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The Other Side of 'No': The Benefits of an Often Maligned Word

Oct 16, 2018
by Mo McElroy

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It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and see how the concept of NO played out on my little team now, but when I was in the thick of it, NO could be as vital as saving a life or as seemingly insignificant as refusing the third popsicle.NO can be a magic wand to use with skill, purpose, and creativity. Overusing the word itself can dilute the message (the average toddler hears NO 400 times a day), but in the hands of a conscious parent, it's a life-shaper.

The memory of learning the magic of NO with my first two-year-old is crystal clear. And so are the times I was too lazy, didn't want to argue, gave in and swallowed that NO down like a bitter pill while they wore me down and got their way. The vigilance of 8,760 hours of parenting one two-year-old was exhausting. I did it three times.

When Sara was two, we moved into a new house that had no "rules." Before the boxes were unpacked and house rules were in place, she began flipping the garbage disposal switch, flushing the toilets, emptying out the refrigerator and lying on the floor heater. This happened over and over again until I was livid and screaming "NO!" all day long. One day my rage hit the breaking point, and I called the pediatrician literally crying for help. He firmly instructed me to take the phone in my room, close the door, and he put me in a time out! Then he gave me one of THE most incredible pieces of parenting advice.

"Picture your child in a pitch dark padded room. Our human instinct is to feel for the walls and gauge where we are. Each time we find a wall we feel a little safer. Your NO is her wall. When she hears NO she will feel that wall, then persist and test again looking for the next wall. Once she finds there will always be a wall, she will feel safe, and she will stop testing. If you do not stand firm with your NO she will keep testing until she finds her true sense of internal safety."

Then, the doctor put Sara and me in Time Out Bootcamp for a week. Every time she tested me, I put her in the Time Out Chair for one minute. The first few days she was there 50 times a day. I wasn't allowed to let one infraction slip by. And then, one week later she woke me up, took my hand and walked me around the house pointing and saying "No" to the refrigerator, toilet, garbage disposal, and heater. Then she jumped in my arms and whispered: " I love you, Mommy."   And boot camp was over for the rest of her life. She felt safe, and I felt heard. And I learned that a consistent NO is a profound act of love.

Twenty years later I overheard my three girls recounting what they were NOT allowed to do when they were growing up. I craned my ears expecting to hear a litany of how I robbed them of childhood happiness by saying NO to things asked for. Instead, I listened to an appreciation of how much I cared.

"Our friends had TV's in their rooms in grade school and could watch horror films before bed! What was the parent's thinking?"

"When we wanted to watch a Nickelodeon show, mom made us count the acts of violence, and there were more than 20 we weren't allowed to watch it. She even tried to ruin Disney movies because they average 40 acts of violence per hour and a parent always dies, but we teamed up and fought back and won!" (laughter)

"And when Bonnie turned 17 mom thought she was finally off- duty. And we had to call her and say "Mom, Bonnie thinks you don't love her anymore because you don't give her consequences and curfews."

Lori Freson, M.A. writes: “News flash: Kids need you to say ‘no.' Children are not emotionally or developmentally equipped to make major decisions or rules or to self-regulate. That's your job. And if you don't do it, your child will feel a sense of confusion and internal chaos, which could manifest itself in stomachaches, headaches, tantrums and even ulcers.”

The other side of NO is loving consistency which was the hardest and most important skill I attempted to master in my 30 years of parenting. And I overheard it's the one they appreciated the most.

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