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It seems that more and more parents are finding it more and more difficult to say no to their kids, and to get their children to listen when they do. Much of this is due to a trend towards more child-centered parenting, which many parents confuse for letting children do just about anything they please.

This problem is also aggravated by the self-centered, instant gratification messages promoted throughout Western culture. As William Damon writes, “Getting a child to take ‘no’ for an answer is difficult in a cultural setting where children are taught the primacy of their own feelings. Whatever a parent communicates on the home front, children in our society hear many versions of the message that their feelings come first. Our children are constantly encouraged to be self-assertive and promote their own desires, and they learn to do so with impressive persistence. They besiege their parents, and the parents often feel that they must give in.” (Damon, 1995, p. 163)

Why kids don’t listen when you tell them no

There are several fundamental reasons that children don’t listen when you tell them no. Read through each one to try and see which factors are a problem for your family:

1. Saying no too often

Kids are more likely to listen to “no” if they haven’t been bombarded with it so often. When kids hear the word no over and over again all day long, they tend to tune it out. In order for your words to hold power, kids need to hear yes as well as no, and trust that you aren’t just throwing out arbitrary “no’s” to thwart their desires. One extreme is as bad as the other.

2. You’re wishy-washy, and you sometimes give in with enough hounding

Educational specialist Lawrence Kutner, PhD., writes: “One sign of a problem is if you repeatedly have to say no to the same request. …If you have to say no several times, that means your child recognizes that in the past a series of no’s sometimes leads to a yes. The early no’s have no meaning or power.

From the child’s perspective, repeatedly asking for something that has already been denied is like playing a slot machine in Las Vegas. Sure, he loses most of the time, but every so often he wins a jackpot. It’s that occasional reinforcement that keeps the child plugging away at his parents.” (Kutner, 1996, p. 116)

This principle is known as variable-ratio reinforcement, and has been studied extensively in humans and animals alike. For instance, if a rodent is surrounded by dispensers that give a reward every time he pushes a button, along with others that give no reward no matter how many times the button is pushed, then when placed in a new cage with a new non-functional lever, he’ll try pushing around 3 times before giving up. In essence, this rodent’s past experiences have taught him yes means yes and no means no. But if a rodent has been conditioned towards dispensers that give a reward inconsistently or sporadically, say every 3 pushes one time, every 7 tries another, then when placed in a new cage with a new non-working dispenser, he’ll persistently press that button up to 100 times before giving up.

Kids follow the same principle. When you first say no but then sometimes give in, you’re conditioning them towards this variable-ratio reinforcement. This means that just like the hamster, they’ll be inclined to try over and over again before giving up and accepting your no for an answer.

3. You’re not following through when you tell them no

Here’s a common scenario: A mother, sitting on the couch watching TV, barks commands at her children. “No running in the house! Don’t treat your toys that way! I said no cookies before dinner! I told you no, you have to play inside!” All while the children proceed to do everything she just told them not to do. Yet not once does she get off her seat to enforce her words with actions.

If you’re telling children no but not backing it up, you might as well be talking to the wall. Without enforcement or some type of penalty for not listening, they’ll continue doing whatever it is they want to do.

4. Ignoring you has become a game

Toddlers, for instance, take special glee in defying a parent’s commands. It’s a game – a means of testing their power and seeing how far they can bend the rules and exert their own will.

Older kids, too, may intentionally ignore your prohibitions as part of a power struggle. If this is the case, you need to address the underlying issues that are creating the power struggle.

5. You cave when they throw a fit

Children quickly learn that they don’t have to take “no” for an answer if going to extremes will serve their interests. This is why it’s so important you not let children manipulate you by giving when they throw tantrums or otherwise act difficult.


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