"Smart, audacious and often hilarious. Takes everything you thought you knew about parenting and turns it on its ear." - Jennifer Jason Leigh

“NO!!” a brief introduction to a fun little word

“A parent once asked me what I would do with a child who has drawn on the wall,

and whether I should punish him I answered, ‘I would punish the parents.’”

— MAGDA GERBER —

About five years ago, when our first child was only six months old, John and I were out to dinner with our friends Barry and Nicole, parents to two young kids whom we hadn’t seen since we’d become parents ourselves. Inevitably, they asked us how it was all going.

“Jules is amazing….[blah blah blah],” John started, “and we’ve been taking these RIE classes…”

“Where they leave ‘No’ at the door!’” Barry interjected sarcastically—obviously not a fan of RIE himself. Or at least what he’d heard about it. Likely he thought something like, I mean what kind of crackpot philosophy is going to recommend that parents never say “No”?  Without “no” we’d be screwed. Surrounded by insufferable Veruca Salts! Little hands would be cut by knives! Houses would burn down!

“Actually, Barry, I think that you’re both right and not quite right,” I didn’t say because I was still so new to RIE that I’d never thought to think about it as anti-no and I was caught off guard so I couldn’t respond like I can now. “While RIE isn’t about never saying ‘no’,” I didn’t continue, “I guess you could say that Magda thought it should be, as you said, ‘left at the door’…or more accurately, ‘at the gate of your kid’s playroom.’ It’s more like there’s a time for ‘no’ and that time is significantly less often than most are used to.”

I mean, imagine if you will, leaving the warmth, security and safety of your mom’s womb and coming to in a whole new kind of place. Where there was once darkness, now there is light. Where there was once nothing other than amniotic fluid, now there’s everything under the sun. Over time, your eyes slowly adjust and you find all of these new things so fascinating that you can’t help but want explore them with everything you’ve got. Your hands. Your mouth. Your feet. And then, you hear it. Again. That funny sound: “No.”

Sometimes it’s said so sternly: “NO!”

Sometimes so sing songy: “No, nooo, no-oh!”

Sometimes with so much panic: “Honey! No!”

Sometimes with admonishment: “No, Mommy said no!”

Whatever does it mean? And exactly what am I supposed to do when they say it to me? It always seems to precede some triumph I’m on the verge of having. It’s like, there I am inching my way across the living room, patiently determined to do whatever I have to do to get that white long snake-looking thing in my mouth and then just a nano second before I finally grab it, not only does she say it, but then I’m instantly air-vac’ed. It’s the ol’ whisk me away in a panic routine again. Couldn’t she have shown up earlier, like when I was half way across the room? I mean why does it always have to be so dramatic? And then, of course, I cry. Who wouldn’t? And of course they tell me how “okay” it all is. It’s the same thing over and over again. Damn those grown ups! I know they mean well, but there’s got to be a better way!

If parents finds themselves constantly telling their baby “no” they probably don’t realize that not only could the set up in their home benefit from some adjustment, but it’s likely that they think their kid is more capable than she is. There’s a lot that goes into a child responding (or not responding) to a “no.”

First a baby has to understand exactly what it is that you are no’ing. Is it the way she’s sitting? The poop she happens to be making? The long thing she’s touching? Or the fact that it’s about to go into her mouth?

Certainly saying “no” and then taking the object out of her hands, gives her the message. At that moment. But, depending on her age, don’t expect her to remember that those kinds of things are things she’s not supposed to touch. At first, it’s not so easy for a baby to differentiate a cord plugged into a wall from the string of a pull toy. And don’t think that when your child’s brain does finally develop to the point where she can remember she’s not supposed to touch the long white snake-like things plugged into the wall, that she is capable of the self-control necessary not to touch it.

Understanding.

Recognizing.

Remembering.

Impulse-control.

Lots of steps to learn and master. And all dependent on the cooperation of brain development. If you’re not quite sure approximately when all of this growth is supposed to take place, it really is best to err on the side of underestimating your kid’s cognitive abilities. After all, there is a range of when this development is supposed to take place and of course parents can’t know where their kid falls in that spectrum. I mean you wouldn’t expect someone with no legs, to be able to walk.

