The Concept of No
A couple of years ago, my niece, while contemplating her son’s upcoming registration for kindergarten, asked me a simple question, “Uncle Marc, I have some concerns about John starting school…he doesn’t understand 'no'.” I thought for a moment and responded that he did understand the concept, from my observation of their interactions. Simply put, he had learned how to manipulate his parents. A stated ‘no’ meant "in a little while, maybe, after you complain some more, or ultimately, when we give up.” Additionally, I felt that his behavior in school would be directly related to his teacher’s responses to his actions. At the time, little did I realize how normal this behavior is with five-year olds.
Recently, young children (and others) have redefined the definition of “no.” Some of us grew up in an environment and culture when an adult said no, we knew whatever we wanted, we weren’t going to get! In sharp contrast, I learned quickly that most young children simply regard the word “no” as a simple, short-term nuisance.
A month after that conversation, I was on special assignment as the principal of an elementary school and spent a wonderful, pre-retirement year with 250 elementary students, including 50 in kindergarten. As principal, I had many opportunities to converse with parents in informal meetings, school activities and individual conferences. I learned that their family interactions were similar to my niece’s experiences. Later that year, in a large group activity with the kindergarten students, all acknowledged that they knew how to proceed, and in fact, could get what they wanted, regardless of the word “no.”
Why is it important for those with young children to understand how their children are processing their many “no’s”? Many tell you that their little ones will “outgrow” certain questionable actions or that their manipulative behavior is cute and appropriate. Some consider it a wonderful example of the growing process. Often it is perceived as the child's developing sense of independence. Unfortunately, the humor often exhibited by adults the first several times this happens only reinforces the behavior to the child.
To prevent this, parents need to understand and be able to identify the developmental differences between concrete and abstract thinking abilities. Early developmental behavior is concrete. Children are conditioned from their environment more than most parents understand. Often when a child uses a “bad” word, someone laughs. The child sees someone happy. The child does it again. A child learns cues which a parent uses regularly and the child learns to respond appropriately. The child has learned from that situation, although he may not be developmentally ready to transfer the skill to another situation. Children generally begin to abstract between the ages of seven and ten.
Young children learn quickly by repetitive behaviors, simple directions, and consistency in their environment. They also learn quickly and concretely how to change or modify this environment. Simply put, they don’t recognize the subtleties in different interactions, but rather simply transfer their behaviors to each new situation. They quickly learn that “no” has power for them in all situations. Adults use the word “no” too often, and without consistent value. No wonder “young children” tend to get their own way.
As a retired teacher, principal and administrator, I have always marveled at young children’s abilities to interact with peers, older children, parents, grandparents teachers. In recent years, the range of experiences young children bring to school is drastically different and challenging. They are growing up in environments which reflect new challenges, different family and community issues and access to the world at their finger tips. Their experiences give them information and “guidance” beyond the scope of the immediate family. We need to understand these experiences, not as a threat, but as keys to understanding their development.
Why now? Why in the context of school is this important? Most young parents genuinely want the best for their child. Many set goals for their child that reflect their own personal wants and aspirations. Many see their child as a strong individual and often do not anticipate their child’s actions and reactions in larger, more formal environments like a classroom. Additionally, some kindergarten teachers often rush to develop some sense of the group at the expense of individuality. Simply stated, all children, parents and teachers are not perfect.
Adult understanding of the “no” phenomenon is crucial in the child’s development and transition to and through school. A better understanding of the similarities and differences in the classroom and home environments, and more facilitated discussions between and among school staff, parents and children, will increase the child’s ability to succeed. Often patterns, established in kindergarten, become the basis for future school interactions. Understanding and verbalizing an understanding of these dynamics is critical. This doesn’t mean that the adults have “all the answers.” Rather, through mutual interactions and focused conversations about children we can provide better guidance through their early development.
Contrary to some opinions, this guidance is the collective responsibility of principals, teachers and parents. Education is a twenty-four hour process; all involved in the development of children have responsibilities.
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