Making No mean No

Setting limits for your toddler will not only keep her safe–it will help teach her how the world works.

By Antonia van der Meer Parents Magazine, March 1999

Before my son turned 2, most of my days were spent averting impending disaster–snatching toast out of the VCR or rescuing the puppy from overly enthusiastic squeezes. Once my little angel learned to walk, he didn’t seem like much of an angel anymore. As I found myself saying "No" what seemed like a thousand times a day, I sometimes felt like a real killjoy.


When your toddler tests these boundaries, don’t mistake her behavior for intentional mischief or defiance. "They don’t do it to irritate you," explains Linda Mayes, M.D., a professor of child psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, in New Haven, Connecticut. "They do it to interact with you, to figure out the answers to questions like ‘If I throw my spoon on the floor, will you pick it up?’ " To a toddler, everything–from food on the table to water in the bathtub–is part of this big, ongoing science experiment. "You need to say to yourself, ‘This is perfect! This is just what a 1-year-old should be doing!’ " says David Steinberg, M.D., director of the Infancy and Early Childhood Development Program at NYU’s Child Study Center, in New York City.

This is not to say that toddlers should be allowed to do whatever they please: Parents need to be ready to step in, especially if a child could hurt himself or someone else. When you do, though, take your child’s abilities into consideration. Most 1-year-olds can’t understand long explanations; they can’t follow rules without direct supervision; nor will they learn from a delayed punishment like "No dessert tonight!" if they’ve misbehaved in the morning.

Instead, when you see your toddler heading for trouble, try what Dr. MacKenzie calls the "four R’s": remove, replace, refocus, and redirect. Let’s say your child grabs a candlestick from the table.

1. Remove the candlestick from your child’s hands–or remove your child from the room.

2. Replace the candlestick with a safe object, like a plastic measuring cup.

3. Refocus her attention from the candlestick to the cup by showing her something interesting about it, like the sound it makes when you bang it on the floor.

4. Redirect her activity, getting her to stir imaginary soup in it with a spoon, for example. "Use her short attention span to your benefit," Dr. MacKenzie advises.

When you correct your child, he adds, "be firm and direct, but calm. Anger and strong emotion may evoke a similar reaction from the child." Verbal corrections should be short, no more than one or two words. Most toddlers understand "no" and other simple words like "hot," but too much detail confuses them.

If your toddler does something hurtful or dangerous–for example, if he bites you–separate him from the rest of the family for a few minutes, but make sure he can still see and hear you. This temporary separation isn’t a time-out, explains Dr. MacKenzie, since you’re not removing him from visual or verbal contact with you. "Kids under 3 have no concept of time and become truly frightened when separated from their parents," he says. Placing the child in a separate area within sight and simply removing your attention for a few minutes is correction enough.

Dr. Steinberg also reminds parents that just saying, "Don’t touch" is not enough. Instead, "get physically involved with your child," he advises. Sara Devlin, of Arlington, Massachusetts, says she used this approach when her son, Hugh, was 1. "He threw things, including his toy trucks," she says. "He wasn’t being malicious, but it was dangerous." Instead of yelling, Devlin held her son firmly. "I told him, ‘No throwing.’ Then I showed him how to roll the truck on the floor, because I knew he couldn’t really understand what I was saying."

Of course, minutes later, Hugh might throw something else. Again, this is normal, says Dr. MacKenzie. "You can’t expect to just say something once. Kids need repetition–that’s how they learn."

In the meantime, commonsense measures go a long way toward keeping 1-year-olds out of trouble. If your child habitually does something destructive, like drawing on the wallpaper, you need to plan ahead. "Create a space where she can’t do the thing that upsets you rather than put her in an environment where you constantly have to correct her," says Dr. Steinberg. Devlin applied this strategy at home too. "I babyproofed some rooms, but I didn’t just let Hugh roam everywhere," she says. Providing safe spaces for exploration means fewer "nos"–and fewer potential trouble spots.

Finally, whenever your child does behave, be sure to acknowledge his newfound self-control. "To a toddler, the most meaningful rewards are the natural ones–like a hug from Mom or Dad," says Dr. MacKenzie.

Over time, the gentle direction and safe structure you develop will pay off: Your child will feel secure in her world, free to explore but knowing the limits. It’s a good start on the long road to learning right from wrong.