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Reality Check: No

Q. My sister and her husband avoid saying the word "no" to their children, for fear it could have a harmful effect. Are they right?

The judicious use of "no" isn't likely to hurt any more than the prudent use of "yes." If your sister and her husband are afraid that a few well-deserved "no's" will crush their children, then they don't have much faith in the resilience of the human spirit and they haven't seen Rebel Without a Cause lately. Remember James Dean's dad? All the kid wanted was his father to say "no" every once in a while.

The question may be a matter of semantics as much as anything else. There are many synonyms for the word "no," and we're free to use the ones we like best. But "no" should still be the message, and it's an important one for a child to hear, such as when he's about to touch a hot stove -- or worse. Once, when I was in a clothing-store dressing room, I heard a mother in the stall next to mine say to her toddler, "Now Justin, do you really want to put all those pins in your mouth?" Of course he did. He was 2 -- what did he know about the many hazards of eating tiny, slender steel spears?

Clearly, "no" has its place. But stopping to ponder whether "yes" is possible is also a good idea. "We're all so busy that 'no' can too easily become our default answer," says Rabbi Susan Silverman, coauthor of Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today's Parents and Children. To correct this, Silverman, the mother of three, has started taking three seconds to think over a request before saying no to her kids. "Do I really have to say no to a request for toasting marshmallows or for playing in the yard until it's time to get in the car? The big ethical no's we can't waver on. These little fun things we can."

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.