The dreaded word has been spoken. You asked your child to do
something reasonable, like put on sunscreen on a hot, sunny day.
Wash his hands before a meal. Put his shoes on so you can get out
of the house. Pick up the toys he left scattered in the living
room. Brush his teeth before going to bed. Go to bed.
Yet your child—at a year, two, three, four or older—has a
mind of his own. You love that mind of his, his growing
independence and assertiveness, his desire to decide what he wants
to do and when. But you wish he would be reasonable! You wish he
would do, without so much fuss, what you want him to do.
Negotiating the gap between what we want and what our children
want can strain our patience and skill level to their limit.
Parenting books attest to this, as one after another focuses on
how to get our children to do what we want them to do—whether
through "effective discipline," rewards, punishments, or
(NVC) offers a perspective and skills that take the dialogue
approach further and deeper than any other process I've
encountered. The premise underlying NVC is that all human actions
are attempts to meet our human needs, and that understanding and
empathizing with these needs creates trust, connection, and more
broadly—peace. This premise is translated into a very concrete
and practical set of tools for communication that increases our
ability to recognize and empathize with our own and others'
feelings and needs. When used consistently (or even
occasionally!), NVC can create deep connection, trust and
cooperation among family members of all ages.
An NVC Dialogue
Recently, a parent asked me about a struggle very familiar to
most parents of toddlers and young preschoolers. Wanting to know
how she might deal with a "no" from her 2-year-old
without resorting to force, she described the following situation:
"Sometimes my daughter refuses to get into the car seat,
in which case we 'force' her in. This issue involves protecting my
child from harm. But it could be argued that we could simply
choose to wait and not go anywhere in the car until we can talk
her into getting in herself. However, like most people, we are
always rushing around, and waiting is very rarely a practical
An NVC dialogue may or may not help the parent solve this
problem quickly, but it will certainly support her in having the
quality of relationship she wants to have with her child. If she
chooses to take the time to connect with her child (which
sometimes does move things more quickly) the dialogue might look
something like this:
Parent: Hey, it's time to leave to go to Grandpa's.
Child: NO! NO! NO!
Parent: Are you enjoying what you're doing and want to continue
doing it? (Instead of hearing the "no," the parent hears
what the child is saying "yes" to by guessing her
feelings—pleasure, and her needs—play and choice.)
Child: YES! I want to keep gardening!
Parent: You're really having fun gardening?
Parent: I'm enjoying seeing how fun it is for you. I'm worried
because I like getting to places when I say I will. (Instead of
coming back with her own "no," the parent expresses her
feelings and her need for responsibility.)
If we want to get to Grandpa's when I told him we'll be there,
this is the time to leave. So would you be willing to get into the
car seat now? (Mom ends with a request that lets her daughter know
what Mom would like at this moment that may help Mom meet her
Child: NO! I want to garden now!
Parent: I'm confused about what to do. I like when you do
things you enjoy, and I also want to do what I said I was going to
do. (Mom is showing her daughter that she cares about meeting both
Would you be willing to go into the car seat in 5 minutes so we
could get there soon? (Mom offers a strategy that might meet both
their needs, again in the form of a request.)
Or maybe it wasn't that easy. . .
Child: NO!!! I don't want to go! I want to stay home!
Parent: Are you VERY frustrated now? YOU want to choose what
YOU are going to do? (Mom connects with her daughter by showing
her understanding and acceptance of her daughter's intense
emotions and need for autonomy.)
Child: Yes! I want to garden!
Parent: I see. I'm feeling sad because I want to make plans
that work for everyone. Would you be willing to think with me
about some ideas of what to do that would work for both of us
right now? (Again, Mom expresses her care for meeting both their
needs and comes up with a new strategy that might also meet her
daughter's needs for choice and autonomy.)
Depending on the child's age, ideas for strategies to meet
everyone's needs might come from the parent with feedback from the
child, or from both people. My son started coming up with
strategies to meet all of our needs before his third birthday,
often innovative and workable ones we had not considered.
Even if the child still says "no" at this stage, NVC
continues to offer options for dialogue that deepen connection.
With repeated experiences that give the child confidence that
adults respect his needs as well as their own, he will steadily
develop greater capacity for considering others' needs and acting
to meet them.
meeting needs as the basis of strategies.
In using NVC, we focus on how to meet all of our needs,
sometimes postponing decisions until we have made a connection
with each other that will be the basis for a solution. Having
connected, the parent and child working on the car seat situation
might come up with a variety of strategies, depending on which
needs are most alive for them. The parent might realize that she
could meet her need for responsibility by calling Grandpa and
making the date an hour later. She might choose to meet her need
for consideration by expressing her feeling and needs more
passionately and seeking understanding from her daughter. Or she
might connect with her needs for harmony and ease and choose to
change the plans. If the plans are changed out of a clear choice
to meet needs, this is quite different from "giving in"
to the child's "whims."
Connecting with the child's needs might yield other strategies.
The child might have a passionate need for play, which might be
met by coming up with a plan for what she'll do when they get to
Grandpa's. She might have a powerful need for autonomy, which
might be met by leaving it up to her to decide when she's ready.
She also has a need for contributing to other's lives. If the
parent finds a way to express her own feelings and needs and make
clear requests to her daughter, she might help her daughter
connect with her intrinsic need to contribute to others so that it
becomes the child's choice to get into the car seat rather than a
"power struggle" which she lost.
In any case, when the parent persists with honestly expressing
her feelings and needs and empathizing with her daughter's
feelings and needs, mother and daughter will build the skills they
need to find strategies that work for them throughout their lives.
What difference does hearing "yes" make?
When our children say "no" and we hear
"no," we are left with two often unsatisfying options:
Either we accommodate their "no" or we override it. When
we choose to transform our children's "no" into an
understanding of the "yes" behind it, we gain deeper
insight into what motivates our children's actions: needs that are
shared by all human beings.
Understanding our children more deeply, we usually feel more
connected to them and they to us. People who are connected have a
greater capacity to think creatively about strategies to meet
their needs, extend their goodwill toward one another, and
exercise more patience and tolerance when their needs are not met
in the moment. In my family, this does not mean that we always
solve everything easily. But it does mean that we nearly always
nurture our connection through these dialogues, and that we trust
one another deeply with our feelings and needs. This is the
quality of relationship that I want with both my child and my
Changing our responses to our children's "no" means,
in part, letting go of the power we have over our children by
relinquishing (or at least reducing) our own "no" to
them. It means being willing to let go of our attachment to our
strategies based on understanding our own and our children's
needs. It means focusing on the nature of the relationship we want
to have with our children, what we want to teach them, and what
kind of world we want to prepare them for.
Yet using NVC does not mean giving up on meeting our needs! Our
deep human needs matter, and we have powerful tools with which to
meet them: expressing our feelings and needs passionately, and
learning to identify what it is we would like that would meet our
needs without an attending cost for our children. Without blaming,
shaming, or demanding acquiescence, we can meet our needs by
connecting with ourselves and our children.
There is a risk to making requests of our children instead of
demands or ultimatums: They just might say "no," and we
might think that we have to accept it. Of course, we haven't lost
much, because children often say "no" even to our
demands! How delightful, then, to discover that by hearing the
"yes," we gain freedom to not take "no" for an
answer. We can use a "no" (from our children, our
partners, ourselves) as the beginning of a rich dialogue that can
bring all of us closer and move us in the direction of meeting all
of our needs.