How to Say “No” When Your Child Wants Something

There’s something about children that tugs at our heartstrings and makes us want to keep them safe and protect them from heartbreaks of any kind. That’s why we feel upset and sad when we see their big eyes fill with tears and their tiny faces scrunched with anger when we refuse them something they want.

How often have you shopped with your little one and found the experience nightmarish because your child wants everything he/she sets eyes on?

My niece does this, and it gets pretty embarrassing when she throws herself down on the floor and bawls her heart out when her mom refuses to buy her something. But no matter how hard the tears flow, no matter how long the tantrum continues, it’s not good to give in to the whims of your young one. Besides the fact that you cannot afford to buy them all that they ask, it sets a bad precedent if they learn that they can manipulate you with just a few tears and tantrums. If you face similar problems with your child, here’s how you could try to convince your child to behave better:

  • Mean it when you say NO: If you give in when your child begins to act up, the same routine is going to repeat itself every time you go shopping. Your kid is going to get used to the fact that a few tears are enough to make you relent and buy whatever he/she wants.
  • Don’t try to make it up to them by buying something else: Besides being a financially foolish move, it does not give you the advantage you need when you go shopping. Children are perceptive, and that’s why they will soon realize that they can get something out of a shopping trip by crying hard enough.
  • Forget the incident once you leave the shop: Don’t harp about it or go on about the way your child behaved in the mall or shop. This will only make them more rebellious and determined to do it again.
  • Talk to your youngster: If he/she is at an age where they can understand money, tell your child that you cannot afford to buy them all that they want because of your financial situation. If he/she is just a toddler, use the line that the product they want is not good enough, and that you’ll buy something better.
  • Remember that kids forget easily: Your child will most likely forget the incident once you get out of the shop and stop for an ice cream or snack or see a clown on your way home. That’s the best part about children – they don’t hold grudges.

Learning to say NO to your child, for their own good, is a great way to instill the value of money in them at a very early age. Once they know that they cannot buy indiscriminately, they will learn the art of saving and spending money more wisely.

This post was contributed by Kimberly Peterson, who writes about the accounting degree online. She welcomes your feedback at KimPeterson2006 at


  1. One thing that I have learned is that if you say “no” and stick to it, there will not be scenes. Kids will accept a “no” that is real.

    What causes scenes is establishing a pattern that teaches the child that “no” means “ask 20 more times and ‘no’ will become ‘yes.’ ”

    It’s not fair to blame the child if the message you are sending is the opposite of the one you intend to send.

    It is clarity that brings peace (rigidity is something different, however — a no-exceptions rigid rule is clarity taken to an extreme).


  2. I think the hardest thing about this is when they ask for something you CAN afford but know they don’t need. Teaching them moderation and self-control is painful. I think it’s harder for me than it is for her. Great post.

  3. Great post! My kids are grown but saying no also applies to the adult world. If you’re faced with a purchase you cannot afford, you have the ability to “just say NO” to yourself!

  4. It is basic behavioralism. The behavior becomes especially strong when sometimes no means no and sometimes it means yes. This teaches the child to keep trying.

    Another key to parenting is to give the child a choice. This gives the child power and removes blame from you. In this case the choice is between the desired behavior and some consequence that has meaning for the child. For example, “If you keep asking for _____, we won’t be able to go to the library after we’re done shopping. It’s up to you.” It is important to tell the child it is their choice.

    Then be prepared, the first time or two they will test the waters. Did you really mean what you said? Will you really follow through? If you do follow through, the undesired behavior will quickly stop. And your child will have learned to make good decisions.

    It is a subtle difference, but the consequence is not a reward. It should be as natural as possible. In the above example, the message is if we waste time arguing about buying this toy, we can’t use that time to do something else. That is not your rule, that is life.

    When the child keeps arguing, and the will the first time or two, they will expect life to go on unchanged. When they ask why you are not taking them to the library (or what ever else was going to happen), gently and with as much empathy as you can muster say, “oh, I’m sorry, but when YOU decided to keep asking about that toy, YOU decided you didn’t want to go to the library.” It is not your problem, it is the child’s. Don’t take responsibility or ownership of it. It was their choice. If, at this point they throw another fit, it becomes a new choice and new consequence. The old one (begging for the toy is done, over, kaput).

    The parenting skill is in finding things, consequences, that get your child’s attention. Then letting them know this was their choice, not yours. And with empathy, they are learning how to make good choice by sometimes making the wrong choice.

