Reframing the Yes Environment

by Kelly Bartlett on August 18, 2011

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Many moms and dads have heard of the “Yes” environment before; it’s popular advice for parents of babies and toddlers.  When infants become mobile, we are advised to create an environment for them that is free of “No”s.  We baby proof everything; put small and dangerous objects out of reach, cover up safety hazards, lock the cabinets, install gates, secure furniture to the wall, pad the sharp edges of tables and fireplace mantles, and put any and all valuables and destructive items safely away.  We look for every opportunity to say “No,” to tell our babies that they need to stay away from something or to put something down, and we turn those “No”s into “Yes”es.  This is a Yes Environment.

It is fantastic for our homes, but what about when we’re other places?  We can take the principles of the Yes Environment and apply them to other situations.  Here’s another perspective:

One mom’s 2-year-old son repeatedly throws his toy car on the ground as he rides in the cart at the grocery store, not because he is angry or upset, but simply because he thinks it is great fun.  This mom says, “If I take it away because I need to grocery shop, isn’t that a punishment?”

What she is doing by holding onto the car is creating a yes environment while she shops.   That is the best thing she can do to help her son succeed in not throwing his car.

When she is getting annoyed at constantly stopping to get the car (which is very valid), she can simply pick it up and put it in her bag without a word.  If the toddler notices that she doesn’t give it back to him and he asks about it, she can tell him, “The car keeps falling down, so I’m going to hold it for now.”  She’s not blaming or shaming him by telling him it’s his own fault he doesn’t have the car, or that “this is what happens when you act this way.” Just solving a temporary problem to get the shopping done smoothly.

Creating a yes environment is about setting a child up for success; about removing obstacles to success.  In accompanying his mom through the grocery store, the obstacle to the little boy’s success is the entire combination of: the toy, his age, the setting, his need to experience things (here, the emotional, cognitive, and physical experience of repeatedly throwing the car down), and his complete lack of impulse control. By removing the car from that combination of factors, it’s not that she is “taking the car away”, so much as “eliminating an obstacle.”  She is creating the opportunity for him to be successful.  It’s a yes environment in the grocery cart.

Understanding this principle allows parents to use the yes environment tool in a variety of situations for kids of all ages.   Removing obstacles to success is more effective than expecting children to navigate around obstacles when they are not developmentally capable of doing so.

A mom dashes to meet her preschooler and hold his hand as he nears the street…she’s created a yes environment. (The obstacle is the lack of safe guidance in the street.  He is not capable of making thoughtful decisions about going in the street.)

A teacher rearranges her seating chart to separate talkative students…it’s a yes environment. (The obstacle is the distraction of fun, chatty friends nearby.  They are not capable of controlling their impulse to talk to their friends.)

A dad clears the floor as his daughter launches into a sommersault…yes environment. (The obstacles are, well…the obstacles that are literally in her way.  She’s not capable of maneuvering her body around them.)

A yes environment is a fantastic positive parenting tool at any age because it is proactive.  It tells children, “I’m going to help you be successful with this.”

Today, let’s look for more ways to create yes environments for our kids.  Even if they may not be toddlers anymore and we don’t need to baby proof their physical environment, we can still  remove obstacles to their success.   We can look for ways to turn “No”s into “Yes”es.  We can help our kids be successful until they’re capable of doing it on their own.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

agnes August 18, 2011 at 10:43 am

Ok for the yes environment but I read something I don’t really get. ‘don’t blame or shame the child’. Why not? why shouldn’t we learn that certain attitudes are not acceptable, why should we not experience shame and guilt – aren’t they the basis for responsability? Don’t we live in an area where we are so keen to blame others for problems as we find it so hard to admit our own responsability? I think it is good a child learns that their acts entail consequences for other people too. I guess I am missing a point somehow, so please enlighten me.

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Shari August 18, 2011 at 8:55 pm

That’s a great point, Agnes. But I think that we can teach them what’s acceptable without blaming or shaming them. For me, it’s about the tone of voice and the words I choose. I don’t know if I’m always successful in preventing blame or shame, but I try. :-)

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Emily August 19, 2011 at 10:14 am

I grew up in a “yes” environment and all it taught me was that there aren’t consequences and that everything should have a happy ending which is VERY far from reality. I think this all sounds good, but it’s setting kids up for the real world.

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Emily August 19, 2011 at 10:17 am

oops! I meant to say “not” setting kids up for the real world.

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Laura August 19, 2011 at 11:13 am

I understand this idea, but in my world, the next scenario after removing the said ‘obstacle’ from success is that the child promptly begins crying or throwing a tantrum over having the toy taken away! Do they understand why Mom holding onto the toy is necessary? Do they care? :)

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Becky August 19, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I also noticed the part about telling the child “the car keeps falling down”…why would you not tell the child you’re taking it because they keep throwing it? I realize that’s kind of diffusing the battle that may ensue, but they should learn that their actions are disrupting the shopping trip.

