Two summers ago, my girlfriend Aly and her one-year-old son Gatsby came to visit me. Being in a new place, her son was, of course, exploring everything. As he would get into things in our non-baby proof house I noticed Aly kept saying "Eh, eh, eh." "Gastby, eh, eh, eh!" "eh, eh, buddy!" Finally I had to ask her, "Ok, what's up with all the eh, eh, eh's? Why don't you tell him 'no'?" She said that she had heard it's good to save your no's. I asked her about this recently, after reading about it in the book Thirty Million Words, and she responded "I did that?" "Oh my god. I tell him no all the time now." Yep, sounds about right... Reality trumps the best of intentions.
Dr. Dana Suskind, the author of Thirty Million Words, absolutely agrees to "save your no's", and there is a lot of research as to why we should. First, a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and the number of words a child is exposed to during this time is significantly correlated with the child's ultimate IQ and academic success (TMW). However, as Hart and Risley found in their famous 1960's study "Thirty Million Word Gap", the quantity of words is only one part of the equation. The type of language a child hears is important too. As Suskind so delicately puts it, "Even without science, we know intuitively that saying "shut up" to a baby thirty million times is not going to help a child develop into an intelligent, productive, stable adult" (p. 40). Hart and Risley found that imperatives and prohibitions stifle a child's ability to acquire language. "We saw the powerful dampening effects on development when (a child's interacting with a parent) began with a parent-initiated imperative; "Don't" "Stop" "Quit that" (Suskind, p. 37). Directives like "Sit down", "Be quiet" or "Don't do that" are actually counterproductive when it comes to building a child's brain, Suskind says (p. 178). For the moment the child might stop doing what you're asking them to do, or might start doing something they're not, but what has been stopped or accomplished is the action of the moment, not the ongoing habit.
So what if your child is being crazy, and you need him to not do this or quit doing that? Well, last year when I was working as the behavior intervention teacher I was writing the school rules for different areas of the building, like the hallways, cafeteria and playground, and the middle school principal gave me the best advice about positive language. He said "instead of saying what you don't want students to do, tell them exactly what you want to see them doing; keep it positive." For example, instead of the rule being "don't run in the hallways", he would say "walk in the hallways". Or, for our children at home "stop playing with the ball in the house", would sound like "please only throw the football outside". Or, "quit picking your nose and eating your boogers", would be "please use a tissue to wipe your nose and then throw it away". (My daughter just got over her first cold, so I've got boogers on my mind.)
In addition to keeping the language positive, Suskind suggests using what she calls "because thinking", which is explaining the reasoning behind a rule or request. Let's be clear that she's not saying you owe your child an explanation, but "because thinking" does help a child understand that there is a rationale for doing something, that it's not just a parent-to-child order. So, instead of saying, "hurry up and finish your food, we have to go in ten minutes", you might say "Johnny, remember how I told you it's important to eat your food because it gives you energy and makes you strong? Well we're going to go to the park in about ten minutes, and I want you to be able to run around and play without feeling tired, so please finish all your food so you can have the most fun possible." Yes, it takes longer, but that's how we get to thirty million words. It also helps children learn cause and effect, the consequences of actions, why things should be done a certain way, and it's part of learning critical thinking (Suskind, p. 179). Of course, understanding why we do certain things at certain times won't happen overnight, but Suskind says that using "because thinking" will ultimately culminate in a judicious, analytical brain that will say "don't" all by itself, and that is the goal (p. 181). And, no, "because I said so" doesn't count as "because thinking". Sorry.
Of course there are times where a firm NO is necessary. Your daughter is sticking her finger in a light socket? NO! Your child is getting ready to run in to traffic? NOOO! Your son is getting ready to take a drink of your wine? NOOOOO! "That's mommy's juice, and mommy needs her juice because..." (insert "because explanation" here). These are the times we save our No's for.
Confession: My daughter is 6.5 months old and I have told her "no" several times already, especially now that her new thing is to bite me while breastfeeding. It's a hard habit to break, but I know I always want to know the reasoning behind why I'm being told I have to do something, whether it's staying late for a meeting or paying taxes. I think she deserves for me to explain to her why I'm asking her to do, or not to do, certain things. And, if I can't give a good reason, maybe it's just not that important.