"No"

Careful the things you say, children will listen
Careful the things you do, children will see, and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
  To learn what to be
Careful before you say, "Listen to me"
Children will listen

— Sondheim

Words are tools, and wielded well they craft and build, or support and care. Each word is a tool given to all, blind to chance of birth, granted to every age. Among these tools, there are a few which hold within them such power that their discovery by children leads to profound fascination.

Of these lectical fixations, one stands above all, a terror that cuts through the thickest crowds and alarms any adult who hears.

That dreaded word is "no".

I Will

The discordant force of a "no" is clear; it brings an abrupt halt to any symphony of coordination, of mutually beneficial interaction. It asserts a will against a whole, and there lies its destruction, but there too lies its often overlooked creative potential, because it asserts a will.

"No" is a tool that divides, but by dividing a self can arise. As walls are needed for a home, so refusal can form the foundation of a self. "No" grants the power, not only to refuse, but to be. Free to cut away detritus from existence, "no" becomes the scalpel in the journey towards self-creation.

"No", when respected, creates a sacred space, a sliver of existence reserved for the wielder, a home amidst the thrownness of life. But the walls it builds are flimsy, because the power of words comes only by agreement so that in time of need, in disagreement, it is not natural to respect those boundaries. And so consent can be overlooked, it happens every day, and so dominance can be asserted by crossing the threshold of another's volitional space, and so oppression is born. When we breach consent, when we invade past a "no", it is not a door which can open or close, it is a wall which we tear down by our trespass.

The chaos of life reigns outside, a myriad wishes from a myriad other minds, a complexity beyond hope of comprehension. It is the negative space which we grant each other which gives us space to rest, and to breathe. Without those boundaries, the individual may never know what is actually their will and what is merely a role being impressed upon them by their surroundings. Consent, volition is an invisible backdrop, perhaps too often assumed, but which is visible only in contrast with refusal.

To agree, or not to agree; that is the option, and must be the option or else the self is smothered. A "no" lightly overlooked or ignored undermines boundaries, peace, and justice.

To Learn, First Live

With the birth of a volitional space, there is born too a strange possibility that the paths you take, now of your own choosing, might have been the wrong ones. Authority and responsibility are naturally always joined.

When you act of your own will, then the effects, whether good or ill, are yours to own, and to own up to. From the effects you see, you can and should take note, and learn, and change your paths to foster the good and to curb the bad.

But when oppressed and forced to act, or when given no walls and impressed with a role, the ends you effect are not yours to claim in either praise or shame. Blame for that which you could not avoid is blame placed on you for being you. To take that blame and carry on is to accept a tyranny of punishment. Blame misplaced on your existence instead of on your actions leads to resentment and resistance rather than improvement and correction.1

Just Rules

And so, as with children, these walls of refusal, though sacred, are not absolute. Sometimes the "no" must be overruled; sometimes the whole outweighs the one. But the whole and the one are not pitted in pure opposition; it is, strangely, in the freedom of choosing your own paths that duties can be found.

The competition between these aims, those of the self and those of the other, reaches deep indeed, but at least one rule is clear—one cannot stake a claim to the volitional space of another. Coercion may always be met with coercion; in tearing down the walls of another, no walls are granted to you. Self-defense and defense of others is always allowed.

But even then, when walls are surely wrong, we rightly tread with care. The cost of wrongly ruling, of violating boundaries or rights, of oppressing, is grave. The temples of justice that we call our courts perform a sacred sacrifice each time a sentence is pronounced. The rulings may at times be wrong, but the freedoms of our fellow humans must never be curtailed lightly, or else volition itself is profaned.

It is that cost of care we bear when children rant and rave, when they raise their voices in the street or otherwise misbehave. It is tempting to be annoyed, to see each "no" as an obstacle, but we can instead recognize the great opportunity the trial of their "no" presents. We can hallow their walls, their sanctum, even when we overrule if we tread softly, slowly, justly, and do not lose our cool. And so we hope that when they're grown, they'll carry within themselves the walls we've helped them build, so that they might respect the walls of others, so that they might take responsibility for their actions and improve, so that they might be in the world and yet still be their own.


  1. Braithwaite. "Reintegrative Shaming", 2000. link.