Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"No" Is Not a Four-Letter Word

We all know people who can't seem to say no. Some of us may be those people! Personally, it has only been over the past few years that I've become comfortable with saying no if I don't want to do something or if I just can't. I used to feel guilty and I would say yes even if it wasn't something I had time for or wanted to do.

Sometimes I wonder if some people become people-pleasers who can't say no without feeling tremendous amounts of guilt because we were raised with the expectation that you did not say no to others. How many of us were punished or shamed in one way or another for saying no when we were children?

So many people hear a small child utter the word "no" and automatically assume that the child is being defiant or non-compliant. I actually don't think that's true in most cases. When children are born, they aren't really aware that they are separate beings from their mothers. Over time, though, they realize that not only are they separate beings, but they actually can assert their own thoughts and feelings. Often, for the young toddler, this is seen through experimentation with the word no. Little ones who are learning about no may even say no to things you know they DO like. Why? Not because they're being defiant or non-compliant, but because they are experimenting with this new-found understanding of being their own individual person. I also think it's worth pointing out that a lot of times, a "no" from a little one is not a way of defiantly saying, "I will not;" it is more often a way of expressing, "I don't want to." Those things are very different, in my opinion.

As a parent, my job when my toddler says no is not to punish him or shame him for it. It is to let him express his no, and to teach him how to use no appropriately. Because the truth is, as frustrating as it can be to hear no from a child, children need-- yes, NEED-- to be allowed to use the word and need to be taught how to use it appropriately. There are many, many things that children need to be equipped to say no to. When children are punished and shamed for saying no, they are more susceptible to abuse, peer pressure, and becoming people-pleasers.

So how do you deal with a young child's no? It's helpful to give them choices about things that they really can make choices about. "Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the green one?" "Do you want an apple or a banana?" and so on. The types of choices you offer can change to be more appropriate for their ages as they grow. Age-appropriate choices help them make decisions for themselves and assert their independence in a positive way. It's also helpful to teach them words for expressing their feelings. If your child is howling "Nooooooo!" maybe you can teach him to recognize what he is really feeling. "You feel disappointed because we have to leave the park. It's hard to stop doing something you enjoy." You could also teach him to use words to express his frustration, disappointment, or anger.

Allowing children to experiment with no, and teaching them to use no appropriately will equip them with the knowledge and confidence to say no when necessary, and that is a good thing. This isn't the same thing as permissively letting a child do whatever he wants, despite what you want him to do. It is the parent's job to set boundaries and to teach children about those boundaries-- but in doing so, we must be sure that we actively teach our children how to set boundaries as well. This is a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives.

Let's not be afraid of the word no. Let's teach our children how to use it appropriately, and let's use it when we need to without feeling guilty. No is an important word!


  1. Have you read the book entitled BOUNDARIES by Townsend? It's a Christian book - - one I wish I had read when I was your age. I helps a person not feel guilty about saying, "No," and helps them set boundaries around their time and their life. It is up to us to obey God's priorities for our time rather than other's desires.
    Good post about educating your child, too.

  2. I have that book. It's a good one! :)

  3. I agree. Coming from a reformed people pleaser, I too had to learn to say no, and then not feel guilty about it. I was talking with a child psychologist the other day, and we were discussing children's behavior, and how behavior is not random, that the child always has a purpose behind it. This kind of reminds me of that in a way. Children have a reason behind that "no".

  4. That's a really helpful point to keep in mind. A lot of times I think we adults don't recognize what is actually driving a particular behavior, so we (often erroneously) assign negative intentions on the child's part (like manipulation or defiance, for example), when it may be a developmental issue, an attempt at connection, or any number of other things.