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.


{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomifrederickmd July 6, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I agree,,, Danger, dirty, here-chew on this instead, sidewalk please etc work so much better then ‘NO’

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Amber July 6, 2009 at 10:11 pm

I think it’s great that you’re taking a positive approach to discipline. I think that will pay off whether you find yourself using ‘no’ rather more than you would hope to or not.

I will admit that I have found myself using it rather more than I had hoped. I have a 4-year-old and I’ve tried using alternatives with her but the truth is the message is the same. When she wants something that she can’t have right away I might say, “Yes, you can have that later.” But she still realizes I mean no, and becomes upset. “I want it now!” So my efforts to avoid no haven’t always paid off.

And ‘no’ is a knee-jerk response that I have when my child is in danger. My mobile baby puts himself in danger several times an hour in some cases. I’ve personally found that in those situations it’s the tone of my voice that matters more than what I’m saying. And after I say ‘no’ over and over it becomes second nature.

But the point really is that you’re being thoughtful and positive in your approach to your child. As I said this is what will shine through in the long run. And I commend you for that. :)

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desiree fawn July 6, 2009 at 10:14 pm

Great post! I hope to follow a similar way — Gretchen is five months old and in a hair pulling phase, to which I simply say “gentle” til my face turns blue.
I don’t want her to think that “no” refers to touching her mother or trying to feel connected!

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Naomifrederickmd July 6, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Oh, I forgot ‘HOT’ which I apparently said so much my second born said it as his second word after mama, still much better then having your baby say ‘NO’ as it’s second word!

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Mama K July 7, 2009 at 6:55 am

I had similar intentions and it worked for the most part. Though now that we are nearing 3yo I do find that it slips out more often than before… out of my own exhaustion. Some toddlers are just so persistant. Like the previous post said, no matter how you say it, if you set boundries they are going to protest. It’s part of their development.

I too used other key words like “be gentle” “hot” “hurt baby” “stop” and things like that. Besides I figured if he was taught other words to use he wouldn’t be constantly be telling ME “no” once he hit the 2′s.
Like I said, it’s worked for the most part. :)

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Karen July 7, 2009 at 7:16 am

no is hard. I try not to use it, but I always give an explanation why. It doesn’t always work with a 2 year old, they still just hear the negative, even after a few attempts are redirecting. Last night we had over an hour long tantrum because I wouldn’t let my daughter have another cookie because she was taking bites and spitting the first one out on the floor. I try to figure out why I say no – is it because I really thinks it’s best for my daughter because it’s dangerous, or do I say no just because I don’t want to deal with it for my own reasons.

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Ashly July 7, 2009 at 7:48 am

How timely – I was just working on a VERY similar article for my blog. My husband had the same reaction as yours, but after I had the chance to explain he seemed to be on board. Now I just have to train him to play along :) He likes the theory, but actually putting it into action is a whole different story!

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krista July 8, 2009 at 5:35 pm

i use logical consequences. instead of saying “no standing” i a chair i say “please sit down, we sit on a chair”.

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Sara July 8, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I was smiling and laughing quietly when I read that you only had a baby and no toddler, just wait.. But I think your intentions and goals are perfect and right and I still try to do exactly what you have written here. I find that my worst moments are when I’m frazzled and trying to stand firm in a “no” battle I’m slowly losing. Those are the times that my mindful parenting has fallen wayside due to whatever distractions pile up on me throughout the day and those are the times I badly need to redirect myself away from the word no. Good article, your little sweet pea is a lucky one.

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Dr. Laura Markham July 8, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Kelley-
I’m so delighted to read your post. When I was in graduate school, one of my mentors told me that kids who heard the word No a lot don’t develop their full intellectual potential because they learn to think inside the box. And as you say, it can be a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t let us really consider the child’s perspective and offer understanding; it sort of severs the connection and emphasizes our power as the parents. And yet, of course, kids need limits.

When my kids were born, I worked hard to find ways to set limits that maintained connection, and avoiding the word No was an important part of that. I’m sure that isn’t the only reason my kids were so easy and cooperative (they’re now 14 and 18), but I’m quite sure it helped. Thanks for your insights.

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Lee July 8, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Thank you, Kelly! Your blog is well written and thoughtful. I too try to avoid the word “no”. However, I have a dog where “no” is useful and effective. I fear my darling boy’s first words will be “no, dog” despite our efforts otherwise.

