Proactive communication: a toddler who doesn’t say “no.”

Guest post by Addie Pobst
The word no made from jigsaw puzzle pieces

It’s an exciting time for all parents: our baby is learning to talk! Conan’s vocabulary has been steadily building for a few months. He’s not one of those super-verbal babies (his 10 month old cousin already has a larger vocabulary!) but he understands most of what is said to him, can follow simple instructions, and now regularly uses these words himself:

Yeah * Wow * Hi * Uh-Oh * Mama * Papa * Baby * Ball * Birr (Bird) * Bobbol (Bottle) * Boon (Balloon) * Kee (Kitty) * Dok (Dog and/or cow) * Hot (which also means cold) * Dat (That, usually accompanied by pointing). He also signs more, bye-bye, and milk to round out his communication. You can say a lot with 15 words and 3 signs, plus pointing and grunting!

Still, there’s one glaring omission from this list of words. Do you see what is missing?

No? Yeah, that’s right: “No.”

At nearly 18 months old Conan does not say no. He never has. Sure, sometimes he refuses. He pushes things away, shakes his head, and sometimes even cries and stomps his feet. But he has never once even used a “nnnn” sound to express his refusal. I’m sure that eventually, like most toddlers, he will become enamored with “no”. But so far, he’s very much a “yes” boy. He’ll happily sing Yeah-Yeah-Yeah to himself while he plays, and if you ask him a question he’ll almost always answer with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” Of course, whether he means it or not is another story, as you’ll find out when you actually make him that second piece of toast that he seemed so excited about.

I’m not sure why he doesn’t say “no,” but I have a couple of theories. For one thing, we’ve tried to make Conan’s environment safe for him to explore, so we don’t have to constantly tell him no. Most everything in the house that he can access is ok for him to get into. We didn’t do this because we’re extra specially enlightened parents, we did it because we are lazy and it’s much easier, in the long run, to spend a few afternoons child-proofing than it is to constantly watch out for him getting into things he’s not supposed to get into–because he WILL get into everything he can.

Mostly though, I think it comes from focusing on telling him what I want him to do, rather than what I don’t want him to do. So instead of telling him “Don’t stand on the chair,” I tell him “Please sit down on your bottom.” Instead of “No coloring on the table” I tell him “Crayons color on the paper.” “Pet the kitty on the back” is more effective than “Don’t poke the kitty’s eyes.” It was hard at first to change my thinking and focus on the outcome I wanted, but I’ve gotten better at it over the months. Now it’s almost automatic for me to give Conan positive instructions instead of prohibitions.

I’m certainly not perfect at always giving him positive instructions, and it’s not like he’s never been told NO. But I do make an effort. I started doing it because I noticed that, for instance, if I said “don’t throw your food,” it was as if he heard only “…throw your food.” The negative just didn’t seem to register. Even at a very young age (around 9 months or so) he’d do exactly what I just told him not to do. I found pretty quickly that if I rephrased my requests into the positive it had a much more satisfactory effect.

Now I’m starting to wonder if it works on grown-ups too? I’m going to give it a try. The whole world could use more positive instructions and fewer prohibitions, I bet. It’d be pretty nice if someday No wasn’t a primary word in all of our vocabularies.

Comments on Proactive communication: a toddler who doesn’t say “no.”

  1. You’d be surprised at how well some the these things work with adults. I work as a medical receptionist and I use my manners all the time. Mostly, I’ve noticed the difference between asking “would you” and “could you”. “Would you” actually implies a commitment from the person, but it is on a subconscious level.
    So, I use “would you”, “may I please (have your ins card), and “thank you so much”. “Thank you” can be used with a upper note at the end, indicating that you are ready for a conversation (thank you for calling, may I help you) or be used with a lower note at the end to signal the end of the conversation (thank you for calling, bye). I’ve been able to say “thank you for calling” (lower note) and have people cut off mid sentence to say goodbye to me. They probably don’t even know why they did it.

    Another way to end a call is “let me” as in “let me get this info to…. thank you for calling.” They will still feel in charge of the conversation- as if it’s their decision to let you go.

    I could probably write a book on this…

  2. I LOVE THIS! This kind of proactive communication is what I promote on Offbeat Bride *constantly*. Instead of saying, “No, dad, I don’t want you to walk me down the aisle,” you say, “Dad, it would mean so much to me if you’d read one of your poems during our ceremony.” Instead of saying, “Mom, stop trying to be so controlling about my dress!” you can say, “Mom, I’d love your help with picking out flowers.” Instead of focusing on what you DON’T want, focus on what you DO want. Seriously, it’s one of my biggest issues on OBB.

    I’m a HUGE proponent of proactive, constructive communication with adults … but had never really thought about it for toddlers. This post is an epiphany for me!

  3. This is a great parenting philosophy that we have tried to hold ourselves to over the last nearly 4 years. It can be really hard! Sometimes when the kid is petting the dog a little too hard or is about to break something it is incredibly hard to rein in the desire to bark NO! And although we often fail, it is true that on days when we are able to be proactive more often than restrictive and negative our preschooler’s attitude is much better and easier to deal with.

    … On a side note, there is so much good parenting advice that boils down to whether or not a parent is able to rein in their reactions and act with thoughtfulness and planning versus passion.