And so in order to not unfairly set your baby up to fail and to not drive either your baby or yourself crazy, it would be incredibly helpful to simply limit the off-limit items. Not only won’t your baby think he’s constantly doing something wrong—which is a decidedly anxiety-provoking and shameful state to be in for virtually no reason—but you won’t have to be a resentful, hyper vigilant child monitor who can’t get anything done. This means creating what I call a “RIE room”—Magda’s brilliantly simple idea that not only enables a child to live free of the constant threat of “no” but also serves to give parents a break.

“I recommend safe-proofing one room, or part of a room completely. The room should so completely be safe-proofed that if you were locked out of the house for hours, you would feel confident that your child would not be in danger.”

With a RIE room, a parent would no longer have to waste their time thinking things like, It’ll only take me ten seconds to put the laundry in the dryer and I know he can’t crawl all the way into the bathroom by then. Okay…go! which is to say that a child’s explorations don’t have to be continually interrupted in the name of safety. And yet another benefit of the set up is that “no” gets to retain it’s power. If a parent or nanny says it too often, inevitably a kid will simply start to tune it out. And then where will you and your boy-who-cried-wolf self be when your toddler has dashed away and is just about to step into the street? The same street that a car is barreling down?

So that’s it!

Just make a room, or cordon off part of one with virtually nothing in it—save for some “appropriately challenging” stuff for your baby to explore with. Nothing fancy. Just some stuff that rolls and shakes and jingles and stacks. Perhaps some tupperware and tops to jars of baby food and some balls and you can add in a little platform for her to climb up on when the time is right. And there, in the safety of that space dedicated to your baby, she can play with what she wants, for as long as she wants in whatever way she wants, without you no’ing her into oblivion. Without the threat of being pulled away at any given second.

THIS WAY A KID IS NOT CONTINUALLY

AT RISK OF DOING SOMETHING WRONG, INSTEAD

HE’S ALWAYS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT.

Just thinking about the kind of difference that would make in how a child not only experiences the world, but how she’d feel about herself, makes me well up.

I’d shared this essential RIE tenet with Allison, a new mom friend who was having a hard time getting anything done in her life because she was spending all of her time following her daughter Lori as she crawled around their house, making sure she was safe. I couldn’t have been happier when I received this e-mail:

things are going great with lori. we’ve now managed to give her one totally safe room, and then to make the rest of the house almost completely safe, so she really has the run of the place. it makes such a difference for all of us. she’s happy and i am not chasing her around all the time.

What does Magda say?

People have asked me why I believe so strongly in safe-proofing, and why children can’t just learn not to touch things. They do learn this gradually, as they develop judgment. But at a certain age, they cannot learn. We, as parents, have to be aware of what their minds can understand and learn, and at what age. Danger isn’t part of a young child’s thinking…When you safe-proof one room one hundred percent, you are being respectful of your child and of yourself. In this way, you can both relax….

A parent once asked me what I would do with a child who has drawn on the wall, and whether I should punish him I answered, “I would punish the parents.” A child young enough to want to draw on walls needs supervision. If he’s playing in his safe-proofed room, remove the crayons. Setting and enforcing appropriate limits help avoid the use of punishment.

8 Responses to ““NO!!” a brief introduction to a fun little word”

  1. Mama Mo says:

    Yep, I love this. I spent the majority of our trip to visit my in-laws at Christmas chasing my then-10-month old twins around, removing things that were placed tantalizingly in reach. And listening to everyone else no-ing my boys. It boiled my blood and inspired a post: http://attachedatthenip.blogspot.com/2010/12/set-yourself-up-to-succeed.html

    Thank you for this post.

    And about the book No David…. I use it in my preschool classroom to talk about choices David could have made, and how his mama says yes at the end. The kids love it, and relate to it well.

  2. Rachelle says:

    Hey Jennifer…I really love the insight you share on your blog. I am not a RIE parent but have learned a lot here and see that my parenting is in alignment with so much of the philosophy. When I was in L.A. I remember Pam sharing some about it and began to explore it myself. I wish I could say though with 3 kids it can be difficult to always model the behavior I want to instill…and with a new baby and what the older girls try to do to her…there has definitely been too many “no’s” in our home which makes me sad. I am always working on it!

    Regarding your post…I am wondering what an option would be for a child who always wants to be with me or with the other siblings. 2 of my 3 kids have been like this…I tried to create this great free for all play space and they both scream at the gate…even if I am just outside of it. I am fine sitting in the space for some time but realistically I can’t take care of a family of 5 if I am sitting in the play space not getting meals ready, laundry done and stuff like that. We have a pretty child safe home at this point but just wondering…are there other options?

