Is “no” a bad word?

I’ve been wondering for a while about parental ambivalence around the word “no.” Some of us say “no” too much. Some of us say “no” too little. Some of us say “no,” but don’t really mean it (or stick to it). Some of us try to discourage our little ones from saying “no” to us, yet hope that our big kids will “just say no” to drugs and other harmful activities.

I knew a mother who went to extremes to avoid having the word “no” in her house, saying things like “Yes you may not do that” when her children were misbehaving, and teaching them that “N-O” was not OK to say.

So what is it about the word “no”?

From a child development standpoint, the “no” stage that toddlers go through is an important one. The child who says “no” recognizes (and indicates) that he or she is a separate being with feelings, desires, and opinions. While at first the “no’s” may seem meaningless (like the child who says “no” even to something she likes just because she’d rather say “no”), the child soon learns that “no” is a powerful word. People hear it and react (e.g., by expressing shock, anger, dismissal, criticism, curiosity, respect, etc.), and the child learns from those reactions.

As parents, it is important to use “no” appropriately and consistently. While some parents use “no” indiscriminately as their default answer to everything, a well-placed “no” can set limits and create structure. However, if “no” turns into “maybe” or “well, just this once isn’t bad” or “OK this is time it’s really your last chance” or any other “no-but-not-really” alternative, kids will learn that “no” doesn’t necessarily mean “no.” As a result, they will likely keep pushing boundaries to ever more ridiculous lengths to figure out where the limits are. They learn to be distrustful or dismissive because people don’t mean what they say, and they are less likely to listen to and respect others’ boundaries when they say “no.”

We also need to teach our children how to use the word “no” appropriately. Certainly, we want our children to be polite when they decline an offer. We also want them to be able to communicate clearly and effectively that they refuse. “No” sets boundaries on personal behavior; the ability to say “no” can help a child avoid negative peer pressure, stick to their convictions, and maintain their safety. And it is absolutely imperative that we teach our children how to judge and say “no” to people, situations, and substances that are likely to harm them.

Finally, “no” is an important element of asserting agency. After all, “yes” is meaningless without the possibility of “no.” (Think of all the movie and TV engagement/wedding scenes that come down to “Will she, or won’t she?”) There is a difference between the person who complies because there is no alternative and the person who complies because he chooses to.

That’s part of life’s test. When we were in God’s presence, of course we believed in him, trusted him, and obeyed him. God and all his glory and goodness were right there! How could we even imagine not doing so? We need the conditions of separation and opposition (just like toddlers and teenagers) to assert our agency and demonstrate that we choose, of our own free will, to obey and follow him. Our perfect Parent continually invites us to do those things that will draw us closer to him and give us joy. While setting consistent rules and limits and offering choices, he gives us the opportunity to say “no”; allows us to assert our wants, needs, and opinions; lets us choose how we will use our agency; and blesses us when we choose the right. When it comes to using the word “no,” that’s a standard we earthly parents can strive for.

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