"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

“No Sweetie!” Scene 2 in the life of a fun little word


I love my friend Warren.

He’s kind. He’s thoughtful. He’s good at his job. He works hard. And he cares. While he excels at almost everything he does, being a limit-setting parent isn’t his forté. And it’s no surprise. He got fucked by a slew of totally inadequate parents himself. And God bless him, he wants nothing more than to be able to love and be loved by his kid. But it’s not going so well. And frankly, I can’t bare to watch it. And while I’m certain a decade or so of therapy and couples therapy would serve him well, in the short term, I think reassessing the way he deals with his son James when he does things he doesn’t want him to do would go a long way.

Every time Warren comes over with James, I know exactly what’s going to happen. While I’d love to be wrong, in this case, I’m always right.

A visit with Warren and James inevitably means I’ll be treated to a non-stop string of “No Sweetie”’s.

“No, Sweetie, don’t touch those frames.”

“No, sweetie, don’t touch the baby.”

“Sweetie? No? You can’t do that.”

“Sweetie? I said no.”


James always responds to his dad the same way: as if he isn’t there.

Let’s say James starts to go up the stairs to the second story of our house. Within seconds you’ll hear it.

“No Sweetie. I don’t want you going upstairs.”

And up the stairs James will continue to go.

“Sweetie! I said no! We’re not going upstairs” Warren will say again, scrambling to follow James up the stairs.

Into a room James will disappear.

“Sweetie?” Warren will continue to call out helplessly, looking for his son.

When James is finished playing upstairs, down he’ll come followed by his sadly ineffective dad. And out into the backyard he’ll finally go—much to Warren’ts relief, as if his “no’s” had finally “worked,” as if it wasn’t just because James now wanted to play in the backyard. James likes rakes and shovels and so it probably won’t be not too long before he’ll spy the pile of children’s garden tools in the corner and grab one.

“No, Sweetie, you can’t dig up the dirt,” Warren will soon be telling James who will continue digging away.

“Sweetie, I said ‘no.’ You can’t dig that dirt. We don’t want to ruin the flowers.”

And so James will continue to dig. If it wasn’t so depressing, it would be funny.

I’ve never once seen James stop doing whatever it was his Dad has told him to stop doing. And while it’s hard to take in the hour-long play-date doses I have to endure once in a blue moon, I don’t know how Warren can just go on living his life like that—without coming up with some kind of plan to deal with the fact that his son never listens to him. As if that’s just the way life is! He says, “No, Sweetie!”  And his kid does what he wants. I don’t understand why he even bothers to say “no” in the first place. Perhaps in an effort to show other parents that he at least he doesn’t want his kid to destroy their house?

Yes, while it would be ideal if before Warren said “no” to James, he could show James what he could do—i.e. which dirt it was okay to dig up, after all I don’t keep shovels in the backyard just to yank the kids’ chains—in this case, I think it would be best if a) he didn’t tell him “no” every five minutes, seemingly indiscriminately and most importantly b) if when his son ignored him, he did something about it! This was a dad who had earned zero percent of his kid’s respect.

As a father, Warren had morphed into the ultimate boy who cried wolf. James was doing his job, he was being a willful toddler who tested limits, while Warren failed at his job to set them. For whatever reason, Warren just couldn’t bring himself to set any boundaries. My guess is that he was probably afraid of being seen as an authoritarian “bad guy” dad or maybe because he simply didn’t know how to do it or didn’t realize how important it was to follow through, to let his actions match his word. (And that overly saccharine “sweetie” crap was enough to drive anyone crazy. Did Warren really think it helped ameliorate the bad news? “You can’t go there buddy, but I still love you sweetie!”?)

Warren, my friend. Let “no” mean no. If you don’t want James to shovel the dirt and don’t show him what dirt can be shoveled, take the shovel away.

“James, you may not dig up those flowers. You can either put it down or I’m going to put it away for you.”

Let him scream and cry. And then empathize with him. He doesn’t have to like not being able to shovel but he still can’t shovel if you’ve said he can’t shovel (but please have decent reason for it and let him know what it is.) Believe me, he’ll find something else to play with. My yard is full of stuff.

And Warren, to make all of this disciplining stuff easier on yourself, just don’t say “no” so often. If you are at someone else’s house and they have a shovel out in the backyard and you are unsure of what your kid can and can’t shovel, ask the host. Then you’d have an alternative to offer your kid.

