Was that really a question?

There were some interesting comments and discussions after our last post on saying and hearing ‘no’, that got us thinking in a lot of creative ways about language. One thing that we have been talking about is this: What about the situation that precedes the ‘no’ – the question itself. Do we ask the same questions our children actually hear?

Sometimes we might ask lots of questions (I know I do – Anna), some of which may not be necessary, some of which are just for making conversation, some of which possibly create conflict, which we might be able to avoid. Does this sound familiar to you:

Me: A, do you want to brush your teeth now?

A: No!

Me: …

Hmm. Did I really mean that as a question? In Nonviolent Communication there is a useful distinction between a request and a demand. A request means we are asking someone to do something (usually for us), and we are open to all answers; a demand, on the other hand, means we are asking someone but already know what answer we expect, and will not take the one we don’t like. Usually the one we don’t like is ‘no’. Sometimes on the surface they look deceptively similar :) You probably know what we mean here…

Our children are learning the world, and one of the things they are just learning is the world of words, how powerful they are, what they mean and what they ‘really mean’. They don’t really care much for pragmatics and the hidden meanings, they take our language literally. To a toddler ‘Do you want to brush your teeth now?’ is a very real ‘yes/ no’ question, and as such requires a real ‘yes/ no’ answer. If we’re asking this question, and are not prepared to accept one of the alternative answers, is it really a question?

What to do?

In the numerous times we have talked about this, we have figured that there are several ways of dealing with the ‘no!’ situation, that we are comfortable with. Well, more comfortable than other ways, at least.

If ‘no’ is an acceptable answer, we have no problem. It is important for the child to be able to say ‘no’, and for us, parens, to create a safe space for him to explore the reactions to this. This, in our eyes, is really giving the child the respect he deserves – hearing his ‘no’ and accepting it as a ‘no’ coming from our fellow human being. Unless, of course, it is something dangerous, something we have agreed not to do etc. In other words, if his ‘no’ is something we can live with – why not?

We can involve the child, so that he feels a real participant in the situation, not a person something is done to, which more often than not will change his ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.

If something really needs to be done, the question ‘Do you want to do x?’ is awfully deceptive. We can either explain he will need to brush his teeth in 5 minutes (with a fair warning so he can finish whatever he is busy with).  He might not like it, we might still have to accept his disapproval and all the emotions that go with it (and that is fair – everyone has a right to disagree!), but at least it won’t feel like we’re not being honest (Why are you asking me if you won’t accept my answer?). Or we can give a choice we can live with – ‘Do you want to brush your teeth now or after we read the book?’

So next time you want to ask your child a question, try and ask yourself first: is this a real question? :)

We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

A thousand times no!

One of my most vivid memories from childhood is a very strange one. I am on a bus with my Dad, and in front of me there is a woman wearing fur. I had never seen fur like this before. I remember feeling a strong need to touch it. I reach out my arm and touch her coat. She turns around a bit surprised but then she smiles, and both her and my Dad say at the same time: “Soft, isn’t it?”

I remember very clearly the strong need to EXPERIENCE the feeling, to KNOW what it felt like if I touched that coat. I don’t remember anything that happened afterwards, or anything else from that bus ride. Just that. I have seen fur since ;), and have never felt that need to touch it again (and also, just for the record, I don’t go around touching other people’s clothes) but I can tell you I really remember exactly what it felt like on my hand. Sometimes I’m reminded of that need to experience when I hear something like this…

“No, don’t touch that”

“No, don’t go there, you will get wet”

“No, you will get dirty”

“No, not this one”


And here is the one that I didn’t hear: “No, don’t touch that lady’s coat“ (Anna)

One of the most common words in English (really!). Apparently one of the most common words toddlers use. One of the most powerful words if you think about it… I recently did an exercise, just for the fun of it – I tried to count how many times a day we say ‘no’. You can narrow it down and count how many times a day you say ‘no’ to your child. You’ll be surprised, I can promise you that. I know I was.

There are several things to think about when I wonder about the magic power of the word ‘no’. When it is about movement,  when we discover something new,or we just know it is going to be fun (whether or not it turns out to be fun in the end is a different story).


When it comes to movement, it seems that there is little good our ‘no’ can actually do. In fact, it might do more harm than good. When we see our children practise their movmenets, we imagine that they have a strong sense of purpose in their body – that their bodies feel that they have to move in a certain way, even if the outside world tells them not to. That they have to push that chair; that they have to climb that sofa; that they have to run around. And we try my best to understand that this urge comes from their body, and if we don’t let them do it, it will create a deep sense of conflict between that which they feel they have to do, and that which their beloved mum tells them is not right.

It doesn’t mean we let them do everything they want, even if it’s dangerous or it bothers us – I try to find other outlets for their movement, like running outside, climbing something safe, or pushing a box not a table. But we try our very best not to say ‘no’ to the movement itself.


Imagine walking into your favourite bakery, and seeing that they have just made a totally new cake that looks more amazing that anything they have ever baked. Anything. You must have it. You have enough money. The line is not too long. It is within reach. And then someone stands in front of you and says something like this: ‘no don’t have that’. What? Why not? Did that make you not want you have that even more?

There is a huge amount of development and change toddlers go through, and a lot of things are new. A lot of things need to be tested, tried, and tasted. A lot of things are out there that need to be touched, licked, pinched… As long as it’s not dangerous, why not?

Your ‘no’, my ‘no’…

So as said before – there are moments when a ‘No’ is necessary. When we need to keep the kids safe or ourselves sane. Or both. And that’s good. If we keep the ‘No’ limited then a ‘No’ will always be a ‘No’ and not just a word Mom keeps using all the time.

On the other hand – how do we respond to our child’s ‘No’? When he shakes his head to that food we cooked. When he runs away from our hugging arms. When he screams ‘No!!!’ as a response to “It’s time to go brush your teeth and go to bed.”

Do we force? Do we say “Oh yes you will!!“ Do we ask “C’mon, you haven’t even tried!“ Talking about the word ‘No’ is a two way street.

When Leander gets angry at his sister for coming near when he plays he screams loud: “No! Mona! Go away!“ There are two scenarios that can happen.

1)       I say: “Leander! Don’t push her! Go to your room if you want to play alone!“ to which he will respond: “No! She’s in my way!“ and he will most likely push her again. And again…

2)       I say “Mona, Leander wants to play alone. He does not want you to play with his cars right now. Let’s see if we find something for you.“ to which he quite often responds: “Here. She can have that car. And that bus. But I need these here!“ (Nadine)

If a ‘No’ is respected a child feels respected in many ways. His feelings are acknowledged, he feels that his words and actions have an effect, he is a person no less important than us. And this is a wonderful lesson in life.

He learns that he is not less lovable if he says ‘No’. That it’s ok to say it, that’s it’s ok to disagree. If we let him practice saying ‘No’ in a safe way, if we accept his ‘No’, if we let him disagree, he will take this ability with him into the world, where – we hope – he will be able to say ‘No’ to a number of things he doesn’t feel comfortable with. And that is a truly powerful lesson in life.

A beautiful post about turning no’s into a yes by Lisa Sunbury is right here