When do Kids “Know” the Meaning of “No”?

Children under the age of three do not understand “no” in the way many parents think they do.  And, a full understanding of “no” doesn’t occur magically when the child turns three. It is a developmental process. “No” is an abstract concept that is in direct opposition to the developmental need of young children to explore their world and to develop their sense of autonomy and initiative.

Oh, your child may “know” you don’t want her to do something. She may even know she will get an angry reaction from you if she does it. However, she cannot understand why in the way an adult thinks she can. Why else would a child look at you before doing what she “knows” she shouldn’t do, grin, and do it anyway?

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. Two through six heralds the development of a sense of initiative vs. guilt. This means it is their developmental job to explore and experiment. Can you imagine how confusing it is to children to be punished for what they are developmentally programmed to do? They are faced with a real dilemma (at a subconscious level). “Do I obey my parent or my biological drive to develop autonomy and initiative by exploring and experimenting in my world?”

These stages of development do not mean children should be allowed to do anything they want. It does explain why all methods to gain cooperation should be kind and firm at the same time instead of controlling and/or punitive. This is a time of life when your child’s personality is being formed, and you want your child to make decisions about him or herself that say, “I am competent. I can try and make mistakes and learn. I am loved. I am a good person.” If you are tempted to help your child learn by guilt and shame and punishment, you will be creating a discouraging situation that is difficult to reverse in adulthood

Read part 2 of – When do Kids “Know” the Meaning of “No”?

Based on the Positive Discipline Series by Dr. Jane Nelsen & co-authors

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