When Do Kids Understand "No"?

"My son is a year old. When will he understand the meaning of the word 'no'"?
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Q. My son turned 1 recently. While the house is childproofed, there are some things he should not be touching (nightlight, carbon monoxide tester, air filter) that are in electrical sockets he can reach. When he goes to touch these items I shout "no" and if he doesn't stop I remove him from the area and tell him he cannot touch that item (the problem is he pulls them out of the socket and then wants to touch the socket). He laughs and then goes right back for more. What do we need to do to be effective in stopping this behavior? At what point will he understand "no"?

A. It's time to alter your expectations with respect to your baby's ability to comply with your demand to not touch the outlets. Below are six parenting adages to keep in mind as you begin the process of guiding your baby and soon-to-be toddler to respond to your requests.

  1. You can't parent from an arm chair. Since you don't want your baby to touch outlets, every time he heads toward one you must be up off your feet, moving your child away. Say "no" with a horrified expression. Engage him in another activity.
  2. Your baby is curious about his environment. Electrical outlets hold lots of interest for little children. They're right at their eye level when on the floor. They stand out from the wall, sometimes with plugs poked in them, sometimes not. Outlets fascinate babies because they realize that the outlet, when connected to various objects, make things happen: lights go on, TVs play, vacuums make noise. Babies and toddlers are little scientists testing the cause and effect of various elements in their environment, outlets being one of them.
  3. That outlet is like a magnet, a target that he can't resist. Additionally, he realizes that moving toward it brings attention and a predictable response from you. It is very gratifying to a baby to carry out a predictable sequence of events. So the way you're responding is actually keeping his behavior going rather that stopping it.
  4. Your baby has no idea about the dangers of electrical outlets. Plus, he does not have the inner controls to stay away just because you say so. You must provide the control your baby lacks. Your job is to protect him when he goes in harm's way. In time, when he's between the ages of 3 and 5 years, the control you provide now will transfer from you to him. He'll gradually develop self-control.
  5. The interaction between you and him is a fun baby game. He can't resist the fun and satisfaction of setting the game plan in motion. He approaches the outlet, you predictably say "no," he keeps moving toward it, you remove him, and he moves toward it again, he laughs with the fun of it. Babies thrive on such games, so develop a similar game around safe -- rather than dangerous -- objects.
  6. Never leave your baby or soon-to-be toddler unattended, despite the fact that your house is baby-proofed. From now until he's 3 years old you can't let him out of your sight even for a second. He's on the go with no inner controls and he likes to make things happen.


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