Monday, October 15, 2012

The Trouble with "No"

I've been reading a new book, prompted by Katie's first class at pre-preschool. I mentioned before that the parents alternate weeks being "observers" or "supervisors." When you're a supervisor, you stay at one station (art, sandbox, riding toys, music, etc) and try to keep the toddlers from getting into too much trouble. I noticed that they have some pretty strict guidelines about what you are and aren't allowed to say to the kids. They strongly discourage you from saying "NO, don't do that!" or "Stop throwing sand! or "Don't put paint on the other kids!" Instead, they invite you to say things like, "Nathan, the sand stays in the sandbox" or "Amelia, please keep the paintbrush on the paper."

I thought that was an interesting approach, and of course I immediately thought about all the things I've been saying to Katie lately. "No" and "Stop" and "Don't do that"? Um, yeah, I say those all the time! Don't we all? So I was pretty nervous about my first time being a supervisor. Luckily, I was assigned to be an observer for our first week. The first thing I observed was how much Katie enjoyed the sand table. She enjoyed it so much, she thought she'd throw some sand on her neighbor. The supervisor said kindly, "Katie, please keep the sand in the sand table." Katie looked at her, perplexed, and then threw another handful onto her neighbor. "Katie, Melissa might not like having sand all over her." Another handful. "Katie, would you like to try scooping some sand with a shovel?" Another handful. And then I couldn't take it anymore. I scooped her up and said, "Sweetie, how about we go and explore the musical instruments?"

This sort of thing happened a couple more times during our class - at the water table, mostly. And I wasn't always there to intervene, because the observing parents were having our class discussion. So I hope Katie wasn't too out of line. By the end of the class, I was convinced that the not-saying-no approach was malarkey. But I decided to download the book it's based on, because I was so curious about how they could even think such an approach could work with an active toddler like Katie. (It's called Positive Discipline: The First Three Years.)

As it turns out, it's a fantastic book! It's not malarkey at all. In fact, without even knowing it, I'd done exactly the right thing when I intervened and took Katie away from the sand table. It's called distraction and redirection, and it works wonders for a toddler like Katie. The positive talk, like "food is for eating," may work well on other toddlers, but for the most part, distraction is essential for Katie. We have had one success with positive talk, and that's the word "Nice!" Katie now knows, through endless repetition, to touch things gently when we say "Nice!" We can say "Nice doggy!" and she will pet the dog gently. Or, at times, "Nice mommy!" and she will stop hitting or scratching and pat my face gently instead.

I really feel like we dodged a bullet with the hitting and scratching thing. Katie started doing it a couple of months ago, as most toddlers do, and at first we tried saying "No!" We tried giving her stern looks. We tried shaking our heads "no." We tried holding her hands down. It was clear from the very first time that she immediately thought this was a cool new game. She was fascinated with how she could get a rise out of us! You could tell by the way she would hit, and then step back and watch our faces so intently. By some miracle, I figured out that acknowledging the hitting was making it worse, so I decided to ignore it and distract her instead. It was the only thing I could think of to keep it from escalating. Turns out, that's what this book says you're supposed to do! (Woohoo!) And I can really see how well it works.

Saying "No" to a toddler Katie's age (under 3, I believe) is next to useless. They just don't have the capacity to understand "No" the way we do. They understand that Mommy is angry, probably, but they are unable to grasp cause and effect at this age. So all Katie was really getting from my "No's" was the brunt of my anger and frustration. She certainly wasn't learning not to hit.

This book has transformed my relationship with Katie already, and it's only been a week and I'm only about halfway through! I'm saying "No" a lot less, but I don't feel like I'm being overly permissive. In fact, the book is very clear about not being permissive. It would be a recipe for disaster if I just let Katie do whatever she wanted. But instead of arguing with her or telling her why she can't play with water in the living room, or hold the knife I've been using to slice bread, I just distract her. All those words were going right over her head anyway. I even successfully used this book's methods to get her into her bath. She was kicking and screaming and saying "No!" Before, we would have either tried to force her into the bath and hope that she'd calm down once she felt the water, or just skip bath altogether (hello, permissive!) But instead, I asked if she'd like to test the water with one finger. "Is it hot? Is it cold?" Would she like to put her toe in? Would she like to splash with her foot? And the rest was easy.

I'm off to read the rest! :)


  1. Wasn't it Dr. Spock that said "You know more than you think you know?" Or did he say. "Live long and prosper?" Well, either spock is right. You are an amazing mom and much more open to research than I am, for that reason alone I am awed. But seriously, I am loving this No noes idea. And intend to steal it. Right now. Much dash.

    1. LMAO!! I confess I'm more in touch with the wisdom of Mr. Spock than Dr. Spock. My mom bought me the standard Dr. Spock book when Katie was having a hard time sleeping. Which meant that I was also having a hard time sleeping. Which meant I retained exactly none of the information I read in his book. Sigh.

      Good luck with the no noes!! It fits really well with your awesome philosophy of saying yes to more things! (Which I totally stole, and love!)