Setting Boundaries: Making "No" a More Positive Word

Shanghai professionals offer their top tips

by SHFamily | Tue, October 31, 2017

By Abbie Pumarejo

How many times have you heard yourself saying “no” to your child? Whether a gentle reminder, a plea, or a shouted command, it can easily become the most used word in your vocabulary. No matter your child’s age – from toddler to teen – you might feel sad, frustrated, and even angry if you’re always repeating it to no avail. So what can parents do to set limits? Several Shanghai professionals weigh in to offer some tools and ideas making no a more positive word.

parent and kid on beach

According to Marie Ingram* an Early Childhood Educator at an international school in Shanghai,

“It’s important for parents to set limits while staying in a positive framework. But what’s most important is for parents to remain consistent with the limits that have been set. So, if your child throws a tantrum because you didn’t let him play on the iPad, instead of handing back the device to end the tantrum, think of ways to distract the child or change the scene . . . Often children show rage because they have figured out that it’s the best way to get what they want. A more productive approach would be for parents to remain consistent, positive and firm. It’s hard but it’s not impossible."

It’s not uncommon for parents to equate discipline with negativity. However, negative attention is not going to lead to a positive outcome. 

kids playing

How and when to use the word

Similarly, Carrie Jones, LCSW, Director of Counseling Services at Community Center Shanghai, discusses how and when the word should be used, particularly in the area of setting limits. “Being told no in appropriate situations helps children learn responsibility, boundaries, delayed gratification, how to tolerate disappointment and frustration, how to become resourceful in finding ways to satisfy their desires, and lets them know that the adults in their life care about them – all very positive things.” 

It can be difficult to remember that in addition to keeping our children safe, setting limits also creates a more emotionally sound and responsible person. Even toddlers can benefit from participating in their own boundary setting. Ingram suggests an alternative to the patented time-out:

I appreciated an article where the author suggested giving time-ins instead of time-outs . . . Time-outs give children the message that they are alone, especially when told to ‘think about what you did.’ It’s a scary thought for a little person to sit alone and wonder about a vague concept. Time-ins give you the opportunity to connect with a child in a warm and nurturing way and talk about the thoughts going through his mind.”

kid laughing

Dr. Jose Manuel Gamito Gonzalez, Head of Learning Support and Primary Years Programme (PYP) School Counselor at Western International School of Shanghai (WISS) gives more insight into how the idea of setting limits, or saying no, will benefit everyone involved and explains that if we remove the concept of punishment, consequences are a natural progression to pursue: 

“If, as parents, we do not set limits for children and instead constantly agree to their requests, we may be helping to develop a tyrannical mindset . . . Therefore, we must not only establish limits, but also routines as well as natural, logical consequences . . . Consequences allow your child to learn from his/her choices and behaviors. The consequences that work best are those you set with your child’s involvement. Asking your child what would be a good solution and working together to agree on one is far more effective than arbitrarily creating a consequence.” 

Gonzalez helps parents by meeting with them periodically, providing strategies to use at home and also evaluating together what works. He praises technology (WeChat and WhatsApp) and the ability to message quickly as a means of maintaining close contact. Studies have shown that even very young children, but especially older ones, come up with appropriate consequences when included in the discussion. It’s not surprising then, that one of the most relevant trends to come to light in recent years is the program called Positive Discipline:

The model of Positive Discipline is based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs . . . Positive Discipline focuses on a child’s positive behaviors and is based on the idea that there are no bad children, just good and bad behaviors. You can teach and reinforce the good behaviors while weaning the bad behaviors, without hurting the child verbally or physically.”

ginger kid

A name that has become synonymous with Positive Discipline is Dr of Education Jane Nelson (PhD), who developed a program based on the original work of Drs Adler and Dreikurs. As the author of “Positive Discipline” and “Positive Discipline for Teenagers,” her program emphasizes the importance of non-punitive parenting tools. Many parents and classroom management techniques in the US are now following the Positive Discipline model. The five criteria of truly positive discipline are:

1.    Be kind and firm concurrently.

2.    Help children feel a sense of belonging and significance. 

3.    Aim for long-term efficacy. 

4.    Teach valuable social and life skills for good character. 

5.    Invite children to discover how capable they are and to use their personal power in constructive ways.

dad and daughter hugging

This is a subject that has many facets, and can be covered over a range of varying age groups and situations in both the home and classroom. While we may not be able to eliminate the word no entirely from our vocabulary, we can certainly look to these suggestions to make it more positive.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.