You’re Teaching Your Child to Obey…But Are You Teaching Them This Equally Important Skill?

You already know the importance of teaching your children to obey you. But have you ever thought about how teaching your children to say “no” is equally important, too?

Being assertive—expressing desires or thoughts politely yet firmly—is a vital skill for any child to learn. It helps them get things they want and avoid things they don’t want. And that’s something that will keep them safe and healthy as they grow up.

Why Teaching Refusal Is Important

Adobe Stock/Eléonore H
Adobe Stock/Eléonore H

Learning compliance is often a huge part of life for many kids on the spectrum. Some badly executed therapies will emphasize compliance to a problematic, even harmful degree, in which children are completely stripped of their autonomy and essentially forced to do things, even if it makes them extremely upset or uncomfortable.

(A quick note: hopefully compliance of this sort does not characterize the kind of therapy your child gets, but if it does, I highly encourage you to read this article. Every child on the spectrum, regardless of how severely affected they are, deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.)

Being rewarded for compliance (even that which is forced) does not help this. As Max Sparrow wrote in a powerful essay titled “No You Don’t,”

“Children like yours—children like I was—are taught to be compliant….They become hungry for those words of praise, those ‘good girls,’ the M&Ms or stickers or other tokens you use to reward them. They learn quickly that when they do what you want them to do, they are a ‘good girl’ and when they try to do what they want, they are a ‘bad girl.'”

However, not everything people want them to do is in their best interest, and that’s where learning to comply no matter what can become extremely dangerous. If they’re constantly, consistently taught that they are not allowed to refuse anything, what will stop them from complying to the wishes of an abuser? Especially considering their increased risk to abuse in the first place. Teaching unwavering compliance can take away a child’s autonomy and can, worst case scenario, open the doors for them to be abused because they won’t recognize they can refuse or say no, even when they are afraid, uncomfortable, or in pain.

Adobe Stock/bramgino
Adobe Stock/bramgino

Even if potential abuse were not a factor, it’s still important to teach a child assertiveness and give them freedom to say “no.” Think of the all-too-common people-pleaser who ends up burned out and exhausted because they can’t or don’t know how to tell anyone “no.” Teaching your child—whether neurotypical or autistic—to stand up for themselves and self-advocate is key to developing healthy boundaries, and thus key to living an emotionally, relationally, and mentally healthy and happy life.

How to Teach Assertiveness

There are several different ways you can help a child assert him/herself.

1. Teach different communication styles and emphasize importance of assertive communication.

There are other, less healthy styles of communication in addition to that which is assertive, including passive and aggressive (and even a combination of those two: passive aggressive). Teach your child the difference between these communication styles and emphasize the importance of assertive communication. You can learn more about how to teach and practice this concept with this fantastic resource.

2. Make sure nonverbal children have ways to say no or indicate refusal.

Obviously, a child can’t refuse something or say “no” unless they have a way to do so. Make sure they are able to communicate refusal through some form of AAC.

Adobe Stock/Mikkel Bigandt
Adobe Stock/Mikkel Bigandt

3. Model, practice, and reinforce refusal.

As your child is first learning about self-assertion, model refusal. For example, if they’re reluctant to do something small and nonessential, say something along the lines of “No, I don’t want to do that.” Practice refusal of small things (for example, ask them to eat something they hate and let them respond to you). And when they refuse, reinforce that behavior.

4. Even if the child must comply with something they don’t want to do, recognize refusal and give them options, if possible.

Of course, it’s not possible to accept a child’s refusal in every situation. Homework needs to be done, chores need to be completed, and school needs to be attended. In cases like this, acknowledge their feelings and, if possible, give them a choice. For example: “I know you don’t want to do your homework, but you need to. Do you want to do your reading or your math first?”

Children, especially those with special needs, often do not have much say in their lives. There are all sorts of obligations and “have-to”s, and the degree to which they can make their own choices is relatively limited. So teaching a child to be assertive and refuse or say “no” in situations where it’s safe to do so can make a difference.

We want to raise obedient children, yes…but we also want to raise assertive children who can keep themselves healthy and safe. And letting them say “no” to the little things is an important way to help them reach that goal.

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