    Rachelle

    • Jennifer says:

      Rachelle! So great to hear from you. (For those of you reading this reply too: Rachelle and I went to junior high and high school together, only having seen each other once since graduation at our 20 year reunion.) It was so good to see you! And yes, I’d heard from Pam I think that you’d had a third. Congratulations and wow!

      Yes I totally understand your question. Whereas Jules, my oldest, was pretty happy to play in her “rie room” for really long stretches, when Hudson was younger he wanted to be closer. So really I just made the whole house as child friendly as possible. I took all books and knick knack crap off lower book shelves. deleted the floor lamps for the time being and focused on one thing he couldn’t play with; THE DOG BOWL. When he’d head over to the enticing bowl of water I’d come over and say, “billie’s bowl” and lift it to the counter and put it back down. over and over again. Not “no don’t touch this” but Billie’s bowl. Yes, i missed him a couple of times and had to clean up the spilled water or food but he got it. but if i had to do that for three things at once or five or ten it would have been too much.
      as he got older and more comfortable playing in his rie room for stretches without me there (but within earshot and mostly eyeshot) there were problems with his sister. so…i’d say to Jules, Jules I need hudson to be safe and i need you to be safe…why don’t you go into the playroom and select some things you want to play with. then you can bring them to the living room and play there where he can’t crawl over and interrupt you.” this way they both had safe places.

      helpful???

      • Rachelle says:

        Yes…thank you. I would say our current biggest issue is all the things the other girls leave on the floor…which have been eaten by the baby. So the “no” also comes from turning around and seeing Devi swallow a bead and such…it’s so hard to keep up with the cleaning. But I know I can frame it all in the positive and I also know this time will pass soon enough and she won’t be eating things off the floor. And the girls are definitely learning how to be gentle with her so I look forward to the “no’s” diminishing. Thanks again for all your insight!
        Rachelle

  3. I see it so often, a parent who is *constantly* saying no to her child. It’s really depressing to watch. The most mind-boggling thing is then when the parent is all annoyed that the kid starts saying “No” all the time. What did you think was going to happen??

    This is beautifully written. I’m going to share it later.

    • Jennifer says:

      i love the idea of the “terrible twos” when the kids say “no” all the time as if they hadn’t just spent the last two years being no’d. you’re absolutely right.

      and re: well written. thank you! your comment inspired me to reread the post and i found two GLARING errors…so thanks for that too.

      xo

      • Jennifer says:

        and of course i don’t mean that the only reason the kid is saying no is because they’ve heard it…i know it’s a developmental stage but a child can be testing their boundaries and know what they want etc. but there are a lot of ways to express that. while certainly both of my kids were (and are) strong-willed i don’t remember a terrible twos No phase.

        Have you ever heard of the book NO DAVID? it’s a book about a kid doing everything “wrong” and his intolerant (bitch of a mom) constantly saying NO DAVID and then sending him to his room and other fun stuff like that. anyway it SOMEHOW landed in our playroom and when i read it to my kids i was so horrified i kept telling them what the mother SHOULD have said instead of no and my 3 year old son was like, “come on just say NO HUDSON” it was so new to him he thought it was fun! awesome.

        • Catherine says:

          My 4yo was given “No David” by a family member this month. The family member said something to the effect of “he’ll like it because all he hears is no, no, no.” I did read it to my son twice. I also told him what the mother should have said in the book and I told him how upset the book made me. He thought the book was hilarious. After the 2nd reading, I had to hide the book. I couldn’t decide if I was more upset at the Caldecott award on the cover of the book or giver for thinking my boy hears no all day long. He hears yes all day long. Yes, you are valuable. I would love to listen to your opinion. Yes, you can make that decision. I have full confidence in you. Yes, yes, yes.

          Perhaps I will write a book. “Yes, David.” Yes, David, you may play baseball outside. Yes, David, you may bang on the pots and pans and wear one as a hat. Yes, David, you may have a cookie after dinner. Yes, David, I will actively participate in your life, so there will not be a need for yelling no from across the room.

          Thank you for this comment. I’ve been totally annoyed by that book and didn’t have anyone I could vent to.

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