From No to Yes : How can we shift positively from a NO Environment to a YES Environment?

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The Child in the Adult’s World  

The adult world is filled with objects that serve us a purpose. Our cords and wires, glassware and knives, screens and gadgets, scissors and car keys. These individual objects make up our homes, our lives. These are the objects that serve us a purpose, that bring us joy, that put us in touch with the world. Into this world, enters a baby afresh. This baby sets foot with no prior worldly experience and observes for months, us adults,  engage, manipulate and transform our environments using these objects. This creates in the baby a fascination, an allure, to get their hands on those keys that jingle, on the scissors that magically snip paper into confetti, that glassware which sparkles. This is what holds the baby’s attention for months – our manipulation of the world using the objects that surround us. 

So naturally, when they are finally able to move their tiny bodies, they gravitate towards these objects that they have silently observed from afar for several months – only for us to say the word NO. 

What is this No? 

The word NO is a fascinating one. It has no real existence in this world. An apple tree, my shoe, the neighbours cat, your book all have an existence in this world. Even if I describe my apple tree as large and bearing several green apples, you can visually see the apple tree match my description. But, this word NO fits nowhere in this realm. It really has no concrete existence. A baby who understands the world largely through concrete experiences therefore does not instantly comprehend the word NO. What does it even mean?! 

What actually catches their attention as they are reaching for our shoe and trying to mouth it is the tone which accompanies our NO. That urgent, high pitched, slightly-bordering on anger, NO is far from the tone that we typically use to speak with them. Our facial gestures and body language that accompany the word NO are vastly different from our typical behaviour around them. So, the difference in the way we say this particular word is what holds the baby back initially. 

This intrigues them, and curious as they are, they want to reach for the shoe again to see if we will give them the same response. When they hear the word NO a second time, they begin to see a pattern. “Ah-hah! So every time I touch the shoe, this person makes this peculiar sound.” Some reach for the same object again and again only to see our reaction remain consistent, possibly sterner and slightly impatient. When our tones and hand gestures become louder and firmer, some babies start crying while some others find the whole thing rather amusing and do it repeatedly much to the annoyance of many adults. But, soon enough, all babies begin to understand that more things in their world are NO than YES and begin to grapple with this reality. 

Our Usage of No 

The word NO holds a lot of power. It means “Stop!”  The person who utters the word NO wants what is happening to stop instantly. It implies a non-negotiation of the situation, a complete standstill of what is currently happening. Considering this, we adults use the word NO rather too freely and carelessly without much thought. We also use them very inconsistently. What is NO sometimes, suddenly turns into YES and what has been YES for a long time suddenly becomes a NO. “No, please don’t go and turn on the tap now.” “Fine, you can turn on the tap, just this once.”  “No jumping on the bed.” “Okay, fine jump. As long as you don’t trouble me.” “No chocolate on weeknights.” “Fine, you may have chocolate today.” We also use NO most generously, several times a day without any hesitation. It becomes a habit, a pattern after a while that we rarely ever pause and ask ourselves, Why am I saying NO? 

So, the real problem with our NO stems not from our usage of it to protect our children but from our careless over usage of it to suit our whim and fancy. 

“NO leaves you feeling reactive, making it impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defence kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight – flight, freeze or faint response : fight means lashing out, flight means escape, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself and faint means feeling utterly helpless.”

Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

So, what does NO do to the child?

  • NO curbs exploration

The first thing that the word NO does is that it stops exploration. Imagine a young child who is new to this world. How would this child know what is high from low, loud from soft, smooth from rough without concrete experiences? Exploration is the key that unlocks intelligence for this child. Only through  holding, manipulating, mouthing, banging, rolling, falling and engaging to see how the objects respond to their touch, do they learn. This is how they build concepts, judgement and perception. When we repeatedly use the word NO for situations that do not truly demand it, we are indirectly telling the child that the world out there is not for them to explore, effect or transform. 

  • NO interrupts independent thought & action

NO tells the child they are not capable of handling the world. “No, no don’t climb the stairs. You will fall.” “No, don’t touch the jackfruit, it is prickly.” Imagine if someone was following us around, tracking our every move and telling us what to do and what not to do, how would that feel? For starters, it would be a complete robbery of freedom. Secondly, it will be a reminder that we cannot manage on our own in this world.  This leads to self-doubt – “Can I actually climb the stairs? Am I even capable?” and also leads to reliance on others – an unnecessary dependence where independence can blossom – “I will just ask amma to peel the oranges. It is too hard.” Unnecessary use of the word NO leaves children uncertain about themselves, their abilities and potential. 

  • NO instils  a fear of what is out there

NO very clearly scares the child into believing that the world is an unsafe place with threats and dangers. Yes, there are threats, there are dangers and it is our job to protect our children until they are ready. However, most situations where we use NO do not require it. It is an overuse of the word that creates an environment of fear – of an anxiety that something negative will happen whenever they seek exploration and experience. 

