"No" is a power-packed word, quick on the lips, easy to say. Your child will hear you use this word often, and you
will hear it from your child as well. It's necessary for a parent to say "no" to
a child so the child can later say "no" to himself. All children—and some
adults—have difficulty delaying gratification. "I want it now" is a driving desire, especially in toddlers. Learning to
accept "no" from someone else is a prelude to saying "no" to herself. What gets
children (and adults) into trouble is a knee-jerk, impulsive reaction to a want,
an immediate "yes" without taking time to run it through their internal sensor
and consider the necessity of saying "no" to themselves. Here's how to use this
negative little word to teach positive messages.
1. Strike a Balance
Too many no's and too many yeses cripple a
discipline. It's important to achieve the right blend of yeses and no's in a
child's environment. If you rarely say "no" to your child, the few times that
you do he'll disintegrate because he's not used to being frustrated. If his
whole day is full of "no's," the child believes the world is a negative place to
be and will grow up a negative person. The real world will always be full of
yeses and no's. In many homes, children soon learn who the yes parent is and
who's more likely to say "no". Even the Ten Commandments has do's and don'ts.
2. No's Grow Too
The art of saying "no" develops along with your
During the first year, a baby's needs and wants are the same, so that you are
mainly a "yes" parent. During the second year, baby's wants are not always safe
or healthy, so you become a "yes" and "no" parent. From nine to fourteen months,
no-saying is straight forward. We call them "low energy no's." Between fourteen
and eighteen months, as babies click into overdrive, they get easily frustrated
and are likely to protest being steered in a direction other than the one they
want to go. This is when you will need both high energy no's and very creative
alternatives. By eighteen months, no-saying can begin to be more matter-of-fact.
Parents can begin to convey an attitude of "that's life and I'm confident you
can deal with it." By two-years-of-age toddlers are experts at saying "no".
3. Use Creative Alternatives To "No"
one morning when she was eighteen-
months-old our daughter Lauren, who was going through an impulsive phase,
flitted around the house climbing and getting into everything. She was
endangering herself and trashing the house. After the twentieth "no," I was
tired of hearing that word and so was Lauren. on the wall in one of our
children's bedrooms I noticed a poster of a kitten stuck out on a limb at the
top of a tree. The caption read, "Lord, protect me from myself." I realized that
Lauren needed rescuing from her impulsive self. She needed a change of
environment. We spent the rest of the day outside. Parks and play-yards provide
space and a "yes" environment in which to roam and climb. If you find yourself
isolated with a curious toddler who is flitting from thing to thing with you
chasing him around the house saying "no," consider changing to something more
fun. Go outside; take along a book, plant yourself in a safe location, and let
The fewer "no's," the better your day goes.
4. Teach Stop Signs
Even in the early months, teach baby to recognize
language that means "stop." Your baby needs to be exposed to "stop" body
language long before hearing the "no" word. The first nip on your nipple during
breastfeeding will invoke an "ouch" sign on your face; the first time your baby
reaches for something dangerous, your face will register alarm. You are likely
to get the best results from your stop signs if your baby has been used to
positive body language, so that any change makes him sit up and take notice.
Your "no's" will be more meaningful during toddlerhood if your baby sees a lot
of "yes" body language: looks of pride and approval, gestures of delight and
pleasure, eye-to-eye contact, hugs, tickles, and a sparkly face that says "I
love you, you're great!"
We have noticed that attachment-parented
children, because they spend hours a day in arms and in face-to-face contact,
easily learn to read parents' faces and body language. Having lots of face-to-
face contact in the early months makes face-to-face communication easier in the
months and years to come. Some children are so impressed by body language that
you can get your point across without even saying a word. An expressive mother
of a connected two-year-old told us: "Usually all I have to do is glance at her
with a slight frown on my face, and she stops misbehaving."
5. Teach Stop Sounds
Often a change in your mood or body language is
enough to redirect impulsive actions. Words are needed. Children soon learn
which discipline words carry more power and demand a quicker response than
others. And children soon learn which tone of voice means business and which
allows for some latitude. Arm yourself with a variety of "stop-what-you're-
doing" sounds so that you can choose one that fits the occasion. Tailor the
intensity of the sound to the gravity of the behavior. Save the really big
sounds for true danger.
