Alternatives to "No"

As parents it’s difficult to change our expectations for our children until we first understand their developmental abilities. And one area where we grossly misunderstand our children is in the use of the word “no.” “No” is such an easy word to use, especially with a toddler; it’s short and to the point:

“No hitting”
“No playing with food”
“No splashing”

It seems like such a simple sentence to understand, but it turns out it’s not that simple at all. In fact, kids really don’t understand the word “no” the way we think they do. John Piaget studied cognitive development in children and found that their ability to perceive, interpret, and comprehend events are far different from an adults’ ability. And because of this difference they are unable to learn appropriate behaviors from the command “no.”

Here are some wonderful alternatives to “no” that model the respectful behavior we want them to develop:

  • Rethink “no” – is this something you can actually say YES! to? Like splashing in the tub or pool, stirring the oatmeal on the table, throwing soft objects in the air? Many things children do are simply their developmentally appropriate way of learning about the world.
  • Tell them what you want them to do instead (example: instead of saying “no hitting” you can say, “use gentle touch” then show them what it means to use gentle touch)
  • Offer choices (example: do you want green or yellow shorts, do you want an orange or pink cup, do you want to bathe first or brush your teeth first, do you want strawberries or blueberries, etc.)

Besides, I think most of us can agree that when we “no” them all day they eventually stop paying attention to us, and then they start saying “NO” back to us! And wow is that fun. Once we’re able to stop “no”-ing them we find ourselves connecting more with them and actually knowing them (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

Here is some more helpful information to keep in mind about our children and the word “no.”

The word “no” is forever to a small child. When they ask for a cookie and you say “no” they think they will never get a cookie again – ever. Wow. And while it may be incredibly tiring to empathize and give an explanation for everything, the longterm benefits are immeasurable. When you take the time to empathize and explain, you’re building trust; they learn that you follow through and mean what you say, and they learn to self-regulate. Plus you prevent the emotional upheaval that goes along with a child who thinks she’ll never get another cookie!

Here’s how this might sound:
“Mommy, cookie?”
“I know you would really like a cookie, huh? I understand. They sure are tasty. Yes, you may have a cookie after dinner.”
(child cries)
“You are very sad because you really want a cookie now. It’s so hard to wait. You may have one after dinner.”

Finally, here’s a personal story:
Today my child wanted to wear flip flops on his hands and walk, “like a dog” (on his hands and feet) in home depot. I told him “sure!” Then he said, “Daddy says I can’t do that at home depot.” So we talked to Daddy together to figure out why Daddy said that. We asked, “Are we hurting anyone? Are we hurting ourselves? Are we damaging anything?” Soon Daddy realized his automatic “no” was just a knee jerk reaction, and he apologized to our son for not thinking it through. So we took our “puppy” to home depot. It can be hard to be mindful. But it’s worth every moment!

YES – you may wear flip flops on your hands and pretend to be a dog at Home Depot
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4 thoughts on “Alternatives to "No"”

  1. Hi, there’s so much parenting advice I approach things with a critical mind and your post has raised a red flag.
    Yes, Piaget found perception and comprehension of events occurs at different stages throughout cognitive development. And..?
    Your reference to Piaget’s findings are general in nature. When rereading your paraphrasing of his findings, it actually says nothing specifically about the ability for children to learn appropriate behavior through using the word No.
    For example, I could write:
    “In fact, kids really don’t understand the word “Yes” the way we think they do. John Piaget studied cognitive development in children and found that their ability to perceive, interpret, and comprehend events are far different from an adults’ ability. And because of this difference they are unable to learn appropriate behaviors from the command “Yes.”
    This could just have easily been written because the final sentence isn’t a justified conclusion based on Piaget’s findings.

    Please, don’t make false conclusions and misrepresent authoritative sources when presenting a point of view, it really is a misleading approach. Or at the very least source it so we can quickly check it out for ourselves! As a parent sorting through lots of advice, the best thing I can do for my children when it comes to advice is to keep a critical mind.
    JT.

    1. Hi JT, I love that you are thinking critically about the multitude of information on parenting! The good news is that the work of Piaget is readily available in local libraries, online libraries and lots of websites. I don’t have a direct source to give you because it is, as you say, a general reference to his work. You are absolutely right, children also do not understand the word “yes” in the same way we do as adults. In fact, they do not understand language the way we do, which is why it is SO important to show them what they CAN do rather than just telling them what they CAN’T do. Since it seems you may be interested in learning more about his theory in relation to children’s cognitive development I can point you toward some specific terms for more information: “sources of continuity” (assimilation, accomodation, equilibriation), “sources of discontinuity” (qualitative change, broad applicability), and of course his most famous work on “stages of development” (sensorimotor and preoperational being the most pertinent to this discussion). Thank you for your feedback and I hope you find these terms helpful in your parenting journey!

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