Parenting and Discipline: In Defense of “No!”

By Kelle Hampton

My one-year-old is a Class A Climber. A Knocker-Downer. A Needs-to-Figure-Outer. Oh, he’s cute and sweet, don’t get me wrong; but Brother likes to investigate. Whether it’s a boy thing, a third child thing or random coincidence, it cannot be denied that this kid gets into everything. So when he was about to yank the table runner (upon which rested a glass vase full of flowers) the other day, I reflexively reacted: “Dash! No!” I yelled. Not quietly. Not calmly. I yelled it crazily, and my son reacted appropriately. He froze, giving me just enough time to run and rescue the vase, scooping him up and distracting him in the process.

We say “No” in our home. And I guess I never thought twice about it until shortly after my first child was born when an acquaintance proudly explained their “never say no” parenting method, claiming it restricted their daughter’s adventurous spirit and fenced in children from exploring the world “without boundaries.” I’ve read a handful of parenting advice pieces on the issue since, and while I admit the word “no” can be meaninglessly overused with children, being told “no” is not only an important life concept children need to learn to accept, but a harmless response used by loving parents who can both promote adventure and exploration while suggesting safe limits and guidance for their children.

I remember asking this particular mom about her strategy, genuinely curious. “Like what if she’s about to hurt herself or break something?” I asked.

“Oh, we let her come up with the idea to stop on her own. And we make sure to praise her curiosity, like, ‘Wow! You are so good at climbing. Look how high you are! Maybe there’s another safer place you could climb. What do you think?’”

I have to admit, I applaud the effort of this very purposeful parenting. It’s just that the synapses in my brain don’t fire off these well thought-out explanations as quickly as the word “no” comes. And when my baby’s reaching into the dishwasher, a half second away from grasping the sharpest knife in the silverware basket, I like a trusty go-to response—preferably a one-syllable, universally understood “No!” And you know what? It works.

I’d also like to think that I’m providing good preparation for my kids for all the other times they’ll deal with the word “no” later in life.

Does this prom dress look good on me?
Can I take my final a day late?
Can I have the day off tomorrow?

“No” is part of real life, and when we lovingly balance it between “yes” and “Go on, explore,” our children learn to accept the fact that sometimes there are boundaries to exploration, especially when it comes to safety and responsibility.

Am I worried about dampening my children’s curiosity and unbridled quest for adventure by telling them “no”? Of course not, because we foster those things in our home every day, and I’ve experienced enough to understand that these scenarios in parenting, like many other things in life, offer us opportunities to combine beliefs and methods—not choose just one. So we can encourage creativity and set limits. We can nurture exploration and curiosity and present reasonable boundaries. We can say, “Figure this one out yourself,” and “I’m stepping in and figuring it out for you.” We can be a Yes, Go, Try It parent and a No, Be Careful, Stop one too.

I may not be able to tell my kids that I walked to school barefoot in the snow and never complained, but I can tell them that I grew up with a lot of “no”s in my life—“no”s I needed to hear. And I still love to explore.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a baby to remove from the top of the coffee table.

About the Author

Kelle Hampton is a writer, photographer and speaker. Her blog post about her daughter's Down syndrome led to the writing of "Bloom," a New York Times bestselling memoir. Hampton has contributed to "Parents," "Parenting," "Martha Stewart’s Whole Living," "Good Housekeeping" and NPR’s "All Things Considered." She shares photography and journals about life and motherhood on her blog Enjoying the Small Things.