Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Most Important Word

There is a single word that is possibly the most important word that you can teach your child. Just by learning this one word, your baby will make strides towards self-control and independence. It will help immensely with the little one's behavior and make baby much more pleasant to be around (eventually!). What is the magical word? It's not please, nor thank you, nor excuse me. It's the teensy little word: no.

One of the tough lessons of parenthood is that we are the ultimate authority in the child's world. It's up to us to teach this little person how to grow up to be a good citizen, a good worker, a good friend, and a good person. We eventually need to teach all of the aspects of character that we feel make up a moral being. What a job! But complex as this task is, it has its beginnings in the teaching of the word "no."

When we teach a baby the meaning of "no," we are laying the foundation for most of the traits that our culture agrees are positive and good. "No" begins with the adult limiting the child's behavior. We tell the baby "no" generally for its own good and safety. "Don't touch the hot stove, NO!" "No, don't climb on the steps." Gradually, the negations broaden to include acceptable behavior: "No, you can't pull your sister's hair." "No, I said don't eat with your fingers."

From the stage when we must constantly tell children no, no, and no again, they mature to a point where the "no" becomes internalized. They learn to tell themselves "no!" At first it's just because they remember from last time that parents or care givers disapprove. They avoid actions that had less desirable outcomes because they are afraid they will get caught. If all goes well (and we adults are doing our jobs!), then the growing child internalizes the reasons for the no's. The restraint becomes a conscience. Their behavior won't change based on who's looking, but rather is governed by their developing sense of right and wrong. Eventually, a child with a conscience grows into a moral adult. That's the goal.

But the entire process starts with telling the baby "no-no" when needed. This, however, can be very difficult to do. It's just plain tough to thwart your little one! In the first place, they usually cry and protest at this age when they don't get their own way. They make a fuss, and it's often easier, less stressful and less embarrassing to give in. Bad idea! This will undermine your vital teaching about the word "no." Even more distressing is the fact that once you've given in like that, once you've caved in, baby will try all the harder to get you to change your mind next time. You've set yourself up for a battle and effectively sabatoged your work to teach the little one about being civilized. Secondly, at times whatever baby wants doesn't seem all that wrong or harmful. For example, what's the harm in allowing little Percy to tear up pages from an old catalog? After all, the baby is just learning about pages, right? The problem is that little Percy won't be able to tell the difference between an old catalog that you don't really care about and an expensive library book that he happened to get ahold of. Pages are pages to him. It's better policy not to allow any behavior consistently rather than sometimes letting it pass and other times trying to stop it. Finally, we just do not want to cause the baby to be upset. We love the little darlings, and it's really hard to be the cause of their tears, even when we know it's really in their long term best interests.

Teaching your baby the meaning of the word "no" is very important. It lays the groundwork for later moral training and self-control. It is the foundational concept for nearly all character traits that we want to nurture. Even if it is hard or inconvenient or noisy or embarrassing, it is vital that very young children learn to listen to and respect the word. Hang tough, and make sure your baby learns the word "no."

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