Welcome to Joyful Toddlers!

This space is about increasing our enjoyment of the young children in our lives through concrete action and by adjusting the lens through which we view them. My work comes out of LifeWays, which is inspired by Waldorf education. I welcome your comments, and questions about increasing your enjoyment of the children in YOUR life.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Stop," "Don't," and "No."


How and Why to Stop Saying “Stop,” “Don’t,” and “No.”

Stop saying “Stop.”
Why I avoid saying ‘stop’:
Young children can’t stop.  They don’t understand it yet; the only time they stop is when they’re sleeping.  So I try to avoid saying “stop,” as that only tends to lead to frustration, both on my part and the children’s.
               So what to do when children are doing something that you don’t like?  Well, even though children can’t stop, they CAN do something else.  So instead of saying, “stop banging your spoon on the table,” I say, “You can use your spoon to take a bite.”  Instead of saying, “Stop throwing sand,” I say, “You can put that sand into a bucket.”   Instead of saying, “Stop grabbing,” I say, “You can find a toy that nobody is using.”
               When a child is interacting with another child in a way that they don’t like, I try not to say “stop.”  Instead, I give them the words to talk to one another:
Sam comes up and tries to grab Harry’s toy.
Harry:  Wah!  (Looking at me)
Me:  Harry, you can say, “I’m playing with this right now.”
Harry:  I’m playing with this right now.
Sam:  Wah!
Me:  Oh, you wish you were playing with that?
Sam:  (nod)
Me:  Why don’t you say, “Can I use that when you’re done?”
Sam:  Can I use that when you’re done?
Harry: Mine!
Me:  Harry, you can say, “You can use this when I’m all done.”

When kids say “stop” to each other, I help them by translating very clearly what “stop” means.  At Rainbow Bridge, “Stop means take your hands away.”  I keep my ears out and whenever I hear a child saying “stop,” I turn around and watch, and remind them if needed, “Stop means take your hands away.”  If they don’t, I’ll continue, “It looks like you need some help taking your hands away this time.”

Don’t say “Don’t.”
Why I avoid using the word don’t:
We all think with imagery, and children even more than adults.  If I say, “Don’t run in the street,” what’s the image that comes into your head?  Now, how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.”  The word “don’t” is a modifier that is very weak compared to the strong image created by the rest of the phrase.  This is why, if you say “Don’t jump in the puddle,” the average two-year-old will go directly to the puddle and jump in it, and be slightly puzzled as to why you’re annoyed.
What I do instead
The solution is exactly the same as with “stop.”  Instead of saying what you don’t want, say what you DO want the child to do.  If a little boy is riding his bike towards his friends and knocks into them over and over again, I will say, “You can go around your friends.”  If a child is leaning on a gate that is rickety, I’ll tell them, “Please stand up straight and tall.”
               Because we think so strongly in images, I also use images to set the scene for children, telling them how I want them to act in an upcoming situation:  “When I open the gate, everyone will walk calmly through, and wait on the other side until I latch it again.  Then we’ll walk together on the sidewalk, stopping at each tree for me to catch up.”  I don’t necessarily expect them to remember and obey, I’m just planting the seeds and setting the scene.  Then I’ll remind them right before each step, what’s about to happen.

Why Not to say “No.”
Why I avoid saying ‘no.’
I try to avoid saying no because children hear it all the time, and it loses its effectiveness if used too much.
What I do instead
If a child needs a swift word to stop them from doing something, I will often clap twice, very loudly.  This startles them and pauses them long enough for me to let them know what I DO want them to be doing.
               If a child asks if they can do something or have something, I try to say Yes, with as many caveats as I need.  If I’m up to the elbows in sudsy dishwater and a child asks me to tie a cape around their neck, I’ll say, “Yes.  I’ll help you as soon as I’m done with the dishes.”  If the child complains that they want it right now, we might brainstorm together: they could ask a friend for help, or try to do it themselves, or play with something else until I’m done.
               If the child asks for something and the answer will always be no, I will either tell them what they CAN have, “You can have a red ball today,” and just be compassionate if that’s a disappointment; or I will say “yes” in my imagination:  “If I had another green ball, I would give it to you for sure!”  I often take this imagination and run with it, making it bigger and bigger, and then transforming it into another conversation:  “In fact, if I had two green balls, I’d have one for you and one for me.  And we could throw them back and forth.  If we had three green balls, who would you give the third one to?  What if we had a whole room full of balls?  We could take them to the park and give one to every child we met!  That would sure be fun.  Remember last time we went to the park?”  And on from there.
-Tell them when they CAN have/do what they want

               The reason that I try to avoid saying stop, don’t, and no, isn’t because it will ruin a child’s self-esteem.  I do it because it’s significantly more effective than the alternatives.  And I do it because I enjoy my time with toddlers more when I’m not saying no all the time!

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  1. Again, Thank you for your helpful posts! I find your advice to be very insightful. I am so glad that I have found your blog. I cannot wait to try these techniques and to get used to them like a second language. I imagine it will take practice but after a while it will become second nature.

  2. Thank you so much for these reminders. It's so easy to slip back into the "no, don't, stop" pattern. I am wondering about thumb sucking. My daughter is 5 1/2 years old and still sucks her thumb. We want to avoid the "no, don't, stop" approach to her thumb sucking. Is it necessary to give it any attention at all? Are there particular concerns regarding prolonged thumb sucking.