How can we shift from NO to YES? 

  • Prepare a YES Environment

The first step is to create a YES environment and surround the child with YES objects and experiences. What I mean by this is that things must evolve to meet changing needs. The space must be flexible.  A baby of 4 months is not mobile and having  glass cutlery on the bottom shelf may not be a problem. But, a toddler of 14 months is mobile and going to want to reach for everything. So, we can either show them how to access and use these objects with care, (“Yes, let me show you how to carry the glass bowl”) or if they are not ready for that, keep them out of reach. We have to continually see how to make our homes a YES space bearing in mind the child’s need to explore, manipulate and belong. 

  • Choose your NO’s thoughtfully  

The key to having a YES environment is to first understand what aspects are YES and what aspects are a NO. Before deciding on what is NO, we must think about it and ask ourselves “Why am I saying NO?” This will vary largely based on individual families, the age and readiness of the child. One child might be ready to eat using glass utensils while another might still not be there. One 2 year old may be using a knife to slice vegetables while many others may not yet be ready. So, we need to first assess what works for our situation and decide as a family on what aspects are NO. Once we have decided, we must stick to it. There is no point in going back and forth – this will only confuse the child and make the NO meaningless.

  • A YES Mindset

Our homes can be thoughtfully prepared and still curb exploration if our  “Yes, you can!” attitudes do not permeate it. When we overuse the word NO, we not only take away its power but create a mindset that holds children back from the world. It creates a fixed mindset – one that limits the child’s growth because of a lack of belief, a lack of faith that comes from constantly hearing the word NO. “I am not capable of climbing.  I will only fall if I try.”

By consciously creating a YES home, we instil in children an attitude of openness that looks at learning as continuous. What’s better, in this home, they begin to trust that they are capable of tackling glitches and treat all experiences with josh, enthusiasm and joy!

“Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No! this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state.”

Dan Siegel, The Yes Brain : How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child

The Words we use to describe Children Matter.

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Words.

Words are a carrier of our thoughts; they elucidate our emotions, pain, joy, frustrations, ideas & play through meaningful sounds. When we hear words, images pop in our minds; words take us to faraway places and make us laugh. They evoke memories and instantly bring up deeply buried scars. A single word has the capacity to make our day, decide our mood and steer our course of action.

Words are so much more than just sounds.

Yet, how often do we pay attention to the words we use? 

When a child is born, it is only a matter of time before we start to describe them, box them – “He is so naughty. Look at him reaching for the ball”, “Don’t pick her up, she is manipulating you”, “She is such a picky-eater, just like Tina” , “Mine is such a brat, what about yours?” 

While many of us catch ourselves using such words, those seemingly harmless & casual remarks, how many of us pause to think about these words we use? 

Why do our words matter? 

  • Words decide the way we approach our children 

Let us assume we have named a child a fussy-eater. “Tara has always been such a fussy eater!” When we pin this on Tara, our attitudes and approach towards her changes drastically. We now view her AS a fussy-eater.  We tell ourselves “Okay, my child IS a fussy eater.” We acknowledge this in our minds and every time we approach this child, we are going to approach A fussy eater.

So, how would we approach & handle this child? Would we be patient, empathetic and respectful or would we be impatient, irritable and stern?

Our brains are shaped by the words we hear, the words we speak, by our mental chatter. So, if we tell ourselves, “Tara is a fussy-eater”, we will not just approach her with less empathy and patience, we will also be unconsciously looking for ways to confirm that thought, that belief that Tara is a fussy eater. 

how we word it is how we think about it
  • Words become their inner-voice

Children carry our voices with them throughout their lives. Overcoming these voices in adulthood takes conscious acknowledgement & effort. 

Let us take an example, in Southern India, being fair-complexioned is considered essential for women. If, however, you do not fit this box, many women are commented on for their ‘lack of colour’, their ‘dull appearance’ and the likes. Or, they are given suggestions : “Why don’t you apply this new fairness cream? , “Have you tried using olive oil and turmeric?” As a girl who grew up in this society, everytime I bask in the sun, I pause for a moment and wonder what would happen if I lost my complexion because a dear one repeatedly told me that being fair IS essential. Like this, don’t we all have our own insecurities about ourselves fed by the people who surrounded us in early childhood?

The words we use become the voice for children and as significant members in their lives, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the voices that nurture them in early childhood. 

  • Words put children in a box 

Being in a box can be very limiting because all humans change and grow throughout their lives. When we have called a child terrible at math, they believe this to be true and every time they make an honest attempt at trying to understand math, our words will hold them back! Even labelling a child ‘perfect’ and ‘amazing at everything’ is counterproductive. This is because, we now put this child on a pedestal from which they cannot fall. Very often, such children find it hard to live up to these expectations; they find it easier to hide parts of them rather than disappoint loved ones. 

  • Words become their identity 

When we attach labels to our children, these become their identity. This is hard for young children who find it difficult to understand that we love them regardless of these identities.

