Tuesday, January 6

the first 'no'

I decided a while ago that I wasn't going to say 'no' to the Wildflower until I found it absolutely necessary. I think this decision became conscious when I read in a Sears book that amongst the cognitive developments of a 6 month-old baby, understanding the word 'no' was one of them.

I just found something about that very sad. That a little baby would have heard 'no' so many times that it recognised it as much as 'daddy' or 'mummy'. Remember, we're talking about a baby who has no true concept of right and wrong.

There are two sides to this issue for me.

Firstly, negativity.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not so out-there or hippy or anarchistic or crunchy or whatever, that I don't believe in any negativity. For starters, negativity is part of our world, and without it there wouldn't be any positivity - yin and yang and all such stuffs. What I mean is that for me, a positive and forward-focusing attitude is more beneficial than the alternative.

If, as an adult, you are simply told that you cannot do or have something, are you satisfied with that? I know that I'm not. And sure, I know, I know, children have less of an understanding and maturity and it's not the same thing. But it's more similar than not. They are people who deserve more respect and more reason than simply 'no'.

As an adult, I would prefer a reason or an alternative. I have always given the same to children, taking into account their maturity and understanding and of course, the situation.

As an example, the Wilflower is 8.5 mths old. I rather she didn't pull my hair out as I changed her diaper. Rather than say 'no', when she manages to grab a handful, I simply take it out from her hands gently and offer her a toy to keep those little busy hands occupied. If she's 3 years old, I'll explain to her that pulling my hair hurts me and I would rather she didn't do it.

When she enthusiastically bangs a wooden spoon on the table and mum is done with that charming noise, I offer her a soft toy.

When she reaches for a cup/pot/whatever that she might break or get burnt or whatever, I move it out of her way. And so on...

Secondly, the inefficacy of the word.

I found from experience (ex-nanny) that children have selective hearing (as do husbands). The word is used so much that children are easily able to tune it out. They do something similar when playing outdoors and you call their name. Whisper 'ice-cream' and see those heads turn and legs bring them in! I had a dog who behaved in a similar way. You would call his name so often and so loudly with no visible reaction from him that you were convinced that the wind was carrying your voice away. Then you would shout 'cat' and he was at your side in a nanosecond sniffing for the feline fiend. The little bugger! But I digress....

If you're a 'no' user, don't you get sick of saying it? And don't you get sick of saying it to no effect?

I have a very practical streak (Taurus ascendant) and while I adore the For No Reasons and the Just Becauses as well as the Whimsies in life, when it comes to things like this, I'm not interested in what doesn't work.

And 'no' rarely works. Or, it works to do all sorts of things in your child's psyche that you cannot detect.

So, I'm approaching the idea behind the word, refusing or stopping something child-led, with caution and with certain stipulations.

  • Whatever word I use, it must be effective. (meaning it must stop the behaviour)

  • It must do so without making my child feel oppressed.

I decided that to achieve the two objectives, the word/s must carry meaning. This way, I am not making one word become redundant and I'm providing my child with information.

So, with things that can hurt her in some way, we say 'ouch!'. We use this word when she bumps herself or whatever, so that she now understands the word is connected to pain.

With things that might burn, we say 'hot!'. We allowed her to feel a radiator that was too hot for her (but not that would hurt her!) and it was enough to startle her and I used the word hot very clearly a number of times. The next time she reached for a cooking pot, I said 'hot!' and she withdrew her hand very quickly.

Now, she is very little and we don't get many opportunities to use the words so I know she will forget them and I know that when she does remember them there will come a time when she will be a true child and think, 'heck, I'm doing it anyway'. And then she'll learn for herself (the best learning ever) and we would have provided her with the information. So that then she can think, 'okay, they did tell me'.

You might have noticed that another aspect to choosing how to say no is also when to say it. I think the word is so easy to use that we can end up saying it for every little thing, which is probably why Sears claims it's recognised at such an early age. Like with the examples above, such as grabbing my hair or reaching for an object, my baby isn't doing anything wrong. And if you think about it, it's actually really senseless. To say 'no' to a baby reaching for something is void of meaning and also completely ridiculous considering a child will always reach for something.

