Tell Your Kids it’s OK to say NO!

Just Say “NO!”

by Jan Wagner

From Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World –Chapter 7

“All Adam’s small life we taught him not to take candy from strangers, all the things that we thought were appropriate. But we also taught him to respect authority figures unequivocally: that he should be a little gentleman. I think if we had put more emphasis on the fact that he had the right to say ‘no,’ maybe the outcome of his case might have been different… he might have been alive today if he wasn’t such a little gentleman.”

– John Walsh, “How to Raise a Street Smart Kid,” HBO

“…he tricked his victims into going with him willingly. If a child just said “NO” and made some noise, he left him or her alone.’’

– “Child Abductions: What a Mom Must Know,” McCall’s

Children should understand that there are times when they do not have to be perfect little gentlemen and ladies. A child who can say “no’’ to an adult when he is uncomfortable or scared will be the child who has a chance to keep himself safe. Most parents like to think that they are raising polite children, but when a child’s personal safety is threatened a child should not have to worry about whether or not he or she is going to offend an adult or hurt an adult’s feelings. What he should be able to focus on is, “Am I going to be safe if I do what this adult is telling me to do?’’

Predators often approach children with “lines’’ that are designed to short-circuit the child’s instincts. These lines could include a stranger asking, “Can you help me find my puppy, Sammie?’’ or a neighbor saying, “You could be a model. Can I take your picture?’’ or a camp counselor who is beginning the grooming process of breaking down the zone of privacy by asking, “Can I help you tuck in your shirt?’’ If an adult approaches a child with a “line,’’ the child’s natural instincts or “gut” may be shouting “no.” But the child’s belief that adults and older children, such as babysitters, must be obeyed can interfere with his ability to listen to his instincts. Because the child was raised to be respectful of adults, and to be kind and helpful, he may comply with the adult’s request. He may not even stop to think that he can refuse.

In our society “no” doesn’t always mean “no.” How often have you said “no” to your child in a store and he kept asking and eventually you bought him something? Other meanings for “no” have become “Maybe,” “I’m not sure,” “Not yet,” or “Give me time.” If a child or young lady is kind-hearted or not forceful in response to unwanted advances this may be how her response is viewed. The ability to say “no” and have your request respected has broken down. Movies repeatedly show a girl saying “no” to the advances of a boy. He responds by ignoring what she has said and continues to press his wishes on her, until eventually she says “yes” and they live happily ever after. Such inappropriate images in movies and music videos have made it necessary to counter the effect by teaching “gender respect” to junior high and high school boys. Part of what the boys are surprised to learn is that if a girl says “no” it’s not part of a game and it’s rape if you don’t stop.

As parents, we have to make certain our children have our approval to say “no” when anyone attempts to do anything that does not feel right to the child. We should make sure our children know that their personal safety is more important than being kind, obedient or respectful.


1) Teach your children that it’s better to be safe than polite. By the age of two children have already discovered the power of the word “no.” Give a positive direction to this natural instinct by teaching your children that they have the right to say “no” to adults who make them feel uncomfortable with their requests or touches. Teach your children that if someone gets too close they should say “no.” If someone asks them to do something they don’t usually do or that doesn’t feel right they should say “no. ”Then they should get away and tell a trustworthy adult as quickly as possible.

2) In our society “no” doesn’t always mean “no.” Set an example of being clearer with your children by only using “no” when you mean it. Don’t just override a child’s “no” – work it out with them. Respecting their feelings is the foundation not only for helping to keep them safe, but also for keeping the doors of communication open when they become teens.

3) Give your children supporting statements beyond “no.” Besides “no,” teach children expressions that they can use when any person’s actions make them feel uncomfortable. For example, they can say, “Please stop, I don’t like that,” or “That’s not fun anymore. I don’t want you to do that.” To help them get comfortable with asserting themselves, you can role-play together. For example, you, a family member, or family friend can hug them tightly or tickle them; they can use these new phrases when they’ve had enough.

4) Test your children’s ability to say “no.” To ensure that your children are comfortable saying “no,” play what–if games. Ask them, for example, what they would say if your neighbor came over and started tickling them and they didn’t like it. Keep asking what–if questions like this until you are sure that your children feel comfortable expressing their feelings to adults. They should practice saying “no” in a clear, forceful voice. To help them further integrate the concept, you can even make a fun game of saying “no” in a variety of ways, such as saying “no” like a mouse or saying “no” like a lion.

5) Reassure your child that you are on her side. Assure your child that you will never be angry with her if she refuses a request for physical attention or appears to be rude to an adult, older teen or classmate in the process of keeping herself safe. Let her know that you will handle the consequences if that person is annoyed or angry, or if their feelings are hurt.

Jan Wagner is a respected expert on the safety and anti-victimization of children. Her book, Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World: 30 Proven Ways to Protect Your Child from Becoming, Lost, Abducted, Abused, or Victimized, has sold nearly 150, 000 copies in its previous editions and is fast becoming a parenting classic. As the founder of Yello Dyno, Jan has pioneered the non-fearful approach to child safety education.

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