How I learned to disagree with my kids effectively — and respectfully

An improv comedy staple can have surprisingly great results for parents.

It’s a dilemma as old as parenting: How to get our kids to do what we want them to do, even when they really, really want to do the opposite.

Obviously, the word “no” seems to be the clear winner; it gets straight to the point in two letters. But if your kids are like mine, the effect starts to wear off once they hit toddlerhood. The same goes with “stop.” After that, you may try to express understanding of your child’s point of view by saying, “I understand,” or “I hear you,” or more succinctly, “Yes, but…” That approach worked for me for a while, but then plateaued once my kids realized it was yet another speedy means of ending the discussion in my favor.

Enter “yes and.” These two simple words, when combined, pack a one-two punch of honoring my kids’ desires and feelings while also opening the door to a collaborative solution or at least to a richer dialogue about why I can’t or won’t agree to their demands. They might not win, but they also don’t feel like they lost.

The “yes and” combination originated in improv theater, as an exercise in which two performers create an increasingly elaborate scenario by making alternating statements that begin with, “Yes, and…” (For example, Performer A says, “It’s time to go to work,” and Performer B replies, “Yes, and we need to bury that body on our way.” And so on.)

More recently, “yes and” has found favor among therapists, who see it as a way of validating what a client says and then expanding on it or gently redirecting in a way that doesn’t provoke defensiveness or shut the conversation down. Similarly, for a client struggling with a problem or negative thinking, the “yes” can serve as recognition of what they are feeling or experiencing, while the “and” can lead to a decision about how to manage or address it. “‘Yes, and’ says, essentially: Yes, this is the reality, and given this, here are some further thoughts,” psychologist Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., wrote in a 2018 article about the phrase in Psychology Today.

After hearing about these potential applications of “yes and” in a counseling setting, I figured trying to produce a similar result at home with my kids was worth a shot. (I often feel like an unpaid therapist anyway.) I waited for the next time one of them wanted to do, eat or buy something I was opposed to, and trust me, I wasn’t waiting long.

My first-grader decided it was time to make her birthday wish list — three months early — and loaded it up with pricey items that didn’t promise much return on investment. I suggested we wait until closer to the date before settling on her presents, but she was undeterred, and the requests began to sound more like whiny demands. So I tried my new trick: “Yes, all of those sound fun,” I agreed, “and if you still want them a few weeks before your birthday, we can add one or two of them to your list.”

Silence. And then she agreed and ran off to do something else. It was remarkably painless. Since that experiment with “yes and,” there have been many more, some not nearly as neat and tidy, but all noticeably more effective than my earlier go-to phrases. It turns out, my kids often care more about being heard and acknowledged than they care about the activity or item in question.

There are times when it’s not necessary to approach my kids’ behavior in such a strategic way, of course — anything imminently dangerous, overtly rude, or harmful to others is a hard, fast “no.” But for the debates, arguments, and spirited dialogues that occur on a near-daily basis with at least one of them, it’s encouraging to feel like I have a tool to get my point across without invalidating theirs.

Freelance writer, mom of 3, fitness instructor and grad student in clinical psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. Celebrity gossip consumer.

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