Think about it. Why is she allowed to reach for the spoon but not your cup? Because the cup is hot, or contains a liquid or is breakable? Then wouldn't saying so make more sense to her?

Saying no to some things and yes to others makes sense to us, but to a baby it's so arbitrary. She isn't going to learn anything other than that I am a very unpredictable person to be around!

Choose which situations actually require negation.
Choose a meaningful word.

This seems to provide two wonderfully amazing things
- learning and connection.


  1. Agreed.
    Arbitrary commands or suggestions never work for me.
    Why? is a question I've asked my whole life, and something I've always offered to the babes. [grin] And if the answer makes no sense to me, then I ignore it! :)
    Children - even very young ones can be and usually are very reasonable if you're loving and careful with them!

  2. I really like your thinking on this. The witchling is just over seven months now, and I too find it very hard to see that saying 'no' to hair-grabbing or fist-waving is a good way forward. Hadn't thought of your 'hot' and 'ouch' approach, so shall definitely give them a go; thus far, we have just been gently releasing hair, removing glasses, or offering alternatives, like you, but I like the idea of a word to associate with an action.

  3. Exactly. I'm not a 'no' person, but do talk things through, explain myself, and re-direct. Sometimes my husband jokes 'wouldn't it be easier to just say no'? Maybe. But I like and respect my kids. They don't say no to me (much) either.

  4. My mom did this when I was little. She related the story of my babyhood and toddlerhood and her choice to say "NO" as little as possible. She advised me to follow that same path with my children. She told me stories of visiting other families and witnessing their children being told "NO" to almost everything they found interesting. She told me, instead of saying "NO" she would find ways for me to engage in the interest. For example, I liked the stereo knobs. So, instead of "NO" she followed behind me and let me explore what all the knobs do. Things like that. She didn't want to say the word, "NO."

    It's funny, but it rubbed off on me and from a very young age I realized that "NO" did not mean I could not do something.. it only meant that someone else did not want me to do that something. Then, I was able to make a rational decision about whether or not their "NO" was justified and should I continue to do what I want or follow their direction. More often than not, "NO" is unjustified. I don't even often tell my dog, "NO." I find it much more beneficial to redirect his energy, or focus. He's had many, many compliments on his being more of a gentleman than most men. Very well-behaved and polite, in most instances. :D

  5. I love the scrupulous consciousness you apply (and maintain!) to parenting. And I love the ideas you expressed in this post.

  6. Oh yes, especially for a baby, "no" is meaningless. Actions speak louder than words at that age anyway! It's not until much, much later that you can explain that spoon-banging is giving you a headache so would you like to do something more quiet now, please? :-)

    I once did an exercise in a sort of consciousness-raising seminar for work. A person was blindfolded in the conference room, and another person had to guide them across the room to pick up something on the table (or some similar action, I don't recall exactly). But the catch was, you could not use the word "no". It was incredibly hard, because that word just comes flying out with very little conscious thought.

  7. First off: my husband and I are rather different in our parenting strategies. I'm more prone to explain or redirect, where as he is "Mr. Discipline" if you will, and more of a no-user. I do use "no" on occasion, but I don't spew it out at every juncture we come to. Because of how I was raised, sometimes I just shout out an urgent "No!" when my daughter is in danger of hurting herself or others, but its more of a reflex. That "no" is always followed up with an explanation as to why what she was doing should warrant such a response from me. Anyway, great post. I enjoyed reading it and it gave me a little more food for thought and something to remember in those 'urgent' moments!

  8. Fantastic post. My three are very close together (4 and 2 1/2 year old twins) and not resorting to 'no' is one of my biggest struggles when things get crazy. I do catch myself sometimes saying it arbitrarily, and have realized that doing so is the first sign I am losing it, so I try to use it as a cue to take a breath. I remind myself I don't really want to raise kids that take someone else's word for things, just because they are 'in charge', even though that would be a lot easier on me in certain moments now.

