All too often I hear parents remark on how much their preschooler uses the word ‘no.’ “She says ‘no’ to everything! She takes hard-headed to a new level!” or “I think the only word he knows is ‘no!’” and in the same breath, parents also remark on how their little one “repeats everything I say- you have to be so careful!” Interesting, isn’t it, how clear the connection seems in writing but not in practice? Preschoolers say ‘no’ because they hear ‘no.’
At an age in which the transition from the helplessness of being a baby to the stark realization that the self is an independent human separate from mommy is, at best, abrupt, I think our kids need to hear ‘yes’ more. It’s time that we, as parents, evaluate why exactly we say ‘no’ as much as we do.
Maybe it’s habit. Toddlers and preschoolers have endless energy and seem to get into everything they physically can. Perhaps we are so used to saying no (“No, honey, you can’t fill the bathtub up with your spaghetti” “No, you can’t wear your swimsuit to school when it’s snowing outside”) that it becomes an automatic response rather than a well-thought reply.
Or maybe our ‘no’s’ have more selfish undertones. After all, filling pots and pans with water then throwing giant play-doh balls into them does not lend itself to the quiet, clean household most of us desire.
Whatever the reason, the truth is that ‘no’ often stifles a child’s ability to make real decisions that affect his or her life. In order to help children become independent adults, we must allow them to (gulp) make both wrong and right decisions, for this is how they learn.
I challenge parents to start saying ‘yes.’ Yes, you can sleep with all 74 of your stuffed animals on your bed. Yes, you can wear your sweatshirt inside out if the tag bothers you. Yes, you can absolutely have carrots with your breakfast and cereal with your dinner. By not automatically refusing an idea that, to us as adults seems silly or ‘wrong’, we not only empower our children to make their own decisions but also let them know that we support and respect them as people.
One of the best real life examples of a parent saying ‘yes’ is seeing a child at the grocery store wearing his or her Halloween costume when Halloween was months ago. Why not? Instead of “no, we don’t wear Halloween costumes when it’s not Halloween,” what’s the harm in “how did you ever come up with such a creative way to get more use out of the costume I made for you? You will probably have grown out of it by next Halloween, so I’m glad you have the chance to wear it again!”?
Of course, there are times when we must tell children ‘no’ (e.g., when safety is a risk). However, most of the time a ‘no’ can become a ‘yes.’ Think of it this way: instead of sharing with a child what he can’t do, try communicating what he can do:
- Don’t paint on the wall
- Don’t skateboard in the street
- Don’t throw the ball in the house
- Paints are for paper
- I’m happy to move the cars out of the garage so you can skateboard there
- I’d love to throw the ball with you in the backyard
Giving children real options and letting them choose what best suits their needs in situations like these not only saves us the time and frustration of, say, cleaning paint off the walls, but it also allows children to feel like their opinions matter (and they do matter!).
I suspect that children whose parents respect them as people and allow them to have a say in their life decisions will be more compliant when a parent does say no, because the child will know that your use of ‘no’ is not indiscriminant or meaningless.
Next time, before you say ‘no’ to a request your child has made, ask yourself why. Will it put my child or others in danger? Do I have a substantial reason to say ‘no’? If not, I challenge you to say ‘yes’!