We groan and grumble when our little ones discover the word “no”. I mean, in our carefully ordered lives where we like to have a little (let’s be honest, for some of us a lot, of control), it’s inconvenient when some tiny dictator decides to do a runner in M&S turning our shopping trip into a full on 25 minute manhunt through racks of sensible clothes while we experience the kind of indescribable heart-stopping panic that shaves years off our lives.
Saying “no” is a normal and necessary developmental milestone where a child recognises themselves as separate from their carers, as someone with agency - it’s an important word. And as those of you with toddlers will know, when learning a new skill, they practise it on. repeat. over. and. over.
There are all sorts of tips and tricks online to help you contend with the Terrible No’s, like giving your toddler choices to divert them from seeing it as a binary between your way or theirs, etc, and I’m not here to give you more of those. I’m too busy bluffing my own way through this parenting game to give anyone advice.
But I am here to suggest that we might reframe the no’s as something essential and positive, thereby reducing how annoyed, frustrated and powerless we feel in the face of them.
This rather lovely blog from Babyology suggests that “the word “no” is a bit of a gift really. A clue that your child wants to communicate bigger or more complicated needs and feelings”. In the same way that they stumble and drop things in the early days as they learn to coordinate their motor skills, our children may not have the language skills to express the subtlety of a situation like “I’m tired/uncomfortable/overwhelmed/scared”, so “no” becomes a shorthand that encourages us to do some digging. I love the gentleness, curiosity and care behind this idea, though my own memory of parenting tiny ones was that no matter what I tried, we all ended up in a screaming, tearful heap on the floor.
Think of the alternative to our child learning to say “no” - a person who never learns to state their preference and announce it to the world. I know from experience that as women who have been conditioned to be good girls, this is particularly problematic - we find we are unable to advocate for ourselves in the face of a decision about what film to watch, what to eat, or far more catastrophically, when giving birth, or faced with sexual harassment or abuse. For anyone interested in finding out more about this and dismantling this harmful conditioning, I massively recommend the work of Samantha Nolan Smith which has supported me so much on my own journey. Here's what she says about the good girl.
The messages our little ones receive tend to encourage boys to be strong, to know and speak their minds, while nudging girls towards being compliant, “good”, “nice”, “kind”.
“Studies have shown that mothers respond less negatively to a son’s risky and disruptive behaviour and are less likely to encourage a son’s prosocial behaviour. This is consistent with the stereotype that boys are risk takers and challenging, but girls are nice to others,” says this fascinating article which draws on the research of Judi Mesman and Marleen Groeneveld at Leiden University in the Netherlands* about how parents subconsciously decide how to parent their children based on the child's gender.
So, in short, all children need to go through the "no" phase and it is no negative reflection on your parenting - in fact, quite the opposite. Research shows that we are more likely to discourage or respond negatively to "no" coming from little girls, but they need to learn this skill more than anyone.
Maybe next time your little one announces “No!” loudly as you try to get them into their car seat in front of that judgy GP receptionist, you will be able to smile inwardly and say to yourself, “Go me! Look at my little one knowing their own mind and stating their preferences!”
Of course, then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll remember your own mind too, and bundle them into the car seat hissing, “I’m never taking you anywhere again, EVER!”
Yes, watch this space for an episode on parental shit-losing coming soon. I need it even if you don't.
So let’s reframe the “no”s. And when you get the “She has a mind of her own!” comments, you can respond proudly with, "Yes, thank goodness. So much better than the alternative.”
* Reference: Mesman J & Groeneveld MG (2018), Gendered parenting in early childhood: subtle but unmistakable if you know where to look, Child Development Perspectives, 12.1
Photo credit: Omid Armin on Unsplash