The Power of Yes

Feb 24

I think often about my people-pleasing instincts.  About my tendency to say Yes, even when I mean No.

Apparently Belinda Munoz at The Halfway Point thinks about these things too.  Two of her posts last week – on saying Yes and saying No – inspired me to reconsider my own on-again, off-again relationship with saying No.

And they made me realize that I do know how to say No.  I say it all the time in fact.  Ad nauseum.  Every day.

To my son, Big Boy.

A chorus of No’s rains down upon him from the moment he wakes up: “No, you may not have a vanilla sandwich cookie for breakfast.”

Throughout his morning: “No, you may not watch ‘Max & Ruby’ right now”; his midday: “No, I can’t play ‘train tracks’ with you right now; I have to empty the dishwasher”; his afternoon nap: “No, we only read two books before nap”; and his evening: “No, I can’t do crafts right now; I just have to check my e-mail quickly before I put Tiny Baby down for the night.”

All the way up to his bedtime: “No, you can’t stay in the bathtub any longer; it’s time for sleep.”

He has also met all of No’s siblings and cousins: No Way, Not Now, Stop, Don’t Do That, Be Careful, Watch Out, Whoa, Just, Only, No More, Can’t, and Shouldn’t.

And the thing is, Big Boy is a really good kid.  He’s sweet and patient and a generous big brother.  He is two, but he’s a good two.  His behavior is not such that he deserves that cacophony of No’s all day, every day.

So, with thanks to Belinda and in the spirit of last Wednesday’s Lenten promises, I’m going to issue myself a new challenge: try to say Yes more often to Big Boy.  When met with a reasonable request, I will try not to default to No.

No (and all of its relations) will still have a prominent place chez Motherese (see, for instance, the aforementioned No to vanilla sandwich cookies for breakfast; that sort of behavior is reserved for grown-ups, you see), but I will try to lean toward Yes before leaning toward No.

Especially when Big Boy is asking for my time, rather than for things.

Because, in 16 years, I will still have a dishwasher to unload, but I suspect there will be a distinct absence of toddlers around with whom to play train tracks.

Are you good about balancing Yes and No?  If you are a parent, do you find yourself saying Yes or No more often to your kids?  Where is the line between acquiescence and over-indulgence?

Image: Yes no maybe by elycefeliz via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf February 24, 2010 at 6:11 am

I actually leaned toward yes with my boys, always, as default. Unless something was hazardous, or totally inappropriate behavior. (There were plenty of no’s around age 2-3, but also many more YESes.)

That worked for my kids because of who they are. And because I wanted any NO to be so well grounded that it wouldn’t be fought. And that worked. For us. Generally. Even now as teens, they know the default is likely to be yes if (a)other responsibilities are attended to (b) it’s not costing me a bunch of money (c) they let me know when/where/with whom, etc. Then, when they get a NO – even now – they consider it reasonable and measured.

Do I slip up? Of course. So do they, but rarely. My slips? biting off more than I can chew. (Latvian IS in the closet, without a candlestick, and still sleeping.)


Nicki February 24, 2010 at 7:12 am

I tend to say yes to my children over no. It is weighed with safety as they seem to have little regard for that.

I do remember the “no” period. It was when there were four children under 5. It was during the cross country trip with the four. It is long gone!


Charlotte February 24, 2010 at 7:39 am

It took me a lot longer to learn this lesson, but you are absolutely right. There are so many things that are an must NO, why add to the list unnecessarily? I try to lean toward YES, although there are still days when the NO is a must (I do have to run the dishwasher at least occasionally and if I don’t do the laundry I would have to give our whole family a YES for nudity).


JennyMac February 24, 2010 at 8:14 am

We try to balance as our son is only 3. We don’t want everthing to be “no” and “don’t…”

it is challenging but we save big NO for serious things…like hitting the cat with his drumsticks. lol.
Pulling cans out of the cupboard we say “those stay”.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 9:01 am

I like the way you switch things around to make a negative into a positive. I’m going to have to try that with my 2-year-old: “Let’s keep the socks in the dresser drawer” rather than a big NO all the time.

Thanks for joining the conversation, JennyMac.


Lindsey February 24, 2010 at 8:27 am

A timely reminder – my instinct, when I am tired or preoccupied or generally not at my best, is to snap “NO” at my kids without even thinking about it – and you are so right that we ought to reconsider this.
When I find the generosity of spirit to pause, think about it, and say YES, I find their eyes light up and they are delighted. This may say more about how accustomed they are to grinch mommy than anything else, but it’s worth that effort on my part. They deserve it!


Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities February 24, 2010 at 8:32 am

Interestingly (or not perhaps), I think I err on the side of yes. To the extent that my girls are asking to do things that are relatively innocuous, I usually indulge them. I feel, and deeply, that childhood should be an exploration in imagination and that limits should exist, but be fluid. I know that I face my own issues here; That I am risking raising kids who aren’t disciplined. I think about this and I do put my foot down, but I think I should learn to do it more. Particularly, in the nutrition department. After all, chocolate milk is not a food group!

(Isn’t Belinda fantastic?)


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 9:04 am

Belinda is great. I’m just starting to get to know her writing and I’m really enjoying her blog.

I love this line: “childhood should be an exploration in imagination and…limits should exist, but be fluid.” Definite food for thought for me – with some chocolate milk to wash it down!


PinesLakeRedhead February 24, 2010 at 8:39 am

The phrase I was accutely of and wanted to avoid was,”No, because I said so.” When I said No and my sons asked Why, I always tried to provide a reasonable reply.

I also realized the time with our children in precious. I can always do the dishes after the kids go to bed. Sometimes I responded with alternative activities to the kids’ requests… “Mommy has a bad headache (migraine) can we do a puzzle instead of building blocks?”


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 9:07 am

Yes – that is a phrase I really want to avoid except in rare situations. I suppose a goal would be to instill a sense of right and wrong/good and bad in my sons so that they are not often tempted to do the things that are just obvious, big, fat No-because-I-said-so’s.

And I love the concrete tip about providing alternatives when I do actually want to say no. My problem these days is not defaulting to TV as an acceptable alternative: you know, toddler watches TV while Mommy blogs. Bad Mommy.


suzicate February 24, 2010 at 10:53 am

Nice perspective…it’s good that you saw this and are willing to make changes so that you can spend more quality time together. Enjoy playing train tracks.


jennifer February 24, 2010 at 10:55 am

This doesn’t really answer your question but I read a wonderful blog post the other day about how much this blogger’s family loves the library. The writer said it was the one place where she could say “Yes” over and over again. “Yes, you can get five more books.” “Yes, we can stay another hour.” “Yes, let’s get that movie and that CD, one for each of you.” As a fellow library lover, I thought that was a brilliant observation.
Finally, it’s true, when children hit puberty, the family no longer reigns supreme – it’s all about the friends. I thought those incessantly needy days of little boys would never end but indeed, they do.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Library lovers unite! I love the idea of the library as a place of infinite yeses. I’m going to share that story with our beloved children’s librarian tomorrow at story time.

And thanks for the reminder that the shades of our kids’ neediness changes as they grow older. I already know I will be looking back at these days, wishing for more of the magical moments.


Contemporary Troubadour February 24, 2010 at 11:36 am

Nice insights on how we set boundaries — it’s so different when they’re your own, eh? I remember having few qualms about saying no in the classroom and then wondering during prep periods if I really was the crotchety “old lady” one student called me (considered a victory for classroom management purposes). I guess there *were* nearly 40 people to keep an eye on. Not quite the same.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Such an interesting insight. I need to think more about the ways in which my years in the classroom shape my approach as a parent.

As a teacher, I was proud to be considered tough, but fair. I wonder: if my two-year-old could verbalize his feelings, would he say the same about me as a mom?


Jo@Mylestones February 24, 2010 at 11:37 am

For me, the scales definitely tip toward “no.” I have to make a very conscious effort to say yes to stuff like jumping in puddles, staying a bit longer at the park, sledding down the hill one more time….


Gale @ Ten Dollar Thoughts February 24, 2010 at 11:43 am

As the mother of a one-year-old I find myself saying “no” more than I would like. But at this age it’s hard to convey any message in shades of grey. But as he gets older I too will try shift the weight of my responses more toward “yes.” In the meantime I’m highly focused on keeping him from pulling knives out of the dishwasher.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Great point, Gale, about the shades of grey. The nuances will be easier to convey, I hope, once our kids have the vocabularies to process these subtleties. (And I hear you on the knives in the dishwasher. One of Big Boy’s former favorite temptations.)


Christine LaRocque February 24, 2010 at 11:58 am

I ususally try to think about why I’m saying no before I say it. I remember being young and my parents saying no and never knowing why there were saying no. It was so irritating. So I try to only say no when it’s really necessary and that way I don’t have to feel as guilty.

My little guy is only 3, and he hears a chorus of no’s throughout the day too, but probably not as often as one would think. I’ve learned that even when there is something that I would prefer he not do, sometimes if I just let him do it and get it over with it kind of gets it out of his system.


