Hearing NO

There’s a conversation that happens more than any other around my house.

“Mommy, can I have a bubble maker/new game/that toy I just saw on TV?” my four-year-old son, Li’l D, will ask.

“No, sweetheart.”

“How about now?” he’ll usually ask about two minutes later.

Asked and answered. You’re not going to get a different answer today.” Sometimes this deters him. Other times, it takes a few more rounds for him to understand there’s no way “no” is going to become “yes.”

Li’l D recently became a fan of Ghostbusters. He became such a fan, actually, that he decided he needed his own costume. My husband set out to make one for each of them.


Getting ready for the Long Beach Comic Expo last weekend, my husband and I asked Li’l D if he wanted to wear his costume. “No,” Li’l D said definitively. 

“But this is the perfect opportunity!” we told him. “You’ll look so awesome in it, and everyone will love it! People will even want to take pictures of you in it.”

“No,” he said again. “I only want to wear it for my birthday.”

“But it’ll be too small by your birthday!” we replied, to the same result. We kept cajoling and pleading, offering bigger and bigger treats if he’d only wear his costume for an hour or two at the expo.

We finally stopped when it was clear there was no treat big enough to make him say “yes.”

After we left the expo, I said, “Man, it would have been great if you’d worn your costume.”

“I didn’t want to,” he said softly from the back seat. Somehow, the quiet sadness in his voice jarred me into hearing what I hadn’t heard before: that he’d said no. Period. Not once, but a dozen times. And I’d kept asking, anyway, because I wanted a different answer.

Stricken, I said, “I am so sorry, kiddo.”


“You know how I’m always telling you not to ask more than once? Here I was asking you over and over and over again, when you get in trouble for doing that. That was terrible of me, and I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said, adding soon after, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

I’ve thought about that a lot the last week. More than any lectures, my son learns from my actions. What he learns from me when I ignore his “no” is that the word has multiple possible meanings:

  • Maybe.
  • Yes.
  • Sure, with the right incentive.
  • Not yet, but keep asking.
  • Whatever you want it to mean, as long as you’re bigger, stronger or more powerful than me.

What I want him to know is that “no” should only be interpreted one way, no matter who is asking or who is answering:

  • No.

His understanding this has the power to shape not only his life but many lives down the road.

I took him to see Maleficent on Saturday morning. We both loved it.

Knowing he hates having his picture taken these days, I asked afterward, “Could I get a picture so we can remember just how much fun we had together this morning?” I wasn’t going to force it if he declined, but he surprised me by saying “yes.”


Soon after, we meet some friends who happened to be nearby. “Could I take a picture of you?” one asked Li’l D.

“No,” he said, shaking his head emphatically.

“Are you sure?” I asked, already forgetting my vow to practice what I preach.

Fortunately, my friend was way ahead of me.  “He said no,” she said, smiling while reaching to take the hand he offered.

And there it was: my reminder to listen for what is, not what I wish, and to see just how much more peaceful life is when “no” is heard for the one and only thing it means.

  1. June 9, 2014 at 11:21 am

    We spend so much time trying to teach our pawns life lessons, sometimes we forget that they have lessons for us. I loved the post.

    • June 9, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching him nearly as much as he is teaching me. The verdict is out, but I have my suspicions . . .

      • June 10, 2014 at 3:46 am

        It’s almost as if we’re still growing up as we raise them. 🙂

  2. June 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    What a potent and lovely reminder about the importance of our actions.

  3. nicciattfield
    June 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    Lovely story of empathy and respect for your son, and the kindness he always seems to share with you as you learn together.

    • June 9, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      How easily he forgives is one of my favorite things about him. Of course, I would prefer not to give him so many opportunities to exercise his forgiveness muscles . . .

      • nicciattfield
        June 9, 2014 at 2:35 pm

        I feel the same with my daughter.

  4. June 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    That entire ‘no’ thing, such a difficult lesson for any of us to learn. I remember how frustrated I was with my own and even now with my 5 year old grandson sometimes. I am going to have to remind myself of this one, wonderful lesson. Thank you so much. You are my best guide sometimes.

  5. June 9, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Love this! Reminds me of something I’ve noticed about myself lately. I always ask my kids to say “please” and “thank you” when they want something (and often make them say it before I oblige them). Then, in listening to myself, I realized I was rarely saying please when I wanted them to do things–in fact, I found I was giving a lot of commands. Which made a lot of sense considering what I was hearing from my kids… Yeah… Oops…

    • June 9, 2014 at 2:36 pm

      I had the same revelation recently! I realized I hadn’t said “please,” which made me wonder how often I did that. Turns out, a lot. D’oh.

  6. June 9, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    I love that you are learning from each other. And probably love most that you are willing to learn from him.
    As a small person my first word was no. And had to be interpreted with reference to the tone I said it in. A challenge for my family.

    • June 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      On the learning-from-him front, I feel fortunate to have had such a lovely example in my mom. Her later life was hard, but by then, she had already done so much to instill in me the sense that I mattered. I would love my sons to feel a like sensation recalling me someday.

  7. June 9, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    I just love this! Knowing that you respect his “no” makes your “no” all the more meaningful! Now you’re making me wonder how many times I should have respected a “no” when my kids were wee ones. You’re a wise, wise woman, my friend! 🙂

  8. June 9, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Excellent article!

  9. jottlings
    June 9, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    ‘Forgiveness muscles’! I love that!

  10. June 10, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for this reminder. We as parents need to help children set boundaries, and this is one great example of that.

  11. June 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Thank you.

  12. June 11, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    This is a wonderful lesson, a wonderful blog post, and a terrific reminder. I do the same thing, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch myself and bite my tongue. 🙂 XOXO-Kasey

  13. June 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Love love loved this. It’s something I also forget.

  14. June 17, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Also- how was Maleficent? I’m surprised you took your wee one to see it. So, did you find it child-appropriate? I’ve heard people say that it was okay for kids, and others say that it was way inappropriate for kids. I wasn’t sure if I should take Lucas to see it. Your opinion might help me make a decision. 🙂

    • June 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

      I grew up sneak-watching horror movies while my mom watched when I was supposed to be in bed, so that’s influenced my movie showing considerations. 🙂 My rationale here went: He’s already watched Ghostbusters, and this is unlikely to be scarier than Ghostbusters, so sure! I’ll give it a shot. 🙂

      Part of that was based on watching a sneak peek at Disneyland. The sneak peak actually creates vibrations and mists to enhance the feelings of the movie, yet even after that, D was thrilled by the prospect of watching the movie. We both loved it. We’re talking, love on the scale that he tries to talk us into leaving the theater early every time–even for those films like Frozen that he ends up loving!–and this was one I had to work to coax him out of because I really had to go to the bathroom. I, too, hated to leave even briefly, the film was that sweet, funny and touching, all words I’d use before “scary” to describe it!

  15. July 10, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    Good reminder for all of us- thanks!

  1. September 19, 2014 at 5:28 am

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