“James, Jennifer has a bunch of shovels and rakes. The dirt and gravel behind the garage is a perfect place to use them.”

If you are at someone else’s house and they don’t have a gate at the bottom of the stairs, but you aren’t sure if your kid can go upstairs, ask the host. And if upstairs is off limits then tell him from the onset.

“James, you can play downstairs and outside. Upstairs is for napping.” That way, he knows the ground rules from the beginning. But to just assume things are off limits that are just sitting their waiting to be explored and then telling your kid “no,” as if he is “bad” for wanting to explore them, is crazy making for him and me.

Consistently follow through on your no’s.

Use them sparingly.

Mean it when you say it and “No” will be your best friend.

And your kid will listen to you.

And respect you.

And feel safe and cared for.


What does Magda say: 

It is not always easy for parents to say “no.”…A parent’s ambivalence, guilt feelings, and  areas of confusion in his or her role will be picked up and used amazingly fast by young chilren. They seem to have a sixth sense for it. Any ambivalence from a parent will produce a nagging response.

 If not by teaching how does a child develop a conscience? Through consistency. She needs many yeses and a few consistent nos. Consistency means a no is a no whether the parent is in a good mood or a bad mood….

 A no is always a no. A child who can easily manipulate his parents may easily lose his base of security. If a child cries, whines or screams, and a parent consistently gives in to make peace, a situation is created where the child feels in charge, while not truly wanting or benefiting from the responsibility. Too much power (having a feeling of control over the parents) may be unhealthy and scary for a child. When he feels to powerful he may feel guilty and guilt can lower self-confidence. 


15 Responses to ““No Sweetie!” Scene 2 in the life of a fun little word”

  1. Sayward says:

    I know this is an old post but I hope you’ll still respond. The way you describe Warren is pretty close to how I am living, and let me tell you, it sucks and it is downright draining. But unlike Warren, I do not feel guilt about saying setting limits. (though I do say “no” waaaaay too often) The thing I can’t figure out is how to effectively enforce those limits

    I have a *very* spirited child, he is smart and precocious, brave and curious and he never. stops. moving. If I could only give him my undivided attention 100% of the time, we would probably be okay. But obviously, I can’t. We do need to eat and stuff. In general, as soon as I start trying to “get something done” (ie make breakfast), he starts getting into something he’s not supposed to. He just turned 2, and recently he’s taken to unlocking the door and going exploring outside, for example. Or he wants to go into the pantry and pull heavy things down while balancing on a ladder, or he wants to climb a bar stool and try to jump onto the couch, and on and on. So immediately, I start in on the no’s. I attempt to redirect, I offer plenty of alternatives, but honestly I think he’s less into the actual thing he “wants” and more into pushing my buttons for attention. Sometimes he’ll get on a roll and it’s just BAM BAM BAM one after another, all of the main things he knows he’s not supposed to do (mostly the dangerous ones, like rip out the light-socket covers while holding my keys menacingly, etc)

    Dear lord I’m rambling. Anyway, my problem is with follow through. Once I express to him that I don’t want him to, you know, go hang out outside by himself, well then I’ve set a ball in motion. I say “no” and then he does it anyway ==> is supposed to lead to consequences (or else my own extreme anger – I suffer from postpartum anxiety so I do struggle a lot with my patience). But what are the right consequences? How do you help a 2 year old to understand why it’s so important that he not do X or Y or Z? And what is the repercussion if he does? Your example was conveniently (no offense!) with something that could simply be taken away, but most of my situations aren’t like that. I need to be able to teach him how to not hurt himself in real places that really exist, like my home which cannot be baby-proofed into a padded room.

    Do you have any posts about consequences?

    What do you do when you’re using the “technique” (in this case you said Warren should redirect/offer choices, and then enforce consequences if the behavior continues) but it’s NOT WORKING.

    I don’t coddle my kid but I’m not a disciplinarian. I talk to him like a person, I narrate everything and try to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing. But he doesn’t respond. AND IT’S MAKING ME CRAZY.

    Are these techniques still supposed to work with “spirited” children?

    Good lord, I’m sorry for this rant. Any tips or links would be much appreciated.

