A grandmother told an anecdote about herself as a young mother of a 3-year-old, waiting in the check-out line of a supermarket. Her son spotted a bag of potato chips he wanted his mother to buy. She responded with a lengthy explanation about why it was not a good idea, would spoil his appetite for lunch, was not healthy food, etc., when an irritated voice behind her said, “Your mother says NO!”

This made me think of a dog trainer from the Problem Puppy School who came to help with our misbehaving dog. I explained the dog did such things as opening the freezer door of the refrigerator and pulling out frozen meat to chew on, opening the door of the dryer in the laundry room and climbing inside and other similar examples. The trainer responded by telling me how smart the dog was, how amazing to have such initiative, and so on.

In my frustration, I identified with how parents must feel when they are seeking help for issues with their children and I respond by explaining about children’s need to explore, to experiment or their need for autonomy. At a moment of confrontation, when a child is defiant of our wishes, becoming an understanding parent is not the primary interest. The feeling involved leads to “NO!” Young children, who are not prone to reason, already know the power they have just saying no.

This, in turn, leads parents to feel the child’s defiance or disobedience has to be stopped immediately, and the only two possibilities are his way or my way. The feeling is if the child’s (mis)behavior does not take priority, the consequences will be unacceptable. Challenges to parental authority seem to call for an immediate response, and that response most often is to try to stop and/or correct the behavior rather than to try to address what is behind it. That sets the stage for a confrontation and power struggle.

Why do we think the heat of emotion makes for a teachable moment — when often what we’re feeling is, “it’s time to teach him a lesson,” which has a very different meaning? The idea of responding to what is behind the child’s behavior instead of trying to stop or correct it can mistakenly feel as though we are doing nothing about it.

Does that mean we’re supposed to let a child do whatever he wants? Of course not. But it does mean that if we understand where behavior is coming from, understanding can give us some better idea of how to respond. Trying to be the boss at a moment of conflict is most often not productive.

It would be so nice if our children just did what we wanted them to do because we said so. But it doesn’t work that way. As they grow and develop, our children begin to spread their wings and assert themselves. And let’s not forget in many ways, we want that to happen. They have to be able to fly off on their own one day!

The grandmother in the anecdote had used explanation, in effect asking the child to use reason to give up what he wants. Young children are not ready to use reason. Instead, what may help at times of conflict is to respect their attempts at self-assertion not by doing what they want or being boss, but by showing we know how hard it is not to get what you want.

To preserve the power of no, save it for a real emergency.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.