Children’s requests: why it’s important to respond constructively

Children ask for things all the time – for example, ‘Can I play on my iPad?’, ‘Can Stevie come over after school?’, Can I stay at home by myself while you go shopping?’, ‘Can I have some money to spend at the canteen?’

Some requests are easy to handle – for example, ‘Yes, it’s OK to play on your iPad’ or ‘No, it’s not screen time right now’.

Other requests are more difficult. For example, there are lots of things to think about before you let your child stay at home by herself. Sometimes even a request for an after-school playdate might be tricky if you have other plans.

No matter what answer you plan to give, it’s important to take the time to respond constructively to your child’s requests. This lets you reinforce the times when your child uses words to ask for things, communicates respectfully and handles his emotions appropriately. And this is good for your child’s social and emotional development.

Responding to requests

The following steps can be useful when your child asks for things, regardless of whether you plan to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’.

1. Base your first response on how your child asks
If your child asks politely, praise your child for using good manners. This sends the message that you’ll always pay attention when your child uses good manners – even if you don’t always say ‘yes’.

If your child pesters, whines, demands or threatens, let your child know you need to hear some good manners. For example, you could say, ‘Sascha, stop whining. Use your calm voice’ or ‘Can you ask me in a nicer way please?’

2. Listen
After you’ve praised your child for asking politely, take a moment to understand what your child is asking for. Show that you’ve heard and understood – that way, your child will be much more likely to accept your answer. It can also help to show some empathy, even if you don’t say plan to say ‘yes’. For example, ‘Oh, I can see why you would love that. How cool’.

3. Pause and decide
A brief pause gives you a chance to think about the request. It also sends your child the message that you’re putting some thought into it. Ask yourself, ‘Do I need to say no, or can I say yes? If it’s not a yes, can I negotiate?’

Often, you’ll be able to say yes. At other times, you might be able to negotiate with your child and come up with a solution you can both accept. Either way, consistent and fair responses from you will help your child learn the best way to ask for things.

When you need to say ‘no’

Saying ‘no’ can be hard – after all, you want to make your child happy. But sometimes children can’t have what they want. Here’s how to make ‘no’ work for you:

  • Give your reason first. If you’ve decided to say no, give your reasons first. This will help your child understand your decision. For example, ‘We don’t have time for a ride on the merry-go-round now. We’ll do it next time’. If children are feeling disappointed by the ‘no’, they might not take in the reason behind it.
  • ‘No’ means ‘no’, not maybe. If you say ‘no’ then give in, children are likely to pester even harder next time, hoping to get lucky again.
  • Stick with your decision. If you change your mind, your child will learn that your ‘no’ isn’t final and that it’s worth arguing with you. And if you give in when your child is misbehaving, she’ll learn that this is a way to get what she wants.
  • Offer something else. If you can, offer something else. For example, ‘I can’t buy you this because it’s too expensive. But we could go home and make our own snack’.
  • Give your child constructive feedback. If your child accepts ‘no’ for an answer, give lots of praise. For example, ‘I really liked the way you just said “OK” when I said no’. Or ‘It was great how we worked that out together’.
Being able to take ‘no’ for an answer is an important social and emotional skill. It’s part of helping children learn how to handle disappointment. Saying ‘no’ to your child also shows him when and how to be assertive.

Reducing the need to say ‘no’

One of the best ways to help your children learn how to cope with being told ‘no’ is not to say it too much. When you keep ‘no’ for decisions that really matter, your child will take it more seriously.

Here are some ideas for reducing the number of times you say ‘no’:

  • Set some ground rules. For example, before you go shopping, talk to your child about why you’re going. Let your child know what you expect and the rules about asking for things. This can cut down on the number of times you’ll need to say ‘no’. For example, ‘You can choose two show bags only’, or ‘No asking on this shopping trip’.
  • Say yes if you can. For example, ‘OK, George can come over after school if it’s OK with his dad’.
  • Negotiate instead of saying no – but only if your child is willing to negotiate and compromise. For example, ‘We can’t go to the park today but we can go tomorrow’.
Children learn to predict what their parents will say ‘yes’ to, based on past experience. It means they get more persuasive, and it also means you need to pay attention and be consistent about when you say ‘yes’.

Asking for things at different ages

When you know what to expect at different ages, it can help you tailor your responses. Children’s ability to make requests generally improves as they get older, as does their ability to handle their feelings if you say ‘no’.

Toddlers often communicate what they want in simple ways – for example, they might make noises or point at what they want. But when you say ‘no’, toddlers can find the disappointment too much to manage. Tantrums are a normal response to ‘no’, because toddlers are still developing self-control and language skills.

By school age, children have more language skills, which they can use to negotiate and compromise when they ask for things. From around the age of eight years, you can expect some convincing arguments about why you should let your child have or do something!

When you say ‘no’ to your school-age child, he’ll be disappointed but he’s less likely to have a tantrum than younger children. This is because he has learned more self-control and understands why you’re saying ‘no’.