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Are all the NOs you say to your kids necessary?

Carlotta Cerri

How many times a day do you say NO to your kids?

As I was reflecting on this today, I realized that nowadays I say fewer and fewer NO to my kids. Not because I’m a “only say yes” kind of parent, but because after experimenting with NOs over and over again and watching other moms deal with the tantrums that NOs generate, I realized that many of the NOs parents say are completely unnecessary.

Montessori has taught me that parents should trust their kids with responsibilities and that those responsibilities have to be within the limits that we adults set. But what are the limits? According to Montessori, parents need to set FEW, CLEAR limits and say only the NOs necessary to enforce them. Easier said than done, right?!

To make it easier for myself to understand the limits I wanted to set and the NOs I was willing to enforce, I decided that in my house there are two kinds of NOs: the SOFA NO and the FIRE NO.


The SOFA NO is the NO I can avoid, and convert into YES (SOFA NOs are really YESs!). Why do I call them SOFA NOs? Oliver loves to take all the pillows off the sofa, and he even learnt to unzip the seat pillows, which he uses to “build a house”. It used to drive me crazy. I fought it for a long time, we had lots of power struggles that ended in tears, and out of exhaustion I sometimes let him do it, thus making the limit not clear anymore.

One day, I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore: it was an unnecessary no. Now, he can do whatever he wants with the sofa, as long as he puts it back together afterwards (sometimes he does it all, sometimes he puts two pillows and I help with the rest). And as always, when you let kids see their ideas through, they surprise you: Oliver has invented so many creative and entertaining games, like using the seats as a slide for his cars or as boats to be safe from crocodiles.

In my house, SOFA NOs are the ones that don’t really harm anybody and anything, and I’m not willing to enforce. Standing on a chair is a SOFA NO. Going around the house naked in winter or taking their jacket off at the park when it’s cold are SOFA NOs. Putting shoes on in the wrong foot is a SOFA NO (Emily leaves often with her shoes the other way around). Leaving the table before everybody has finished is a SOFA NO (I’ll ask them to please stay, but if they don’t want to, they’re free to go play—they’re 2 and 4, after all!). You get the gist.


FIRE NOs are for danger, like touching fire! Opening the oven when it’s working is a FIRE NO. Oliver lifting Emily up on the balcony to look down is a FIRE NO. The kids running uncontrollably on the side walk when cars are speeding by is a FIRE NO. Harming others is a FIRE NO. Crossing the street without stopping at (or off) the zebra crossing is a FIRE NO. These are the NOs I will enforce no matter what, no matter how much crying and screaming I’ll get in return.

Over the years I also realized that respect gets its own category, the RESPECT NO. Respect for people and environment is very important to us. We explain these NOs by talking about how our actions make others feel in a certain way and might hurt the environment. Throwing a piece of trash on the ground is a RESPECT NO. Killing an insect is a RESPECT NO. Ripping flowers is a RESPECT NO. Coloring floors and walls is a RESPECT NO. Peeing in a flower pot near tables at a restaurant is a RESPECT NO. Kids are pure, kind and empathetic beings, they’ll accept and respect these NOs better than any other.

My generation and yours were raised with so many NOs, but NOs are not only overrated, they’re counterproductive, they don’t let kids express their full potential and show us they’re capable. NOs don’t let kids show us that they deserve our trust.

Next time you say NO to your kids, ask yourself if it’s a FIRE NO or a SOFA NO, make a mental note, and recalculate route for the next time. I promise you will all benefit from it.

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