How many parents do you know who use the word "no" like some new punctuation mark, liberally dabbing it throughout each sentence they utter--at least if that sentence is directed toward their child? Do you feel badly for those kids (oh please say yes!). Sure, it's important to intervene with kids sometimes, and "no" is an important and useful word for a child to understand at an early age, but if they hear it all the time then how likely is it that they consider it worth responding to? I believe that the overuse of "no" leads it to become just another filler word, like "an" or "the," and even though they use them (in imitation), I don't know a single toddler who actually knows what either of those words means.
If you are yelling "No!" at your child every 5 seconds, or even every 5 minutes, he will begin to tune it out, and in the moment when it really matters (eg: as he's running into the street) he will neither hear nor respond to you. (Yes, I watched an over-no'ed neighbor child do just that. He was a darn lucky kid that the truck was not going very fast and was able to stop in time.)
So, it is without hesitation that I seek to avoid telling my children "no." Does this mean that I let them just do whatever they like? No! But it means that I try to save that sharp "NO!" for when it is really important.
What do I say instead? Lots of things!
"Yes!" (because, let's face it, the occasional surprise "yes" is a great thing for morale)
"Yes, when _____" [yes, you can play the video game, when you've finished your homework]
"Yes, if ___" [yes, you can go fishing on the dock if you wear your life jacket and stay in the marked area]
"Let me think about it for a minute" (this gives me a chance to think about it for a minute...this is a nice option if I'm really not sure how I want to respond to the request)
"Why should you get to?" (in other words, talk me into it--this is particularly fun with elementary schoolers, as they come up with some fascinating reasons why they should be allowed to do the things they want to...but I think it is a great tool for teens as well--let them learn to make their case!)
If you are a thoughtful reader, as hopefully you are, you may have noticed that my alternatives all tend to be responses to questions, as in, when my son asks if he can have chocolate cake for breakfast... I have not really talked about applications for reducing the use of "no" in non-conversational situations, such as while watching kids play on the playground, or when they are getting into the kitchen cupboards at home. I have two thoughts about these 'observational' situations: the first is to try to avoid problems--keep hazardous things stored out of reach, lock cupboards, put plugs in the electrical outlets, and take your children to parks which have age-appropriate playgrounds... The second alternative then becomes more obvious: just say nothing.
Children do not need us to micromanage their lives, not even when they are 2. They are exploring the world and learning about the laws of physics (like gravity!). Falling down, getting dirty and yes, a certain amount of getting hurt is a normal part of childhood. Eating a little dirt or the occasional bug will earn a "eww, yukky!" from me, and getting filthy will get a "wow, we'd better get you straight into the tub/shower" (or sometimes a "we'd better hose you off before you come inside!"), but no trill of screamed "nonononononooooooooooo!!!"
Obviously I will intervene if a child is in serious danger...but the little spills and mud pies? Naw. Let kids be kids.
(Can you think of other alternatives to "no"? I would love to hear them!)