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How to Respond Positively When Your Kid Refuses


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It’s frustrating when a kid refuses to do something, but Heather has learned four vital questions to ask herself to get to the root of what’s going on when her kids refuse.

Written by Heather Pleier of Wonderschooling.

I signed my oldest son (who is 9) up for a science club I thought he’d enjoy. But, when I told him about it, he said, “No, I don’t want to.”

Now, before you judge us as permissive parents, we’re pretty consistent with our rules and expectations. We’re not perfect, but we know the importance of following through once we’ve told our kids to do something.

How to Respond Positively When Your Kid Refuses

The reality, however, is that our kids are growing and learning. And, it seems that “NO!” is one of the first words they learn. They use the word because it gives them power and autonomy. They also use it – and this is huge – because they often don’t have the words to express themselves.

To understand what’s really going on, there are four questions you need to ask when your kid refuses. 

  • Is it important?
  • Is my child ready?
  • Does my child have a valid concern?
  • Is there another way to work on this skill?

Is it important?

In homeschooling or life in general, some things are important. Essential. Non-negotiable. Stuff like not running into traffic, treating others with respect, core curriculum expectations. These need to get done. There are other things we’ve given our children a voice in, though.

Does my son need to participate in this particular library program? Probably not.

What if my daughter says she wants to go home when we were planning on stopping at the store but don’t really need anything?

We can respect our children’s voices and preferences on things that are less important. If he knows how to do the math problems, does he need to do the whole page, or can he just do half?

By picking our battles, we choose to insist on the crucial things and giving our kids a voice in the negotiables.

Is my child ready?

One of the biggest reasons our kids refuse is because they aren’t ready for what we’re asking of them. This lack of readiness can come in two different forms:

1. My child doesn’t understand the expectations. The situation is new, unfamiliar, and scary, and he is resistant to what he doesn’t know. This situation is usually pretty easy to fix. Before we go somewhere new, we find pictures on the internet or talk about what to expect.

We used this approach when my son participated in his first Geography Bee. When I brought up the idea, he told me he wasn’t interested. Instead of demanding, we talked together about his interests and how they fit with this activity. We discussed expectations and left it at that. A couple of days later, I brought it up again, and he was ready to say yes.

2. My child isn’t developmentally ready. So often, we put unnecessary expectations on our kids. Whether it’s potty training, shoe-tying, letter-writing, separation, or algebra, when we push our kids before they’re ready, they will resist. Lack of developmental readiness is hard. That’s especially true for kids who are at a chronological age when others expect mastery of those behaviors or abilities. But it damages our relationship with our kids and their trust in us when we push when they just need more time.

Does my child have a valid concern?

Sometimes, our kids have real reasons for saying no. Sometimes, they’re starting to feel not-so-great. If they don’t know how to express themselves yet or what they’re feeling, they may just say “no.”

This scenario happened with my oldest last summer. We had a beautiful beach day planned. He started refusing to walk across the rocks when we got there (a common issue), but I insisted. An hour later, he was sleeping on the blanket with a fever. I felt terrible.

kids at beach

Sometimes our kids don’t have the language to express what’s going on internally. They say “no” because it’s the only language they have. Our job as parents is to help them develop that language, so we’re not stuck in the “no” phase but instead can have a respectful dialogue about what’s going on.

Our kids may refuse to participate in groups because of valid concerns with adults or other kids involved in the activities. It may be bullying, inappropriate touch, or unrealistic expectations. We can prevent a world of harm by stopping, questioning, and listening when our kids refuse instead of assuming it’s just defiance.

Is there another way to work on this skill?

This question has been significant for me this year.  When my 5-year-old was having trouble with pencil grip, and getting upset when I corrected her,  we changed things up. We started doing activities with Q-tips (like paint with water), pipettes, and tweezers that encouraged her to build up those muscles and correctly align her hand. The pencil grip followed naturally after a few months of this specific muscle training.

When my girls started piano lessons this fall, I intended that my son would start too. However, he wasn’t interested, and I wasn’t about to spend good money fighting with him every week. So we agreed that he would work on a typing program that practiced a similar skill – the single finger isolation and movement – while the girls took their lessons.

That was a compromise I was willing to make. And my son comes home and practices piano on his own because he doesn’t feel the pressure of lessons.

How to Respond Positively When Your Kid Refuses

Ultimately, we want healthy relationships with our kids, where they listen to us and cooperate but also feel heard and respected.

The science club my son refused? We talked about it. I told him who else would be there, calmed a couple of concerns he had, and his attitude changed. He’s ready to try, and our relationship is stronger.

What are your best tips for dealing with a reluctant child?

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Author profile

Heather Pleier is a 2nd generation homeschooler raising three curious, creative, out-of-the-box kids on Long Island. They are eclectic game/interest-led/unschooly homeschoolers who dive deep into various interests and celebrate the freedom that homeschooling brings. Her passions include great children’s literature, dark chocolate, exploration, and music.  She writes at wonderschooling.net about preserving childhood wonder and curiosity.

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One Comment

  1. Wonderful suggestions for dealing with a reluctant child! My 10-year-old son is just such a child, and I have used many of the suggestions you made when helping him overcome his anxiety and try new things. Thank you so much for sharing this, Heather!

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