The Power of “No” And Healthy Limits in Early Childhood

Boundaries Set With Love
Independence grows from clear boundaries set with love.

How A Healthy “No” Establishes Positive Boundaries

One of the skills I had to learn as an early childhood educator was how to say, “No”. At first, I was uncomfortable denying a young child anything. “Yes” is a much easier path. My impulse was to do everything and give anything to and for these cute kids. I certainly didn’t want to see them experience discomfort. It didn’t take long before I realized that children often experience discomfort because they want something to be a certain way that it cannot be. I also learned that a child needs to know their boundaries in order feel secure. Having a set of clear expectations is the foundation for healthy early childhood approaches.

Boundaries were made to be tested.

Children test the boundaries because they are searching for what is ok and what isn’t. It’s perfectly natural and a developmentally necessary process. They learn these boundaries through a series of trial and error tests. If I want these kids to be safe and I don’t want to lose my mind during transitions, I have to learn how to say, “No”. What I’ve observed is that children are grateful for limits. They know it keeps them safe and they know that a competent, caring adult is taking care of them.

“No” means “no”, not a punishment.

Saying “no” isn’t about punitive discipline or withholding necessities or privileges from children. Saying “no” is about setting clear boundaries that work for child and caregiver. Ultimately, it is about clear communication. When we are able to articulate what is acceptable behavior in clear, simple terms, children are better able to function. Children feel secure knowing their boundaries. That doesn’t mean they won’t push those boundaries. It is the educator/caregiver’s task to navigate these boundaries with respect for the individual and to be fair minded in their approach. I strive for a balance between being firm and being a big softy.

What are healthy boundaries?

When we are preparing to go outside during cold, wet weather, it is important that the children are dressed appropriately. It can be the difference between a fun, productive excursion into the woods and a miserable, difficult time. In the past, if we have gone out into the forest with a group of children and realized that one child put on their sneakers instead of their insulated winter boots, it really changes our desired outcomes. Once their feet are damp, they become uncomfortable and unpleasant. While this is a great example of “natural consequences of actions”, it isn’t fair to the other children, not to mention the teachers.

These experiences have led me to be explicit in my instructions. “Everyone put on your snow boots after you have put on your snow pants” lets them know exactly what is expected of them. And I always double check that all children are wearing appropriate footwear before we leave. Healthy early childhood approaches uses clear communication of expectations and boundaries.

What does that look like?

Here is an example of a a healthy “no”: Student “A” is excited about his new licensed character shoes that light up. As we gear up to head outside, “A” decides that their snow boots are too big and clunky. They want to wear their new sneakers. A friendly but firm “no, those shoes won’t keep your feet warm and dry like your snow boots will” may be all that needs to be said. In case this isn’t enough of an explanation, we must remain calm and firmly insist that the sneakers are not an option. It is cold and wet outside and the sneakers will not be appropriate footwear.

We refrain from arguing. An explanation is acceptable, though. If Student “A” decides that this is an issue worth crying about, that is ok. Disappointment is a real emotion and we must allow children to experience the entire range of feelings, including the unpleasant ones.

The educator’s role in establishing boundaries

Our job is to stay grounded and to be the emotional anchor for this child. We may have to assist more than we normally would in this case. I might say, “I can see that it upsets you. You will get to wear your cool new kicks later on, but right now, we are all going outside together. Can you put your boots on yourself, or do you need me to help you?” By offering a choice between independence and and assistance, we recognize the child’s need for ownership over their choices while only offering realistic options.

An unrealistic option may be to offer letting them go outside barefoot or  allowing them to wear their new shoes. In the end, giving in to tantrums allows children to become tyrants, but being firm in our resolve while compassionately assist them in make good decisions. This helps them to manage their expectations and to regulate their own emotions.

The takeaway:

It is important to only offer what we are willing to follow through on. If the child is unable to calm down and put on their snow boots, we can calmly let them know that we are about to help them put their boots on. We do so in a gentle, calm manner, never angry or irritated. Children can sense impatience and it confuses and frustrates both parties, often exacerbating the situation. We are adults who are calmly and lovingly helping them to get ready to go outside and play. The security of a calm, rational adult caring for them allows children to just be a kid and play.

Interested in learning more? Take our Resilient Kids Course!

Lee and I will be leading a discussion course at UC’s Communiversity about the strategies we use to encourage resilient, healthy, confident kids. “The Power of ‘NO'” is the first of ten strategies we’ll share over the course of a 2 classes, 2 hours each. We’ll share anecdotes, specific words and phrases and real take away strategies for supporting healthy development. Each class will include time to share and discuss. Come join us and learn our healthy early childhood approaches for instilling grit in early childhood at our Resilient Kids Course.

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