No More No: 4 Phrases I’m Trying to Use Instead


“How much more precious is a little humanity than all the rules in the world?”
– Jean Piaget

I’ll admit I haven’t yet entered toddler territory, but I do have a fast-growing boy nearing his first birthday. And with that has come an ever-moving, ever-exploring youngster. What joy to see the thrill of every detail throughout the day! What lessons he is teaching me about the wonder of a rock or the excitement of movement!

As he travels around the house, or holds any object he can get, the opportunity to say “no” is constantly present. “No, don’t go here. No, don’t go there. No, don’t touch that. No, no, no.” What a sad life to be told no all day long. What does the word “no” really mean? There’s no explanation other than negativity. I will even dare to say our infinite use of “no” can become a dead word that teaches nothing other than our authority over rules we create. Each time my child grabs something, goes somewhere, or does something I am not comfortable with I challenge myself to choose new words.

Thank you – If my son picks up a rock, for example, instead of “no” I say, “Thank you for picking up that rock. Can I see it too?” and I will take it away. Or maybe I will say, “Yes, that is a rock in your hand,” acknowledging the very act my son is performing. Saying “no” implies that picking up a rock is a bad thing, when in-fact it is not bad at all – instead our interpretation of picking up the rock and putting it in a mouth or dropping it on a foot is bad. If we look at picking up a rock through the eyes of a child, we see a refreshing perspective. Feel the weight of it. It is heavy. Look at the swirl of colors. This is actually an exciting thing. To say “no” squelches childlike imagination. Let’s not take this one example literally – there are millions of things we can use this example with – sticks, leaves, running… What does your child do that causes you to say no? Can you see it in another way? What can you say instead of no?

Wow – “You pulled the tissue out of the box! Wow, you are unraveling the toilet paper. Now I’m going to roll it back up.” We can choose to live our lives as authoritative bad-cops, or allow our innocent, awe-filled children to discover with our encouragement and care. Saying “wow” simply acknowledges that we are paying attention to what our children are doing, and this is often all they want – our undivided attention. This does not mean we condone unraveling the toilet paper; only we experience the moment in a different way. Life can be filled with countless battles or adventures. Is unraveling toilet paper going to be a battle or a moment when I can take the tissue and become creative? Maybe I blow my nose with it or use it to tickle my son’s cheek. We can allow annoyance to fester or playfulness to blossom.

You did that – This is affirming what my son is doing. I am not labeling his actions as “good” or “bad” which is subjective (opinion) but maintaining an objective state (fact). For instance, instead of saying “good job for walking,” I can instead say, “you’re walking! I see you walking towards me. Here you come!” Let’s ask ourselves, why do we believe walking is good? Does that make crawling bad? Why is throwing a ball good? Does that make holding it bad? Early on in our culture, we often subconsciously create subjective views on our children rather than maintaining unconditional love. We want them to know we are proud of them when they can walk and when they can’t, when they can eat solids and when they still take a bottle, when they learn to read and when they still aren’t quite there, because it is really not what they do it is who they are that matters.

That’s ouchy – There are times when, no matter how safe we try to make an environment, children may be harmed. Again, we have an opportunity here. Instead of getting upset, I can say, “That’s Ouchy! Let’s touch something else,” and show my hands moving away from the hot stove, drawer or the electrical outlet (even when safety latches are installed). I am showing, I am teaching, I am offering a reason why we are going to move away even if my son seems too young to understand. Our everyday experiences are life lessons – we do not need to wait until our children sit in seats and hear lessons from a teacher. We are the teacher. We must remember that each thing we say, each thing we do, from the moment our eyes open to the moment they close, we are teaching countless lessons to our all-absorbing dear ones.

One of the marvels of the human race is our ability to speak, communicate, and convey messages in our minds with our words. May we not take this gift for granted. May we see this as an obligation to pass along better communicators each generation. If children learn to eat and walk by our example, their quality of how they talk relies on what they hear from us. May we speak to and with our children, not at them. May we empower our children and give them respect, kindness, compassion, patience and love through the words we choose and how we deliver them. Remember they’ll be the ones using the words they learn soon enough.

These few examples are just glimpses inside the vast mindset of unconditional parenting. To learn more, I suggest beginning with Alfie Kohn’s award winning book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason.

Keep the conversation going! What words do you use with your children other than “no?”

Image: Alexandre Normand

16 thoughts on “No More No: 4 Phrases I’m Trying to Use Instead”

  1. I needed to read this so much today. I have a 20 month old and a 5 month old and the word “no” feels like such a heavy weight when I spend all my time trying to encourage exploration. This really gave me a new breath on how to approach things.

  2. We use “yucky” and “that’s not for your mouth” a lot right now. I’ve resigned myself to being ok with saying no when it’s to teach about harm. No, we don’t play with electrical outlets. No, we don’t hit or bite. I’d love to find alternatives that will teach her kindness instead of negatives. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read this article and share what’s working in your home. May we continue to share our knowledge with one another and lift each other up!

  3. Working with kids with autism, we have learned to tell the child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. Instead of saying “no” or “don’t”, you could say “the chair is for sitting. Not for standing. Show me how we use the chair. On your butt.” And then acknowledging the appropriate behavior. Or when they open a random cupboard, ask them to show you how to shut it, etc. Making it feel like an accomplishment can show them the expected behavior without making them feel like they were being punished.

    1. This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing this great point about teaching autistic children how something is used instead of simply saying “no.”