    • Jennifer says:

      thanks so much for reading and writing in. as soon as i get a free moment, i will write you back! hang in there.


    • Jennifer says:

      Your son sounds like a very normal adventurous curious toddler.

      The very first thing I would do is REALLY limit the number of no’s. As you said. My kids are
      1) free to jump on mall of our sofas anytime they want.
      2) they can climb on any furniture anytime they way…except no feet on the tables we eat on.
      i’m an interior designer. my house looks pretty good but it’s all actually very kid friendly, inexpensive furniture. i don’t care what they do to it for the most part. no coloring on the furniture however.
      4) lock off the pantry.


      “You are interested in a lot of things. You are climbing on things that aren’t safe. It seems you are trying to get my attention. Is that right?”

      He NEEDS to feel that you understand him.


      “It’s very hard for you when mommy has work to do. Are you feeling left out? Do you want more attention?”

      Not that you’ll give it, but he needs to know that you know how he is feeling.

      Try to put yourself in his shoes…what is he feeling. how is he perceiving what is going on?

      Then develop solutions with him.

      Do you want to play next to me?

      So to recap. much fewer no’s. set up a safe play area. limit the off limit stuff in your house. if they aren’t good for him to touch and play with, put them in the garage until he’s older. and when he does do something you don’t want. OBSERVE. What is he feeling? What does he need? More Love? More attention? A sense of autonomy? EMPATHIZE.

      when you are more connected, he’ll be more coooperative.

      try that first. any questions???

      • Sayward says:

        Thank you for your reply!

        It’s tough though. I know that when you say “Your son sounds perfectly normal”, that you’re just trying to calm me or make me feel better. But it’s very frustrating to hear because, well, he’s not. I know what “normal adventurous curious toddler” looks like because I go to the playgroups and the story times. I see how the other kids are and how the mothers interact with them, and I promise you that my son is NOT on that wavelength and he is NOT “normal”. That’s not a qualitative statement – it’s not good or bad – it just is. It’s just *different*. His intensity is turned way up, all the time, unlike ANY of the other kids.

        I do try to do pretty much what you’ve laid out here (at least on my good days, haha), but what I’m wondering is, what comes after “Develop solutions with him”

        When the ONLY solution he sees is “Wanna go outside!”, what then? I can offer every toy/gadget/craft idea/help-me-task/etc in the house, but when he wants to go outside (for example), he just wants to go outside. And he will proceed to do so the second I set him down, over and over and over again. So what then?

        Maybe it’s a rhetorical question. I know it’s not your job to help me figure this out. I’m partially just venting here.

        I’m going to read your site start to finish and hopefully I’ll learn what I need to figure out a good way to work with, instead of against, this amazing and strong-willed kid. Thanks for all that you put into this site. I’m a blogger too, so I understand what it takes.


        • Jennifer says:

          I hear you! he’s got more energy than most!

          big question: how come he can’t go outside without you? do you have a back or side yard space he can play in that is safe?

          sounds like a kid with his amount of energy should be outside a lot, no?

          • Sayward says:

            I’ve been considering that the last few days. I just worry, he’s not even 25 months and although he’s super dextrous for his age, he still has more ambition than agility. He likes to climb and he gets himself into some super precarious positions (that was what my previous comments about the climbing were about – I ‘ve long since given up on cleanliness!)

            Maybe I’m being overly paranoid. Maybe I just need to loosen up. It’s totally possible. I just feel like he’s so young to be wandering around outside alone!

            Anyway, the going outside is just one example, just the latest phase. The same sort of situation happens in smaller instances a hundred times a day, and it’s the overarching issue that I need to figure out.

          • Jennifer says:

            I’d love for you to read these two posts.

            and this


            Then please let me know what you think!

            Looking forward to it.

          • Sayward says:

            Thanks for these, I read both links (the second was a re-read; it was one of the first articles I read here many months ago and it’s definitely in line with my philosophy)

            The funny hing is, I feel like I already am *that* mother. I let my son fall down (and he falls down a LOT, haha) and I never scoop him up, always hold back and let him pick himself up and evaluate. Ask “are you okay?” once he’s taken stock.