As Veer grows, he will believe these to be true and his behaviour will begin to support these labels. These will become his identity! Now, some of these labels might hold him back from exploring what else he can do; they can also hold him back from being open to experiences because of the fear of losing his identity!

Where to go from here?

The truth is, as caregivers it is hard for us to not form any opinion about our children as their personalities take shape. However, by calling a 2 year old a fussy eater, we limit the capabilities of this child. Our 2 year old may not yet be open to trying all foods. But this is their journey; the ups & downs contribute towards growth. They may go through phases where they are enthusiastic about some foods and not as much about others. Children (and adults) are a work in progress. This is what we must be mindful of. 

So, going forward, it does not mean we are wary of every word we say. However, it is important to watch what ideas we are feeding our children about themselves using our words; what words are we using to identify them because how we word it is how we will think about it.

Do we look at our children as horrible-nappers, fussy-eaters & math geeks or do we let them be? Do we let them show us how different life- experiences are moulding and transforming them? 

“We are always in a perpetual state of being created and creating ourselves.”

Dan Siegel, The Developing Mind

The Importance of Practising Gratitude with Young Children : Part 2 : HOW?

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Part 1 of this article focuses on Why it is important to practice gratitude with young children. In Part 2, let us look at  a few different ways in which we can practice gratitude with young children.


Children under 3 are different from those over 3. Very young children are less articulate and require verbalisation from our end. However, this does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue with them. We can use their coos and babbles or their few words as a response in our interactions. With children over 3, we can expect more response by encouraging reflection through prompts and also by presenting events of the day that urge reflection. 

How might this be?

  • With Children Under 3

Let us assume a parent is talking to their toddler at the end of the day. The parent can casually talk about some of the events of the day. “Today, we went to the park that has the giant fountain and you played with your new blue ball. Do you remember who got you the ball?” (pause) “Yes, thatha (grandpa) got you the ball. You laughed so much while playing with the ball. Tomorrow, lets go again to play with the ball and I can take a video of you to share with thatha. He will be happy to see that you like it.”

Initially, babies and toddlers observe and may coo, babble or say a few words in response to the conversation. It maybe something liketha” for thatha or “ba” for ball or something else in connection with the incident. Regardless of the response, the aim of this simple practice is to bring the incident back to focus, acknowledge the emotions experienced and highlight the intention behind the contribution (in this case, grandpa’s gift).

  • With Children from 3 – 6 years  

If older children are habituated to unwinding with gratitude, they might share some experiences. “I played on the swing with Mudra.” or “I liked the dosa today.” While helping children express experiences that spark a feeling of gratitude, we can also probe further to help them understand emotions around gratitude, building perspective. “Why do you think thatha came all the way to play cricket with you? (pause) Do you think it is because he cares for you and enjoys having time with you?” Children in this age group can also be helped to reciprocate acts of kindness with kindness. “How did you show/tell thatha you were happy he came?” Maybe tomorrow, when he comes, you can give him a hug.

Gratitude Part 2

  • With Children in a Community 

In a communal setting with several children, this can be done in groups. The adult can help the children in the group bring their attention to benevolent acts, such as “Do you know who washed all the hand towels for lunch today?” or “Radha Akka swept the veranda clean so that some of you can work outside after lunch.” By highlighting these acts, children understand that kind gestures are valued in the community and gradually begin to reciprocate with kindness.

In “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier”, Robert .A. Emmons says, “The momentary experience of gratitude is not the same as having a well-honed grateful disposition : although at one moment their emotional experiences might be identical, a person who always seem to have a deeply grateful heart no matter what the circumstance is very different from another who is simply appreciative of a gift he has recently received.” 

So, what is important? 

  • Being Consistent

Routines are a reliable way for children to integrate a practice into their daily lives. Creating a simple gratitude practice for children and sticking to it makes this yet another bedtime ritual, much like brushing teeth or bathing. While routines do help children look forward to and predict their day better, it is our responsibility as adults to prioritise and value these practices until children are themselves able to to consistently fulfil them. 

  • Enabling Recollection 

Helping children reflect on their day allows them to look back at events in their lives and focus on those that make them feel thankful. As adults, we often look at events that make us complain, “Oh, the traffic was just horrible today” or “ I wonder why my manager always picks on me”. Instead, we can focus on simple things that light up our lives. Reflection not only allows children to gain perspective, but also helps them recollect incidents which is crucial in practicing gratitude.

In The Whole Brain Child, Dan Siegel says “ Memory is like so many functions of the brain : the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. That means that when you give your children lots of practice at remembering – by having them tell and retell their own stories – you improve their ability to integrate their memory.

  • Being a Representative of Gratitude

Perhaps, with young children, the most important of all is for adults in their lives to share their own experiences that spark gratefulness. “I am so thankful to Papa and you for waiting in the car for almost an hour to pick me up this evening.” or “I was so touched when you shared the last chocolate with your sister.”  This gives them examples of how, as adults, we also end our day with  gratitude.