No “No”

by Kelley on July 6, 2009

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While I was doing my grocery shopping the other day with Sweet Pea snuggled on my chest in the wrap, I passed another momma with a child who was probably about three.  When we first crossed paths, she was telling him, “No, you can’t have cookies.”  When he pushed the issue, she said, “There’s cookies at home!”  Our families ran into each other (once literally, since my cart had a broken wheel) about four times over the next hour as we stocked up on yummy things to eat.  Three out of those four times, she was telling her son “no” about something.

My intention isn’t to criticize her parenting, or the use of the word “no” in general.  She was using it to set boundaries, some of which were specifically to keep her son safe (“No, you can’t ride on the side of the cart.”).  It did reinforce for me, though, how important I think it is to not overuse the word “no.”

See, I’m an avid reader, and right now there’s lots for me to read about parenting and particularly about discipline.  Before Sweet Pea was even born, we’d made the decision that hands are not for hitting and we would not be spanking our children.  I’m sure that it came out of left field for my husband when, one day, I announced that I didn’t want to use the word “no” in our everyday parenting, either.  DH seemed rather shocked; no doubt he was picturing the wildest kind of child imaginable, sticking fingers into electrical sockets while eating the cats’ food, totally without any guidance from his parents about the intelligence of those choices.  Seeing his look of panic, I explained that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to establish boundaries for our children; I just didn’t want to use the word “no” as our prime tool for doing it.

My original reason for wanting to avoid using “no” was safety. I would like “no” to remain somewhat startling and definitely out of our normal vocabulary.  To me, it follows that when we’re in situations that are also not normal (for example, if he takes off running towards a busy street), “no” is alarming enough to cause a reaction.  I don’t want it to become easy to ignore through repetition, because if his current leg strength is any indicator, he’s going to be a really fast runner.

Upon further thinking, though, what I really like about not using “no” is the way that it makes us think about what we’re saying.  Looking back at various childcare situations, such as when I worked at an AP-style daycare, I see myself responding with “no” for no good reason sometimes.  Saying “no” without qualifying it much became automatic, almost like saying “bless you” after a sneeze.  I’m not saying that I responded with it out of meanness or as a power high, but that I often wouldn’t consider a child’s request carefully before responding.  Saying “no” often was easier.  Knowing that I am actively working to override this instinct feels really good.  I feel confident now that as Sweet Pea grows older, his requests and opinion will be considered carefully, instead of responded to with a knee-jerk “no.”

At the moment, since he is six months old, not using “no” and focusing on positive redirection instead has been easy.  It just feels right to respond to a fistful of cat fur not with “don’t grab the kitty,” but rather saying “here’s how we stroke the kitty,” then holding hands and showing him.  I like responding to his disappointment when the kitty leaves, which he vocalizes with some truly Nazgul-esque shrieks, by giving him a soft stuffed animal to stroke and listening to the shrieks turn to giggles and coos.  Considering what he can do in a situation, rather than what I’d like him to stop doing, helps me to value these interactions as teaching experiences.  After all, the origin of our word “discipline” is the Latin word disciplina (teaching).

I know that the more experienced Mommas out there are smiling knowingly and shaking their heads.  I’ve had people tell me, “Just wait until he hits two…” in a dark tone.  DH and I aren’t perfect, and I’m sure that quite a few “no’s” will slip their way into our parenting vocabulary, just like the plastic toys that I swore up and down would have no place in our nursery while I was pregnant which are now sitting on Sweet Pea’s bookshelf.  My fervent hope, though, is that the “no’s” that do happen will be outweighed by the ones that don’t.  I hope that we will be able to consider our answer 9.5 times out of 10, rather than giving a knee-jerk response, and give our son a richer childhood because of our consideration.  I trust that knowing I considered his feelings will be enough in fifty years, when I ask myself if I regret the way we approached discipline, to make my answer “no.”

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Kelley (5 Posts)

Kelley lives joyously with her Sweet Pea and husband in northern Pennsylvania after surviving preeclampsia and sixty-seven days in a NICU. She hopes to one day be living totally sustainably and cruelty-free while teaching yoga somewhere warm. She loves nursing her baby, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, being an Obamamama, and rocking totally impractical shoes. Her infrequent blogs about life after a NICU are posted at www.petergwydion.com.


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