Transforming No into Yes! by Faith Collins

If I had to choose one point—and only one point—to share with people about my keynote address at the conference, it would be the idea that many times when children say “No” to us, what they’re really trying to say is, “I don’t feel as connected to you right now as I wish I did.”

When we can hear a request for connection, we can respond much differently than we would if we were translating that “No” as, “I’m separate from you and don’t want to do what you want,” or, “I’m testing your boundaries and resolve and seeing if you really mean what you say.”  What a profound difference, and what a profoundly different response we can give.

What makes me think that this translation might be more accurate?  Aren’t toddlers also asserting their individuality, and also testing boundaries?  Yes, certainly they are doing those things, and it can often be uncomfortable.  However, I believe that at the same time, children are also longing for connection—especially when they are feeling separate from us.  Why do I think this?  One reason is because of children’s reactions to my different responses.  When a child says “No” and I pause for a moment, then offer a hug, or turn my request into a game, or start talking in a silly voice, then quite often that “No” melts away.  I’m honoring their request for connection, and in return they are happy to accede to mine.  On the other hand, when I respond to that “No” by getting stern to show them that I’m serious, and by making them do what I’ve asked, a much more common reaction is a melt-down.  If they were really asking for boundaries, wouldn’t those boundaries feel like a relief?  But if they’re asking for connection, and we respond with sternness, then a meltdown makes total sense.

But what if we stop to connect, and it doesn’t work?  What do we do then?  Well, sometimes it doesn’t work because they’re hoping (or needing) to connect in another way: we’re trying to snuggle, but they’re longing for humor.  Or we’re using imagination, but they’re longing for physical fun.  So it’s useful to have a combination of different ways of connecting up your sleeve, and to try a few.  But sometimes you try one, then another, then another, and nothing seems to be working.  That “No” is firmly in place.  What’s going on?  Why is it feeling hard to that child to connect right now?  It’s time to stop and find out.  I might pause, and ask,  “You really don’t want to, huh?  What’s going on?”  And then I’ll listen.  Depending on what the child shares, I’ll decide what to do.  I might offer for us to do the thing together, or I might suggest that he’ll be ready to do it after I give him a big hug, or I might even say,  “I can tell that you’re not ready to do it now.  Why don’t I do it for you, this time.”

But wait!  I hear you say.  You do it for him?  What happened to transforming No into Yes?  Aren’t you just caving in?  No.  Offering to do it for him because I understand that he’s too tired, or too hungry, or too distraught to do what I’ve asked, or because this is more important to him than I had realized, is much different from “giving in.”  It comes from a place of connection, and my doing it is a gift.  I might reinforce the nature of the gift by mentioning casually as I do it, “I bet next time you’ll be able to do it on your own again.”  And we can move on with our day.  This is the type of understanding I would hope for from a loved one, were I to be tired, or overwhelmed, or to feel very strongly about something.  I can absolutely offer that gift in return.