Why We Don’t Tell Our Child “No.”

I promise, it is not what you are thinking.


Some families have adopted a gentle approach to parenting. They try to never say the word no, or any negative phrases (don’t, stop, etc.) even when their child is doing something or asking for something that they are not allowed to do or have. Instead, the parents try to redirect the attention or the conversation. In place of, “No, you may not have ice cream” they say, “Would you like some fruit?” or “How about you play with your toys?” when their child is brandishing a kitchen knife at them. I made these examples up. I am sure I am the only parent who has had my toddler threaten me with knives…

But Jon and I did not choose to parent like that. We believe our kid needs hard limits and clear lines and we do use the word no, quite often in fact, but what we do along with that, and what I try to encourage my friends and family who interact with Cillian to do, is be specific. Be clear with him. Tell him exactly what you want him to do or not do.


How many times have you heard (or maybe you have done this yourself) an adult tell a child, “No no no.” on repeat. As an adult with a fully formed vocabulary, often times I am not even sure what these no‘s are referring to, and if I am confused, I am sure the toddler is also confused. There are even times when my husband will THINK he knows what I am thinking and he will just say, “Beka…no.” And most of the time my response is, “No what?” Because he was not clear! Thanks to 28 years of being a human, I am able to ask for this clarification. My toddler is not. At least, not very efficiently. I am sure there are times when he is babbling and shaking his little finger at me that he is asking me to be more specific with my instructions, but it comes out all wrong.

When we want to put a hard stop to C’s behavior, instead of, “Cillian, no.” We try to say, “We do not stand on the couch. You need to sit on your bottom.” It sounds lengthy, I know, but there is really no way to cut corners in parenting. I just look at it as a chance to expand his vocabulary while instructing his behavior . Because his vocabulary is just starting to form, I do not want the word he hears most often to be no. I am convinced that is why most two-year-olds go through the dreaded No-phase. Maybe Cillian will go through one as well, but when he does, I will sleep more soundly knowing it was not my fault. Besides, when he was born, C had no idea what no meant. He had to learn the meaning just like he learned the meaning of, “Sit on your bottom.” In fact, it was easier to teach sit because it has a physical action to accompany it. No is an abstract concept that really, could mean anything. So to me, teaching lengthier action phrases such as, “You need to sit on your bottom” or even “Do not do that” is easier than teaching “No.”


Another reason we try to not pelt our child with constant no’s is that I want that word to mean something when I do use it. The more one hears a word, the less special it becomes, and the more they can tune it out. If I tell Cillian no every time he begins to touch anything, eventually he is going to think that is just the sound mom makes. Cars say “vroom,” cows say “moo,” mom says “no.” But when I say, “Do not touch that,” his hand immediately pauses and I can see his little brain ticking away, considering if what he was about to do is really worth what mom is about to do.

There are some activities that Cillian chooses that I might not think are the best, but because they are not harmful, I see no need to stop him. They are not hard lines. It is way too exhausting to spend my entire day telling him what he can and cannot do. When we play outside, he always wants to put mulch in his mouth. I could spend our entire outing saying no or even, “Don’t eat that!” and taking mulch from him, but what I chose instead was to tell him that he probably did not want to eat mulch or that it was yuck. He still decided he did want to eat it, so in the mouth it went. Almost immediately, he spit it out because he realized, he really did not want it in his mouth and, just as mom said, it is yuck. If I had spend the entire outing taking mulch from him, he would have spend the entire outing trying to eat it, but because it was not a hard stop to me, I let him decide on his own that it was not any good. Now when we go out, he might pick up a piece or two and say his version of yuck, but he rarely puts it in his mouth. The end result is the same – he does not eat mulch – except I do not feel like I just came through the Toddler Wars.

My husband and I have realized that consistency is key. If we tell C no once, we need to consistently tell him no on that subject and escalate our instructions when necessary. The more things we draw the line at, the more we have to follow through with. Again, I could spent my entire day following my toddler around and telling him what not to do and handing out spankings. Instead, we have found a handful of things that are hard stops – my book shelves, the glass flower vase on the end table, the cabinet with the grilling utensils – and we consistently tell him that he is not allowed to touch those things and when he does, he gets the consequences and a stern reminder that he is not supposed to touch.

We also have things that warrant a hard, firm no! but we try to limit that word with no accompanying explanation to dangerous or catastrophic things like when he goes towards the power outlet with a fork. Just kidding… that has never really happened… Or when he is about to knock dad’s guitar down off the couch. Or if his fingers are about to end up on mom’s hot coffee. I have discovered why moms drink cold coffee. It is safer. But whether it is the word itself, or the urgency in our voices, when mom or dad says “No!” Cillian stops immediately each most of the time, even if just for a second or two. It gives us enough time to take the fork, move the coffee, or snatch him up to avoid a disaster. If we constantly threw the word no at him when he was about to do something that was only less than ideal, it would not mean much, to him or to us!


My house is not child proofed. But I take pride in the fact that my child is mostly house-trained. He knows what he is and is not allowed to do because from the very beginning, I was clear with him about it. He is still a child and will push limits and test boundaries and he needs constant reminders, but when he goes to the end table that holds my grandmother’s glass vase, his eyes always find mine and he pauses mid-reach and smiles. He knows exactly what he is playing at. He knows that what he is about to do will land him in trouble with mom. He is testing me. Because I am consistent, each time this happens, I shake my head and remind him, “We do not touch mom’s table,” he giggles and puts his hand down. I can almost hear him saying, “I know, mom. I just wanted to make sure you remember. But next time you’ll forget.”

Our little C-monster definitely understands the word no. It means serious business. But he also understands, “Sit on your bottom” and “Do not climb that” and “You are not allowed to touch that.” I am very proud of the way his father and I have decided to parent. I think we are raising a great little human.


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