The Problem-Solving Parent: Helpless or Heartless?
By Eleanor Reynolds, M.A

At the market, Susy, riding in the grocery cart spied the candy bars.

Susy: I’m hungry. I want some candy!

Parent: Gee, honey, I don’t think so. It’s too close to dinner.

Susy: (whining) But I really want it.

Parent: Wouldn’t you rather wait ‘til after dinner?

Susy: No! I want some candy right now!

Parent: (shrugging helplessly) O.K. Stop whining. I guess you can have it.

In another store, a similar conversation:

Johnny: I want one of those toy guns.

Parent: No. You know I hate guns.

Johnny: Please buy me one.

Parent: If you don’t stop nagging, you’ll get "time out" when you get home.

Johnny: (screaming) But I really need a toy gun.

Parent: I said NO! Stop screaming or I’ll spank you.

Is there a way to refuse what your child wants without feeling helpless or heartless? Many parents feel guilty about refusing their child what she wants, even when it is not in the child’s best interest. Other parents worry about their child becoming "spoiled" and think punishment will keep their child obedient. Yet, neither extreme teaches children how to get their needs met in a socially acceptable and responsible way. And neither extreme is conducive to building a strong parent-child relationship based on respect and trust.

So what can parents do when kids demand a sugary cereal, a violent toy, or want to watch an inappropriate TV show? First, ask yourself if this is something your child should decide. Very young children are capable of making many decisions for themselves. If you give your child a choice of several options, all of which you approve, he will learn to make wise choices. If your child makes a mistake and regrets his choice, you can help him learn from his mistake, not by rubbing it in, but by allowing him to experience the consequences. Before you say no, think about whether you really need to refuse or if there are alternative such as giving choices or allowing natural consequences.

Refusing Respectfully

If we do not spoil or spank, bribe or punish, what is left? A first step is listening. Too often we tune out a child’s requests, forcing her to whine or demand in order to be heard. You’d be amazed at the difference when you look your child in the eye, get down on her level, and reflect back to her what you hear. Listen for the feelings behind her words. There is a magic in being recognized, heard, and taken seriously. This way of interacting is called "Active Listening."

Validate your child’s right to ask for what he wants. If he asks for something you believe is bad for him, validate his wish by expressing it, giving it words to match his feelings, and let him know simply and directly why you must refuse. There is also a method called "wishful thinking" that lets you join your child in fantasizing about what he wants. There is no need to criticize or lecture him about his requests; wanting things is as normal for him as it is for you.

Let’s replay one of our examples, using active listening and wishful thinking to help us refuse respectfully.

Susy: I’m hungry. I want some candy!

Parent: I can see that you’re hungry. A candy bar must sound good to you.

Susy: Yes, I really want one.

Parent: Remember, I don’t buy sugary snacks. You can have a banana or a bagel. We have both in our cart.

Susy: (whining) But I really want candy.

Parent: You wish you had the biggest candy bar in the world! Maybe chocolate covered marshmallow. Boy, what a candy bar that would be!

Susy: Yes, a giant-sized one!

Parent: Sounds fantastic. I sure wish candy was good for you, so I could buy you that one. But it isn’t, so the choice is still the banana or the bagel.

Susy: Phooey. I guess I’ll take the bagel.

When you know you will definitely refuse a request, don’t argue, use wishy-washing phrases such as "I guess," "I think," ask questions such as, "Don’t you want to wait for dinner?" or end a refusal with, "O.K.?" Simply state firmly "I don’t buy sugary snacks." If your child nags, say, "I’m finished talking about sugary snacks," and really stop. This type of respectful refusal will earn your child’s respect for you.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at