6. Master "The Look"
You can often correct a child without saying a
have noticed that master disciplinarians use a look of disapproval that stops
the behavior, but preserves the child's self-image. Martha, after disciplining
eight children, has mastered "the look": head turned a bit, eyes penetrating,
just the right facial gesture and tone of voice to convey to the child "I don't
like what you're doing, but I still feel connected to you. I know that you know
better." Remember, your eyes will disclose what you are really thinking and
feeling. If you are feeling anger or contempt toward your child, that's what she
will read in your eyes. If one or both of you recognize this is happening, you
will have to apologize for the harshness of the feelings communicated toward her
person by "the look." Be sure that stop signs and stop sounds stop the behavior
and not the growth of self-worth in your child. Your child should understand
that you disapprove of the behavior, not the child. To be certain you strike the
right note in disapproval discipline, follow the look with a hug, a smile, or a
forthright explanation, "I don't like what you did, but I like you."
7. Create Alternatives To The N-Word
Constantly saying "no" causes this word to lose its punch. Since stop sounds are
used mainly to protect, try using more specific words that fit the situation.
Consider this example: When a toddler is about to reach into the cat litter box
your first reaction is to say "no," but follow it up with an explanation:
"Dirty! Make you sick." Next time the child goes for the litter box (and he will
do it again), instead of "no," say "Dirty! Make you sick." That and a disgusted
expression on your face will help the child learn the why as well as the what of
good behavior, and the litter box will lose its attraction. (We are assuming
that the litter box is kept in a location well away from the toddler's beaten
path. Litter, like sand, is irresistible to babies.) Babies start reaching for
"no-nos" around six months.
Coincidentally, one day two-year-old Lauren came prancing into our study
clutching a bag of peanuts. Instead of grabbing the peanuts from her and
shouting "no" (they are on our chokable food list for children under three),
Martha looked Lauren straight in the eyes and calmly said, "Not for Lauren." Her
tone of voice and concerned look stopped Lauren in her tracks. Martha picked
Lauren up (still clutching the peanuts) and headed off for the pantry where they
found a safer snack. By using our standard "not for Lauren" phrase and giving
her a safe alternative, she didn't have time to consider throwing a fit, which a
"no" surely would have produced. In any family there will be items that are "not
for" the little one. When you use this phrase calmly and consistently from early
on the toddler understands you are protecting him.
"No" is so easy to say. It requires no thought. It's knee-jerk automatic, yet
irritatingly oppressive. Saying "cannot" communicates more and you'll use it
more thoughtfully (i.e. in situations where baby truly cannot proceed). You're
respecting his mind as you protect his body. In our experience, babies respond
to "stop" better than to "no." It gets the child's attention, and stops behavior
long enough for you to plan other strategies. "Stop" is protective rather than
punitive. "No" invites a clash of wills, but even strong-willed children will
usually stop momentarily to evaluate a "stop" order, as if they sense danger
ahead. Strong-minded children often ignore "no" if they've heard it a thousand
times before. Even "stop" loses its command value if overused.
8. Use "The Voice"
Besides mastering "the look," reserve a special
voice for those occasions when you must get your point across. A veteran
disciplinarian shared her secret with us: "I am an easy-going mommy, but my
children know just by my tone of voice when they have crossed the line. one day
our two-year-old was misbehaving and our four-year-old said, "Don't mess with
Mommy when she talks like that!"
9. Give Positive Subs
Present a positive with your negative: "You
the knife, but you can have the ball." Use a convincing expression to market the
"can do" in order to soften the "can't do." "You can't go across the street,"
you say with a matter-of-fact tone of voice; then carefully state, "You can help
Mommy sweep the sidewalk." There is a bit of creative marketing in every mother.
10. Avoid Set-ups
If you're taking your child along with you to a toy
to buy a birthday present for your child's friend, realize that you are setting
yourself up for a confrontation. Your child is likely to want to buy everything
in the store. To avoid the inevitable "No, you can't have that toy," before you
go into the store tell him that you are there to buy a birthday present and not
a toy for him so that he is programmed not to expect a toy.
