Sometimes we can smile with a small toddler as they reach for something in an obvious gesture of embrace but are still saying “no”. However, in general, many parents frequently feel frustrated when small children start using the word “no” (and yes, I do know this is because your precious one has said “no” literally 800 times today!). It also seems as a society we rarely celebrate our older preschoolers or older children being able to say “no” to us .
No really can be a cause for celebration if you look at it in the right way. Why do I say this? The word “no” is a true expression of My Own Will. Without the ability to say no, there are no boundaries between Me and Other. And boundaries are something that can really serve your children well when they are adults!
I am reading this interesting book called “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. This book was published in 1992, so perhaps some of you have already read this. One of the points in this book is that the word “no” is a basic word we use to set boundaries in our lives, and boundaries can help us as adults answer such questions as how can I set limits and still be a loving person, how do I answer people who would like my time/money/love/energy, how do we set boundaries without feeling guilty. Anyway, I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it is worth a look if this is an area that is challenging for you!
I also like what Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears say in their book, “The Discipline Book: How to Have A Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten”: “Saying no is important for a child’s development, for establishing his identity as an individual. This is not defiance or a rejection of your authority. Some parents feel they cannot tolerate any nos 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. The boundaries of selfhood will be weak if the self gets no exercise. 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.” (page 67)
I have also seen the opposite: mothers who rarely say no to anything. Saying no is not negative; I have written about “The Power of A Well-Placed No” here for your reading pleasure: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/07/06/the-power-of-a-well-placed-no/
So how can we as parents better embrace and respond to when our children say “no”?
1. For small children, do look at what is behind the “no” a child is saying. Maybe the no is really I don’t want to go to bed (but I really am tired). Maybe the no is I don’t want to stop playing to go to the bathroom. Maybe the no is something else. So being able to look behind the no to see what is the true need or want is important, and will help everyone get their needs met.
2. Give small children your time to help transition, and have a rhythm to things. If small children are engaged in something, give them time to switch gears with your help. Songs and verses for these transition points are helpful here. A rhythm is also helpful because then a child knows what comes after what every day.
3. If there is a natural consequence for a child not doing something, then you must follow through. I know everyone is going to write and ask for examples of this, but really this is variable family to family and also depends upon the age of the child. Perhaps an example would be with a child who won’t wear a coat to go outside on a freezing cold day. No coat, no outside. When the coat goes on, the child can go outside.
4. Please don’t let your child’s resistance to something make you doubt yourself. Your child is not choosing to get cavities just because they don’t want to brush their teeth. I don’t mean this to give an excuse for some really authoritarian parenting, but I do want you to feel empowered that you do know something about what your child needs!
5. Recognize that older children say “no” in different ways, such as the famous “You’re mean!” “You’re not the boss of me!” or things to sidetrack the whole original issue. Less words and a calm tone can be helpful here. Don’t get sidetracked and feel as if you have to verbally respond to everything your child is saying. Love your child, be warm, but stay the course.