What Does Your Toddler Really Know About “No?”

By Barb Grady

Children under the age of three don’t understand “no” in the way most parents think they do. “‘No” is an abstract concept that directly opposes the developmental needs of young children to explore their world and to develop their sense of autonomy. Autonomy is the process where a child differentiates self from the environment to develop a perception of self in relation to others. Parents may feel frustrated and disappointed when their attempts at instruction fail because they do not realize that children’s thinking progresses through successive stages and that each stage has its own characteristics.

Your child may know you don’t want her to do something. She may even understand she’ll get an angry reaction from you if she does it. Don’t mistake this for perceiving and understanding in an adult way. Why else would a child look at you before doing what she knows she shouldn’t do, grin, and do it anyway? Knowing things as a toddler means something far different from knowing things as an adult. A child’s version of knowing lacks the internal controls necessary to stop her roving fingers. Researchers like Jean Piaget, a famous cognitive developmental theorist, discovered long ago that toddlers lack the ability to understand cause and effect (a good reason to avoid lectures and trying to argue a toddler into doing what you want). Abstract thinking, like understanding consequences and ethics, may not be developed until child is eight or even ten.

Around the age of one, children enter the “me do it” stage. This is when they develop a sense of autonomy vs. doubt and shame, according to Erik Erickson (the famous personality theorist). The ages of two to six herald the development of a sense of initiative vs. guilt. It’s a child’s developmental job to explore and experiment. Can you imagine how confusing it is to a child to be punished for what she is developmentally programmed to do? Toddlers are faced with the dilemma of obeying you or doing their homework.

These developmental stages don’t mean children should be allowed to do anything they want. All methods to gain cooperation should be firm but kind, instead of controlling and/or punitive. This is the all important time of life when your child’s personality is formed. You want to help your child to feel they’re competent and able to try new things. Make the vital distinction between your child’s behavior and their self. Communicate that your child is lovable, worthwhile, and a good person. If you’re tempted to help your child learn by guilt, shame, or punishment, you will be creating discouraging beliefs that are difficult to reverse in adulthood.


The most useful parenting tools for living with toddlers are distraction and redirection. Supervision is an important parenting tool (used with a firm but kind voice) while redirecting or teaching your child. Consciously acting, without lecturing or shaming avoids a power struggle. This is disciplining your child because discipline is a teaching process that helps your child become self regulated.

What if your child is heading for the stereo? You can interrupt her and direct her toward objects that are more acceptable. What if she keeps returning to the forbidden stereo? How many times must a parent distract or redirect a child’s attention? As many times as it takes. It takes perseverance and patience to train a young child. However, it’s easier to change the environment than it is to change the child. If there is a problem area, move it out of your child’s reach. Please remember your child’s homework is to explore. Toddlers are learning to see themselves as separate, independent beings. It’s a natural and healthy process, but one that can be trying for parents.

It doesn’t take long for a child to learn the power of the word “no,” or that by using it she can provoke all sorts of interesting reactions. Focus on telling your child what you want her to do. For example, if your child is about to drop a bowl of cereal on the floor, you are likely to accelerate the dropping by screaming “NO!” rather than calmly telling your child to put the bowl on the table. I say “yes” as much as I can to create a “win-win” situation by redirecting. For example, “You can pour water in the bathtub, but not on the rug.”

Supervision, distraction, and redirection are positive parenting techniques to help you cope with a child’s innate curiosity.