20 Ways to Say No to Children

Sumitha Bhandarkar

Think of one of those crappy days you sometimes have – one of those days where nothing goes right – your to-do list keeps getting longer instead of shorter, deadlines get pushed in instead of out, everybody you meet seems set on driving you nuts –  the works.

The only thing that keeps you from flipping the moron who cut you off in the crawling traffic on the way home, is the thought of your favorite ice cream waiting for you in your freezer.

Ah, the cool, creamy, deliciousness!

When you get home, you head straight for the freezer. As you are about to get that long awaited spoon of solution-to-everything-goodness into your mouth, your spouse walks in and shouts “No! What do you think you are doing? You can’t have ice cream now — it’s almost time for dinner! Put that right back!

Your reaction would be to –

a) Show eternal gratitude towards your spouse for caring so much about you
b) Pick the biggest darned fight that would make Attila the Hun proud.

You know where I am going with this.

As parents we get so wrapped up in raising our kids right, that we forget to treat our kids right.

As parents we get so wrapped up in raising our kids right, that we forget to treat our kids right. Click To Tweet

We forget that they are little people who go through ups and downs in their day, who have feelings and get frustrated and exasperated just like we do. And we talk to them in a way that would never be acceptable for a spouse/ boss/ friend to talk to us.

As fine parents in the making, shouldn’t we be looking for nicer ways to say “no”?

Well, here are 20 different ways to say “no” so they don’t even realize you’re saying no.

I will use the simple scenario that it’s almost supper time, my daughter wants M&Ms and I need to say “no”. Keep in mind, that this is just an example scenario and these tactics should work equally well for other circumstances too.

And last but not the least, lest you think I am the superwoman of patient communication . . I did not come up with any of these, I just put them together into a list.

Here we go.

20 Ways to Say No to Children

1. Agree

Sure, honey. As soon as you finish dinner you can have some M&Ms.

You are essentially saying “No M&M’s before dinner!” but the packaging is different. I have to warn you though, this may not work all the time. If you get an emphatic “No, I want it RIGHT NOW!” or the ultra-whiny, “Now, mama, pleeeeeeeaaaaase,” it’s time to move on to other options.

2. Offer a choice

M&Ms will ruin your appetite if you eat them before dinner, but it looks like you really have a craving for them. Tell you what, you can either have one M&M now, or four after dinner. Choose.

If I had not tried this, I wouldn’t have believed it. Seriously!

It works so well with my daughter (touch wood) that I just have to say “One now or four later” these days and she will choose depending on how badly she wants it. She’s even made a game out of it. If she chooses to have just one M&M, its a “no looking M&M” which means I close my eyes as I take out the M&M from the pack, and we guess which color it might be (I literally give her one M&M – I used to feel so bad the first few times, but if something works, I have learned to let it ride.). If she chooses to wait, then she gets “all different colors”. She knows she is supposed to get only four but then I pretend that I forgot to count and give her 5 or 6. This gets happy giggles every single time (Trivia fact: In a regular pack of M&M’s, there are exactly 6 colors).

3. Offer an alternative

You’ve already had M&M’s in the morning today. How about some berries instead?

Of course the alternative you choose better be comparable (in your child’s mind) to the option that you are denying. My daughter would definitely love to have M&Ms, but if she knows that she just isn’t going to get them, then she will happily settle for berries or baby carrots, instead of risking not getting a snack.

4. Distract

Hey, look, the squirrel is back. Boy, we haven’t seen him in a long time. What was his name again?Where do you think Blueberry (the squirrel’s name, apparently) went all day?… and so on, until M&Ms are forgotten

This is probably the easiest trick in the book, but sadly, it has an expiry date on it. It doesn’t work as well now (my daughter is 5) as it did when she was 3. But if we are driving I still use this technique to switch her attention to something interesting on the sides of the street (e.g., “I spy pink balloons up ahead….”) and it still works. At home, where the distractions are not that fascinating, it’s a bit harder.

 5. Get playful

[Making a monster face and claws and chasing her around the house] Who said they wanted M&Ms before dinner? I’m going to eat up kids that want M&Ms before dinner!

This one is a little risky for this example. Just before dinner, if I get her all perked up by running around, it’s hard to get her to sit down for dinner (even if she decides to forget about the M&Ms). But this does work in other situations.

6. What would <> do?

I wonder what Jack and Annie would do if they want to eat M&Ms before dinner but their mom wouldn’t let them.

The Magic Treehouse series of books are quite popular in our house. And this will take the conversation is so many different directions that she almost forgets to insist on having those M&Ms. A variant of this that I used (a lot!) when she was younger was “What would mama bear say if brother and sister bear wanted M&Ms before dinner?” a riff off of Berenstain Bears series. Somehow it’s easier for her to accept the “rules” when Mama bear makes them than if her own mama does. Oh, well, as long as it works!

7. Enlist “help” from authority figures

Hmmmm . . . I don’t think we can eat M&Ms before dinner, baby. Tell you what, next time we go to see Dr. X we can ask her about it. Remind me, OK?

Depending on what it is in question, I have invoked her doctor, her dentist, her teachers and even her 10 year old cousin!

8. If you can’t beat them, join them!

I know! I so want some M&Ms too. How I wish the rule about not eating candy before dinner did not exist!

We both make sad faces and then console each other about the heartless rule and move on. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

9. Call on imagination

You know I can’t give you real M&Ms before dinner. How about some pretend M&Ms? I could give you twenty of them. You want one hundred? Alright here’s a million, a zillion!

The cool thing about being 5 years old is, (a) they know the concept of pretend and for some reason think it’s cool to pretend to do something, and (b) they love numbers and “bigger” the numbers are, the more satisfying it is.

