How to Say No (When Money Is Tight) and Make It Sound Like A Yes


July 17, 2017

Your five-year-old daughter throws herself down on the floor and refuses to get up until you promise to buy her an ice cream cone. She starts crying, then sobbing, then wailing. The harder you try to get her to stop, the louder she screams.

You’re in a rush and have a long to-do list, and you are so, so tired of telling her “no” for what feels like the millionth time. You’re tempted to buy her whatever she’s asking for just to avoid having to say it.

Every parent has been there. It’s frustrating having to say “no” to your kids. Parents want to give their kids everything so they can have the fullest life possible. Denying your kids a purchase can feel like denying them an opportunity, especially when it’s something you didn’t have as a kid.

Sometimes saying “no” is unavoidable—for a financial or personal reason—and at times like that, there’s got to be a way refusing your child that doesn’t end with her bawling her eyes out on the supermarket floor, right? What if you could say “no,” but make it sound like a yes?

In her bestselling book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin highlights the importance of acknowledging your child’s point of view and feelings during difficult interactions. These strategies work in all sorts of conversations, but they’re especially useful when it comes to talking about money.

1. Repeat it back.

Say your daughter starts whining at the store, begging for the Star Wars LEGO set her friend owns, even though you’ve already bought her buckets of LEGOs. Instead of pointing this out, make her feel heard by repeating back what she said, in a more reasonable tone. “You have a lot of LEGOs but you really like your friend’s new Star Wars set, and you’re upset because I’m not buying it for you right now.” Knowing their feelings are being acknowledged can change the dynamic of the conversation from feeling like you’re on opposing sides to being on one team.

2. Put it in writing.

Kids know that writing something down means it’s important: addresses, shopping lists, appointment times. What if you wrote down your child’s feelings? If she’s frustrated because you won’t buy her brand new sneakers until she outgrows her current ones, pull out a pen and a piece of paper and tell her: “I’m writing this down—Sarah is frustrated because she can’t get new sneakers right now.” To your child, putting it in writing proves that you’re taking her seriously.

3. Make a “yes” plan instead of just saying “no.”

The word “no” or even versions like “stop” or “don’t” are emotional triggers for kids (and adults!). Instead of using one of these trigger words, use positive words to describe what can happen, including any “yes’s” you can give. If she wants you to buy her junk food but you’ve already spent your grocery budget for the week, you can say, “You want me to buy you Lucky Charms right now. We’ve already spent our grocery budget for the week, but when we go to the grocery store again on Sunday, we’ll pick up a box of Lucky Charms so you can have them for breakfast all week!”

4. Wave a magic wand.

Not giving your kid what they want can make you feel bad, even if you know it’s for a good reason. Make both of you feel better by telling her that you would give her what she wants, if only you could! “If I had a magic wand, I’d take you shopping for new shoes right now!” “If I had super powers, I would fly us all to Disneyworld for summer vacation!” It shows that you’re on her team, and she knows you would do it if you could.

5. Empathize with her feelings and explain the “why” behind the “no.”

If your daughter is dying to get her hands on the next Notebook of Doom release and the library has a waiting list, you don’t have to go out and buy the book to prevent a fight. You know how much it sucks to wait to hear the rest of the story, so tell her that! Say, “I know it’s super frustrating to have to wait to see what happens next—I felt the exact same way reading my own favorite book when I was a kid! But since it’s such a popular, new book, it’s expensive to buy. Let’s ask the librarian how long the wait is, and if she knows any other libraries we can check.”

6. Disengage to avoid escalating the situation.

Sometimes, hearing “no” will put your kid in a sulky mood—she might not throw a loud fit, but she’s certainly upset. Don’t feel the need to bring up the stressful situation again and again; it’s okay to stop talking about the situation, or at least postpone the conversation until everybody has truly calmed down. Change the subject to something she’ll enjoy talking about; cuddle her for a few minutes; or put on some music she likes. It may feel like you’re distracting her, but there’s nothing wrong with creating space for a gentler conversation later on.

Denying your kid what she wants never feels good, but sometimes it has to happen. You might be tight on cash this month, worried your kid is getting spoiled, or you just don’t have it in you to buy yet another toy your kid will lose interest in.

Plus, saying “no” is an important lesson in personal finance. Telling them “no” is how they learn to figure out how badly they want that purchase; to weigh pros and cons; and to get creative in the face of obstacles.

The next time you have to say “no,” pause and consider if you can use any of the tactics above. Remember, you and your child are on the same team, and you can come up with a solution that everybody feels good about.

Do you have any strategies for when you have to say “no” to your kids? Tell us in the comments!

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