  3. avoid saying no, this should be part of my list, I never had any idea about how it can affect the child's way of thinking and reacting to a lot of things,


  4. Hi Sonya Rose,

    I don't actually have a lot of experience with thumb-sucking, but I'd suggest doing what my mom did for me when I used to bite my nails: she would just calmly take my fingers down from my mouth, as many times as it took. There was no sense of blame or shame, and she didn't yell or snap at me. She usually didn't say anything, actually, or sometimes would just say calmly, "that's enough." Just remember that habits (esp. oral habits) are hard to break, so be patient with the process. One option might be to have a time/place where it's OK for her to do it (probably in bed?), so you can remind her of when she CAN do it. Has anyone else had success with thumb-sucking or nail-biting? What did you do?

  5. I've never really understood the parenting choice of excluding words like "no," "stop," or "don't," etc. In my opinion-and I've only parented one child so far, my almost 4 year old son-instilling boundaries in a baby/toddler is infinitely important, as is clearly explaining what behavior our society will expect of him. I would imagine if you told a child that was throwing toys to "perhaps find another way to play with the toys," instead of clearly stating that the act of throwing things is unacceptable and unsafe, the most important point of intervening would be lost on the child. They would not logically deduce on their own that they shouldn't throw; they would decide that they will play this way for now, but maybe later they will throw things some more. The boundary of what is acceptable was not established.
    I don't think the act of saying "no" to a child is an ineffective way to teach; the problem is that often, parents offer no follow-up explanation to the child afterwards. It seems mothers, fathers grow tired of constantly parenting their child (because the concept of "24 hours a day" seems to be understood only when you are literally doing so with your child ;)) so further guidance isn't offered after the command of "stop" or "don't!"
    Perhaps if one was to take the time to further explain to the little one why his or her actions caused the yell of "no," it would not have to be said as frequently.
    Additionally, it is often said that children crave boundaries. I agree with this wholeheartedly-when things seem to make sense and can be categorized as "right/wrong," or "acceptable/unacceptable," a person can feel more at ease than if they are met with constant grey areas. People like to be able to wrap their heads around an idea and put it neatly in a category in their minds. This seems to appear in children true-perhaps a part of true human nature. Not to say everyone should act what is "socially acceptable" and deviation should never occur...indeed art is made by stepping outside the box and spontaneity is what makes like beautiful! But developmentally...I think solid boundaries and "no" and "don't" are integral in the process of nurturing a crazy little miniature human being

    and ps: a child who never hears "no" sounds to me that they may have problems coping with the world as an adult when surely they will come face to face with "NO!" Disappointment plays a necessary part in developing the psyche in order not to inherit narcissistic tendencies.

  6. Afterthought: I feel like that came across as ranting...It is truly, however, just my opinion. I honestly respect the article and those who agree with it, I just felt an opposing side was not represented here. peace to the mamas!

  7. Hi Karina, Thanks for taking the time to write! I appreciate your comments. I absolutely agree that children crave boundaries, and that instilling boundaries and teaching children what society will expect from them are "infinitely important" (as you so aptly put it). What I am suggesting, though, is that boundaries can be taught and maintained using positive language, and that in my observation of young children, this technique is actually MORE effective than telling them "stop" and giving explanations. For example, with throwing blocks, saying "Don't throw blocks. That might hurt someone," is far LESS effective in my experience than saying, "Blocks are for stacking. You can stack the blocks, or find a soft ball to throw." There is no "grey area" there. The boundaries are clear. But instead of just trying to stop what the child is doing, it's giving options for appropriate action as well. Telling children what IS appropriate is much more effective for behavior modification than explaining WHY something else is not appropriate, and hoping that they'll logically deduce what to do instead.

    I also agree that learning to deal with disappointment when they're not allowed to do something is vitally important--I wrote a post on it called "The Value of Saying No."

  8. awesome response-but wait a minute-a post titled "The Value of Saying N0?" Haha, it sounds like your beliefs are very well rounded ;)
    Thanks again for the intelligent opinions on this matter!

  9. I know, lol! My only defense is that in the post I recommend using the word "No" as little as possible when denying young toddlers (under 2.5). So at least I'm *somewhat* consistent! The question is how to set firm boundaries (which involves "no" in word or in deed) without being punitive. I think the biggest part of all is consistency, so that children know what's expected at all times. And we can certainly do that without saying "no" all the time!

  10. I agree that using positive language is important but it also requires parents to understand fully what this means. As a Steiner teacher I often see the result of parents who see this as never setting firm boundries or allowing their children to develop an understanding that they can't always do what they want and get their own way. I always try to use positive language with my daughter (and my students) and when she was younger I would re-direct her play. I would also say no, stop and dont when required. It's not good to say no all the time but it is also not good to never say it.

    1. Hi Frockfarie,

      I completely agree--saying what you DO want is not the end of the interaction, merely the beginning. I usually tell a child what I would like to see, then if there are no changes, I'll say, "It looks like you need help getting started," and I'll physically go over to them to help them change their behavior. I don't think that using positive language is AT ALL the same as having loose boundaries, and I appreciate you pointing that out! And, of course, there is always an appropriate time to use each of the three: no, stop, and don't. I just think that many times, there are more effective phrases to use instead.

  11. Avoiding the "no, stop, don't" language as much as possible proves quite successful with the children in my early childhood program. However, with my own children....a bit more challenging. It seems my own children NEED those boundaries differently than the children do in my program. Perhaps the use of the language depends somewhat on the relationship of adult/child.

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