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Has this ever happened to you? You ask a friend a question and get a response that’s not really an answer. It’s sort of vague. So you ask again and get a different, equally vague reply. You’d like to know, yes or no, but you’re left unsure. You’re stuck, unable to know what to do, since you don’t know her answer.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, then maybe you can appreciate what it’s like sometimes to be a kid, especially a kid of sensitive, caring parents who hate to say “no.” It can be frustrating and confusing. Sometimes being in this situation feels like having a license to do whatever you want, since you can’t get a clear answer from mom and dad.

A child asks, “May I have a cookie?” Her parent says, “Why don’t you go play outside?” Any child would be confused by this: did Mom not hear me clearly? Did she mean, “Take a cookie outside”?

Another child asks, “Can I go play with Roger and Molly?” His parent says, “Did you clean your room?” Most kids would interpret this to mean, “if your room is clean – or when your room is clean – you may go.” But maybe that’s not what Dad meant. Maybe he was just trying to delay saying “no.”

Many of us hate to say “no.” We don’t want to stifle our children and we hate to deny them anything. We want them to be happy. And we think that saying “no” will make our children unhappy.

In addition, sometimes we realize that our impulse to say “no” is purely arbitrary. There’s no real reason why playing with Roger and Molly isn’t okay, but we just don’t have time right now to deal with it. It’s easier to just say “no.” But because saying “no” for no good reason seems unfair, we don’t want to say it. So we say something else.

Here’s the thing, though. Being told “no” isn’t what makes children unhappy. What makes children unhappy is being ignored or deceived. It’s much better to simply say, “no, I don’t think so” than to string a child along with a vague response. If you can give the reason for the no, so much the better: “No cookie. It’s too close to dinner time,” is a clear response. Even “No, I don’t think you can go play with Roger and Molly. I’m just too busy right now to even think about that” is more honest than linking play with a clean room.

Sometimes we avoid saying “no” because we don’t want the arguments we think will follow. But arguments are part of being a parent – both the differences of opinion that naturally occur between children and grownups, and the responsibility to teach how to argue. Yes, arguments are a teaching opportunity. When we clearly say “no” and give our reason, we open the door to a respectful discussion of the importance to the child of what she asked for and the importance to us of our reasons for saying “no.” If we are going to guide our children, we have to be ready to tell them “no” once in a while and hear them out when they argue back.

If you’ve been vague in your answers in the past, try being more direct. If you’ve been arbitrary, saying “no” without any reason and closing off discussion, try being more respectful. See if your children don’t respond by being more reasonable in the future.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.