I will add, though, I did hear a mother with a toddler use the phrase “that’s not a good idea” with her little one to set limits. I just like the way that sounds over “no…no…no..NO!” which is often over used.

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Jen July 8, 2009 at 8:13 pm

I’m not sure how well this is going to work. I think you may have the timing backwards. When my daughter was very young “no” was important, because it was easy to understand. As she got a little older she could understand when I explained why she shouldn’t do something. Trying to avoid “no” with an infant or toddler may cause far more frustration than it is worth. They need a large enough vocabulary to understand anything else. By the time they can understand they are more persistent, so “no” is good the second and third time they ask the same question. If you are repeating your reasoning over and over, because they don’t understand or don’t care about the reason, then the point is lost. Now that my daughter is older I try to use questions rather than negative statements “Why shouldn’t you have candy now?”, “Do we need that?”, “Could you get hurt doing that?” it makes her stop and think. I don’t think I every really used “no” for dangerous situations, it was always “STOP” or “HOT”. I do remember being soooo happy when she was old enough that I could reason with her and explain things. I didn’t have trouble with changing as she grew, it wasn’t a bad habit I had to break. I really enjoyed being able to explain things and have her understand.

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama May 7, 2010 at 6:52 am

Infancy/toddlerhood is *exactly* the time you don’t want to overuse the word “no.” If you use it all the time, it will lose its effectiveness. The very point is to save “no” for when it’s important. A litany of no’s in those formative months will just turn it into background noise.
My son is 29 months old and we have always tried to limit our no’s. The rewards have been great – when something is dangerous, I don’t have to shout or say “no” 10 times for him to listen to me – he knows that “no” means something.
Kelley – great article!

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Tonya July 8, 2009 at 9:26 pm

I stumbled on this blog by a friend’s facebook and thought “wow”… I am special education teacher and I practice using positive redirection rather than the word “no” or “don’t” and it is hard…but the rewards are infinite. Everyone becomes more willing and I feel like I am making a statement rather than demanding or yelling. I have only been teaching for 16 years but I hope I continue to keep going strong with positive redirection…:)

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Justine July 8, 2009 at 9:32 pm

I think it is great that you are thinking about this kind of thing when your baby is so small. I have tried to do this too, but like some of the others have said, it is sometimes hard! My oldest also knows when I have said “no” even though I have used other words. That is, she knows she isn’t getting what she wants, and reacts accordingly: meltdown. However, it is really helpful (I believe) to constantly check yourself about whether or not you are responding “no” without even thinking about it…often we do, and so this way, hopefully you are giving yourself a chance to really think about why you don’t want your child to do or have something – you might actually change your mind more often to “yes”!

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Karen July 8, 2009 at 11:50 pm

I agree in the the fact that if the word “no” is overused, children tend to not even hear it after a while, they become desensitized. I use diversion with much success. I always try to give my son something else to take his mind off whatever it is that he can’t have or do. I do use the word, like you state in an emergency situation. It works pretty well but boy during the stage of about 18 months to 2 or so he was trying my patience, thank goodness we are hitting 3 soon and can reason (for the most part). I think it’s fantastic to teach parents and caregivers and alternative to harsh words. I wish you much success.

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mandy July 8, 2009 at 11:51 pm

I’m a BIG FAN of NO to the Noooooo’s too. I find myself saying to my son as he pulls apart our unit, ‘are you helping mummy’…when I could easily just blurt out NO, NO NO. Funny thing is that my husband doesn’t quite understand to back off with the No’s, so when he looked after our 11 month old for 2 hours last week, my son picked up on the word. The next day my son was saying, ‘no, no, no’ out loud at the top of his voice all the time. It just makes you aware of how powerful our words are to our babies.

