How important is no?


When I was a kid I was tickled mercilessly. I would scream and shriek and try to get away. I would be held down. Sometimes I would struggle to breathe, and even vomit. I eventually learned to turn off my ticklishness so that I could just lie there. So it wasn’t fun any more. I stopped getting tickled. My turned off ticklishness persists even now. What I learned, consciously or unconsciously, from all that was that my saying no did not matter. From that I learned that other people saying no was more of a suggestion and if I persisted they might stop saying no. I learned that people would stand by and watch me expressing my displeasure and not do anything to help me.

My mother later said to me that she felt like what I was going through was abuse by my father. She never did anything to stop it though. I remember her watching and biting her lip but never saying anything.  You don’t really know what kind of people your parents are when you are a kid. If they are strong, or weak or what psychological hang ups they have. I think I would have less of a negative opinion of her actions if she hadn’t told me, when I was older, she thought I was being abused but did nothing.

Even though it was just tickling I developed similar behaviour issues and patterns to someone undergoing other types of abuse. I daresay I was probably abusive to others when I was younger. I didn’t necessarily take no for an answer, especially for the sort of things one isn’t ‘supposed’ to refuse. Like tickling, because being tickled is fun, otherwise why are you laughing, right? I, in turn, never expected anyone to respect my no’s so I never bothered saying them. I’m much better about it now, though I have determined that my children will have their no’s actually mean stop. That’s a tricky implementation though when I feel hypersensitive about how important this might be.

Sure our kids scream no when tickled. And we stop. Thing 1 for sure comes back for more, but the instant she does anything that might indicate she does want to stop, we do, and it’s her choice how she wants it to continue. Thing 2 is not ticklish currently, though we try, and stop when she pushes us away. But when we have to change them, or bathe them there are screams of no’s. And we, as parents, have to soldier right on through that. Thing 1 getting her hair washed is a terrible thing. We have to hold her and she thrashes and it’s miserable for everyone. There were nappy changes that were similar. With Thing 2 as well. I’m pretty sure those screaming nappy changes are an unfortunate reality for everyone. I hope that because we apologize when they are visibly upset over something we needed to do for their own good, and as they get older they get more tractable and rational that these will not be experiences or memories that cause them to feel like no has no meaning or power over them. I hope there’s some way they can differentiate things we do for them for their own good and things we do that they may not like because it’s meant to be fun. I hope it’s enough that if something is optional, we do stop.


On another side of things I feel like permissive parenting, that is-a lack of firm denial, can also set up this problem. When no doesn’t actually mean anything, when wheedling, whining and tantrums can turn a no around, then how is anyone to learn what no really means? Instead people learn that  no is what people say first and that what people say first is changeable with pressure.

I don’t like the trend in parenting of trying to avoid saying no. I know it’s been going on at least 30 years since I remember my mother being concerned about it in regards to my siblings. It’s something that still goes on today with parents worrying that children’s first words will be no. Unfortunately no is something you need to say and a concept you need to impress on children. I cringe when Thing 1 parrots back to me, “I said no”. I’d rather not have arbitrary limits for the kids, but structure, focus and knowing that I have limits is important to their development as people. Sometimes I just want to (and ok, sometimes I do. I’m mostly consistent though) just say, “fine, whatever”, and let them run rampant because I’m tired or drained. Most of the time I don’t though. Also, they are kids and they don’t know why I do what I do. Big old meanie me, encouraging dinner eating, bath taking, hair brushing and bedtimes. The horror. Also limiting unfettered candy eating, unlimited TV watching and keeping them out of the street. Gosh.

Sure, at younger development ages distraction works heaps better than abstract denial. But no, stop, don’t is an important concept that people need to learn.

I had to remove myself and Thing 1 from a parent group since there was a mother who was very into the no yell, gentle parenting business, because she did not teach her child that no was something important to listen to. It took me awhile to figure out. I initially left because Thing 1 was getting injured and this reasonably well behaved (not overly violent or tantrum throwing etc) other child was just a bit too rampant and a little too undisciplined. He was acting like a kid. But then I realized the issue wasn’t the kid, it was that his mother wasn’t acting like an adult. She was trying to live up to some no-conflict ideal that she probably read about on the internet. You can actually say no and impress upon people that respecting a request to stop is important without yelling. People just often think that gentle parenting and no yell means not teaching or enforcing limits. When she would try to explain to her child that he was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing she would do so in soft sing song tones and he would not pay attention or seem to particularly care.  It was apparent to me that her approach was not working to correct his behaviour. This was after Thing 1 had told him no, stop and tried to get away from him.  This mother would also say stuff about ‘boys will be boys’, so fair to say she got my goat in a variety of ways.

We talk to Thing 1 about how she should say no, how to escalate (say no, stop, try to get away, tell someone, hit if nothing else works), and how she should listen when other people say no. We aren’t into ‘that’s unfaaaair’ territory yet in regards to what Thing 1 sees other children being permitted in regards to denial. I often explain to her that I say no for good reasons. Because I want her to grow up healthy, strong and safe. I don’t think she gets it yet. Someday I hope.


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