  4. I agree with this. A lot of times, my son will get into things I don’t want him to, such as you said the dishes or the toilet paper or baby wipes or ANYTHING in a drawer/box/basket. But a lot of the time, I just let him as long as it’s not harmful. It is simply him exploring and learning. A lot of times he wants me to name every utensil in the kitchen drawer or he’s curious of what’s in the drawer or he’s tired of the toys and is searching for something new and fun. It’s not him TRYING deliberately to be in the way or make a mess or do something “bad” or “wrong”. So why would I not let him? It’s not like he will do it forever. I won’t have a 7 year old unrolling tp or a 12 year old pulling out ever pot and pan. He will outgrow it and likely sooner than later, considering he’s already tired of his 3 month old Bday toys. They gave short attention spans, especially at my son’s age of 15 months. This past weekend, his 12 year old aunt yelled at him when he was screaming and crying about something. I asked her not to do that since it only REAFFIRMS that he should scream and holler when he is upset. Plus, at this point he knows very little ways to affectively communicate when he is upset. Since he was born, if he was cold, uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, tired, etc– that’s how he told me. So of course when he doesn’t have what he needs /wants now he is going to do the same. What we do to try to combat his fits is ignore him for a couple minutes. If he stops and moves on (about 50% of the time) I usually hide the thing he’s throwing a fit over (the controller, my cell phone, laptop) but sometimes that’s not possible which is good bc he should learn that he cannot have everything he wants. If he wants something like pop/junk food, etc, I offer an alternative, like water/juice or a healthier snack (though I do let him try junk foods sometimes, too). Sometimes he will proceed to throw a fit so I’ll try to distract him with something else, like playing ball together or going outside. If that doesn’t work, I let it run its course. Unless it is seriously upsetting him to the point of distress, I don’t cuddle him or hold him or anything by I don’t want him to think throwing a fit is a way to get attention or anything else he wants

    1. Wonderful words of wisdom! Thank you for sharing your insight and experiences. I truly agree with your statement, “It’s not him TRYING deliberately to be in the way or make a mess or do something “bad” or “wrong”. So why would I not let him? It’s not like he will do it forever.”
      I feel as though my son shows me something new when I take the time to look at things with the awe he does.

  5. Hi Anna!
    When children hit we often think that it is a form of agression, when often it is just a child’s way to gain attention, especially the attention of another child. Sometimes however it can be out of frustration. A good way to handle this situation is to aproach the child as such: I saw you hit that boy, and I can see you are frustrated because you tried to get his attention. Instead of hitting to get his attention, try touching him on the shoulder like this (place your hand on your child’s shoulder) and say his name. Hitting is not kind, and it can hurt people. Try getting his attention in a kind way.
    **This method shows your child that you understand how they are feeling and it teaches them a different way to approach the situation. Now the hard part as parents, is to make sure to acknowledge your child, and pay attention if they use this technique on you.
    For example: if your child comes up to you and places a hand on you leg and says ‘Mom’, you need to make sure you acknowledge them, even if you’re in the middle of cooking, or on the phone.

  6. This is all fantastic! I also like to make jokes when my children get hurt or are grumpy (not in a cruel way!) My first inclination was to yell to make them stop or to run to them like a helicopter parent. This is so tempting as a mom because we do not want our children to suffer. It’s like a knife through the heart! However; we are doing them a disservice by not allowing them to self-soothe. My son is 7 now but when he was 2, I would make a joke if he banged into something or tripped on something (and he was not actually in severe pain and/or bleeding!) because he was a momma’s boy who would cry at the drop of a hat. I decided to say something like “hey! Who put that wall/table/door,etc there?” And he would stop out of distraction and laugh. Especially if I would then pretend to bump into it and say- hey! Did you put that there, silly? Ouch! Bad door! Who put that there? It worked for him and his sisters. They still do it sometimes. Laughter can be helpful- especially when you are overwhelmed some days by more stress than you can handle. Using distractions now that they are older when they fight, like saying “did you see that?” And point out something else going on either outside, with pets, or something in the house. It is impossible to have two reactions at once, so if you distract them from their highly emotionally fueled state of mind, it stops them in their tracks and also teaches them to be more mindful.

    1. You nailed it with mentioning laughter! Oh, how much laughter heals and changes a situation! Thank you for your wisdom and sharing your experiences. I enjoyed reading what worked for you.

  7. This is going to save me…for the last few days I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out how to do “no” differently…not just phrases, but in how I approach what is going on at any given time when that phrase leaves my mouth (which is often). I have a 2.5 year old who has developed quite a negative little vocabulary and belief in what he can/can’t do (as well as using “no” back defiantly even when he minds).

    1. Please share if you notice a shift in you or your children when trying a new approach. I hope some of the phrases are helpful. May we continue to support one another on this wild and wondrous journey.

  8. thank you so much for your article. very clear and wise. it can help so many mothers around the world!! :-) I read Alfie Khon books and if I may say, I found Becky Bailey’s book even more powerful. have you heard of “Easy to love, difficult to discipline”? It is full of practical examples so useful to parents. It changed my life (by helping me understand how to deal with my 3-year-old son…)
    take care! :-) Grace

    1. Thank you for reading and for your kind words, Grace. I have not read Dr. Becky Bailey’s book, but will be sure to add it to my list (I am an avid reader) – thank you for the recommendation! Blessings to you and your family.

  9. Great! Thanks for sharing your parenting style here. Reading articles from parents is really a good read and worth my time especially when it’s a personal experience. Thanks again :)

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