The Failed Art of “The Soft No”

After witnessing me argue with one of my kids, my dad offered the following advice: “Jace, if you’re going to eventually say ‘yes’, just say it right away. Don’t say ‘no’ a bunch of times in between.” That seemed reasonable. Why fight with your kids over something that’s ultimately not that important? I can either say yes to bringing a dozen acorns into the bath now, or I can say no 17 times with increasing conviction, wait until he cries, and then say “OK, fine, take your ridiculous hippy bath. I don’t care.” Kids simply don’t give up, and I don’t have the energy, stamina, patience, confidence, or commitment to be firm about an 8pm acorn soak. So why not say yes right away? Because then I would end up approving every request that wasn’t life threatening, and my children would grow into the kind of people who think it’s OK to put fruit on pizza (sorry, Lindsay).

What if I only kind of don’t want my kids to do something? I’m not going to say “No! Final answer,” walk out of the room, put on noise canceling headphones and ignore them. I’ll attempt a “no” and see how it flies — the “soft no.” That’s what I was doing anyway, and I figured it was best to be honest with myself and give my technique a formal name, and therefore legitimacy. This way, I could say to my wife, “Wait, I got this. I’m testing the waters of resistance with a soft no.” and she could roll her eyes and leave the room. Sitcom perfection.

“Can I put orange juice in my cereal?”

“No, that’s gross.”



See how easy that was? No fuss, no tears. He wanted a new bowl of cereal after tasting his concoction, but I’d rather waste food than the limited amount of precious energy I have left in my brain.

At first, I was very happy with the results. Sometimes, everything went very smoothly:

“Can I touch that HUGE slimy mushroom I found over by the sandbox?.”



If pressed, I would have eventually relented to that request, but I didn’t want to get out of the hammock to supervise his mushroom touching. Had I followed my Dad’s advice, I would have been on my knees in the mulch watching my kid pet a fungus.

Unfortunately, as you might imagine, the kids learned very quickly that if they persevered just a little, the soft no would poof into a magical “sure, go ahead.” At the same time, I’d lost my feel for the “soft no”, and started doing a “dismissive no” which is perhaps the worst kind of response because it invalidates the desire of the request. My word meant absolutely nothing anymore. A “no” from me was the equivalent of The Magic 8-Ball’s, “Ask again later.”

So I decided to take a different piece of advice from my dad. When he was President of a University (he’s since gone back to teaching), he told me that his philosophy was to “try to find a way to say yes.” Since parenting is really a management job, I figure this should work for me too. All I had to do was set the proper conditions.

“Daddy, can I put orange juice in my cereal?”

“Yes, but then you have to eat it, and if you don’t I get to pour it over your head.”

“Can I touch that mushroom?”

“Sure, but then you have to sniff it, and if you don’t I get to put it under your pillow.”

“Eww, Gross!” 

Hug, laugh ,hug, laugh, bliss, smiles, etc.

I guess it works wonderfully until he calls my bluff, right? Try if for yourselves and let me know how it goes.

Remember: AFAWTSY (always find a way to say yes). Tip: Don’t try to pronounce the acronym.

I'm a contributing writer to Parents Magazine, GQ, Psychology Today and some others. My book, "This is Ridiculous. This is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists" is available here Look for two more books in 2015: "Must. Push. Buttons (Bloomsbury Kids), and an as-of-yet untitled memoir I’ve appeared on Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham” and “Nick Mom’s Night Out." I live in New Jersey with my wife and two sons and enjoy making them laugh more than anyone else.

8 comments On The Failed Art of “The Soft No”

  • I am enjoying and relating to everything you write (as are all parents who’ve been fortunate to find you!) Alas, Mother’s Guilt has turned me into the failed Soft No Queen. Of course my husband calls it Pushover. I like your description better.

    You have found your calling, Jason Good..and the best part, as a parent, you will never run out of material!

    My two are 8 and 10..a bit beyond the toddler years..but no matter, I’m still buying your books. For me to enjoy and in the hopes my hubby will lighten up.

    An 8-year old boy is not so different from a toddler. He may not ask if he can touch the mushroom, but you can be sure that it has been touched, picked at and quite possibly in the house somewhere..for a “scientific experiment” he will ask my permission to do!

  • I love it! But my 7 year old asks the most random bizarro questions these days, just because it’s silly.

  • Love it!! My dad used to say I talked to much to my kids meaning I should stop explaining and tell them just to do something. Easier said than done for sure! Looking forward to reading your book.

  • As a huge culprit of the soft no, I am totally going to try this. The soft no is not working, so maybe AFAWTSY will. Plus, it’s fun to say. FYI, one of my friends always tells his kids “If you need an answer right now, it’s NO. So quit bugging me.”

  • Pingback: Are you a “yes” parent? « PAC Kids Rock ()

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