How to say “No” without ever saying… “No”

My nearly-toddler (eek! How’d he get to be so big?) is a smart little fella. I’m sure yours is, too, by the way; let me tell you something brilliant that Sir G’s just figured out. 

He knows when the bedtime routine is about to be over; it’s when I say, “Gitteh nacht. Ah gitteh nach Tatty, ah gitteh nacht Mommy…” and go through everyone in our family – ending, of course, in him. So when he hears that first “gitteh nacht”, he knows full well what’s coming – the fun and games in his sisters’ room is about to be over and he’s got to go into his own bedroom to go into bed.

And he figured out a pretty smart way to deal with it: “nein,” he’ll tell me shrugging one shoulder up to his ear.

No such luck, buster. Bedtime is bedtime in our house.

But I was thinking about how my girls didn’t even learn the words “nein” or “no” (yes, they say it in both Yiddish and English — it’s an important word to know in as many languages as possible!) until they were closer to 18 months, and Sir G is only 14 months.

Of course, they’re to blame for the fact that he already knows it — because when they were his age, no one ever said “no” to them.

Think I’m crazy? Don’t worry – I’m not. 

Why saying “no” backfires

No one likes being told no. No one.

Even for adults, being told that thee’s a rule that we can’t do something makes us curious to know well… why? And what will happen if I DO do it? And.. can you really make me?

Ok, maybe that’s my inner rebel (according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies classification) speaking, but, really: who likes being told “no”?

Even if being told you can’t touch that button doesn’t make your finger itch to touch it, we all hate being told no.

For us adults, though, we’ve got something really shticky that our toddlers and teens don’t: a developed prefrontal cortex. (Yes, this is me getting science-y on you again) That prefrontal cortex is important because that’s where where all of our crucial decision making happens, where we get to be rational and thought-out – and it doesn’t fully develop until you’re about 25. (Yes really. So I may or may not be lumping you with the teens 🤣)

So that means that someone says no, we don’t like it… but we manage to follow the rules anyway because we’re actually in control of what’s we do (some of the time.)

But for your toddler, owner of an immature prefrontal cortex, it isn’t all that clean and nice.

“But WHY, Mommy?”

Your toddler is a little scientist. He walks around the world wondering, “why?” He’s constantly making hypotheses and then proving or disproving them. He loves to touch, to feel, to explore. He likes to push push boundaries – not because he wants them to move, but just because he wonders, “Well why? And what would happen if I tried…”

So that tempting little “no” just got all that trickier — because hmm… when I touch this thing and mommy makes a silly face and says “NO!” in a funny voice… well, what would happen if I pick this thing up?

Combining our natural dislike for being told “no” with the toddler’s natural inquisitive exploration is just waiting for it all to go horribly wrong.

How to say “no” without saying “no”

The methodology that I use with my children is one that I’ve adopted from Love and Logic: what they call “the uh-oh song”. I use a little tune that turns that uh-oh into a sing-song “oh, that’s so silly! Of course you’re not going to do THAT!” (without having to say it in as many words), with a calm and composed expression.

And I started with my twins when they were six months old – the first time one of them bit while nursing. I unlatched her, and, saying “uh-oh!” put her on the floor. It only took three times before she got the point.

Six months old is really the best time to start if you have the opportunity to do so (not all 6 month olds are trouble makers!) Baby emptying cabinets he shouldn’t? Touching things she shouldn’t? Hitting instead of making nice? Spitting food out?

All of those are great oppotunities to employ the “uh-oh!” technique – and move him away from whatever situation she’s in. So if she’s emptying cabinets, you’ll take her away from the cabinet and close the door. If she’s spitting food, you’ll say “Uh-oh! You can have food when you’re eating nicely” and calmly take her out of the high chair.

If your baby is still young, it will take some repetition for them to get it, but it shouldn’t take long. Once your baby (or toddler!) is older, though, it can take some more time to undo the old habits while implementing new ones — in general, you can expect about a month of implementing for every year of your child’s age before it starts to “work.”

Why I never said “no” to my twins

I never really had to say “no” to my twins until they were old enough to ask for things that would require a yes/no answer. They knew and were familiar with “uh-oh” and generally did as I directed.

If they didn’t respond after one or two tries, depending on their age, I’d either give them a choice or I’d calmly remove them from wherever they were and remind them what the correct way is to do that activity.

In fact, using “uh-oh” was such a part of our life, that I unintentionally taught Sir G to respond to it. He was once playing with a plastic grocery bag on the floor at 7 months, and I instinctively said “Uh-oh!” to get him to stop – and sure enough, he did. I guess he just learned it by osmosis by observing me using it with my twins.

Of course, he, unlike my twins, also has older siblings to teach him the art of SAYING “no”… but nothing really to do about that.

Have you ever used the “uh-oh” song before? What did you think?

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Comments (2)
  1. Angela Knappenberger

    I love this! I think I’ll start using it too! We usually say, “Please don’t do that. If you do that again _____then this will happen.” Usually does the trick 🙂

    • Glad you like it, Angela! I’m not a big fan of “threatening” or using if-then statements with toddlers; since their little brains are still working on figuring language structure out, it can often be too complicated for them to understand. Planning to do a blog post on these details next week, but in short, the best way to explain things to toddlers is by using the positives — so always saying what you DO want them to do and what the result of that will be – it generally both does the trick AND helps for the future.

      So to give an example: if my daughter is standing on the couch, rather than saying “Please don’t do that. If you do that again, then I’ll have to take you off the couch.” I rearrange that and say, “Uh-oh! The couch is for sitting.” The second time I’d turn it into a choice: “Miss S, you can sit on the couch or stand on the floor.” And then, the third time (if she hasn’t sat down at this point), I’ll take her off the couch.

      Does that make sense? Do you hear how that tweak makes a difference?

      Chaya Shifra