Want a Child with Values & Self-Respect? Set Rules & Say No

By the time they reach school age, a child is as skilled at debating as politicians on the campaign trail. But while their persistence can wear you down, giving in to their pleas will only encourage them to keep it up.

“If you’re looking [to raise a] respectful child with good self-esteem, then start saying no,” says Michelle Borba, educational psychologist and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. “If you say no, and your child learns to accept it, your child learns to accept your values.” Borba also notes that research shows kids who are raised in less-permissive homes have higher feelings of self-respect and more confidence.

You have to start saying no now, though, because it only gets harder later, says Borba. Here are her top five steps for how to say no — and have your child really hear it.

1. Review your rules.

Every six months, take time to think through exactly what your expectations and values are: what you’re saying yes to, what you’re saying no to, what is non-negotiable and why you feel that way. Also consider what you want to teach your child with the rules you’re setting. Without the conviction of your beliefs — knowing what you won’t accept and why — you’ll be more likely to cave in when he starts pushing.

2. Make a formal announcement.

Once you’re sure what you will and won’t tolerate, call a family meeting and explain the rules. Be matter-of-fact and non-critical; laying out your expectations shouldn’t come off as punitive. And by explaining your reasons for each rule, you’re showing your kid that you’ve given this a lot of thought and you’re serious. “It’s a guideline for your values, a family mission statement,” says Borba.

3. Get on the same page.

Whether you live in the same home or not, try to reach an agreement with your parenting partner about which rules are non-negotiable. Then, put them somewhere where everyone can see them. “Even if there are only three rules, mark them in stone,” says Borba. “If you don’t have them written and posted on the fridge, your child will water you down.” The other benefit to hanging them up? “Whenever your child has a friend over, he can point to the fridge.”

4. Don’t engage.

When your child starts pestering despite the rules, say as little as possible in response. If you’ve told him that you don’t want a video game system in your home but he argues that everyone else has one, respond with, “That’s what they do in their house.” If you have a gaming system but have decided that your child is too young for teen-rated games, don’t hesitate when he says, “But I’ve played them at my friend’s house.” Say “Not in my house,” — and leave it at that. “Too much explanation continues the power struggle,” says Borba. “How you handle a wordy kid who wears you down is to stop talking yourself.”

5. Avoid confrontation.

If your child pesters for sweets at the store after you’ve told him no, don’t tolerate one minute of it. He’s been disrespectful by ignoring the rules, says Borba, and that demands action. Follow your conviction, even if it’s inconvenient for you. As soon as your child starts pestering, stop shopping and tell him you’re going home. Or give him a time-out in the car while you stand by. Will it be embarrassing for him? “Yes,” says Borba, “and thank goodness it is!” Sometimes, a little embarrassment makes the point better than any scolding could.

About the Author

Gail Belsky is an editorial consultant and writer, and an adjunct professor of journalism. A 12-year veteran of women’s publications, she was a senior editor at Parents magazine and an executive editor at both Working Mother magazine and Time Inc.’s custom publishing division, where she created and edited two women’s service magazines for Target stores. Belsky worked on the launch of Time Inc.’s All You magazine and was an editorial consultant at Meredith Corp., where she created four custom publications for American Baby magazine. Most recently, she wrote a book for women, entitled The List: 100 Ways to Shake Up Your Life (Seal Press 2008).


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