  5. I’d agree with all except the last statement… Kids DO remember… and they’d best remember the next time at the store the answer will still be No. I tend to remind the grandkids not to ask for anything extra in the store, because Grammi will not be buying it. They are aware of money and budgeting. They also know, when I say NO I mean NO and don’t ask again. I think it is important to instill the “No means NO” concept at home all the time… whining repeatedly does not change a No to a Yes…it in fact earns them a time out… Unless you have instilled “NO” at home, it’s not going to do much good to try it at the store!

    And, if they threw a tantrum, they sure as heck would NOT be getting ice cream on the way home, nor a ride, nor any other “reward” for their bad behavior.

    To keep the kids’ minds off of what they think they want, my grandkids are given a little ‘grocery list’ with a couple items on it that they hold in their hands while we shop. They are responsible for finding the items on their list to put in the cart. It tends to not only keep them involved in the process, but also to keep them from focusing on random ‘wants’ – they know that only what is on their lists will go in the cart. It also instills that one should shop only for what one needs, and not just a random “I see it – I want it” shopping spree.

  6. Great post. I have something to add though. I occasionally throw in a “Because I said no, and I don’t need another reason.” Kids don’t always need to be reasoned with. Sometimes a simple, “because mom and dad make the rules” is good enough. While there is a time and a place for a good discussion and rationalization concerning a disagreement, this doesn’t have to be the norm.

  7. Hi! I have eliminated this in my house. I give my boys allowance. They each get there age each week (my 11 year old gets $11 dollar, the 6 year old gets $6.) They have to give some away (to church, needy family, etc), they have to save some in there own savings, and the rest is spending. So when we are out if they want something they can buy it (as long as it is age appropriate) with there own money. It works so well. They each feel pride giving money away and both have a nice little savings account.
    As an added bonus both are good in math from all that counting.
    Last week my older son bought a DSI with his own money ($170.) He has also paid for a week at camp last summer ($200) and his own Wii the year before ($250.)
    In addition they give away and save part of all money they get (from birthdays, etc.)
    And if they want to go to movies or Chuck e cheese they use all there own money as well, sometimes they even pay for me.
    I am a single mom and can not afford to indulge them, but even if I had the money I would not want to. Paying them allowance though frees me and helps them learn to budget.
    The sweetest part was that the other day my 6 year old chased down the ice cream truck and bought all of us ice cream. Seeing them share is so nice!

  8. I agree that you should talk to children. But instead of focusing on money you should be explaining your expectations for their behavior while in a store.

    This is why you should NOT forget about the incident when you leave. That is a teachable moment where you explain further what went wrong and how they can improve.

    Also whatever you do, DO NOT stop for ice cream after an incident takes place. Ice cream is a reward and you don’t want to reward bad behavior.

  9. I never used the ‘because i can’t afford it’ reply to my son when he wanted something. usually the reason was something other than that, and that is what i told him.

  10. Coming from a child’s point of view it sucks to get said no to, but it is better in the long run. Why? Because you don’t grow up being spoiled. You learn to appreciate things more and understand that just because you want something, doesn’t mean you can get it.

  11. @Rebecca: We had a similar experience recently when my daughter returned from a book fair at her school with a book for her brother. Instead of spending all her allowance on herself, she thought to pick up something for him, too.

    @All: This was a great post from Kimberly because it got us thinking about how to explain to kids that there is a finite supply of money. I’ve used my four-quarter budget game in the past with some success.

  12. The nice thing about saying “no” most of the time is that those few time when you say “yes,” it is appreciated.

    I also don’t answer with “we can’t afford it,” because most of the time it’s not the price tag that is driving the no.

  13. I agree that explaining a NO by saying that you can’t afford it sets a bad precedent and also misses the opportunity to teach other values. The child would reasonably interpret the “we can’t afford it” statement to mean several things. 1. If the family had more money, the child would be hearing YES instead of NO, regardless of the merit of the desire. 2. Other children who get what they want must come from families with more money. 3. If there’s money, it can be spent to gratify the child’s wishes.

    It might be worth the extra aggravation to explain that the parent doesn’t *choose* to spend money on what the child wants, and that the parents have other priorities, which could be explained at an age-appropriate level of detail.

  14. Lovely, thank you. The hardest part for me is sticking to the “no” and making sure Mom sticks to the “no” as well. Your post is inspiring for me to continue providing good care and control.


  15. When I was young, I got most of my toys on my birthday and on christmas. Sure, my parents would say “yes” once in a while, but I learned to wait for those two wonderful days and stay cool the rest of the year; don’t bother them too much!