Letters from Maine

Learning about “No”


To say that the pandemic has dropped us into uncharted territory is an understatement of unmeasurable proportions. Every day we learn more about it, and every day that new information brings us new challenges. COVID-19 is playing by its own set of rules. To keep pace with it societies have been forced to adapt to them, and members of those societies have had to realize that these new rules must be obeyed or be prepared to suffer the consequences.


I’m not sure exactly when it happened but gradually over my 7 and a half decades on this planet it appears that following the rules and understanding the value of “No” have become concepts to be ignored and left to gather dust in the attics and basements of our society. The tug of war between well-considered rules and the often misinterpreted concept of freedom has been ebbing and flowing since Eve plucked a forbidden apple off that tree.

In some parts of the world, the twin skills of saying and responding to “No” have become lost arts. I think it is not by chance that, of the four books I have written for parents, the one titled “How to Say No to Your Toddler” has become the most widely distributed, having been translated into Italian, Polish, and Russian. It is only slightly comforting to learn that at least some parents understand that creating rules can be important, but realize they aren’t quite sure how go about it.

As it has become clear that social distancing and mask wearing are associated with curtailing the spread of COVID-19, state and local governments have had to bone up on their long-forgotten No-saying skills. This relearning process has been particularly painful for school administrators who may have been warned that “You’ll never be able to get first and second graders to wear masks” or that “College students just won’t obey the rules.”

Both of these cautions are based on observations by educators with years of experience and certainly have a ring of truth to them. But could it be that these pessimistic predictions reflect a society in which parents and educators have lost the talent for crafting sensible rules and linking them to enforceable and rational consequences?

As colleges throughout the country have reopened using a variety of learning and residential strategies, there have been numerous incidents that validate the gloomy predictions of student misbehavior. Smaller schools seem to be having less difficulty, which is not surprising given their relative ease in fostering a sense of community. Many schools have been forced to rollback their plans for in-person learning because students have failed to follow some very simple but unpopular rules.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

In a swift and decisive response to student misbehavior, Northeastern University in Boston dismissed 11 first-year students and will not refund their tuition when officials discovered a prohibited social gathering in one of the resident facilities (“Northeastern Dismisses 11 Students for Gathering in Violation of COVID-19 Policies,” by Ian Thomsen, News at Northwestern). This response seemed to have come as a surprise to many students and parents around the country who have become accustomed a diet of warnings and minor sanctions.

Whether this action by Northeastern will trigger similar responses by other universities remains to be seen. But we can hope that it sets an example of how learning about “No” can be an important part of one’s education.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at [email protected].

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