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How to Say “No” to Your Kids

How to Say “No” to Your Kids

“Mom, can I get this?”  My daughter holds a cheap, unicorn-shaped purse in her hands—a little treasure she’s discovered at the craft store, where I’m trying to find supplies for a classroom party.  “Nope,” I reply with a quick glance at the price. “Did you bring $10 along to pay for it?” I know she didn’t, of course.

A minute later, she’s holding a craft kit with markers.  “How about this?” she questions, “It’s only $4 and I’ll pay you when I get home.” 

“I don’t think so,” I say again.  “Isn’t there a kit like that sitting in the closet at home that you got for your birthday?”

Several aisles over, she tries a new tactic, a card-making kit in hand. “Mom, we could make these for the grandmas for Christmas!” She knows I like homemade gifts, the little stinker.  She’s targeting my vulnerabilities.

But I’m on my A-game today.  “No.” I say, taking the kit out of her fingers and setting it back on the nearby shelf.  “We are here to buy supplies for your class party, and nothing else, okay? And if you don’t stop asking for stuff for yourself, I’m not letting you have a snack when we get home either!”  

There. That should do it.  Now I can get my supplies in peace, I think, as I turn the cart toward another aisle. Without missing a beat, my daughter pipes up: “Mom, can we buy some candy too?  It’s not for me… I’ll bring it to the party.” 


Sometimes it seems our kids have an endless reservoir of persistence when it comes to asking for things, doesn’t it? More toys. More treats. More fun.  As they grow older, the list just seems to grow. More gadgets. More events. More classes and activities and camps. . .   All those endless requests, it’s exhausting.

As parents, one of our toughest jobs might be saying “no” to this constant barrage of requests. Sometimes a “no” comes easy—when it will cause obvious harm or it’s something completely impossible for us to afford.  

But other times?  It’s really hard to say no. We get tired and worn down, and a “yes” will just make things so much easier!  “No” can be hard on our heartstrings, too: It’s hard to deny the people we love. To see disappointment on their faces, or see them go without things that others have.  And then there’s this: Sometimes we’re the ones who want all those nice things for our kids, aren’t we?  Sometimes we need to say “no” to ourselves.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy button for these “nos.” Most of the time, it’s hard work and no fun. Our kids won’t like it. We won’t always feel good about it. And there will be bad attitudes to deal with along the way. But it is worth it.  And here’s why:  The “nos” we say to our kids can actually help us say “yes” to greater things. 

This perspective helps me tremendously in my parenting journey. When I keep my eyes focused on my bigger parenting goals, it gives me wisdom to see when I need to say “no.”  It helps me dig deep when I have to deny my kids, even when everything in the moment is tugging me to cave. Even when so many other parents don’t tow the same line.

Some values are just too important to toss away for a fleeting moment of calm or fun, even if “everyone else is doing it.” If you struggle at times with saying “no” to your kids, you’re not alone, my friend. But maybe this will help: Next time you’re tempted to cave to the momentary cravings of your kids, set your aim for the following”yeses.” 

Say Yes to Quality Time

Many kids grow up with a huge quantity of life experiences at their fingertips.  Family travel, class trips, advanced educational opportunities, camps, sports and arts classes . . . the list goes on and on.  I know teenagers who’ve crammed more travel and life experience into their 18 years than I managed by my 40th birthday!

But what kind of quality are all these experiences adding to our kids lives?  Hustling from one activity to the next, constantly juggling a family calendar that’s bursting at the seams—where is the time for friendships to blossom or for family connections to deepen? Where is the opportunity for kids to simply be—to pay attention to the person they’re becoming or to listen for the quiet whisper of God? 

When we fail to set limits for our kids with “no,” we set them up to mindlessly embrace the values of our culture–and it’s a culture that’s fueled by advertising and greed.   As the writers of a Newsweek article called so aptly put it, too many of us find ourselves  “raising ‘wanting machines’ who respond like Pavlovian dogs to the marketing behemoth that’s aimed right at them.” It’s an endless cycle, friends. There will always be another advertisement. Another trend.  Another opportunity presented to our kids by someone who wants to make a dime.  

