When ‘No’ Doesn’t Mean ‘No’

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The word “No” can make a terrible first impression. Sometimes it just doesn’t convey everything it intends. Especially if it comes from a young child: it’s not quite as literal as it seems. Upon first impression, “No!” sounds like:

  • I refuse.
  • I won’t listen.
  • I’m defying you.
  • I don’t respect you.

Those are usually our first thoughts upon being told No by our children. It’s a feeling, an impression that rubs us the wrong way. We bristle at the blatant defiance.

Except you know how a child’s laughter doesn’t mean a child is laughing at you (unless you’re my goofy and highly entertaining husband), but is more of an expression of immense enjoyment and agreeability? How it is a manifestation of all the happiness they’re feeling in that moment?

A shouted No is like the opposite of that. It’s the unpleasant feelings and unmet needs surfacing verbally in the easiest language available to a young child. No.

If we can take a minute to translate the No into what’s behind it, where it’s coming from, what it really means…

  • I don’t like this.
  • I’m angry.
  • I disagree.
  • I’m sad.
  • I don’t want to.
  • I’m frustrated.
  • I don’t need help.
  • I’m disappointed.
  • I would really rather be doing something else.
  • I’m autonomous and need to make my own choices.

…we get an expression of a valid feeling or a valid need. Yet we often find a reaction of our child’s No unacceptable. Children are quite capable of feeling strong feelings and quite incapable of articulating them. “Using their words” is hard…except for the one that suffices when they don’t know what else to say. No. It’s a simple and powerful way to express complicated feelings.

Keep in mind that No is less about defiance and more of an expression of dislike (especially for the under-7 crowd). And since we want to teach our kids that all of their feelings and needs are always OK, we can start by finding their Nos acceptable. This means searching for that translation behind it; articulating and validating it for them.

  • I know you don’t like this, and it needs to get done anyway.
  • You’d rather not; you’d rather keep playing. I understand.
  • It’s a hard job, and I’m here to help you.
  • You’re angry. It’s OK to be mad.
  • You have your own ideas. What would help you get this done?

When it comes to a child’s No, take a step back to consider what’s behind it. Distance yourself from the defiance. Listen for the translation and give No a second chance.

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Author: Kelly Bartlett

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.

5 thoughts on “When ‘No’ Doesn’t Mean ‘No’”

  1. This is an excellent post Kelly! My 3 year old has done this around other adults sometimes lately and they think its a sign that he’s defiant. It bothered me and I felt judged and annoyed the way they talked to my son and also escalated his feelings of discontent. I always take the time to communicate and understand my son’s needs and when others don’t, they just get angry, annoyed and mad at him when he says no to something. It was said that he should do what they ask since they are always nice to them. I disagree. He’s 3. It doesn’t make him defiant or a child who doesn’t listen. He is just expressing something and wants to be heard. This is what I always stand for. Letting others be heard. I understand not everyone allows others to do the same but this is how I’m raising my children.

    Just like we shouldn’t say no without an explanation, I agree with you that no from our children, deserves to be understood as well. Thank you so much for sharing this exactly the way I needed to hear it. Now I don’t have to write this post! I will just share yours :)))

  2. I agree with these points, but I would also like to say that in my experience with children, they do sometimes like to say no and exert some power/control. This is a natural part of human nature, but can easily become a habit. Sometimes a child rejects all options (does not know what is best, IS trying to be defiant) and if they can’t pick from reasonable options, then it’s best to take options away.

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