Saying 'No' to Your Kids

Money Smart Kids

Saying No to Your Kids

Follow these four tips so you don't cave in to your children's every request.

Recently, my husband and I were reminiscing with two of our adult children about a family vacation we took to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon when they were kids. All of us chuckled about how the kids thought Las Vegas was a big Disneyland for grownups. “Remember how you rode the roller coaster at New York, New York, the hotel where we stayed?” I said. “No, we didn’t,” they promptly responded. “You and Dad said no because it cost $15 and you said that was too expensive.”

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I admit that I had a sudden pang of regret. Had I deprived my kids of some fun because I was too cheap to pay for it? “Nah,” they said. “We really didn’t want to ride the roller coaster that much anyway. And we went on plenty of better coasters.”

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I thought about that conversation when I read a blog post on called “The Power of Parents Who Say ‘No.’” The author, Catherine Pearlman, is a social worker who runs a business called The Family Coach. In her column, Pearlman remembers growing up with a mother who thwarted her youthful desire to keep up with her peers with such things as cool bikes, Benetton sweaters and trips to Mexico over Christmas break. “My mom stuck to her guns,” says Pearlman, who recalls that she held a grudge against her mother throughout her adolescence. Now a parent herself, Pearlman recognizes “how amazing my mom was all those years ago” -- and how difficult it is to repeat the experience with her own children when there’s so much more peer pressure on both kids and parents. “I just have to remind myself that the best lessons are the most painful.”

Tips that work

For Pearlman and other parents in similar situations, I’d like to offer some advice on how to say no to your kids and make it stick while inflicting a minimum of pain. The key is to tell them why you’re denying a request and to offer an alternative. A simple “because I said so” may be necessary sometimes. But unless you give them your rationale, kids won’t understand why you’re saying no, and they’ll be tempted to chip away at your resolve in hopes that you’ll eventually cave.


Plan in advance. This tactic works well with preschoolers and younger children. For example, if you’re taking your kids to the grocery store and you want to avoid a meltdown in the cereal aisle, tell them ahead of time that they may each choose one treat -- either a cookie or a box of sweet cereal or whatever you deem acceptable. Instead of delivering a string of “nos” when they ask for things, you can remind them that they have to settle on one special item -- and keep them occupied figuring out what that will be.

Have kids use their own cash. Once they have their own resources -- say, from gifts or allowance -- make it clear that you’re going to the toy store (or wherever) to buy a birthday gift, and if they want to purchase something for themselves they’ll have to bring their own money. When they get older and have access to more cash, make it clear that you’re willing to spend a certain amount on shoes, jeans or sweaters, and they’ll have to make up any difference if they want something more expensive.

Explain your thinking. If your 8-year-old wants a skateboard and you think it would be too dangerous to own one in your urban neighborhood, say so. If your 9-year-old wants her own computer and you think she’s too young, say so -- and tell her that in your household, children use the family computer. If your 13-year-old wants a new video-game system and you think his existing one is adequate, say so -- and tell him he’ll have to spend his own money if he wants to replace it.

Deflect the “all the other kids have it” gambit. Let your children know early on that your family may have different values than other kids’ families. Maybe you’d rather save your money for a family vacation than spend it on a flashy car. Or maybe you think that a theater-size TV screen is over the top or just too expensive. If you’re on a tight budget, say so. If you are able to afford something but choose not to buy it, say so.

Of course, you won’t always say no to your kids. But laying a firm foundation will give you more leverage when their requests become bigger and more expensive. Plus, if you don’t buy them everything they ask for, the unexpected “yeses” will be that much sweeter for both of you.