I don’t want my kids to be caught in this vortex of “quantity” time: I want them to experience a rich quality of time–being present and appreciative of the gifts God gives them today.  I want their life to be rich, not so much in possessions and activities, but in peace and joy:

– I want them to appreciate simple, everyday moments–to be fully present to the people and places around them.

– I want them to find joy in their relationships and the hard work they do.

– I want them to know the peace of contentment, and the value of making do with what they already have. 

– I want them to have breathing space–time to process and pray over their worries and fears, to dream about their future.

A recent article about increasing teen depression and anxiety alludes to this need for quality time, too: “Teens are also not getting as much sleep as much as they did in previous generations and spending less face-to-face time with family and friends, both of which have been associated with depression.” These are the things that bring quality to our lives. But we miss them when we constantly cave to our kids’ requests and fill their lives with more.  

Say Yes to Mental Health

We’ve all been there:  In the moments when we choose to say no, there’s always a price to pay!  It might be anger, resentment, or poor behavior from our kids. It might be feeling frustrated about ourselves, because don’t get to be the hero parent. Or perhaps the worst of all: It might be a hard pull on our heartstrings as we watch disappointment fall across our child’s face. 

It’s hard to deal with the disappointment that comes with “no.” But what if we never face that disappointment?  What if we never allow our kids to face that disappointment?  

Consider this warning from a Newsweek piece called The Power of No:   

“Kids who’ve been given too much too soon grow up to be adults who have difficulty coping with life’s disappointments. . . . Psychologists say parents who overindulge their kids may actually be setting them up to be more vulnerable to future anxiety and depression. . . . ‘You sit around feeling anxious all the time instead of figuring out what you can do to make a difference in the world.’ ”

None of us want our kids to grow up feeling overwhelmed and anxious.  Yet recent studies tell us that’s exactly what is happening to an ever-growing number of kids. Could it be that saying “no” to our kids might actually help them buck this trend?  

Letting our kids experience little disappointments as they grow up equips them to deal with the inevitable limits and disappointments they’ll experience when they get older.  

We simply can’t always get what we want.  And as Christ-followers we know that deeper and more satisfying meaning can be found through serving others, rather than constantly thinking about ourselves.  The sooner we can help our kids understand these deep truths, the better for their long-term mental health.  And that’s a non-negotiable yes every parent wants for their kids.

Say Yes to Financial Peace

Yup, we need to go there. We have to talk about money.  

For many of us, difficulty saying “no” to our kids leads to difficulty with the family budget, too:  All these experiences and toys and activities come with a price tag.  If we give in to every desire of our kids (or every desire we have for our kids), then we carry the financial burden of paying for it all. And that burden can be heavy indeed—leading to extra work hours, extra stress on our marriages, and extra anxiety about family finances.

There’s nothing wrong with devoting financial resources to our kids: It’s our job to care for them and help them explore the gifts God’s given them. But when the cost of all these things starts leading to financial stress or guilt or debt? Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at all that spending. Sometimes—maybe most of the time—the better “yes” might be teaching kids about financial responsibility by denying their request.  

When we set limits on our kids and only say “yes” to the best opportunities that we can afford, we model choices that bring financial peace and stability–and set our kids up for a healthy financial future of their own.  That also gives us more freedom to share our resources with those around us. 

Yes, it can be hard to tell our kids we don’t have the money for something they want—or that we simply don’t think it’s a good use of our funds.  It can be hard to see them sitting at home while their friends enjoy another camp or activity. But it will be harder still if we see them living as adults who never learned how to manage their money.  And no toy or activity can replace the joy of parents who are fully present–and a homelife that’s not constantly stressed by work and money.

Say Yes to Helping Them Think Outside Themselves

“Do I have to?” If you’ve ever asked your kids to take care of a chore then you’ve probably heard those four words.  Some of us get to hear them every. single. time.

Kids can be relentless with complaining when it comes to responsibilities around the house.  Is anyone else out there guilty of just doing things yourself?  It’s just so much easier than dealing with the tornado of grumbles and negotiations I face when I make my kids help around the house!

