The power of ‘no’

Saturday December 8, 2012

Knowing when to say "no" is a powerful skill to have. Sometimes people say no when they could or should say yes. Sometimes they say no when they mean yes. Parents in particular have an important role in that their children are learning from the choices they make and assimilating the outlook on life that they emit.

Just like anything in life, it’s all about balance. Too many yeses and a child doesn’t learn about structure. Having structure and authoritative figures helps them feel safe. Feeling safe enables them to reach their own full potential. Too many nos and they learn that the world is a negative place. They learn that they can’t be trusted and they lack the space to find their own true footing on their path.

It’s good for parents to listen to and learn from themselves. It’s an interesting exercise to analyze how often we answer no to our children. I was paying attention to this recently and I noticed loud and clear when I wanted to say no to my daughter’s request, but with pause, I couldn’t really think of a worthy enough reason to deny her. On a cold gray November morning, my 3-year-old Sylvia spotted her bottle of sunscreen in the car. Driving to preschool, I hear from the back seat, "Clouds is sunny, right?" In the parking lot when it was time to hop out, she asked if she could put on some sunscreen. As much as I wasn’t in the mood to hang out in the car for a few extra minutes for something that doesn’t logically make sense, I let her put a tiny bit on her body. I could have easily said no to make my life simpler, but in the end it’s not fair or responsible to always choose what’s easier for me. If our children never get the chance to lead and guide their own experience, how will they ever learn to do it?

It can be challenging to put our own emotions aside. We often call Sylvia a monkey -- she’s brave, balanced and bold. Frequently, she’ll push her body to the limit, climbing so very high or teetering without asking for a hand. My instinct is to say, "No honey, don’t go any higher," or ... "Don’t climb on that, you might fall." But I before I do, I have to check with myself to see where my comments are coming from. I want to base her limitations on her actual safety, not my own fear. Though I might cringe to see her taking chances, I know that her successes and failures in those moments are the building blocks of her development.

One of the most difficult times for me in knowing when to say no is dropping her off at child care. Even after more than five years of practice, I still have to work very hard to know which way is the best way to fall. On those mornings when she’s struggling with her the transition from home to school, my answer of no can either make the situation worse or it can prove to be the perfect remedy. When she asks me, "Can you play for three more minutes?" I have to quickly ask myself if it’s the right move. At times, a few more minutes is all she really needs and then she feels ready. At other times, staying a few more minutes only makes it harder for me to leave, and that’s when a definitive but loving no is the best answer for everyone involved.

I recently read a great article -- "18 Ways to Say No Positively" by Dr. Bill Sears. If you notice a whole lot of nos coming from your mouth, or if your nos don’t seem to have the effect you want them to, this article is full of great ideas. Dr. Sears is known for promoting attachment parenting, and while I don’t subscribe to any one particular parenting style, I highly recommend this article to all parents and caregivers. It’s full of great insights and examples and left me inspired to do even better in the way I’m raising my girls. (Check it out at and search the word no.)

We have so many responsibilities to our children. As a parent, I want my daughters to say what they mean and mean what they say. I want them to be able to communicate the simple and powerful word no at all the right times. Modeling for them best practice in using the word no can deeply inspire their own confident and positive outlook on life.

Sarah DiNicola is the Communications & Events Coordinator at Windham Child Care Association, and the mother of two young children, Sylvia, age 3, and Nina, age 5, who both spend time in a local child care program. She can be reached at or 802-254-5332 ext. 310.


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