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Gail July 9, 2009 at 12:24 am

While I agree with the approach of not overusing the word ‘no’ – I don’t understand how someone who has no experience with children over the age of 6 months is given the platform to give advice about any aspect of raising children over the age of 6 months; really, if you don’t have the experience you are definitely not an expert, and if you’re not an expert what you have to say amounts to the musings of a novice, which do not warrant an article in a newsletter . . . and – yes – come back in 18 months and then tell us how good you are at avoiding the word ‘no’

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Jessica/ Green Mamma July 9, 2009 at 4:33 am

I too struggle with finding ways to descriptively explain why I do or do not want for my daughter to do something . . . as another commenter shared, sometimes I too am tired and at a loss for words, and “no” slips out. That said, I am finding that I am able to communicate with my daughter (to express my needs and to find out what her needs are) using Rosenburg’s NVC (non violent communication), though at times we do use “no” to set boundaries, especially for those situations dealing with her safety.

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Heidi July 9, 2009 at 7:43 am

I like the phrase “Yes, as soon as you…” in response to things that are acceptable, but not quite desireable yet. This way we teach responsibilities and have child designed incentive.

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amy July 9, 2009 at 6:19 pm

I think it’s good to have ideals. I also think it’s good to realize that what works at six months might not work later on. The most important thing is to be flexible in your beliefs and non-judgmental. In 2 1/2 years you may be that mama in the market saying “no” much more than you ever thought you would. As for “no” being reserved for danger… half the time my kids don’t even hear my words, but they recognize tone of voice. My 5yo isn’t going to stop running in a parking lot because I say “no.” He’s going to stop when I say his name in just the tone of voice that gets his attention. It’s probably a tone of voice that would make other mamas stare at me reprovingly,come to think of it, but I’d prefer that to him getting hit by a car.

I was pretty idealistic when my first was six months old, too. I look back at that time fondly.

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Stacy (mama-om) July 10, 2009 at 11:15 am

Thanks for this post — and to everyone who commented. I have tried to be aware about the effects of “no” and also try to be mindful about how often or how I use it. I have had a very intense (and ongoing) journey to find more respectful ways to parent ever since my child was born and feel very strongly about maintaining a healthy connection.

That said, when I’m stressed or overwhelmed, I often find myself saying no more than I’d like. I often wonder, when I see a parent such as you describe in the store, whether they are consciously choosing to parent in this way (i.e., they think that controlling children is the best way to discipline) or if they just aren’t aware of the effects of their discipline style on the child. Or maybe they know something isn’t working but they don’t know of any other way. Or, maybe that parent is like me, fundamentally dedicated to gentle and respectful parenting yet, due to their own unmet needs (stress, hunger, past pain, etc.), not always able to parent in the way they’d like to.

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justine July 10, 2009 at 12:59 pm

“Practice Makes Perfect” they always say. And it is so very true when it comes to eliminating knee-jerk responses from our parenting bag o’ tricks. Practicing while they are very young and while you have the time and patience to stop, think, and correct yourself before responding will make it easier (but certainly not effortless) when mobile little feet and sassy little attitudes threaten to make you lose your cool later on.

I always try to keep in mind that my children, no matter their age, are fully conscious human beings who deserve the same exact respect I would give to an adult. Our children deserve to hear explanations and be offered choices at every age level, just like we would provide to other adults. So often in our society people speak more politely, respectfully, and thoughtfully to strangers than they do to the children they are charged to love and care for! Remaining idealistic and constantly working to improve our communication and parenting skills is imperative to growing and learning. My kids range from 15 months all the way to 21 years, and although I have never been perfect about saying no, I still have not given up trying to do my best to stop saying it!

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crystal July 11, 2009 at 6:44 pm

great intentions – we use a similar philosophy with our 20 month old son and it works great! often, he will tell us what he CAN do in potential “no” situations (hug your friend rather than hit, pet the dog rather than hit, kiss mommy instead of hit – seems to be a theme here)

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mamapoekie May 7, 2010 at 4:23 am

/sticking fingers into electrical sockets while eating the cats’ food/ LOL, made me think of my dd

I only read this now, but I love it, it is something we try to practise, but it can be hard, especially with an adventurous two year old. Anyhow, shared on my fanpage and putting it on Sunday Surf

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Sherri May 7, 2010 at 5:22 am

While I realize my kids are significantly older then a 28 month old. I must admit I have no problem with the word no. But I don’t have to many things that I use it for just things that they can’t do and there are a few of them for instance… “Mom can I play Mario Kart Wii?” (At 8 am before breakfast.) “No, you have to wait until the sun goes down you know the rules Ash.” and he usually says “I know, I just thought I’d ask.” LOL

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