Do you feel like, all around you on the playground, in the grocery store, at daycare, parents are endlessly negotiating with their toddlers and young children? As a parent, are you wondering what happened to just saying “no”? Do kids even need to hear the word, “no”?

Actually, the value in setting boundaries hasn’t changed. It’s still very important for children to know where the limits are and to know that rules exist. Boundaries and rules help children with their own internal self-regulation and help them to feel safe in the big world. BUT, and there is a but here, the parental-cultural emphasis has most certainly shifted.

The focus has moved:

  • It used to be top down, parents as the power, consequences for behavior.
  • And now it is parents as teachers and investigators.

The shift is from seeing discipline as a way of managing tricky moments to discipline as a form of teaching inner control.

Photo of how to set limits as a parent

This newer way of thinking about discipline isn’t actually that new anymore but I’d argue that it’s become more widely accepted and used, especially due to the intensive parenting experience that was COVID. It requires the parent to do more digging, and, therefore as it is with digging, it's less “clean.” It means understanding the root of the child’s needs, their fears, and problems.

It wasn’t that long ago that when a child came out of their bed after bedtime you’d hear, “Back to bed mister. I don’t want to hear any “buts” about it.” And that was it. Now, parents are more apt to gather information, so the quick “No” rarely, if ever, exists. Parents want to gather information, explore causes, and decipher why something is happening.

In the process of looking for the root causes of behavior:

  • Parents find themselves in a position to show more validation and empathy
  • They can help their child grow and learn and listen to their own valuable inner voice.

Communication is where trust and relationships grow, so yes, more words are going to be said. As the parent helps the child, thinks out loud with their child, and rationalizes things alongside their child, they can help them learn desired behaviors without using the word, “no”.

Parents have come to understand that their voice, during these moments of need, is what will become their child’s inner voice. So, why would they want to inflict shame or resentment by disregarding their child’s needs or feelings? It stands to reason that they would want to instill problem solving skills and broaden their child’s ability to cope with life’s ups and downs.

When the focus is on genuine connection and an effort to understand what’s going on, the situation is more likely to diffuse quickly. For example:

  • If a child bites their sibling, a parent 30 years ago would immediately tell that child, “no” and send them to time out.
  • With this new way of thinking, the parent might choose to check in on both children and then try to understand how the biter felt and what caused them to bite their sibling.
  • They can name that feeling for the child, validate that it was okay to have that feeling but not okay to bite, and then help them make repairs.
  • So much more is learned than in a firm and quick, “We don’t do that. Time out!”
Photo of how to say no to your child

Saying the word “no” in and of itself, is, of course, fine, and when needed, it can be very effective. For example, if your child is by an open flame and is about to touch it, a quick and clear “no” is necessary for safety.

However, in terms of teaching preferred behavior, just saying “no” is basically ineffective because it doesn’t teach what to do. One might argue, “well I’m just stopping them by saying “no” and then I’ll teach them what to do after that.” The problem there is that they have been shamed and may have slightly shut down, making them less receptive to learning as well as sad and powerless.

We ask our children to be flexible in their thinking, to broaden their palettes and try new foods and new things that they may not like…so I’m asking the people that stand firmly in the “No is best” camp to do the same. Try problem solving with your child or accept your friend that does that with theirs. Consider that just because “no” was said regularly to you as a child (and you turned out okay), it doesn’t mean it is what’s best.

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