The Importance Of Saying No To Your Children

Jessica hardly ever says no to her 18-month-old son Billy. And now, she says things are getting 'tricky'.

Recently, when Billy wants a toy that another child has, he pushes or hits the other child, says "No", and snatches the toy. Jessica reasons: "If I say: 'No, we don't push' and take the toy away from him, then it's reinforcing the same thing he is doing to other children."

She has tried saying: 'Make nice', instead of 'no' or 'don't', but she admits 'it doesn't seem to work'. And she accepts that a toddler is too young to rationalise with. So what to do?

On reading Jessica's dilemma, I wanted to give her a hug and tell her that she had got herself into a misguided muddle.

Telling a child off when they snatch, and taking the toy back from them to return to the other child, is not being mean or negative. It's not perpetuating their own naughty behaviour. Quite the opposite.


Imploring 'Make nice', or murmuring 'Now, now', is not going to teach them their behaviour is unacceptable.


Jessica does say no to her child if he's trying to play with something unsafe, but thanks to the current 'Yes Parenting' trend, some parents believe they must respond with affirmations to whatever their children say and do. And it's driving the rest of us – and our well-behaved children - mad.

According to Bea Marshall, the British guru of this parenting style, "Yes Parenting finds positive, playful and gentle ways to respond to children, without the habitual use of the word No.

"By saying Yes to our children's individual needs, preferences, and interests we reduce conflict and increase closeness. Moving away from saying no builds trust and transforms our relationship with our kids."

I get what she is saying, but as a mother, I can't stop saying No and I don't see why I should have to. From a very young age, if my son took another child's toy, I have said a strong, even exaggeratedly horrified 'No'.

If he resists giving the toy back, or sharing, I take it out of his hands and share it back myself, and tell him off firmly. As a result, I believe, my son, now four, has always been a considerate sharer and never grabs from another child.

But because we live in a time when parents are confused about whether it's OK to say No, Stop or Don't to a child in case it damages their confidence in some way, others often snatch from him, or push him over, while their parents watch passively.

One mum I know was pushing her two-year-old daughter in her buggy next to me and my son, and gave her daughter some grapes. My son's eyes never left the grapes and he asked if he could have some.


My friend asked her daughter if she would give my son a grape. Her daughter shook her head no. And the mum just sighed and accepted the refusal to share. I was gobsmacked.


Had I been in her shoes I would have told my child off and taken half of his food from his hands to share with his friend.

It's not just parents who see No as a dirty word these days, either. My husband and I still can't get over a health visitor we saw when my son was just learning to talk. I proudly told her that he understood and was starting to say the word No.

She shook her head patronisingly at me and said: "We don't like to use that word. We believe in saying Yes." Then went on to explain that I should never, if I could possibly help it, say no to a child. It was too negative.

I'm not some stern disciplinarian. I'm a loving, soft-hearted mother. And I can even see why Bea Marshall advises that rather than telling your child to leave the cat food alone, you should try having family meals out of bowls on the floor and make believe you are cats. Yes, she really does say that.

I also agree with my friend Lynley, that sometimes saying Yes to a child against your instincts is the only way for them to learn - by figuring things out for themselves.

Lynley's example is when there is a foot of snow but your child will only put in a pair of summer shoes. She says: "I'm happy to say 'Yes, you do that.' Then let my son walk out the house and see how far he gets down the street."

But nice as it would be to aim to turn every potential toddler hazard into a game, at the end of a long day I would surely crack and have to run outside and scream 'NOOOO' for at least 10 solid minutes.

And I'm pretty certain that accidents would be forthcoming – I'm not sure how you would turn a pre- schooler eating every biscuit in the tin, or cutting through electrical wires with their craft scissors, into something positive.

Plus, I just don't see what is so bad about a good firm 'NO!' in the first place. The psychological counsellor Eve Menezes Cunningham agrees. "Children, like adults, need boundaries. If they don't hear 'No' and honour it, how will they not overstep others' boundaries - and set strong enough boundaries when others are not honouring them?"

Of course if you spend all day repeating 'No!/Stop it!/Don't!/That's not allowed!' to a toddler, they stop listening. There is definitely an art to saying No. It should be said in moderation, and in a calm but firm tone of voice (sobbing 'I'm begging you, no, no, no, please please just stop throwing food everywhere' isn't going to achieve much. Let's just say I know from experience).

Parenting expert Joanne Mallon believes in a middle way. "It's effective to limit the times you say No, so that when you do say it, it has more effect. Tell them what you want them to do instead. Otherwise they have to work it out for themselves, which is hard when you're two."

You can also add in some positivity – so instead of saying 'No, you can't' you could say 'You can - once you've eaten your peas'. Caroline, a nursery nurse, advises saying 'a serious "No, thank you" and the reason why'.

None of this is easy, of course. My friend Kim puts it perfectly: "Ninety percent of parenting is persuading your child to stop doing what it wants to do (emptying the contents of the bin on the floor, eating sugary snacks all day, spending hours watching cartoons) and getting it to do what you want it to do (eat vegetables, play with jigsaws, go to bed at an appropriate time)."

Unless you have a really compliant child, this is extremely hard. "And for the most part it's just a case of getting from the beginning of the day to the end in one piece."

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