“NO!” – Do toddlers really understand it?

“No! Don’t  climb that table!” And five minutes later, the toddler is at it again.

Sounds familiar? Almost every parent can recollect moments when their toddler has persevered at something she or he wasn’t supposed to do despite being told not to do it repeatedly. There will probably be days when a parent hears the word “No” come out of their mouth more often than any other word; yet the toddlers seem rather committed. Ever wondered why?

The reason is quite simple- toddlers are “wired” to explore and “No” is a contradiction to this. Toddlerhood is a time when children develop autonomy which eventually translates into a level of initiative in a lot of tasks towards the end of this stage. This is a developmental process based on the feedback given by parents and  other caregivers. Based on the feedback the toddler may “know” that you don’t want him or her do something, but isn’t able to process “why?”. This is the reason they sometimes look at parents just before doing something they are not supposed to. This happens because at a subconscious level they are faced with a dilemma- “do I obey my parent or my innate drive to  explore?”

Also read confused little me- a poem from a dad to his child.

In the face of this subconscious dilemma, strong negative feedback i.e. The word NO coupled with a loud voice and /or logical statements ;just serves to create doubt or guilt. It creates a discouraging situation and causes children to be unsure of themselves or in certain cases rebel against authority. In order to contribute a shade of positivity to a toddler’s internal dialogue ( “I am competent. I am loved. I can make mistakes but learn from them too.”), the goal needs to be gaining cooperation not control. It does not mean that toddlers should be allowed to do whatever they want, it means that measures directed towards preventing certain behaviour need not be punitive.


Also read Aaj Socha – The musings of a busy modern day woman 


Here are a few alternatives:

Physically remove the toddler and engage him or her in another activity.

Use words like “o I can see you are enjoying that….tell me what shall we do next…play ball or build with blocks?” You have essentially given an illusion of control while creating limits which are acceptable to you or are appropriate to the context.

Use countdowns rather than saying “stop it right now!”.

Allow the “tickle monster” to come to your aid.

Rather than rationalizing during a tantrum, allow the tantrum to pass…hug the toddler and set limits. E.g. ” I know you are upset. But it is time to leave”

Create routines for daily activities and keep asking /informing ” what do we do next…?” ( depending on how old the toddler is)

Follow through! Toddlers tend to sense indecision.

These are just a few of the things which may help you as a parent as long as you realise that you may have to do things over and over again. You are working at creating an alternative to just “giving in” to the innate drive to explore and like “re-wiring” anything accommodating this will take time.

Also watch How not to lose your baby’s socks!


Think about this – even with children older than toddlers you may have taught the not to run near a pool, but you still supervise them in such situations because you know that they may not “understand” what they have learned well enough to NOT do it. Then why consider it a battle ground when a toddler doesn’t respond to “No” the way we expect them to?

-written by Avni Chahal


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