            I’m also the mom that drives other moms (and especially grandmas, ohmigod it freaks out grandmas!) crazy. I’ll be halfway across the room keeping one eye on my fellow as he climbs atop some structure, while everyone else in the room get’s more and more uncomfortable, and always one mother will jump up and stand a few inches from him, arms outstretched and trying to talk him down, looking across the room to shoot me that glare that says “This should be YOU standing here, MOM”

            I’m sure you know the scene. ;-)

            So I’m not opposed to risky play, at all. I understand the philosophy and I agree with it. But I do feel there’s a difference with unsupervised outdoor play (not talking about a back yard) at his age.

            Today I let him go outside and kept my ear tuned into his noises. I was able to get a lot of my kitchen work done and he came back to check in with me more frequently than I’d expected, so I’ll give you that. I still had to interrupt my work pretty often to peek out on him, but it seemed a good compromise.

            What I’m still stuck on is what to do in situations where the answer really is no. Like when he wanted to go back outside tonight after dinner, in the dark. Just . . . no. That one I’m just not comfortable with.

            Anyway, I shall keep reading! I’m learning a lot and loving it, so thank you. Are there any RIE-style meetup groups or get togethers or anything, not classes but one-off type deals, in LA? I’m in southern California right now and I would love to see a group of RIE families in action. =)

          • Jennifer says:

            Well now that we’re on a similar page i think i can help!

            “honey, you want to go outside. you love to play outside. it’s dark and now the outdoors is closed. you’re mad (or sad or whatever he is).


            those are VALID feelings to not getting what you want.

            Stay with him. Let him cycle through those feelings. Then he will stop (because it can’t go on forever.) And then he’ll be ready to move on.

            and if you are consistent, those feelings will be less and less big because he’ll learn that when you say the yard is closed, it is closed.

            there’s NOTHING wrong with him crying and being upset over it. it doesn’t mean you have to do anything differently. it is the state of the world, he feels upset and you as his caring mom empathize. you KNOW how hard it is not to do what you want to do.

            and then move on.


          • Sayward says:

            Sorry for the radio silence, we’ve been traveling and of course that’s been extra stressful for this little guy. But your advice – yes! Helpful. =)

            I’ve been trying to put all this stuff into practice, with some awesome success and some obvious failure and lots of testing and working. Just having a plan, a framework, feels great. I’m very hopeful.

            So thank you!

          • Jennifer says:

            thanks for letting me know. happy you feel u have a plan. meanwhile re: not playing outside in the dark. i think it would be helpful to explain to him why.

            “you love playing outside. it’s night time now and our bodies need rest. i know that’s hard” whatever u’re reason. i think it’s respectful to share with them why. after all, we don’t want our children to be blind followers.

  2. Sara says:

    I have stumbled upon this blog through a friend’s parenting blog (dulcedeleche). Thank you seems inadequate-I wish I’d know all of this sooner, that someone had kindly and generously said something to me sooner. Anyhow-this has been remarkably helpful, just in the last 2 days. And I have some hope with the whole statement that I can treat my children consistently better, more respectfully, for the next 5 months and it will legitimately help their brains. Thank God. Thanks for being so blunt about it all. It’s very helpful.

    • Jennifer says:

      Sara…well a big, hearty thank you to dulce deleche for generously sharing me. i’m glad you found me and my writing to be so helpful. it’s incredibly gratifying to know and of course i want the things that have helped me immensely to help others.

      i’m glad of course that you take my bluntness the “right” way as in your’re not offended by it. many are…but alas i think my writing would be dull and unreadable and not me if i wasn’t.

      let me know if u have any questions.


  3. Jennifer says:

    hey catherine….

    thx so much for the feedback. i’m glad you found that ‘ASK THE HOST’ bit of practical advice helpful.

    ideally kids are set up for the experience before they walk in the door as in “honey, in a couple of minutes we’re going to pull up at so and so’s house. i’m going to ask her if anything is off limits…i’ll let you know asap.”

    it really sets kids up to succeed.

    and really if a play has too many NO’S…i take them out of there. it’s not for them and they’re curious beings which i want to honor and i don’t want anyone mad at me or my kids for what they’ve touched.

  4. Catherine says:

    Read this, went to visit a friend with a new baby, remembered this and asked if it was ok for my son to be repacking all their lovingly laid stones before I told him no. Apparently it was no problem :) . Thanks again for excellent, practical, usable advice. Much appreciated!

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