Recent question: “I’ve read articles in a parenting magazine that tell parents not to say ‘no-no’ when, for example, the toddler is touching something breakable or any other thing you don’t want the toddler doing. Instead, distract the toddler’s attention to something else that is OK to do. Do you agree with this method of discipline? And if you do, at what age can the child be told ‘no-no’ when doing or saying something you do not approve of.”
Both strategies work. Distraction is generally used with creeping and crawling babies for two reasons. It is easy to swoop them up and away from the danger or the treasured object. And babies are easy to distract. Show them a toy they haven’t looked at for an hour and they head in that direction. It is also possible to confine a baby in a playpen or high chair, which means baby can’t creep, cruise, or crawl toward danger or destruction.
I know some parents equate a playpen with a cage and tell themselves they will never cage their baby and will always be there to watch and protect the little explorer. These parents are half right in their thinking. Babies really need to explore. But experienced parents know it is impossible to watch a crawler or toddler every minute all day long. Parents get distracted by a ringing phone or doorbell, a call of nature, another child. So there must be a place where the child can be safely confined until the safety and “never touch” lessons have been learned.
Observant parents quickly realize that their baby understands and responds to what Mommy or Daddy is saying long before the baby has learned how to speak. Hearing parents speak is key to language development so I advise parents to tell even little babies what they are doing. This rule is especially important when it comes to the “no-nos”
The best strategy is to combine distraction and a verbal “No!” Use a strong tone of voice as you are teaching a rule to the baby even though he or she doesn’t understand what a rule is. By the time a baby can say the word “no” he or she should know the meaning of the word. And should know that Mommy means it because you always say “no!” in a different tone of voice than you say everything else. But don’t yell or shout. Young babies need only that one word. With older toddlers say something like, “No! You cannot play with Daddy’s smartphone. Let’s find a book to read.” This is an example of saying “no” and distracting.
Of course, by the time a baby starts crawling, wise parents have already tucked away treasured objects and all things that could harm the baby are either high up or locked up. Preventing an accident is the best strategy. And a safe, child-proofed home allows a baby the joy of exploring without too many “nos.”
I hear some parents use the word “no” in a coaxing way. Often these are the same parents who don’t believe in “cages.” They are philosophically committed to raising their child with love and kindness. A commendable parenting strategy. Until the crawler finds a crawling earthworm in the grass and starts to eat it (happened to me once). Or the toddler suddenly breaks away and runs toward the street. In such instances the parents needs a strong “no” and a child who has learned the meaning of the word.
P.S.: Speaking of language acquisition, my newest grandchild, age 15 months, has learned to say, “No way! No way! No way!” when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do. I am shameless: I have been overheard bragging to friends that my grandchild can already say 6-word sentences. At such an early age! Seriously though, young Joshua does know what “no” means.