Knowing When Not to Say No

Nov 2, 2016 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Knowing When Not to Say No

image by: Rolands Lakis

Parents have no choice but to tell their young children NO a lot. But it's that very fact that makes unnecessary NOs so misguided.

Animal instincts are not instilled overnight. It takes thousands or millions of generations for a behavior to become selected for. Humans are no exception. Just about every instinct we have—from yawning and blinking to suckling and the sex drive—comes by way of an evolutionary path older than the relatively young age of our species (roughly 200,000 years old).

Because modern society and human culture have developed on an even more recent time scale (i.e., within the last 50,000 years), instinctually we are designed for life on the savannah, not in the city. The upshot of this is that we must cope with myriad potential dangers without the benefit of safeguarding instincts. You don't have to learn to fear snakes and spiders, but someone's got to teach you that it's not safe to play with matches and guns.

That's where your parents come in. It's incumbent upon them to steer you away from harmful behaviors. That means a heavy dose of the word "no" is inevitable. Natural curiosity generally won't kill the cat because its instincts are sufficient to keep up with its way of life even in today's world; but a toddler left to wander unchecked is not long for this Earth.

Although a human is no less an animal than a cat, there is one aspect of humanity that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom: abstract language. This unique faculty accounts for almost the totality of what we think of as culture and is by far the single most defining influence on the individual. The genetic difference between you and a chimpanzee (your closest non-human relative) is maybe 6%, but somewhere in that 6% is the language faculty, which allowed for the development for the vast difference between your way of life and a chimp's.

But even if we wish to celebrate the difference, we should not be reluctant to recognize the many unique problems our culture inflicts upon its members. Perhaps the most prevalent during our formative years is being told "no" for no compelling reason.

These unnecessary "no"s comprise an early subset of the general behavior that's come to be called "helicopter parenting," excessive involvement with and efforts to control a child in the supposed service of her well-being. This parenting style has only recently come to be investigated broadly, but early results seem to point to the children of helicopter parents ending up more dependent, vulnerable, self-conscious, anxious, and closed to new actions or ideas than their non-helicoptered counterparts.

Before unnecessarily prohibiting a young child's impulses, parents would do well to consider how each "no" is, to use psychologist's Alan Schore's formulation, a shaming act, something he says mothers do to their 13- to-17-month-olds once every nine minutes.

"In the second year the mother's role now changes from a caregiver to a socialization agent, as she must now persuade the child to inhibit unrestricted exploration, tantrums, bladder and bowel function (i.e., activities that he enjoys)," Schore writes. "[… S]hame, which has been called an 'attachment emotion' […] is the reaction to an important other’s unexpected refusal to enter into a dyadic system that can recreate the attachment bond. […] The negative affect of shame is thus the infant's immediate physiological-emotional response to an interruption in the flow of an anticipated maternal regulatory function."

Because we all want our kids to be potty-trained, some of that shame cannot be helped. It may even be that, like stress, within limits shame may not be especially harmful. But when a child's instincts are too frequently repressed, the result is likely to be damaging. As psychologist Larry Hedges notes,

In an essentially normal process of “disruption and repair” the good-enough caregiver induces stress and decreased activity through misattunement [such as saying "no"] and then reinstates increased activity and positive affect through reattunement. But, of course, this process frequently goes awry even in optimal child-rearing situations and becomes disastrously shameful in non-optimal situations. Just how and how much each of us was subjected to physiologically disabling shaming experiences in toddlerhood and in later life profoundly affects how we address later interpersonal situations.

A recent personal example motivated me to explore this topic. I have a bond with "Camilla," my friend's 5-year-old. One day when I was visiting it was Camilla's bath time, but she asked to sit and watch football with her father and me for a few minutes before she went upstairs. She situated herself between us, and after a bit she swung herself around so that her legs were draped across my lap. It was not a rambunctious act, just a playful way to enjoy the bond of touch. "That's not how we sit on the couch, Camilla," her mother said immediately. Thinking Camilla's mother had said this for my benefit in case I minded, I said, "That's okay, I don't mind." Nonetheless, her mother said, "Camilla, straighten up." Camilla dutifully complied.

I have often bristled at how frequently and needlessly Camilla's mother proscribes Camilla's instincts, but this one particularly troubles me. Camilla was shamed (in Schore's sense) for pursuing her instinct to connect more deeply with someone who welcomes the connection. One can only guess at exactly how a child's being dissuaded from such positive instincts will ramify as her psyche and relationships become ever more complex. As Hedges notes, "Excessive shaming at that early critical period between 10 and 24 months can be a contributor to many pathologies, including PTSD and borderline personality disorder. The worst part, of course, is that the internalizing harshness is then carried forward in life so that one constantly shames oneself."

That is a minefield that Camilla is likely to be compelled to negotiate from so many needless "no"s. If Camilla is persistently dissuaded from her instincts to connect, she cannot be as connected as she would otherwise be, and she is almost certain not only mistrust those instincts but even to shame herself for them.

Such pathology exemplifies the simple power of the simple word "no." Anything with such power should be wielded judiciously, rather than tossed about easily based on convenience and a parent's unexamined preconceptions (which, of course, are often formed by mistakes our own parents made). The human animal is a curious and complex creature, and we should be allowed and encouraged to safely explore ourselves and our potential to the fullest.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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