“My name is ‘no’
My sign is ‘no’
My number is ‘no’
You need to let it go”
You may have noticed that “no” is a go-to word for children, and that they pick it up pretty early on. Once they start as toddlers, they will use it for all it’s worth. This makes sense, according to Judy Arnall in her book Discipline Without Distress. She writes:
“A toddler’s favorite word is ‘no.’ It is a strong, powerful, in-control word. It sounds decisive, meaningful, and packs a punch.”
A parent’s first impression—and this impression may last, if you’re not careful—is that the child is out to undermine your authority and defy you. You might feel a lack of respect. In fact, it’s rather the opposite (as we will get into below). It is important to remember that this is a natural and nearly universal behavior. Arnall goes on to say that when a toddler says “no”:
- “They need to assert independence and they need to achieve a measure of control over their lives.
- They need to begin separating when secure and cling when insecure.
- They need to explore and discover.
- They need to express their strong emotions.”
Essentially, “no” is standing in for a whole lot of words that the child doesn’t have yet. According to the author,
“When a toddler says ‘no!’ they mean:
- I want to do it myself.
- I don’t want you, but I want you. I am overwhelmed by conflicting feelings.
- I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I’m feeling it right now!
- I can’t share because I don’t understand the concept of ownership yet.
- I want to have some control over what happens to me.”
It should be easy to guess where a child’s mastery of “no” comes from. Most likely they have felt its power coming from us, the parents. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, explain:
“There will be many times as parents when we’ll have to thwart our children’s desires. Yet some children experience a blunt ‘No’ as a call to arms, a direct attack upon their autonomy. They mobilize all their energy to counterattack.”
Sounds suspiciously like the way we feel when we hear the word from our child’s mouth, doesn’t it? One way to manage their overreliance on the word “no,” then, is to try to lessen it in our own speech. Faber & Mazlish provide some alternatives to falling back on “No” as a way of managing behavior. They are listed below (examples in parentheses are mine):
- Give information (instead of saying “No” when a child wants to keep playing at mealtime, say “We’re having dinner in five minutes”).
- Accept feelings (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re not ready”).
- Describe the problem (“I’d like for you to keep playing. We have to be at your grandma’s house in an hour”).
- When possible substitute a “Yes” for a “No” (“Yes, you can keep playing when we come back. I will give you special time for it”).
- Give yourself time to think (“Let me think about that”).
“No” will always be a powerful word, and as parents we want to keep it that way. When there is an immediate safety concern, we will use it instinctually, and if we haven’t already said it a dozen times this afternoon it will be even more effective. Also, as the child gets older we want “No” to mean exactly what it says: that they want a behavior or situation to stop, right now.