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What Every Parent Needs to Know about No

By Thomas Reimers, Ph.D.

What Every Parent Needs to Know About No image

​One word that gets the adrenaline surging and heart pounding in every toddler is the word “no.” It can send most toddlers and many preschoolers into a head-spinning, body-flopping, and ear-piercing orbit. For them, it simply means ‘pump up the volume and game on’! This results in some of the more frustrating experiences for parents and certainly tests everyone’s parenting skills.

Most children at this age are operating under the premise of “if it feels good, give me more, and if it doesn’t, I want nothing to do with it.” Toddlers are focused on those things that they can do, eat, or watch immediately. Delayed gratification is not a well-developed skill at this age. And basic reasoning skills are almost nonexistent. The excessive amount of time parents spend trying to explain and reason with their children, simply goes in one ear and out the other.

There is not a parent alive who hasn’t said the word “no” to their child. In fact, “no” is maybe the most commonly used word with toddlers. The use of “no” certainly has its place, but only if it’s used effectively. The problem is that “no” is just a word. Likewise, a tornado siren is just a sound and a traffic signal is just a light until they are paired or associated with something that is meaningful to us. If you’re going to use the word “no,” and I highly recommend that you do, then you might as well make it as effective as possible.

Using “no” is important for a lot of reasons, some of which include minor behaviors, but others involve safety (reaching for a dangerous item, going near a busy street, and so forth). We take action when we hear a police siren, see a traffic light turn red, or hear a tornado siren because we know that they are associated with important, meaningful events. If your child is going to respond to you when you say “no,” it needs to be meaningful. They need to know that there is some action associated with them stopping or not, and that your first “no” will be the last “no.” That is, it will not be followed by one “no” after another. Here are a few things to consider when helping your child learn the value of “no.”

Make sure that “no” is the answer you want to give. Parents tend to allow the word “no” to come out of their mouth without thinking about it. If your child is making a request or asking for something, the best thing you can do before saying anything is to ask yourself, “Why no?” Being selective about when you say “no” — and sticking to it — allows your child, over time, to learn that “no means no.” If the answer is always or usually “no,” then your child has nothing to lose by appealing (throwing a tantrum) your decision.

“No” is not a suggestion. When you say “no,” it means “stop.” I have never heard the word “no” used as a suggestion. Thus, “no” needs to be followed by either positive praise from you when your child responds to “no” (they listened!) or immediate action by you when your child does not stop when you say “no.”

Action is the key. After you have issued one “no” — that’s right, one “no” — you need to take action. If your child has listened to your “no,” or perhaps followed your redirection, then praise them for doing so. Don’t take it for granted that your child has an inborn ability to respond to “no” — they don’t. On the other hand, after you have issued one “no,” take action in the most appropriate manner necessary to help your child understand that “no” is not a suggestion; it is an expectation. On occasion, it may be that you simply need to physically redirect your child to another activity, physically prevent them from doing something that is dangerous, or, if they are engaging in some inappropriate behavior, place them in timeout.

Volume is not the solution. If you say “no” and your child ignores you, repeating it as loudly as you possibly can is not going to help your child understand the value of “no.” It just means that they need to put their hands over their ears or become very good at tuning you out even when you’re yelling at 5,000 decibels. Just as the stoplight does not get brighter, there is no need to make your “no” louder. Remember — act, don’t yak.

Saying “no” multiple times only dilutes the value of “no.” It teaches your child that it’s a word that can be ignored, and it further reduces your authority as a parent.

Teaching your child the value of “no” will help them learn that “no” is an important word, as much as they, and we, don’t always like to hear it.​