Young children need to hear “no” and “not like that”

A child was crying out in the back aisle. “She probably just wants a toy she can’t have!” said one woman at the register to another.

We have all witnessed a child crying in a public space. It is the dread of many to be “that parent” with the child who is loudly drawing attention from all those around. Kids have a hard enough time behaving at home, let alone in public.

In my work supporting families of children who exhibit challenging behaviors, I often see that the pattern of ‘who is leading’ and ‘who is following’ is out of whack. By this, I mean simply that children need parents to say “No” and to tell them when their behavior is not acceptable. This is especially true since children are constantly testing ideas like “What if I do this?” and “What if I do it again?”

I thought of this once again when I visited a new pharmacy recently to get a prescription for my friend.

I was casually looking for some odd items to help out and I wandered for a while as I trolled the shelves. I repeatedly crossed paths with a mom and her daughter who was pushing her little Cookie Monster in a doll stroller.

I saw and heard this mother caringly bring her child to the pharmacist to ask for help with the flavoring for the child’s liquid medicine. Long story short, the girl did not like the medicine and was not taking it.

In spite of a patient pharmacist would brought a tray of flavors to try, the child was taking more and more control of the situation, having Mommy taste it and Cookie Monster try it out as she turned her head and refused to take part. Tears were forming. Now, I don’t know the story of this twosome, but I can guess it goes like this a great deal.

These tears had nothing to do with wanting a toy. This child had too much power and was lost in it. Mom asked “Do you want to try a new flavor?” to which the child said “No.” Then, “Do you want to try a special syringe?” “No” again, and now she started flailing. Then “Mommy drink it,” so Mommy obliged and took a sip of the child’s medicine. The child took a small taste, but then Mom declared, “Now, how do I know how much medicine she is getting like that?” Clearly this child was in charge and Mom needed a tool.

The tool I’d recommend is giving parent-selected choices and saying “No.”

The trap that parents most often fall into – and that makes the struggle between youngster and parent harder – is that parents ask yes/no questions like “Do you want to…” or “Can you…” instead of giving a direction. If you ask a yes/no question, be ready for either answer from the child.

If you want a child to be empowered, then offer a clear choice: “We must hold hands, so you can hold this hand or that hand.” Or, “It’s time to wash up. Do you want a washcloth or a paper towel?”

Children of all abilities need to learn how to behave, and that starts with being taught how to behave.

During early childhood, the child is gaining a ‘concept of self’ that is separate from the caregiver. This is called self-concept. A child needs to see how he/she behaves like you and unlike you. The child needs to see that he/she can be the opposite of you to fully understand him/herself. Having a concept of self is the first step to self-control (Bodrova and Leong, 2007).

So when the child says “No,” that’s part of growing up. But the parent needs to say “No” also.

So in this time of year when we visit with family and friends for the holidays, throw out your yes/no questions like a yucky old fruitcake. Instead, give yourself a gift by giving your child two choices: “This or that?” and follow through like a healthy New Year resolution.

Bodrova, E., & Deborah J.. Leong. (2007). Tools of the mind. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.