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The Many Shades of NO in Parenting

The art of supportive rejection in raising kids

Sasint / Pixabay
Source: Sasint / Pixabay

When I was talking with my mom on the phone the other day, she reminded me that when my daughter, Megan, was about two (like 16 years ago), I had once corrected her (my mom) for using the word “no” to little Megan during a visit. I guess I’d said something like “Mom, as part of our efforts to parent in a positive manner, we don’t use that term.”

Oh my goodness was I embarrassed when my mom reminded me of this moment. It’s amazing that she didn’t laugh her head off right then and there! Parenting, right!?

On this topic, I had an interesting conversation with BYU Radio host, Lisa Valentine Clark recently. The conversation was all about supportive parenting. Along the way, Lisa discussed how she and her husband have become experts in ways to say no to their kids using an arsenal of euphemisms. They call it the “many shades of no.” Here are some examples:

  • I’m not sure.
  • Let’s talk about it tomorrow.
  • I’ll give you a maybe.
  • Let’s see what happens.
  • That might not work out.
  • I have to think about it.
  • Let me talk it over with Mom.
  • Let me talk it over with Dad.
  • I need to sleep on it.
  • Not quite sure.
  • Ummmm ….
  • etc. …..

So I guess my wife and I are not the only parents looking for ways to dodge saying no to their kids!

Adverse Consequences of a Cold Parenting Style

If you think that parenting in a cold, harsh, and authoritarian manner can lead to problems in child development, you’re right. In her seminal work on parenting styles, Diana Baumrind (1968) discusses three broad parental styles, including:

  • Authoritative, marked by a focus on making clear and predictable boundaries and showing strong support and empowerment of one’s child.
  • Permissive, marked by a lack of rules and guidance, often characterized by an inability to say “no.”
  • Authoritarian, marked by a lack of warmth and an exploitation of parental power.

When it comes to saying no, it seems that overly permissive parents can’t do it at all while authoritarian parents, on the other hand, seem to have very little in the way of “yes” when it comes to dealing with their kids. Authoritarian parenting has a cold, rejecting, and intimidating style at its core.

Empirical work on the correlates of authoritarian parenting suggests that keeping “no” in check may actually be a good thing. Being raised by parents who fit the authoritarian model, in fact, has been found to be associated with various adverse outcomes, including the following:

  • Increased levels of childhood delinquency (see Hoeve et al., 2009)
  • Higher levels of depression (Rothrauff et al., 2009)
  • Higher levels of anxiety (Rapee, 1997)
  • Lower levels of reported well-being (Rothrauff et al., 2009)
  • Higher levels of ADHD during childhood and adolescence (Barkley, 2005)
  • Behavioral conduct problems (Thompson et al., 2003)
  • Adverse academic outcomes (see Hunt, 2013)

to name a few ...

Harsh, cold, rejecting parental styles, have the capacity to stifle psychological growth along a broad array of dimensions.

The Fine Line between Permissive versus Supportive Parenting

So an overly harsh and rejecting parental style has been documented to have broad-reaching adverse outcomes. But an overly permissive style is not much better. Overly permissive parenting is similarly associated with various adverse behavioral and developmental outcomes (see Hunt, 2013).

So if you ever thought that parenting is a balancing act, you got that right. There is a fine line between being overly harsh and rejecting versus being overly permissive and/or disengaged. No wonder parenting is such a famously difficult endeavor!

The Many Shades of No Revisited

The beauty of the “many shades of no” approach it has the capacity to walk that fine line between overly harsh and rejecting parenting on one hand and overly permissive parenting on the other. Rejecting one’s kids with warmth and kindness seems to be a great way to strike that balance.

While euphemistic rejections such as “I’m not sure - let’s talk about it later” may seem intentionally vague and even obscure, but I think that such an approach to rejecting one’s kids actually sends a very clear message. Such an approach says (a) I’m the parent and I’m setting needed limits while at the same time saying (b) I love you and support you and I am on your side.

Bottom Line

Parenting is such a tricky life domain. It is without a manual. And there are few prerequisites for joining the club.

Any parent at any stage will tell you that negotiating how to say no to your kid is one of the ultimate challenges in the domain of parenting. Give in too much, and you’re too permissive, throwing up your hands when it comes to helping provide your kid with much-needed guidance. Reject your kid outright, regularly and consistently, in a cold and harsh environment, and your kid is at risk for all kinds of developmental issues that might emerge.

An approach to parenting that utilizes the “many shades of no,” while not being fully direct at times, has the capacity to strike that much-needed balance between harsh-and-rejecting versus overly permissive parenting. Positivity in the domain of parenting matters.

NOTE: Thanks to Lisa Valentine Clark for the thoughtful conversation that inspired this post! Also, note that this post is kind of designed as the flip side to another recent post of mine, The Power of Yes in Parenting.


Barkley, R.A. (2005). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. (revised ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Baumrind, D. (1968). Authoritarian vs. authoritative parental control. Adolescence, 3, 255-272.

Hoeve, M., Dubas, J., Eichelsheim, V., van der Laan, P., Smeenk, W., & Gerris, J. (2009). The Relationship Between Parenting and Delinquency: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 37, 749–775.

Hunt, J. C. (2013). Associations Between Different Parenting Styles and Child Behavior. A dissertation submitted as a requirement for a doctoral degree. Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Rothrauff, T.C., Cooney, T.M., & An, J.S. (2009). Remembered parenting styles and adjustment in middle and late adulthood. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences, 64 1, 137-46.

Thompson, A., Hollis, C., & Richards, D. (2003). Authoritarian parenting attitudes as a risk for

conduct problems: Results from a British national cohort study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 12, 84 – 91.