When to Honor a Child’s Declaration of “No!”

“No!” is a favorite word of early learners.  They declare, “No!” as soon as they are able.  They don’t even need to say it with words to communicate it.  Young children will say no with their bodies.  You want to go out and they sit down.  You want to sit and they run.  You take them to run and they sit.  “No” is the most powerful word they know and they use it often.  There are times when it isn’t possible to honor their “No!” but there are times when we absolutely should:

“No!” cannot be honored when:
  • Their health is at risk.  There is a difference between refusing to take necessary medicine and refusing to wear gloves. A child who refuses medicine, immunizations or cleansing of a wound that could be infected, for example, is taking a risk that can cause serious illness.  It was long ago proven that colds and other viruses are not related to the weather.  They are passed from one person to another through the spread of germs.  If a child refuses gloves or even a coat, they can learn the natural consequence – your hands or body will be cold.  Of course sub-zero temperatures can cause frostbite which is a legitimate health risk.  We should be careful to determine if there is a genuine health risk but if not, it’s a live and learn situation. 
  • Their safety is at risk.  A child who refuses to hold your hand in the street or refuses to stay near you in public cannot be indulged.  I was recently at the bank when a mother asked her young son to walk to the counter with her when it was their turn to go to the teller.  The child refused.  The mother walked to the counter.  In the seconds that her back was turned when she spoke to the bank employee, her child climbed behind a display.  The mother turned, didn’t see him and looked panicked.  She yelled his name and he giggled.  Then, she lifted him from behind the display and took him to the counter with her.  In that split second, he could have been injured, kidnapped, etc.  Any refusal that puts safety at risk has to be denied.  You can explain why but you cannot give in.
  • They are not respecting other people.  A refusal that puts the health or safety of another person at risk is not acceptable.  A teacher with ten students who need to cross the street cannot indulge the “No!” that keeps everyone from safety on the sidewalk.  It is important to remember that respecting other people does not include an invasion of their bodies or having to surrender a toy they are using (see the “No!” should be honored when list below).
  • They are not respecting property.  A refusal that will destroy property cannot be permitted. I once was in a classroom when a young child picked up a block and started hitting a chair with it.  The action could have destroyed the chair or the block.  The teacher said, “Please hand the block to me.”  The child refused.  You can give the child choices but she certainly needed to part ways with the block.  I gave her an acceptable choice – you can put the block on the table or hand it to me.  Be clear that destruction of property renders it unable to be used or to be restored to its original form and purpose.  Ripping a book is destruction of property. Mixing the Play Doh is not destruction of property because it can still be used as intended. 

“No!” should be honored when:
  • They are protecting their right to take their turn.  Children have a right to their turn.  They should not be forced to hand things over to another child all the time.  Sharing in the early childhood years is hard.  They cannot use toys together until they are developmentally ready, usually at approximately four years old.  Before they can use items together as a team, they should take turns.  The child who first posseses an item should be allowed to finish or, at least, to have a warning before being asked to pass it along.  Let the children feel like they had their turn and they will be far more willing to wait for another turn.
  • They are protecting their right to not be touched, hugged and kissed.  Children have the right for their bodies to be theirs – sacredly theirs – without being forced to have physical contact that makes them uncomfortable.  I know that some adults get insulted when children don’t want to hug them.  We need to teach those adults that having the right to keep their bodies from unwanted contact is a foundational lesson that will be essential in the teen years and beyond.  For more information (especially if you want to support your case for Great Aunt Sophie to back off), read my article “Strangers in the Family:  Do You Force Affection?”           
  • They are exerting their power over eating and using the toilet.  Young children have absolute control over two things – what they swallow and what they let out of their bodies.  When a children feel out of control, they will control what they can.  The child may refuse to eat or may refuse to use the toilet.  I’ve seen children try to prevent themselves from urinating or having a bowel movement.  Adults need to send the message that we know they can control these actions and we respect that.  We shouldn’t get angry or argue.  Children will not starve themselves and eventually what goes in must come out.  When children see that we are not perturbed by this behavior, they tend to stop it sooner and look for something else to test their power.  Anything else can be within our realm of guidance (note I didn’t use the word control – less is more when it comes to control unless there is danger – see list above.  Guidance is about teaching and that's usually the best plan).
  • They are obviously afraid.  A scared child shouldn’t be ignored or told it is nonsense. Fear is a feeling that protects us from harm.  A child can be taught to use critical thinking skills to determine if there is, in fact, danger.  They need to be taught to think about situations, not that fear is not acceptable or is not an important warning for us.  When a child refuses to do something out of fear, it is a teachable moment. 

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