Q&A: toddler understanding "no"

Dawn writes:

"At what point does a child understand 'No'?  My 13 month old son is very very active, a climber and so curious that he gets himself into places and things he really shouldn’t. I try the calm 'no', I try a louder 'no', I distract him, take him away from the object - (the tv, the phone, the dog dish) but he beelines right back to it. Over and over and over. It's really funny sometimes but we try not to let him see us laugh of course! Eventually he gets frustrated and starts to grizzle. I don’t give in but am I expecting too much to think he does understand the meaning when I say no?  He does sometimes seem to get it, and will stop or move off to other activities. I know he is not being 'bad' because he has no malicious intent but is just into everything. He seems to understand other things, like go get the ball, or do you want a cookie ;-)  Advice?"

Good question, Dawn. Actually, a few good questions:

  • At what age do most/many (certainly not all) kids understand that when you say "no" you want them not to do something?
  • At what age do kids care that when you say "no" you want them not to do something?  
  • At what age is it reasonable to expect kids to comply with your requests for them not to do something?
  • What are some ways that are as effective or more effective (depending on the age) to get kids to stop doing something?  

Feel free to give your own answers to these questions, or other related ones you come up with, in the comments section.

I think that a 13-month-old certainly understands that "no" is something you say when you're excited. It's the sign that the child has gotten a reaction from you. I'm not sure that at that age the child actually understands that "no" means you want them to stop doing something. (If you use pain to punish your kids, then yes, they will stop doing things when they hear the word "no" but only because they associate that word with pain and they want to avoid the pain, not because they actually understand the meaning of the word "no.") In fact, I think sometimes they take "no" as encouragement because it elicits such a funny (to them) reaction from you.

It seems to me, based on my observation of my two kids, that the real understanding that "no" means you want them not to do something kicks in some time between 18 months and two years. Or so. However, that still doesn't mean that they'll actually stop when you say "no." It totally depends on the kid. My 5-year-old still sometimes seems unable to stop when I say "no," and needs me to put my hands on his to move them away, or walk him away from the temptation, or replace the sharp stick with a bagel, or whatever. My 2-year-old sometimes stops, but sometimes looks at me like, "Ha ha, Mama! I know you want me to stop, but I am not going to!" So from my n of 2, I'll say that understanding the meaning of "no" is necessary but not sufficient.

I started writing this answer a few days ago, then asked Co-worker S, who has a 5-year-old and an almost-2-year-old, what he thought. He agreed that the ability to really understand "no" happened after 18 months but closer to 2 years. He also agreed that understanding "no" and complying with it are two very different things. "Sometimes it's just not in their best interest to stop what they're doing," he observed. It's funny because it's true.

So I'd say that "no" may be understood by 2, but not necessarily complied with until later on. Some time between 2 and 60, I'd say. (Although my dad still doesn't do everything my grandmother wants him to do, so maybe it's even later than 60.)

Now, on to the reasonable question. I think it depends on what it is that you want them to comply with and your general attitude about obedience and self-discipline and discipline in general. If it's something really serious, like not sticking a fork in an outlet or running into the street, you need to be more serious about enforcing your rules.

As with the rest of life, follow-through is everything. You can say "no" all you want, but unless you actually engage with your kids, you aren't teaching them anything about appropriate behavior and how to use self-control. I know a dad who used to ignore his 5-year-old, so the child would escalate and escalate and escalate his bad behavior as the dad just said, "Stop!" Finally, the dad would explode in a ball of rage and overreact to whatever it was the kid was doing and dole out severe punishments that always left the kid crying. It could all have been avoided if the dad had just engaged with the kid from the very beginning and stepped in to stop things before both of them got out of control.

If you're reading this and wondering what I mean by engaging as a way to stop bad behavior, click over immediately to buy Haim Ginott's masterpiece Between Parent and Child. It breaks down how to focus attention in a way that makes you partners with your kids in helping them learn to resolve situations for themselves, instead of engaging in a control game that leaves you both worn out, angry, and hopeless. Other books that people absolutely rave about (not surprising, since both are based on Ginott's work) are Faber and Mazlish's How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk and Lawrence J. Cohen's Playful Parenting. I think both these books are wonderful and I learned new things from both of them, but if you only have time for one, go with the Ginott.

But back to Dawn's 13-month-old. At that age "no" is tricky, because it doesn't really connect with them yet. Instead, you're probably better off telling the child what you want him to do, instead of what you want him not to do. It's human nature to focus on what someone says, even if they're trying to tell you the opposite. If someone said to you, "You don't look fat in those pants," it would be a compliment, but you'd start to wonder if you usually looked fat in pants and it would probably end up making you feel bad. In contrast, if someone said, "You look really slim in those pants" you'd just think about how great you looked.

Toddlers (and people older than toddlers) respond the same way. Instead of saying "no" when your child tries to stick a fork in the outlet, try "Put the fork on the table." That gives the child something to do and provides a distraction. Instead of "Don't hit the dog," try "Clap your hands together and jump up and down."

You may be thinking that you want to teach your child appropriate behavior, and if you don't tell them what not to do they won't know what's wrong. But a toddler has no impulse control anyway, so even if they know something's wrong they can't actually stop themselves from doing it yet. It's more developmentally appropriate (and gives them a greater chance of success) to tell them what you want them to do and helping them do it.

I was going to get into Hedra's "safe, respectful, and kind" idea now, but this post is already too long. So please do two things: 1) Go read the safe, respectful, and kind post and be ready to comment on how it's going in your family when I open that topic up next week, and 2) Tell us about when you feel your kids were really able to exercise self-control, and what worked best to help them guide their own behavior.