Teaching Your Child the Meaning of NO

I was in high school, having a conversation with my English teacher on parents hitting their children. She had two kids, the younger of whom was 2 years old.

“I would never, ever hit my kids,” I said, sure of my stand. (I was a teenager, so it’s obvious I knew it all! 🙂 )

“Vinita, when your child is putting her finger in a live electrical socket, and doesn’t heed your warnings to be cautious, the only way to get through to her is to smack her hard. Do it a few times, and she’ll learn.”

I still disagreed.

“Well, how would you go about ensuring she doesn’t get an electric shock?” my teacher asked.

“I don’t know exactly how, but I will never, ever raise my hand to my child,” I reiterated.

She wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to get through to my child, and I was adamant that I’d find a way that didn’t involve hitting.

About a dozen years later, I’d just put a mug of piping hot tea on the living room table for my husband, who hadn’t yet entered the room. My 8-month old was trying to pull herself off the floor into a standing position using the table as support. Yes, the same table that held the piping hot mug of tea. She stood up, and reached a hand out towards the mug from which the steam curled enticingly upwards.

I don’t think any parent I know would do what I did next. I held her hand, and dipped the tip of one of her fingers into the hot liquid – just for a split second. As I did it, I said, “Hot! NO!”

Her hand was out of the tea and she was in my arms as I rushed her towards a cold water faucet before she even realized the pain fully. She looked into my eyes, hers wide with unshed tears. “That was HOT tea,” I repeated. “We don’t touch hot things. NO!”

I think she was fine after I’d put enough cold water on her finger. At any rate, I don’t remember any ill-effects after the event.

But there were numerous ‘good’ effects. Madam (thus respectfully do I allude to my almost-teenager who checks out my posts and is overwhelmingly generous with her comments 😉 ; which are mostly some variation of “Mom, you’re crazy!” 🙂 I told you – she knows everything! 🙂 ) never tried to fling herself off staircases, windows and balconies, or insert various parts of herself into electrical sockets or gadgets (microwave, toaster, vacuum cleaner etc.).

I didn’t child-proof my house. I had delicate crystal all over the place, and it stayed there. She learnt that there were places to play and places not to play. Some people feel that this might be because she is a girl (“Girls listen, but boys are so naughty! They simply run wild, you know!…”), but I’ve discovered that’s not true.

I have friends, men, who were as athletic and devil-may-care in their childhood as any boy could be, whose parents even today proudly display delicate china and crystal they have collected over decades – just as they did when the kids were little. All because they managed to teach their children the meaning of NO. 🙂

I thought of my conversation with the English teacher years after the hot tea incident. I’m not so sure any longer whether I proved my point or not. I certainly did not hit my daughter, but dunking her finger in hot tea is also violence of a kind, so I don’t know what to think.

But I am sure about 2 things: I feel bad that she had to suffer that momentary pain, and I am convinced I did the right thing. You may wonder at my ability to reconcile these apparently conflicting ideas, but it makes perfect sense to me. I saved myself – and her – a lot of trouble, heartache and conflict by getting her to understand NO so simply and directly.

I have no guilt about it; quite the contrary – I’m rather pleased I solved a potential problem before it even arose! I am not rationalizing the incident saying, “I did it for her – so that she wouldn’t hurt or injure herself in the future…” That was a side-benefit.

I did it for me. I did it because there was no way I could parent one kid and one puppy, cook, clean, run a household for us, and stay married to a husband with health issues and insane hours at work. But even if I’d been having a cushy life with ‘nothing’ to do, I’d still have chosen to do what I did. It was short, simple, direct, and effective.

If you’re still reading this, you might be appalled, and trying to come up with your own way of teaching your child the meaning of NO. That’s great! 🙂 The only way that will work with your child is the way that comes naturally to you – the way that you feel is right for you.

The ‘hot tea’ kind of one-time teaching obviously works when your child is really young, too young even to remember such an incident.

But what if your child is past that age? How can you teach him the meaning of NO?

The best time to start is now.

The best way to start is to pick only one NO. Suppose you want to cure your child of 15 ‘bad’ habits he has. Add to these 6 ways to ‘improve’ him or the way he does things. (Look at yourself! And you expect your child to listen to you! Get real 🙂 ) Of these 21 possible projects, pick only 1. That is your NO.

Maybe you pick ‘NO TV at dinnertime’. It has to be iron-clad; it has to be repeated and reinforced endlessly; you have to live it; you have to be the role model – no exceptions. Oscar Awards live on TV? Move dinner time so you’re done before the telecast begins. Wimbledon finals? Move dinner time. Not possible? Switch off the TV when a commercial break starts, serve and eat dinner, and begin watching after dinner is done.

They’re showing a documentary you’ve been trying to get hold of for years? Record it; or do dinner at a different time. No exceptions. Not if someone is ill. Not if there are guests over. (What kind of host are you anyway to have people over for dinner and then plonk them in front of the TV while you all eat? 🙂 )

After all, you’re teaching your child the meaning of the word NO. You’d better demonstrate that you know the meaning yourself!

An open secret about the word NO: the more sparingly you use it, the more effective it is. More tomorrow…

Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂


8 Comments on “Teaching Your Child the Meaning of NO”

  1. rajeev says:


  2. […] As the years go by, you realize that something has gone wrong. It has gone so radically wrong, that you can’t begin to think what happened, or figure out how it happened. If you try to work it out, your mind goes fuzzy. You can’t think beyond the fact that something about your child is not right. […]

  3. […] the conversation, someone else said something, and the topic was dropped. I had two children (a toddler and a dog) to take care of, so I was in and out of the conversation, and then they […]

  4. […] for hours every day. I’m sure I’d be able to get them to stop, if only she’d allow me to spank them, but she […]

  5. […] be many situations which shock or appall you, which make you want to put your foot down and say “NO”. But you are mindful of your image as an ‘easy-going’ parent. And ‘No’ is not a word […]

  6. […] If you are a loving parent, you are consistent. You make rules, decisions and choices that follow a particular line of thinking, and your child finds it easy to […]

  7. […] you turn, there are numerous guides, reviews, books and articles with long lists of what you must do and what you mustn’t to be (or become) a ‘good’ parent. Confusion […]

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