  4. After teaching Autistic preschoolers for 5 years, I can tell you, ASKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT is always better than telling kids what you dont want ( I wish adults would do this with eachother too, but thats a rant you dont want to read) E.G. Lets walk instead of NO Running! Lets be quiet instead of STOP TALKING, or hands down instead of DONT TOUCH HER! I really make a conscious effort to use no, dont, stop to a minimum. But sometimes, like when a kid is about to cut their friends finger with scissors, a firm NO really gets the message of ” this is NOT AN OPTION” across.

    • As an elementary school teacher, I totally second that. I try to frame rules positively, not only to keep things pleasant, but also to short-circuit the inevitable Dennis-the-Menacing that often happens with negatively framed rules (“You said, ‘Don’t *hit* others in line’! You never said we couldn’t push/spit on/pick-our-noses-and-then-tickle others…”). Saying what you want is a lot less ambiguous than leaving someone in the position of managing a huge list of things you don’t want. And it totally makes “NO!” more effective when you do have to pull it out of the holster!

      • I totally agree. If you over use “NO” then it doesn’t mean anything. Then when you really mean NO, like your kid managed to get just out of grasp and is about to do something dangerous, they won’t listen.

  5. I work at a summer camp and we train our staff to use positives, because your brain can’t hold a negative. If you tell a camper not to run all they hear is “run” and they do just that. If you ask them to please walk and take their time, they’ll slow down and pay attention.

  6. children that age are actually unable to understand the complex idea of explaining what *not* to do, which is what makes it so effective. we did it with our girl, who never said “no” at that age. of course, now she’s 2 1/2 and when you tell her what you’d like her to do she consistently moans, “i caaaan’t”. 🙂

    • YES… 3 has been killer for us! Our son has learned how to say NO in so many new ways… he is so sophisticated in communicating how he wants things to be and what he won’t comply with. I hate when articles say something like, “If your child is having a tantrum over what to wear, let them pick from a couple choices.” Not once they are 3! They know that whatever you’re presenting are not the only choices!

  7. i love this. totally what i did as a preschool teacher, and what i do now, working with older kids who have autism and other disabilities. it works. and it’s so much easier on the ears. i hate hearing “No-No!” all the time from parents, and i’m sure kids do too.

  8. We host a “holistic parenting” class at my store, and the teacher made a great point about this. She pointed out that if you tell a kid, “don’t fall”, all they’ll be able to think about is falling and they probably will. Instead she suggests “stay safe” which seems to work well.

    She also applied it to pregnancy and birth; “I want a vaginal birth” vs. “Please oh please I don’t want a C-section.”

  9. As a preschool teaching assistant with 3/4 year olds, this is a fantastic approach we use as a whole school 🙂 we also keep praise simple and quick, eg ‘good sitting’, ‘good waiting’ etc so there is no confusion over only hearing part of the sentence 🙂 this also works well on my almost 2yr old muchkin, and she now says it to her toys when pretending to feed/dress them! (she still says no A LOT -but we’re working on that one!)

    • Related to the ‘no’ debate, there are some interesting reasons why the ‘good sitting’ road might not be the best one to go down… My bubba is still being baked, but I’m thinking when they finally arrive, I might try and avoid the excessive praise. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone’s actually given this a shot…

      • I think there is a balance between the two–I’ve never read this article, but this behavior is basically how we are with Jasper. Sometimes he does something really awesome and we can’t help but tell him “awesome!” or clap for him, but most of the time, we do what the “say what you saw” bit says. I don’t think I could ever just ignore something he did, and once he’s old enough to communicate with us more effectively, we’ll definitely ask him questions–we already do, we just don’t always understand one another. 😉

        • The ‘good whatever-ing’ always struck me as a bit odd, somehow. I think perhaps it’s a mostly American thing? But yeah, there probably is a balance. Ignoring stuff doesn’t seem all that kosher either!

          • Alfie Kohn is awesome. 🙂 His thing is NOT about ignoring, but really about taking a closer look at what you, as an adult, want to acknowledge and WHY. For instance, do you really mean “Good sitting” or do you mean “Your actions make my life easier”? It’s not about ignoring things that you like or think are awesome, it’s about realizing that we don’t realllllly mean “Good sitting” most of the time. 🙂

  10. Semi-related, but this reminded me of a story I heard on NPR ages ago. How toddlers in American society tend to learn “mine” as one of their first words and use it often, much to the chagrin of their parents. But children in Amish communities don’t have a concept of “mine” and it’s rarely ever used in a Amish toddler’s vocabulary.

    Let me see if I can find the original story…

    Well it’s been 20 minutes and my Google-fu is not strong today 🙁 Anyone else remember this story?

  11. As a teacher of students with behavior problems, I can tell you that this is a tactic that works through the age groups. I think it has something to do with the fact that, expecially in toddlerhood, kids don’t always know what to do INSTEAD of the thing you’re telling them not to do – but doing nothing is certainly not an option! So if we can give them replacement behaviors up front, we can generally avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict.

  12. Heh. This reminds me that when my youngest cousin was a toddler a few years ago (she’s now five), my uncle tried to ban people from saying “no” in her presence (as well as “know,” and basically any word with that sound in it) because he thought it would prevent her from learning the word, but then continued to phrase everything negatively (“don’t do that,” “stop,” etc). Needless to say, she figured out how to respond in the negative pretty quickly.

  13. I tried really hard not to introduce the word, “no” to my daughter’s vocabulary too. Despite my best efforts, it appears to be her first word. (Though the way she says it sounds kind of French, like, “Non, non, non, non, non.”)
    I was starting to think that an N word indicating the negative was just something naturally built in.

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