No is such a tedious little word. It can be both empowering and infuriating. It can be reassuring, or devastating. It can be the end of a conversation, or part of a negotiation. This is pretty powerful considering that the word “no” really says very little. Yet, the word no is often like a grenade.
There are 2 major problems with using the word “No” with young children. The first is that when we simply tell a child “No”, we actually don’t tell them anything. I can clearly remember one time, when Sofi was about 18 months old, and we were visiting at Grandma’s house. Sofi was playing something, and Grandma suddenly said, “No, no, Sofi!” She said it sweetly, respectfully, and without at all insulting Sofi. And Sofi and I both sat and stared at her. Neither of us had any idea what she had done wrong. And this is the big problem with the word “No”. It doesn’t explain what behavior is undesirable, and it certainly doesn’t explain what the expected behavior is.
The second big problem with telling a young child “No” is that our kids learn what we model. Which means that, rather than discuss their ideas and feelings with you, your child is soon going to start using the word “No”. A LOT. And a toddler yelling “No” at you all of the time wears through patience, quickly. Once upon a time, I knew a lovely little 2 year old who answered every single question by yelling, “NO!” and then answering the question.
“What color is this?”
“NO! … Blue.”
“What would you like for a snack?”
“NO! … Carrots!”
“What book should we read?”
“NO! … Go, Dogs, Go!”
As you can imagine, at the end of the day, the adults were completely worn down with her. If you don’t want to find yourself in a similar situation, seriously consider your use of the word “No”.
A better solution is to avoid the word “no” in all but the most dangerous of situations, or when it is time to completely end a conversation. Instead, use a short, descriptive sentence to tell the child what the problem is and what to do instead.
“We don’t play in the garbage can! Let’s go wash your hands and read a book instead.”
“We don’t write on the floor with the crayon. We only write on the paper.”
“The electric outlet is HOT! Let’s put your toy keys in the door instead.”
The benefits of this type of language are plenty. Speaking to your child this way tells them what you don’t want to do, and what you DO want them to do. It reinforces the desired behavior. Most children remember and respond only to the last thing they hear. When you say, “Don’t stick your toy in the electric outlet!” the child mostly comprehends, “Toy in electric outlet!” When you finish with the desired behavior, that is what the child remembers. Also, saving the word “NO” for when you REALLY need them to listen means that when you REALLY need them to listen, you will have their attention. So when your 2 year old is running toward the street, hearing the word “NO!” actually gets their attention and has a much better chance of getting them to stop – or at least pause so you can catch them.