"No" – it's one of the most powerful words in the English language, but as a parent to a two-year old, I find myself repeating it so frequently that it's lost its impact. My son, like many toddlers, is an excitable, unpredictable, clumsy little explorer. Which is why it's virtually impossible not to resort to the two-letter word every time he knocks over a glass of water, scribbles on a piece of furniture, or sticks the bristly end of his toothbrush down the plughole.
Lately, he's really started giving it back to me. "No shoes!" he says as we're scrambling out the door. "No wash hands!" he shouts as I lead him to the sink. "No juice!" he asserts, even though he's just asked me to retrieve the bottle from the fridge. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he simply shouts "No!"
Prue Liger, Montessori teacher and Positive Discipline educator, says that children don't quite understand the concept of "no" in the same way that adults do.
"From birth to age three there is an incredible amount of brain growth – doubling in size by age one with twice as many synapses of an adult by two or three," she says. "There's a lot going on for that small person and I think our expectations of their understanding concepts such as 'no' may be quite high."
Liger goes onto explain that the prefrontal cortex – responsible for self-control amongst many other executive functions - is not fully developed until we reach our late 20s.
"Children, especially under three, simply do not have the neurology to self-regulate like adults," she says.
Liger warns that it's important not to fall into power struggles with young children.
"When we use the word 'no' excessively, the child becomes frustrated because she cannot follow her innate desire to experiment and explore," says Liger. "In turn, the adult becomes frustrated because the child 'won't listen' and the adult laments 'How many times do I have to tell you?'"
If, like me, you've found yourself caught in such a pattern, chances are you're overusing the word "no". This can lead to negative short and long-term behaviours.
"If a dangerous situation occurs, 'no' will fall on deaf ears," Liger says. "Overuse will also most likely lead to conflict – frustration, power struggles, tantrums and aggression."
Exhausting "no" can also work in the opposite way – leading to over-compliance.
"Your child might become the people pleaser or approval junkie, but at what cost?" she says. "He'll look for external validation, won't trust his own judgement, and may be afraid of trying new things." Or, she warns, your child could become capitulate. "This means your child gives up asserting his own needs and desires, and submits to adult's will at the expense of his own."
So, as a parent or caregiver to a young child, is it possible to avoid use of the word "no"?
Liger says "yes". That by mindfully switching up "no" with positive responses that set clear boundaries, it is possible to reduce the use of the word "no" and create a more loving and respectful relationship with the child.
To get you started, Liger suggests introducing the following strategies:
Say "yes" instead
Liger says it's important not to forget the power of yes. "Look for what you can say yes to!" she says. "Ask yourself – is it dangerous? What am I worried about? Is this really a problem? What are my expectations? Find the CAN in can't!"
Yes you can splash in the puddles – with your gumboots and raincoat on/I have a change of clothes!
Yes you can have the cookie – after dinner.
Yes you can kick the ball – outside.
Use "I" statements
Sart the sentence with "I"
I won't let you … because that hurts.
I can't let you … because it isn't safe.
I will tell you when I'm ready. I'm cooking our dinner.
Use "You" statements
Try acknowledging desires with "you" statements, and follow through with a limit.
You want to draw – the paper is for drawing.
You want to stay at the park – it's time to go home now.
You want a turn – I'll help you wait.
Empower your child with choice
Liger says try empowering your child by giving them limited choices. Instead of asking "yes" or "no" questions, offer the choice of what, how, when or where:
Would you like to wear your red pants or your blue pants?
You may hold my right hand or left hand – you choose!
Do you want eggs or cereal for breakfast?
Will you wash your hands in the bathroom or in the kitchen/laundry?
When is it ok to say "no"?
Of course, completely avoiding saying "no" is impossible. Liger says "no" is appropriate when there is danger or risk of damage to people or property. "When the parent has the calm confident conviction that 'no' is necessary and follows through, there will be no need to coax or cajole or console," she says. "If the parent waivers or is unsure, the child will sense ambivalence, and a struggle is sure to ensue."
Respect your child's "no"
Liger says it's also important to respect a child's "no" so that later they may feel empowered when saying no to peers or aggressors. For example, if your child says no to be tickled, sharing their toys, or hugging a friend or relative they don't feel comfortable with, it's important to respect their wishes.
Celebrate when your child says "no"
This might seem like a stretch, but Liger also suggests that we celebrate 'no' when we hear it from our child.
"Try saying, 'Wow you are really starting to think for yourself and deciding what is important to you!" she says. "This might be an internal mantra to remind you of the importance of your child's burgeoning autonomy."