As I was walking into the grocery store a small voice behind me said, "No," followed by a woman's voice saying sharply, "Don't say 'no,' it's not polite."
As I wended my way through the aisles, our paths crossed several times. The 3 or 4 year old girl with brown braids silently following her mother and the shopping cart. Once I smiled at her and she stared back, sad eyes in a tired face, without responding.
The mom ignored her, no chatting about what they were buying, no talk about what they would do when they arrived home, nothing to engage a small child. It was clear that this child had been told no, had been shut down, often enough that she knew her place. Be quiet, don't be a bother, don't voice your feelings, and be a good girl.
Were these the lessons this mom had learned when she was a girl? Where these the messages she meant to pass on to her daughter?
As the mother of three teenage girls I wanted to stop her and tell her about the future her daughter might face if she internalized these messages and then went out into world as a young woman. What kind of relationships she might have, jobs she might work, the marriage she might regret and yet feel unable to escape.
Here's what I heard her telling her daughter, "Don't express your feelings. Don't assert yourself. Don't stand up for your needs. Follow along, be quiet, and I won't yell at you. I probably won't do anything all that nice to you either, but at least you won't have to endure my wrath."
I realize my mind tends to go to the extremes when I'm extrapolating. The hypothetical future can be very black and white, even when the real world is full of grey areas. But, how we talk to our daughters, how we treat our children, the patterns we set for future relationships by how we interact with our kids, is not a grey area for me.
Children need to know that it is o.k. for them to say "No!"
The reality is that most parents don't like it when their kids say "no" because when their child speaks up it may be inconvenient. Children's needs, wants, and desires, can quickly derail even the most carefully laid plans of adults. But that doesn't mean that kids should be forbidden from asserting themselves, it means the adults in their lives need to practice being flexible and remember the value in doing things with their children, not to them.
As your children get older if what they've heard from the time they were tiny is be quiet, don't be a bother, don't voice your feelings, and be good, chances are they aren't going to be telling you a whole lot about what's going on in their lives. They won't bother telling you about the boy they like, the book they just read, or the teacher who humiliated them in front of their English class when they didn't understand the directions.
As your children venture into the world saying no is an important skill. "No, I won't drink that cough syrup." "No, I'm not getting into that car because the driver has been drinking." "No, it's not o.k. for you to kiss me." "No, I'm not going to have sex with you until we have condoms."
As frustrating as it may be when your three year old tells you "No!" remind yourself that some day that same word may save your child's life. Please, don't tell you child they can't say "No!" Instead, when your child doesn't want to do what you want them to do consider why. Talk to them. Validate their feelings, don't discount their experience, or take away their ability to express themselves.
And if your child seems to always say "No!" remember that small children often feel like they don't have any control over their lives. They feel this way because it's true. Most children are told what and when to eat, when to sleep, when to get up, when to be loud, when to walk and when to run. As often as you can give your child the opportunity to feel powerful, to have choices, to feel more in control of their lives.
If your toddler seems to only say "No!" consider that they may not have the words to fully express the thoughts and feelings behind the word. Help them explore those thoughts and feelings, to learn how to express them in a way that will support them in getting their needs met. Maybe they don't want to put on their jacket because the tag is itchy or last time they put it on the zipper pinched them, or putting on their jacket means leaving the house and they'd really rather stay home and build a tower with their blocks. Help them expand on that "No!" Decipher what they are trying to say and act on that, instead of reacting to the word "No!"
When children regularly hear this message from the adults in their lives, "Don't express your feelings. Don't assert yourself. Don't stand up for your needs. Follow along, be quiet, and I won't yell at you. I probably won't do anything all that nice to you either, but at least you won't have to endure my wrath," it sets them up to accept the same treatment from their peers, their employers, their boyfriends or girlfriends. Or it sets them up to say those words to other people in the future once they are bigger and in a position of authority. As I discussed in Bullying Begins at Home.
As parents we also need to guard against saying "No" to our children for arbitrary reasons. I talk more about this over at With The Family, in my post Arbitrary Parenting.
"Parenting with integrity and respect requires us to involve our children in the conversation. We must be honest and we must not be arbitrary. If we say "no" then we need a real, fact based reason why. If we can get to the teen years with our parental integrity intact, with our children knowing that we are willing to help them explore the options and answers, that we are not trying to control or manipulate their behavior to make our life easier, and we are truly supportive of the person they are, our relationship with them will reflect this."