It can easily be one of the most frustrating words for parents. Why doesn’t he listen when I say ‘no’? But the truth is: babies don’t come out of the womb with an innate understanding of the word ‘no’. They learn it just as they learn everything else – through experimentation.

What it looks like: When baby is told ‘no’ he does not stop what he’s doing. He may may pause and look at you (don’t be surprised if he flashes you a cheeky smile) before carrying on as before or he may just ignore you altogether.

Mistaken for: Choosing to disobey; disrespecting authority.

Note: Somewhere between birth and adulthood children begin to learn the difference between right and wrong. No one knows exactly when this awareness begins; however, I will suggest that not only does it occur later than we once thought but also that the honest exploration of limits carries on far into childhood and perhaps even adulthood. I am intending for this post to apply to this exploratory stage of development but please don’t assume that that only applies to very young babies.

What baby is learning: Baby is learning what ‘no’ means. Most of us would have no problem describing to other adults what we mean when we say ‘no’ – we mean ‘stop doing that’. There may be any number of reasons why we say ‘no’, but the required response is usually quite similar. Yet words are still very abstract to baby and he therefore relies more on reading our actions, however subtle they may be. When baby hears us say ‘no’ and observes our subsequent actions, does he learn that ‘no’ means ‘I won’t let you do that’? Or does he learn that ‘no’ is simply a word which precedes an interesting, if not amusing, emotional display from adults?

How to support:

First: I know I say this every week, but baby is a born explorer. He explores the physical world around him by looking, touching and tasting. He explores the social world through his interactions with others. And he explores the concept of right and wrong through testing limits. Reminding yourself of his explorer nature can make challenging exchanges with baby much easier. For example, from this viewpoint, that ‘cheeky’ smile which only serves to flare our tempers is transformed into a sweet expression of joy from a baby who is honestly enjoying a social exchange. He may still be developing an awareness that others even have feelings, let alone the ability to interpret them through words and body language. So don’t automatically assume that he’s trying to wind you up.

Second: Say ‘no’ as little as possible and when you do say it, mean it. The more often you can say ‘yes’, even if it requires some compromise, the more receptive baby will be when you have to say ‘no’. Every person’s limits are slightly different but try to decide what really matters to you and then fight those battles and only those battles. But I’m not talking about a battle of wills here. As capable and intelligent as baby is, he is not yet able to set and enforce his own limits. He needs you to take responsibility for the limits you set. If you say you won’t let him hit then do whatever you need to do (within reason) to make this happen, even if it means holding his hands or removing him from the situation. Saying you won’t let him do something and then letting him do it can actually be quite scary for baby if he senses that you are not in control. All children need to know they are safe and cared for and in the absence of this conviction they will test us until they are sure.

Understanding children’s motives in testing limits can be very liberating for adults. If you’d like to know more about testing limits please read:

Setting Boundaries and Giving Choices – Not Just Cute

Set Limits Without Yelling – Janet Lansbury