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Amber August 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I agree with Agnes and Emily and I totally understand your effort to teach children in a positive manor but I wonder if a child really can tell the difference between “Mommy’s eliminating an obstacle for me because i can’t control my urges” and “Mommy took away my fun”. I feel that my kid is just going to cry at that point and it won’t help the shopping to go more smoothly. In the end, actions are louder than words and the “yes” environment is no different than the “no” one.

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Growing and Birthing Healthy Babies August 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm

The intention in this article is good; it appears that Kelly is getting at helping our children feel accomplished and not unnecessarily punished or shamed. Having “Yes” environments can certainly be an important tool for nurturing your child’s confidence. However, these examples of extending the “Yes” environment outside the home are problematic.

Throwing food, toys, etc on the ground is typical for around 12 months of age as an expression of their cognitive development–having learned object permanence and now cause and effect. So much parenting depends upon the age and needs of one’s child. Depersonalizing the action of the car being thrown on the floor is one way to not come across as punishing the child for it. However, saying: “Mommy is tired of picking up the car. I am putting it away,” would be even better. It would teach the child about others being affected by his/her actions. By age 2 yrs., a typically developing toddler would likely understand that the repetitive throwing was not appropriate for a shopping trip when given a reminder. Why not kindly offer to hold the car. You could make your child’s participation in the decision the “yes.” So many scenarios here for non-shaming solutions that also teach appropriateness, effect and problem-solving without making the child’s natural inclined behavior into a “bad boy” comment.

The hand holding when crossing the street needs to be taught on some level for the child’s safety. What about a simple: “Wait for Mommy!” ?

The switching seat scenario–even if not presented as such–certainly could feel like punishment. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Works for other characteristic, too. The effect can very well feel the same. Explanation (brief, clear, and non-judgmental) helps the child understand. The internal wonder of why he/she was taken away from his friend potentially could make the child feel very badly about him/herself. One example: “How about sitting next to Janey today so you can listen better?”

The somersault example is a unsafe example. Wouldn’t a better “yes” environment be to help the child clear a safe space for somersaults ahead of time? Or to use the emergency clearing as an opportunity to put words to creating a safe acrobatic space. Again, not reprimanding the child, but teaching her.

I am sensing that the sentiment behind this article is not so much about extending “Yes” environments, but rather taking unnecessary criticism and scolding out of situations where the child is not developmentally ready to have avoided the situation on his/her own.

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Sonja August 20, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Agnes, a child should never have to learn something in a way that shames or blames them. What purpose does it serve to make a person feel horrible and worthless by such actions? If your spouse, friend or boss did that to you, you wouldn’t stand for it….neither should any child. Think of how you would like to be treated if you did something deemed “wrong.” I am quite sure that being belittled about the situation would do nothing to help. Having the “offence” respectfully explained to you along with positive instructions (or brainstorming together) on how to correct the situation would be the most effective and respectful action for all involved.

I grew up in an authoritative home-if you messed up, it was bad. You were made to feel bad and made to feel bad for a long time. What that environment taught me was that I was bad and my parents were to be feared. I wasn’t loveable because I was bad. That’s no way for a child to live.

I partially agree with Emily and Amber. Yes, they are going to react as if you are ruining a perfectly good game and react accordingly. A young child cannot understand the reason behind what you are doing… if you do not explain it to them. I have been in this situation before, and I agree whole heartedly with what you are saying. My child finds it fun to kick off her shoes while in the shopping cart-it can be frustrating when you’re in a hurry. I have found that compromising has ended any battle before it starts. “Are you playing the gravity game again? (Yup!) It looks like you’re having lots of fun. (Yes, Mommy! Oh oh, my shoe!)” I let her do it for a couple of minutes then say, “Okay silly goose, we need to get our shopping done quick! You can drop your shoes…hmmm, how many more times? (2!) Okay, two more times and then we have to stop to finish the shopping. If they fall off again after that I will put them in the cart until we’re ready to go. Okay? (Okay!) I make sure to say “That was the first time. Now you can do it one more time and then we have to hurry, okie dokie?” (Okay!)

Does it work all the time? 99%. The other time she wants to keep at it. I keep the shoes and she screams. I stop, take her out of the cart, hold her and talk softly about how she’s feeling…it may take an extra few minutes for her to get past the disappointment, but it’s worth the time and effort to help her through it instead of getting angry that my shopping trip isn’t going as planned. Anger fuels the fire and leaves lasting scars on both parties. Life is full of bumps in the road-these bumps are opportunities to teach your child about the world and the other people in it.

I try to create a yes environment as much as possible, but through discussions of others’ feelings, not by shaming or blaming. My child can differentiate between acceptable places (and not acceptable) where she can do certain activities. For example, what’s acceptable at home is not at Grandma’s (Grandma doesn’t like tea parties that turn into water fights for some strange reason), and there’s no fighting about it because we have discussed all of it BEFORE the situation will arise in another location.

We can all raise our children with unconditional love and compassion and teach them about the real world at the same time.

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