11. "No" Is a Child's Word, Too
Prepare yourself to be on the
of "no." Your two-year-old has just run out the door. You ask her to come back.
She yells "no!" Your first reaction is likely to be, "This little pip-squeak is
not going to talk back to me that way. I'll show her who's boss..." (In our
family, being disrespectful is a real "no-no.") Understanding what's behind that
two-year-old and that two-letter word will help you accept this normal toddler
behavior. Don't take "no" personally. Saying "no" is important for a child's
development, and for establishing his identity as an individual. This is not
defiance or a rejection of your authority. Some parents feel they cannot
tolerate any "no's" at all from their children, thinking that to permit this
would undermine their authority. They wind up curtailing an important process of
self-emergence. Children have to experiment with where their mother leaves off
and where they begin. Parents can learn to respect individual wishes and still
stay in charge and maintain limits. As your child gets older, the ability to get
along with peers in certain situations (stealing, cheating, drugs, and so on),
will depend on her ability to say "no".
By eighteen months Lauren had surmised that "no" meant we wanted her to stop
what she was doing. one day she was happily playing with water at the kitchen
sink. As she saw me approaching, and in anticipation of me stopping her play,
she blurted out an emphatic "No, Dad!" Lauren had staked out her territory, and
she had concluded she had a right to do this. Her "no" meant she was guarding
12. Use a Funny "No"
One afternoon I (Martha) walked into the TV room
saw Matthew and his friend watching a video that the older children had rented
and watched the day before. (Later I found out Matthew had also watched it at
that time.) I took one look at the movie and realized I would have to ask him to
turn it off. Besides, it was the middle of the day and the boys should have been
playing outside. As I stood watching the movie for a few moments planning my
course of action, I caught the flavor of the character in the movie and in a
spurt of inspiration decided to use humor to say no. As I clicked off the TV, I
spun around on my heels and launched into a monologue using the character's
facial expressions, accent, and hand gestures. I must have done a good job of
impersonating this actor because both boys sat staring at me wide-eyed as though
they couldn't believe their mom was capable of such improvised insanity. They
both jumped up and headed out the door as the voice of this character told them
to find something better to do. They were still laughing.
13. Personalize "No"
We are convinced Lauren is destined for public
relations. Her "no, dad" was the diplomatic way to say no. By adding "dad" she
personalized her message. Rather than giving a dictatorial "no," we add the
child's name. If you tend to shout, a personalized address at least softens the
sound and respects the listener. Some parents confuse respecting the child with
granting him equal power, but this is not a power issue. The person with the
power should respect the person taken charge of. That consideration holds true
in parenting; it holds true in other relationships as well.
14. Have a "Yes" Day
Jill, mother of five-year-old Andrew, confided
"I don't like what's happening to me. I want to enjoy being a mother but our
whole day is spent in conflict with each other. Andrew won't mind when I ask him
to do even the simplest things. I'm becoming a cranky person, and I want to be a
happy mother." I advised her, "Tell Andrew exactly what you want. Say 'I want to
be a happy Mommy, not a cranky Mommy. (or ask Andrew 'Would you rather have a
happy Mommy or a cranky Mommy?') To help me be a happy Mommy, we're going to
have yes days. Every time I ask you to do something and you say 'yes Mommy,' I'm
going to put a yes on the chart. At the end of the day if there are more yeses
than no's, that's a yes day, and we'll do something special together.'" (or, let
Andrew mark yes on his own chart.) Soon Andrew will realize that the happy Mommy
is more fun to be with than the cranky Mommy, which will motivate him to
continue having yes days.
15. Be Considerate
When you have to stop a behavior, there is no
be rude. For example, your baby discovers the tape dispenser someone left out.
