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Learning to Say NO

By Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Adapted from The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

Children say it without embarrassment, and they say it over and over. It’s one of the smallest words in the dictionary, yet can be the hardest for adults to say out loud. “NO:” We think of it as negative, having all kinds of harmful ramifications, a word you want to avoid because it sets your guilt meter running especially where your children are concerned. You don’t want to disappoint them or make them unhappy.

In the best interests of your family, you automatically agree to every favor, request or demand without taking your needs, schedule or other commitments into consideration. As a result, saying “yes” has become a habit that leaves you under-rested, overwhelmed and deeply entrenched in a pattern you probably want to—and can— break.

Are You a Yes-Mom?

If three of these sounds vaguely like you, it’s likely that your children turn you into a yes-person quite easily. It’s time to take stock and learn how to say no.

The Littlest Drill Sergeant

With children, life becomes much harder if you put them and everything else ahead of yourself. When you say yes to your children, they can begin to feel like drill sergeants who control the pace, tenor and direction of your life: buy me, drive me, help me, finish this for me. By calling up a ‘No” when you need it, you gain some deserved time for yourself.

In addition to getting more time for yourself and your needs, you are also teaching your children important habits—how to strike a balance between work and play, time management and task prioritization—that aren’t always taught in school. When children grow up learning these concepts, they are more likely to be successful in their academics, relationships, and later on, in their careers.

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Say What You Mean, Park Your Guilt

Be direct when you say ‘no.’ Padding your response with excuses takes away from your message. A strong ‘no’ said while looking your child or teen in the eye sets limits and underscores that you mean what you say.

Parenting is a forever proposition that will be much easier if you resist feeling guilty for denying your child’s requests. Children usually bounce back with much more ease than adults. You’ll be saying no—or should be—for decades, so park your guilt.

You’re a Mom, Not a Chauffeur

There are some situations where “no” is the obvious answer—when your 11-year-old asks to drive the family car, for instance—but what happens when your child asks to add another extracurricular to her already-full schedule? You’re proud of her initiative and want her to excel, but at the same time, your brain is calculating the extra costs, both monetary and physical, that will result if you give permission.

When you hit a “gray area” such as the one above, listen to your gut feeling. Can you afford to invest even more time driving your child to and from practices, lessons, and competitions?

“I don’t look at the [monetary] expenses. Mostly it’s the time and the driving, and I hate driving,” says one harried mother of three who spends 28 hours or more each week driving (and waiting for) one of her daughters who attends swim practice early mornings and again in the afternoon with meets on weekends.

Stepping into No: The Basics*

For you, saying no may be the equivalent of learning a foreign language. These starter steps will help hone your ability to say no and get more comfortable using the word in your everyday life. You don’t have to an ever-accommodating yes-person to be loved, respected, and admired.

For more on how to say NO to your children, friends, family and at work, see:

*Adapted from The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It—and Stop People-Pleasing Forever by Susan Newman, Ph.D.

© Susan Newman, Ph.D.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of "The Book of NO: (McGraw-Hill)", "Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day", "Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only", "Never Say Yes to a Stranger: What Your Child Must Know to Stay Safe", among others. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and available for workshops on parenting and family relations issues. For more information on Susan and her work visit her website at


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