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Should I say “Yes” or “No”?

All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.  Matthew 5:37

I am a people watcher. Well, actually, I am an observer of interactions. As an early childhood teacher and consultant, I am especially interested in observing interactions between adults and young children. So when Terry and I were at a fast food restaurant for breakfast recently, I had the chance to observe an interesting interaction between a mom and a two-year-old child.

The mom and toddler sat side-by-side at a booth next to a half wall that divides the eating area from the area where the utensils and napkins are kept While waiting for their food to arrive, the toddler stood on the seat, reached over the half wall and started playing with the utensils. It went something like this:

Mom : “Stop playing with those!”
Child: stopped for a moment , then went back to the utensils.
Mom: “I said ‘stop that'”. smacking child lightly on the back, and placing her in a sitting position.
Child: sat for a moment, then stood up and returned to playing with the utensils
Mom: “Do you want me to spank you?”, picking child up and moving her, placing her on the other side of the mom’s body.
Child: Sat there for a moment. Then crawled behind mom and returned to playing with utensils.
Mom: Starting looking at her cell phone and allowed child to play with utensils with no further attempts to stop her.

So … what did the child learn from that experience? Maybe that when Mom says “No”, she doesn’t really mean it and you don’t have to take her seriously? I don’t think that’s what Mom actually wanted to teach …but lessons learned aren’t always those that we intend to teach.

I also imagine the Mom got tired of saying “No” and ran out of ideas for ways to stop the behavior, so she just gave up because that was easier. And besides, who wants to make a scene in public?

Let’s take a look at the whole situation from the beginning. The first thing to consider when a child is doing something is to ask yourself if the behavior really needs to be stopped.

My favorite early childhood professor at Texas State University, Dr. Dorothea Huddleston, taught me three rules that have guided my me in my interactions with young children for many years.

1. Never say “No” when you can say “Yes.”
2. When you must say “No”, mean it.
3. Never wound the heart.

So how do you decide if you must say “No?” There are three questions to consider.
1. Will the behavior hurt the child or another person?
2. Will the behavior damage property?
3. Will the behavior interfere with someone else’s rights?

If the answer to these three questions is “No”, then relax and say “Yes” to the behavior! There’s no value in having a battle of wills with a child just for the sake of doing battle or exerting unnecessary control to prove you’re the boss. Never say “no” when you can say “yes.”

If however, the answer to any of these three questions is “yes”, then the behavior must be stopped. You must say “No” and mean it!

In the situation with the child and the utensils, it is possible that the behavior would interfere with other people’s rights. If the child’s hands were not clean and she was touching utensils that other customers would use, it could be seen as a behavior that needed to be stopped.

So if the mom decided that touching the utensils was interfering with other people’s rights to have clean utensils, what could she have done to effectively stop the behavior? How could she say “No” and mean it?

Clearly nagging and threatening and then giving up and giving in didn’t work very well. And yelling, spanking or humiliating the child would violate Dr. Huddleston’s third rule of never wounding the heart.

So what could the Mom have done? A few ideas that come to mind are:

  • She might have allowed the child to choose two or three utensils to play with on the table and then engaged in the play with her so that her interest in the utensils was satisfied and she was able to have a fun time with her Mom.
  • She might have moved with the child to another table that was not right next to the utensils, thus removing the opportunity for her to do something that was inappropriate.
  • She might have offered the child something else to was equally attractive to play with, all the while explaining that the utensils were for people to use for eating, not for playing. Packing a few favorite books and quiet toys when going out with your child can come in handy in situations like this.”

You can probably come up with a dozen ideas of ways this Mom could have said “No” and really meant it.

Remember that the Bible tells us all we need to do is say “Yes” or “No”. Just think it through before you decide your answer, follow through like you mean it, and never wound the heart.

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