This is a wonderful toy. Instead of descending on him and snatching it from his
hands, causing him to wail pitifully as you carry him off, you can take a few
moments to explore it with him. Then you say "bye-bye" to the tape and hand him
a decent length of the fascinating stuff to compensate for not getting the whole
roll as you head off for a perhaps less interesting, but more age-appropriate
16. When You Say It, Mean It
Follow through on your directives. For
we said to Lauren that in order to have bedtime stories she had to submit to
toothbrushing. And for months it worked, sometimes easily, sometimes with a
certain amount of coaxing and saying, "okay, no stories..." one night she
decided to test me (Martha). I could tell by the set of her jaw and firmly shut
lips that she finally was "calling my bluff." So rather than proceed with my
coaxing and humoring, I calmly said "okay, no stories!" I turned off the lights
and carried her to bed. She fussed a bit as I lay there with her, because she
realized I had called her bluff and now the lights were out—the irreversible
sign that the next step was to go to sleep. After that, toothbrushing went
unchallenged and stories were reinstated.
17. Are You a Mother Who Can't Say No
In their zeal to give their
everything they need, some parents risk giving their children everything they
want. Mothers who practice attachment parenting risk becoming totally "yes"
mothers, with "no" being foreign to their parenting style.
It is important for the mother to feel comfortable saying 'no' to her little
one from the very beginning. In fact, it begins when she teaches her newborn to
latch on to the breast correctly. It is the mother's first discipline situation—
to show baby how to latch on properly so that he can get fed sufficiently and
she can avoid sore nipples. Some mothers cannot do this. They are afraid to be
assertive for fear of causing baby to cry. They would rather let the baby do it
wrong and put up with the pain. She will say 'no' early on when he yanks her
hair or bites the breast while nursing. By telling him to stop because it hurts,
she is beginning to teach boundaries. Serious no-saying comes with toddlerhood.
Besides the literal word 'no' there are many ways to communicate that something
is not safe or appropriate. Whether she says "stop that" or "put it down" or
"not safe," or she physically redirects her toddler's activity, she is
consistently and gently redirecting behavior and teaching boundaries. Whatever
the terminology, saying 'no' is not a negative thing. It is a way of giving, and
it takes a lot of effort. Mothers who can't say 'no' will have a big problem on
their hands down the line. They become the moms that we see getting yanked
around like puppets by their preschoolers.
When mothers begin saying 'no' at the appropriate times—confidently, firmly,
and lovingly—It does not threaten the child. It might wrinkle him for a few
minutes because he doesn't like hearing 'stop' or 'wait' or whatever the word
might be that you pick.
18. When Your Child Won't Accept No
Children, especially those with a strong will, try to wear parents down. They
are convinced they must have something or their world can't go on. They pester
and badger until you say "yes" just to stop the wear and tear on your nerves.
This is faulty discipline. If however, your child's request seems reasonable
after careful listening, be willing to negotiate. Sometimes you may find it wise
to change your mind after saying "no". While you want your child to believe your
"no" means no, you also want your child to feel you are approachable and
flexible. It helps to hold your "no" until you've heard your child out. If you
sense your child is uncharacteristically crushed or angry at your "no," listen
to her side. Maybe she has a point you hadn't considered or her request is a
bigger deal to her than you imagined. Be open to reversing your decision, if
warranted. Make sure, though, that she realizes it was not her "wear down"
tactics that got the reversal of your decision.
Our daughter Erin seems destined to become a trial lawyer; she pleads her
case with logic and emotion. Eventually, we learned to say "no" without
discouraging Erin's creative persistence. When Erin wanted a horse, we said "no"
(we had too many dependents already). Erin persisted. By trial and error we've
learned that any big wish in a child, no matter how ridiculous, merits hearing
the child's viewpoint. We listened attentively and empathetically while Erin
presented her horse wish. We countered, "Erin, we understand why you want a
horse. You could have a lot of fun riding and grooming a horse, and some of your
friends have horses." (We wanted Erin to feel we understood her point of view).
"But we have to say no; and we will not change our minds. Now let's sit down and
calmly work this out." (Letting the child know her request is non-negotiable
diffuses the child's steam and saves you from getting worn down.) "You are not
yet ready to care for a horse." (We enumerated the responsibilities that went
along with the fun of owning a horse.) "When you have finished another six
months of lessons and you show us that you can be responsible for a horse, we'll
talk about it then." Nine months later Tuffy was added to our list of
dependents. Erin got her horse and she learned some valuable lessons in life:
how to delay her gratification, and with privileges come responsibilities.