    The only word I have insisted upon absolute, unquestioning obedience to is 'STOP'. This is reserved for dangerous situations (like parking lots, which now that the twins won't go in their stroller anymore, have become my worst nightmare.) Since I don't use it much, so far these three absolutely freeze if I bark STOP, and it is a lifesaver (used it just today at the park when they headed for a loose dog that I didn't recognize - turned out to be friendly, but you get the idea.)

  9. I just wish I had been surrounded by women like you when I was first mothering! People often confuse the use of the word 'no' with setting boundaries, and you highlight this well.

    We have largely used this approach with our girl, and as a fellow long-haired woman, I used to also gently remove my much put-upon tresses from my baby's clutches, accompanied by a careful 'ow' or 'sore'.

    My girl has never hit or pinched or bitten, and developed a fairly high level of empathy quite early. It's often been remarked upon. I don't in any way mean that she's extraordinary, or that I'm boasting, I just wonder how much of this is due to the connections between the language/approach we use in teaching our children respect and empathy. Using words other than simply 'no' can convey to children the 'how and why' behind the boundary that's being set.

  10. Hi everyone,

    Great to hear your own thoughts and especially your personal experiences.

    Mommymystic - I agree with such a word for real urgent emergency situations.

    There are still many other aspects around this issue that need some thought, I guess I'll deal with them as they arise with my little one.

  11. Excellent post. I've always applied the explanation approach rather than "no", because when they are older, if you use the word "no", the retort to that is "why" to which the mum/dad then says "because I said so" to which the child will come back with "why" again. I know this because this is the sort of conversation I would have with my mother.

    It's much more beneficial to explain your reasoning in the first place and avoid the whole unnecessary conversation!

  12. Great food for thought! I struggle with this one on a daily basis.

    Both hubby and I grew up in quite strict homes where no was (pretty much always) no and that was the end of it, and find that we often do the same to our LO without thinking. I don't like it and am trying to change it.

    I do, however, think "no" has a very valid place in society as a whole. You shouldn't always have to explain yourself. As a mother of a girl, the most obvious thought is for my girl's safety as she grows up. I don't want her to feel she has to explain herself in a situation that doesn't feel right or safe. A simple no should suffice. As such I feel she has to learn by example that a no is sometimes all it takes, end of.

    As a result I try to strike a balance. I say no to her, and have done since she was little, but always try to add an age appropriate explanation too. Even if it's just "No! Hot!". I also add a litte action, in example above I would blow hard and fast 3 times. I have found actions like that come in very handy when you raise a bilingual kid.

  13. This is such a great way to explain this! I never did much of the AP with my son. But now when I'm with my little neice, my perspective is so different.

    She came to my house while her parents had a date and I was told "not to be afraid to tell her No". Afraid? There was nothing to say "no" to. She didn't ask any questions! There was a lot of "hot" and "ouch" and "ew" being said, though.

    It was all pretty new to me but I'm glad to see (read) my instincts led me in the right direction.


  14. I enjoyed this post and believe me have been very aware of every little no that has passed my lips or even run through my head in the past couple days. I do not think that I am a big no user but with a one year old and three year old (not to mention the seven, eleven and thirteen year olds) it is bound to happen. I agree so much with turning experiences into learning and hope that I can continue and improve my skills at this. I will say that it can be tiring and sometimes just does not happen!

    You know it is little things like this that make such a difference in the parenting experience that so many parents just do not realize and if they do, do not know how to change!

  15. What I found ubercool was that I had taught my son to sign by the time he was 9 months. They were just basic signs, including hot, cold, more, bath, wait, cuddles. By a year, although he was still non-verbal, he could tell me if he thought something would be hot. The Adorable Child being the Adorable Child, this didn't actually stop him touching it, but at least I knew he knew, and I would tell him if it was too hot to touch, with the "ouch, hot" sign.


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