The challenging task of saying No!

What was your child’s first word? Mama? Baba? Dada? Or was it... No?! It is amusing to hear when parents share that their child’s first word was ‘No’. It also lends to reflection. The word ‘no’ in varying tones, figures dominantly in a parents’ vocabulary especially in the first few years of the child’s life. Let’s look at some of the reasons behind this. 

On some level, that ‘No’ reflects our responsibility towards our children. ‘No’ could be because we want to keep our children safe. For example, our child is about to explore a plug point and we say a sharp, scared ‘no!’ Our little one may be looking at an object to put in their mouth and a loving; admonishing ‘no’ gains their attention long enough for us to prevent it. In some cases, the little one may adorably mimic our ‘no’ before proceeding to put the object in their mouth nonetheless, requiring quick intervention from the parent! 

Fast forward a few years- we hear ourselves saying ‘no’ to some kinds of food, inappropriate media content, hanging out with friends- either the company or the place they may have chosen, sleepovers etc. Our reason for saying ‘no’ could be broadly classified as looking out for their health, physical safety, emotional safety and of course, setting boundaries for socially acceptable behaviour. 

Not for a moment can we dispute the necessity of parents setting limits for their children. We are the adults in the relationship with best interests of our children at heart. Setting limits gives children a sense of safety and well being. They know that an adult cares for them and is looking out for them. And saying ‘no’ is probably the most common form of setting limits with children. 

Is it entirely possible to reduce the number of ‘No’s’ we tell our children without compromising on their safety or well being? Potentially, yes. We know that on many occasions, our ‘no’ is a reflex response. So, once we become aware of the instances that we most often resort to a reflexive ‘no’, rather than a thought through ‘no’, we could take the opportunity to see if that can be changed. Though often, we may have solid reasons for our ‘no’ yet to be aware that it stems from our beliefs. One of the most crucial aspects of parenting is becoming aware of and having the courage to question our beliefs. Especially if we feel it is coming in the way of connecting with our children. Should we say a categorical ‘no’ to our teen who wants to go for a dinner get together to a friend’s place, because we were not allowed to or because we feel our child would be judged by others? Or would it be worth thinking through what is really holding us back? If our concern is for their safety, will dropping and picking them up ourselves , being in touch with the parent at whose house the party is , be a reasonable compromise? Could wanting chocolate around dinner time be a non- negotiable ‘no’, but then could chocolate, post dinner be an occasional, indulgent dessert? 

Can our ‘no’ to something, be a yes for something else? This will allow the child flexibility within reasonable, parentally set limits upholding their need for choice and their dignity. 

Author: Seemanthini Iyer is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.