to join/help me?
"Right now I am doing the laundry. Would you like to put this shirt into the washing machine for me?"
Sometimes a child's request cannot be accommodated. It might sound like a great idea to the child, but it's simply not going to happen. Try wish fulfillment, a form of playful parenting, to acknowledge your child's desires:
That would be fun, wouldn't it? Let's try ___ instead.
"It would be fun to paint the dog. She would be so colourful! I don't think she'd like it very much though. Let's collect some rocks and paint them instead."
I wish we could ___, and then _[expand on fantasy]_! How about we _[more acceptable activity]_?
"You want ice cream right now? I wish we could too! I'd put cherries and chocolate sauce on mine. What colour of sprinkles would you put on yours? Wow, that sounds delicious. Talking about food is making me feel so hungry. Dinner is nearly ready, so let's set the table together."
Redirection and Distraction
While aspects of redirection and distraction can be found in the above phrasing, these approaches are useful in their own right. Here the focus is on avoiding power-struggles through simple observation followed by providing acceptable options:
"You may not play with Mommy's book. Here is one of yours."
"It is time for Quiet Time. Which CD would you like to listen to?"
"I see that you are spitting. You may go spit in the sink. When you are done, would you like to read a book with me?"
Of course, this is only one tool for use in one particular scenario. Taking "no" out of the equation helps to side-step a power-struggle with a small child, but it holds no guarantees; meltdowns and tantrums happen during this time of development when young children are learning how to express and work through their emotions. When the situation warrants it, reflect the child's feelings back to him and, if needed, offer help in expressing those feelings in a healthy, appropriate, and acceptable manner.
For further reading as it relates to the gentle discipline of young children, check out these additional resources:
The Hows of Discipline
Ten Alternatives to Time-Out
Gentle Discipline for Toddlers