But when I let my kids shirk their responsibilities, I’m actually letting them shirk on character.  I’m letting them get away with laziness.  And selfishness. And a failure to recognize the value of good, hard work.  

It’s natural to want our kids to be happy.  But never-ending happiness is a myth:  Life simply doesn’t always provide the fortune and fun that make for breezy, feel-good emotions. As parents, we need to help our kids cope with less-than-happy realities like doing chores, working hard, and thinking about the welfare of others.  

When we let our kids shirk their chores, we raise them to be irresponsible instead of learning how to take care of their things. We let them pursue selfish purposes instead of   teaching them how to contribute to a bigger community. And perhaps even worse, we never teach them how to take responsibility for their attitude.  Instead of trying to keep them happy, we should point them toward joy–toward the meaning and purpose they can experience by working hard and chipping in to help others.

It’s hard to listen to the grumbling when we don’t let our kids get out of their work. It may grate on our nerves and have us reaching for the aspirin.  But it’s a small price to pay for giving them a good work ethic. Give your kids the bigger “yes” of looking beyond themselves–and seeing the joy that can come from serving their community.

Say Yes to Trust

Even though I’m writing this post about saying no to your kids, I must confess that I still struggle.  Sometimes, I still indulge when I shouldn’t. I still say “yes” when a “no” might do more to build my kids’ character.  And you know the biggest reason why I do it? I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I say “no,” I will somehow damage my relationship with my kids–or the bright future I long for them to have.

Fear is a constant companion for us as parents, isn’t it?  We know the hard realities of the world all too well, and we love our kids oh so deeply—and these two forces collide in an explosion of fear.

So we fear our kids might miss developing their gifts and skills if we don’t sign them up for the right activities–that our “no” may hamper their future success.  Or we fear being judged if our family doesn’t fill our schedule with all the activities that other families take on.  And of course, there’s ever that driving fear beneath it all:  What if I screw this all up, and my kids end up wanting nothing to do with me?

It takes courage to say “no” to our kids in the face of all these fears.  Because “yes” gives us a feeling of control–and that’s a powerfully comforting illusion.  But is it true? Can any amount of camps, classes, or activities guarantee success for our kids?  Can any number of family memories or gifts guarantee their happiness?  Can any of our most earnest efforts to raise godly kids actually guarantee that they’ll live a healthy Christian life?

I think we know better.

We can’t control the destiny of our kids, despite all our “yeses” or “nos.”  Sometimes, we’ll get it right—we’ll pay for that extra art class that ends up sparking their future career.  But sometimes we’ll get it wrong—we’ll give in to the whining for guitar lessons, even though they have zero time to practice. (And sure enough, we’ll sell the guitar at a garage sale a year later.)    But always, in every one of our parenting glories and failures, God will be at work behind the scenes, working things together for the good of our kids. 

As I parent my kids, I’m learning to lean hard on God’s grace, and trust Him with the outcomes.  I pray. I seek wisdom, I consider choices and do the best I can. But in the end, I know that my kids’ future doesn’t hinge on me–it’s in God’s capable hands.

And that’s such a relief!

Surrendering the outcomes to God doesn’t erase the fears–I’m not sure anything can erase a mama’s fears!  But when I take my fears to God, he gives me courage to move past them and stand firm for the “bigger yeses” I want to teach my kids.  And he replaces all those worries with peace.  Because I know that somehow, even amidst my less-than-perfect parenting, God’s working out a good plan for my kids. These days I’m resting a little more, and fretting a little less because I’ve found this to be true:

I can say yes to trusting God–because He’s the perfect parent for my kids.  


One Comment

  1. Avatar

    These are some great points! It is so hard to say no sometimes, and you are so right that kids need to hear it. Life is not all sunshine and roses and you don’t always get what you want. The sooner kids learn this, the better off they will be. Just like God loves to give good gifts to us, His children, we love to do the same for ours. But just as His answer is often “no” or “not yet”, to our requests, we need to be willing to say no to our kids too. Finding that balance is difficult, but so worth it. Being willing to say no produces young adults who are unselfish, hard-working, resilient and ready to take on the world. Thanks for sharing!

    Sep 25, 2019 Reply

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