The Emphatic “No” in Discipline: Denying

Much of parenting involves the powerful and sometimes overwhelming experience of falling in love with one’s baby, and eventually one’s toddler, and the child who emerges in each new phase of growth and development. Our hearts can swell with pride and joy as our children mature, surprising us with their budding achievements and abilities to master the many complex tasks of childhood. Parents can be surprised at the depths of their love for their children.

The Ds create boundaries in discipline

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and GrandmotherDevelopment

Then there is the other side of parenting that involves having to create boundaries and set limits that thwart children’s efforts to indulge in behaviors that are self-centered, violate our family values, or are dangerous. These are the moments when parents must decide to assume the role of disciplinarian, who not only teaches but interrupts children’s push to do what they want to do, when they want to do it.

These are the moments when children’s anger can erupt:

That’s not fair!“You’re so mean!” or the most lethal of all: “I hate you!” [In fact, according to the research from The Gesell Institute of Human Development’s inspired book Your Three Year Old, by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. shouting “I hate you!” is a classic response from children of this age when limits are imposed.]

Parents who have poured out their nurturing love on their children day after day can feel hurt and betrayed when children say things like this with such adamant passion. Parents can be shocked that their sweet, loving children suddenly lash out at them, acting as if their parents have become cruel enemies who are wounding them to the quick.

When children seem so devastated because parents have denied them something, those parents may find themselves vacillating, questioning their judgment, or giving in just to stop their child’s meltdown and to get back into their child’s good graces. This is a very dangerous precedent for parents to set: once children know their parents will eventually cave-in if they only persist long enough, their demands, whining and temper tantrums can increase in intensity and longevity.

The first “D” on our Effective Disciplining Report Card is a parent’s responsibility to “Deny.”

This means that parents need to know when and how to deny what their children are demanding or begging them to provide. “Pa-leeasse! I have to have…” “I’ll die if I don’t get it!” “You have to let me…” I can’t wait until tomorrow! I have to have it now!” “I want to stay!” “I don’t want to go!”

Denying is about emphatically saying “No!” and meaning it. Denying is about being impervious to begging, whining, threats or demands. It is about staying calm, clear, confident, compassionate and connected so that the process of denying is not an emotional event on the part of the parent, who continues to steadfastly transmit messages of love and connection even as he or she denies what the child is demanding.

As Jean Illsley Clarke shares her book, Growing Up Again, parents need to be clear about nonnegotiable rules and need to stand firm about enforcing those rules, regardless of how much a child begs, pleads or attempts to negotiate.

When denying a child something, a parent can be compassionate that the child is disappointed, frustrated or angry. “You really want to….” “You are so angry that I won’t let you…” followed by, “And you may not…” [It can be important at this point for a parent to walk away, with the child safe. And as a way to say, “This conversation is over.”

Being denied something may feel mean to a child. For parents, being able to comfortably deny children’s requests or demands is a necessary part of good parenting.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. How do you feel when your child begs, pleads wines, demands and even has meltdowns over the rules and limits you place on him or her?
  2. To what extent do you accept that part of parenting is about having to be “the mean guy” in your child’s eyes?
  3. What do you need to do to remain calm when your child reacts strongly to being denied something he or she “desperately” wants?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network