Maureen@IslandRoar February 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

It’s funny; your post reminded me that I made a conscious effort when my kids were little to not say no very often. Even when they couldn’t do or have something, I’d find another way to say it. “Next time,” “After I finish this,” etc. And that made me realize that even today, I rarely say no. Even when no is the bottem line, we tend to talk about it.
But the days they want your company are fleeting. Enjoy playing train.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 1:44 pm

I love it when one of my rambling posts ends up netting me all sorts of great advice. I really appreciate the point that Maureen and a few others have made about the power of language and reframing discussions so as not to always have a negative spin. Thanks, friends!


Terry February 24, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I remember reading some parenting book about saying NO all the time to your two year old. They suggested that instead of NO, you try softer words like not right now or take a moment to explain why No is in order. WELL, this never worked for me. But I must confess once a while I would let one of my kids have the brownie for breakfast. In fact, last week I think Will and I both gobbled down brownies instead of cereal. It was delicious.

I always wished I had more patience for the endless hours of Thomas the Tank Engine, Kyle wanted me to play with him. I felt guitly every time I quit or got bored or busy. Will wants be in play video games with him. It is so difficult. But I’m going to take you up on your challenge and say YES the next time he asks me to kill Nazi Zombies with him.

Let’s see how it goes.


Belinda Munoz February 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Hi Kristen, what an honor to be linked to by this fine blog of yours! Thank you.
I am perennially struggling with the word “balance” but I find I struggle with it the most where it concerns my son as I think about potential long-term damage I could be inflicting on his spirit. He and I are both still learning that yes and no aren’t so absolute. I’ll say “No, we won’t be watching the Aristocats dvd tonight but we can read the Aristocats book” or “Yes, you can draw but not until you finish your snack.” Yet when I put this in writing, it sounds so sane and reasonable that I have the courage to tell myself I shouldn’t be so worried about crushing his spontaneity and creativity. Alas, this desire to be a good mother to my son, this very thing that makes me question my yeses and nos, isn’t always so sane and reasonable in practice.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Ahh, Belinda, so many magic words in here: balance, sanity, reason, spontaneity, creativity. All things I strive for and try to cultivate in my kids, and most of which I fear I fall short of attaining.

Thanks again for the inspiring posts that helped me reconsider my own attitude toward Yes and No.


Sonia February 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Great post, Kristen, and one I plan to think about this evening when I’m spending time with my 3-year-old. I didn’t realize how often we tell her “no” (or, at least, how often she feels like we do) until she was playing with a doll the other day and telling it “No, no, no” with great regularity. I, too, like the idea of reframing responses. Distraction can be another useful technique, though, alas, I find it less successful as our little one gets older and wiser.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I can easily see that same scenario playing out in my own house. A similar one transpired last week when Big Boy gave his wooden dog a time out for repeatedly falling over when he was trying to pull it.

Out of the mouths of babes. Ugh.


Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist February 24, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I am really good at saying yes and no. The problem is that I veer between the two extremes: yes all the time or no all the time. Balance is not a word in my vocabulary.


submom February 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm

It may be more difficult to say less no when the kids are that young. As they grow older though, there are indeed ways of saying yes when you really mean no. LOL, and I don’t mean being passive aggressive, although that works for me when dealing with husband…


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Passive aggressive behavior. Yes. Well deserving of its own post.

You always inspire me with your comments! (Maybe we’re too much alike?) ;)


Diane February 24, 2010 at 4:06 pm

excellent idea – reminds me of one of Gretchen Rubin’s posts. The one about riding the bus with her daughter.


Kristen @ Motherese February 24, 2010 at 7:35 pm

I don’t know that post, but am a big fan of Gretchen Rubin and look forward to finding it at the Happiness Project.

Reply February 24, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Really great post and it makes me think… think about no and yes and why I feel being able to say no is a good thing. When maybe, being a person who can say yes {and actually enjoy saying yes instead of regretting it} more often than no is really the person I’d like to be.



Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I say “yes” to that! You’re right: why are we so conditioned to think “no” is good, strong, tough?


crnnoel February 24, 2010 at 8:03 pm

I think it is so important to keep things positive, but it’s so hard. It’s hard to remember, hard not to just keep moving with blinders on and move quickly without thinking of putting a positive spin on things.
We had a REALLY rough day today, and looking back I wonder how it could have gone a different way if I spent more time slowing down instead of rushing with the no’s. The extra letter in “yes” takes a lot of effort sometimes ;)


Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Maybe try it in Spanish? Si! :)


Maria February 24, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Hey! Just to let you know that you have been awarded a Beautiful Blogger Award… Link back to my blog to find out the details…


Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Thanks, Maria!


bloginsong February 24, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I remember trying to re-frame things and trying to be really mindful about saying YES instead of NO about a year ago…..then…well I forgot until today! Thank you. This is such a constant battle with young children – mine are both 3 – but I do think its really important to be more balanced about it instead of falling back on NO NO NO! For example, “YES, you can have some cookies tonight after dinner”

I do have a very wild boy who puts himself in danger pretty regularly. The good news is that he does respond to my desperate shouted NO and climbs down, or stops destroying things, etc…. Poor kid. But he is a happy, jubilant, fully engaged little boy and I don’t think it hurts him to hear me squeal NO at him when he is about to perform another death defying stunt.


Amber February 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Great question. I resolved, before becoming a mom, to avoid saying no. Saying “no” all day long leaves me feeling negative.

With the Queen, I try and redirect. Of course, when she’s doing something harmful (like going to throw a can at her brother’s head) I will say a firm no. With other things, though, I take her hand and lead her away from whatever she is doing. If I am busy, I will ask her to bring me a book or unzip her coat.

No is necessary at times. Yet, you will be surprised how creative you become when you try to say “yes” more often.


Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:26 pm

All of these personal examples of when “no” is absolutely necessary (e.g. drumstick vs. cat; can vs. brother’s head) make me smile and make me feel a great sense of camaraderie with this community.

I also love your suggestion, Amber, about the creativity and flexibility that is available to us once we decide to try “yes” more often. I have to say that I’ve seen a difference already since making my little promise. Of course, it’s only been 36 hours…


6512 and growing February 24, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Sometimes my back is bent and crooked under all the “no’s” I utter to my generally decent children.
Tomorrow I will be spending all day with the kiddos; I will practice saying yes. I feel better already.


Linda at Bar Mitzvahzilla February 24, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Kristen, I hate to admit it, but one of my son’s first words was “dangerous.” I’m kind of a paranoid mother – especially safety conscious in vehicles due to my many harrowing years of handling auto accident claims – so he knew most of the time a “no” was tied to this incomprehensible, multi-syllabic word: dangerous.

But I agree with you, playing with mommy, time with mommy, that’s a special treat. And I say this with a huge textural art project spread out in our kitchen, knowing my daughter’s almost done and I’ve barely picked my topic. She doesn’t care. She just wants me to stand there and give her time.


privilegeofparenting February 25, 2010 at 1:50 am

I know it can sound a little hoakey, but (every now and then, when we have the patience for it) we can go beyond yes and no, striving to really hear the request, question, etc. and mostly reflect the feeling (i.e. of really wanting the cookie, toy, etc.) without being so pulled into the judge and arbiter role.

As with us grown-ups, even if we cannot get our way, it can make a big difference to know that we are truly heard and understood.

By reflecting emotions (including frustration, anger, sadness), and tolerating them, we “mirror” our children and this helps them feel more cohesive as their identities form.

I do know what you mean about striving for “yes.” Makes me think of James Joyce, a kiss, a mountain flower, a Moorish wall… and bleary eyes at a “yes” that could be that effusive… a yes so drawn out you start yearning for a no :)



Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I studied Joyce in graduate school and remember thinking about the significance of his choice to give that final soliloquy to Molly, to Penelope, to the female. I also remember that Joyce called “yes” the “female word.” So it seems I have some good mythical and literary archetypes to which to aspire!


Stacia February 25, 2010 at 2:01 am

Maybe just one vanilla sandwich cookie for breakfast?? (The answer is “yes.”) =>

I pick one day a week where I try to say “yes” to as many requests as possible (I read this in an article somewhere and, of course, can’t remember where). It’s a baby step, but it’s helping. It also keeps me aware of my “no” count the other six days.


becca February 25, 2010 at 9:39 am

i wrote a post a while back about not saying “STOP” so often. I felt like I was constantly making Hannah feel like she was doing something wrong. I promised myself instead of telling her to stop, I’d first think about why I was saying stop. Was it because she was annoying me? Was I worried she’d hurt herself or Luke? Was she REALLY doing something that she needed to stop? I found that most of the time I was asking her to stop for selfish reasons or that I was worrying more than I should.

I also say no a lot. More than I need to I think. This post has made me think along the same lines as I did with Stop. Thank you for bringing it back to my mind… I think a day full of “YES” would be a lot more pleasant than one with NO.


Kristen @ Motherese February 25, 2010 at 1:34 pm

“I found that most of the time I was asking her to stop for selfish reasons or that I was worrying more than I should.”

Guilty of that here too. 100%.


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