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?’ or ‘Can I bake a cake?’

Some requests are easy to handle – for example, ‘Yes, it’s OK to play on your iPad’. Other requests are more difficult. For example, if your child wants to bake, you might think about safety in the kitchen or who’s responsible for cleaning up afterwards.

When your child asks for something, it’s an opportunity to help him learn about communicating well and managing emotions – no matter what answer you plan to give.

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, please use your calm voice’ or ‘Can you ask me in a nicer way please?’

2. Listen
Take a moment to understand what your child is asking for. Show that you’ve heard and understood – this 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 saying 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. If children feel disappointed because you’ve said no, they might not take in the reason behind it. For example, ‘We don’t have time for a ride on the merry-go-round now. We’ll do it next time’.
  • Stick with your decision. If you change your mind, your child will learn that 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. For example, ‘I can’t buy you this because it’s too expensive. Let’s go home and make our own snack together’.
  • 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 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 self-regulate and 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 child 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 need to say no. For example, ‘We’ll have a snack when we get home from the shops’, 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 too. 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

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 when you say no, because toddlers are still developing self-regulation 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, she’ll be disappointed but she’s less likely to have a tantrum than a younger child. This is because she has learned more self-regulation and understands why you’re saying no.