Posted by: Harry | January 24, 2010

On The Subject of No

This is how it works in our family: when I read, I focus on literature and writing and all the crap entailed within. Sandra, who is better-read than most people I know, tackles the books on parenting. Even though I’m the at-home parent, she reads the parenting books and funnels the information to me via conversation.

Why? Because it works this way. Because every time I try to crack a book open about raising children I want to peel my eyelids off like grape-skins and dry them on the window ledge in the afternoon sun. Okay, not really. But I don’t do well with books of a teacherly nature. At least not about parenting.

Sandra’s latest reading–Unconditional Parentinghas led us to some interesting conversations about using the word no around Simone. Just the other day, while at our local YMCA for open-gym, Simone was ripping around the great concrete foyer like an errant demon when she stopped and asked me for a particular over-sized chocolate cookie she saw behind a barista’s glass counter. Instead of saying no, I explained (read: convinced) to her that we had a whole whack of snacks in her trundle bag that were likely just as tasty.

Worked like a charm, I thought. But a mother next to me–and thank dear, baby Jesus for all the condescending mothers who find it unfathomable that a daughter has to spend so much time with her father–leaned over and said you know, it’s important that they learn the word “no”. She then proceeded to tell me about her own kids and their foibles and how, by cracky, they learned to know the boundaries of the home and so forth. I lost interest and began stacking imaginary Jenga pieces in my mind. But she was on about something. And I did nod politely and say quite right.

But here’s the thing–and this is what Sandra and her readings have prompted her and I to discuss more–when we use no with our kids, what is our motivation? Is it really to instruct them about the harsh realities of our world and that they better learn they can’t get their own way? Or is it more a matter of convenience for the parent–a quick, easy response for the sake of brevity that tempers their patience? And what impact does no have on kids when they hear it so often?

The biggest question my dear wife raised was how we perceive our kids. We’ve all heard the comments don’t give in to them. Or, let them know who’s in charge. They were likely the staples of our own upbringing. But is that really what’s going on with our child, some malevolent competition of wills? What if we start with the base premise that our kids are good, that they are loving and full of interests and sometimes their passions need direction, but for the most part they love to please. Why? Because they love. If my base perception of Simone changes, so does how I interact with her.

It requires more effort and time to sit and talk things through with Simone. But so far it seems to be paying off. She listens better, responds to my requests happily–even ones that require the damnable task of cleaning up her toys. It’s not a hundred percent, don’t get me wrong. And there are times when the no really is the only option. Considering how mischievous she is, I’m sure she’ll start to push for her wants more and raise a little hell.

But not using the word no so much isn’t a matter of giving in to some unseen pressure. It’s more about treating her with a dignity that I can live with, a way of giving proper room to her personality but maintaining guidance. I’d rather she grow up understanding choices and not seeing the world as a series of closing doors.

Famous last words, Harry.



  1. I totally get it Harry. It’s something we all struggle with.

    When T was little I, too read those parenting books and tried many different ideologies they presented. Eventually, through trial and error, we learn what works for us and also what our children will ALLOW to work on them 😉

    In T’s situation, when she was small (under 3), explanation worked magically as did distraction. It was fairly easy to explain why she couldn’t do/have something and distract her with something really exciting and interesting. Then it slowly morphed into tantrums when she couldn’t get what she wanted, no matter how much I tried to get her to understand the situation. So, then a simple ‘no’ seemed to eliminate the tantrum.

    So, to make a long story even longer, it most definitely depends on the child and the situation. To completely decide that you will never say the dreaded ‘no’ word to your child is, in my opinion, asking for trouble. Some situations can not be explained sufficiently so that a preschooler/toddler will comprehend the significance. They just do not have the brain function yet to truly understand some adult reasoning.

    My cousin has taken a strong stance against the ‘no’ word and she has had great success and has wonderfully well adjusted children. However, she has been blessed with really easy-going children who don’t really press boundaries. I guess it really depends on the parents convictions as well as the child’s temperament.

    • Good points. We’re certainly not above saying no to Simone, that’s for sure. I think for us it’s about thinking about our motivation for using the word in a particular instance. Like yourself, I’m sure we’ll hit a wall at some point and have to draw our guns.

  2. Harry, Terrific attitude.Good luck in maintaining patience with all the other “meaning well” mothers.Keep up the good work!Love, Elly

    • Thanks, Elly. Did you figure out how to use the internet or something…ha ha.

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