10. Write an I O U for it

OK, here. Let me write (or, “You write” if your child can) a note that Mama will give you four M&Ms after dinner.

Deviating a little from our M&M example, I actually once wrote on a post-it “I O U some frozen yogurt” on a cold winter day, and she hung on to it and checked the weather each day and “claimed” it after almost a week when it was a little warmer outside!

 11. Give it to her, but not let her eat it

Ok, here are four M&M’s on a plate. I am going to set it right here so you can keep an eye on it. Tell me as soon as your dinner is done, and I will give it to you.

This is my husband’s preferred technique. For some reason, it works very well when he does it, but it almost never works when I try it! I guess she’s figured out that mama is a softie, and if she just whines/ begs/ demands just a little more, I’ll crumble. Sigh!

12. Remind her of prior infractions

Remember last time you ate M&Ms before dinner, and you couldn’t finish your food, and mama got mad at you?

This is something I try not to use. Reminding her of a prior incident usually puts her in a foul mood. But hey, it might work for you!

13. Remind her of consequences from a related fiction story

If you eat M&Ms, then chapathi and vegetables, then the yogurt and berries, you might get a tummy ache. Remember what happened to the hungry caterpillar?

That was not a very good example, but I wanted to stick with the example scenario. This technique does work beautifully when she asks for multiple treats though. For example, she has just eaten M&Ms and wants gummy bears next.

 14. Appeal to the logical part of her

Uh-oh. You know what happens when you eat M&Ms before dinner? It will filllllll up your tummy. And when your tummy is full, you cannot eat dinner well. And if you do not eat dinner well, you will not become a big girl like M.

M. is the 10 year old cousin I mentioned earlier. She is big enough to do all the cool things that my daughter can’t do, but small enough that she doesn’t behave like the weird grownups. My daughter would give anything to be as old as M. — might as well put that to some use, right?

15. Make her say “no!”

Hey, it looks like you are hungry! I think it’s time to send all the dollies home and go for dinner.

If there is still some time for dinner but not so much that she can eat a snack without ruining her appetite, I will turn her request on her. Yep, I am pretty heartless that way.

16. Let someone else break the rules

You know I can’t give you any M&Ms before dinner. Only grandma sometimes give M&Ms before dinner. Next time we go to grandma’s house, you can ask her to give you all the M&Ms you want before dinner, OK?

My mother-in-law loves to spoil my daughter. She will give her M&Ms before, during and after dinner – all my daughter has to do is ask! Since I cannot change that, I may as well milk it for what it’s worth, right? Of course, it helps that Grandma’s place happens to be a couple of thousand miles away and she goes there only once every two years. So this may not work for everyone, but I’m sure you will figure out an alternative.

17. Look it up

I don’t think we can eat M&Ms before dinner, Sweetie. Let’s look it up.

As long as they can’t read, you can look up anything about anything in anything (dictionary, recipe book, an old diary etc.) and make up any rules. Somehow, when it comes from a published book, it has more value than what Mama or Dada have to say. I know this isn’t exactly “positive parenting” and bluffing isn’t the way to go, but if you are at your wits end and have no energy for anything else, I would choose bluffing over outright denying something and getting into power struggles. One more thing — this is another one with an expiry date and doesn’t work anymore in our household . . my daughter has learned to read!

18. Sing it

“The N says No… The N says No… Every letter makes a sound, the N says ‘No M&Ms before dinner.’”

She must have been three then. One day, I just sang the tune from the LeapFrog Letter Factory which used to be one of her favorite DVDs to watch. When I sang the first “N says No”, she looked at me wondering what was going on until I tacked on the “… M&Ms before dinner” part at the end. She was surprised and thrilled that I “made up a song” and she wanted to do the same. So we continued singing the rest of the song adding silly (often meaningless) phrases at the end. And before long, M&Ms were all but forgotten. Phew, another tantrum avoided. And for those of you astute enough to notice, apparently, singing silly “no” songs is not as devastatingly negative as saying “no.”

19. Put her in charge

That makes two of you! I just heard Jenny (her doll) say she wants M&Ms too. Can you tell Jenny why she can’t have M&Ms?

Depending on the mood, this will either fall flat or provide you a lot of entertainment (and great insight into the impact of your parenting style on your child). I have seen Jenny being cuddled and gently explained to, given a lecture in harsh tones and even stuff taken from as punishment. Sigh, I still have a long way to go on this journey.

20. Use a Sign

And the sign says, “Not OK.” Oh, bummer!

The idea is simple. Make two signs saying OK or NOT OK, preferably as an “art project” where the child helps create the sign board. When there is a contentious request, just use the sign to let her know that it is not OK. And be sure to put the sign in an accessible place, so she can use it to say she is not OK doing something you request of her. The only way this technique can be successful is if it a two-way signal!

Obviously, we didn’t have so many situations where I had to deny M&M’s but these are the different techniques that I’ve at least tried to use under different circumstances when I’ve had to say “no!” and most of them are flexible enough to work under any conditions.




As parents we get so wrapped up in raising our kids right, that we forget to treat our kids right.

This post was syndicated with permission to BonBon Break Media, LLC.

Sumitha Bhandarkar started like most other parents - making a bunch of mistakes and feeling like a perpetually crappy parent. Slowly though, it occurred to her that Great Parents are Made, Not Born. She started on a journey to become a better parent one itty-bit at a time and blogged about it at A Fine Parent. Other parents joined along. Soon, A Fine Parent was a thriving community of 11,000+ like-minded parents. She invites you to join them in this wonderful, epic adventure!