We’ve all been there. The baby touching the radiator. The child running across the road. The teenager jumping out of the window for a dare (I’ve been told this happens. Really).
Being a teacher, I deal with silly behaviour all the time. But whether it is at home with a crawling 6-month-old to look after, or in school, supervising 30-odd children handling flames: one thing I teach them early is the meaning of the word ‘no’!
It’s a simple word, but it seems to divide the parenting world no end. You will find parents like me, who think that teaching this word early is a must to a relaxed life later on. You will find those claiming it just doesn’t work for them. And then there are those who avoid it, wanting their children to discover rules by themselves. If you belong to the latter category, look away now – I will only infuriate you the way that your children tend to infuriate me.
See, I think it is very simple in theory, a little harder in practice, but it comes naturally with time and patience. No is one of the first words my son is learning, along with sleep-time, mummy, daddy, sister and food.
He is a quick one, physically. It took him less than 3 weeks to figure out crawling, from the first time he was on his knees. Now I can leave the room for a few seconds, go back and find him in the opposite corner of the living room, munching on a piece of paper or eating cables.
I have two choices: completely baby-proof the house, making anything we want to get as adults a chore, or teach the boy now that there are certain things we just don’t do.
The biggest issue is, it takes time and consistency. Yesterday I must have said the word no at least 100 times. I must have got up from the sofa, said no and placed him in a safe space at least as many times (brilliant work-out, by the way). But I did it EVERY TIME.
Most babies learn quickly. If, every time they attempt to touch the radiator, they are taken away and hear the word no, they will eventually cease to try to touch it. Because, come on, they’ve gone to all that effort for nothing and they will have to start again. If they attempt to turn around on the changing table, but every time are told no and they are turned back over, they will eventually learn that there is no point doing this.
And this is where simple ends. You see, consistency is hard. It is annoying. In the time I am writing this, I have got up and removed the boy from the radiator 12 times. I have removed him from the laptop cable 3 times. And no doubt, I’ll have to do it again and again until the message sinks in. If I give in – just once – because I just cannot be bothered, I will confuse him as to what no means. And that is dangerous, because he will end up hurting himself.
You also have to know exactly what is permissible and what is not. It’s a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong answer. For me, letting him chew on pegs is fine, as long as I’m there to keep an eye on him. He seems to enjoy the feeling of moist wood. (We’re on no. 13…) It is not okay for him to play with the bag they’re in. Bags are dangerous. (No. 4 for cables.) It’s okay to crawl into every corner of the living room. It’s not okay to touch the chain of our cuckoo clock. You get the gist.
There will be tears. In baby’s world, it is fun playing with bags, touching shiny radiators and eating cables. They all feel different, are exciting to look at and make such a funny noise. A baby does not see the danger. A toddler does not understand the danger of climbing onto a windowsill or onto a table. It’s adventurous to be that high up. And we’re so mean for not allowing them to find out what happens if they pull the table cloth.
But we’re not there to be their friends. Our job as a parent is to guide them through life in a way that keeps them safe and allows them to become a well-mannered member of our society. It’s a fine balancing act as, of course, we don’t want them to lose their inquisitiveness. This is why it is so important that you are clear on your rules.
Mine are simple: Does it potentially hurt them? Does it potentially hurt or upset others? Will fixing what they may break be expensive? If the answer is yes to any of the above, the likely response is a resounding no. There are exceptions, of course. Using a knife to cut vegetables has the potential to hurt them, but my daughter still used one under close supervision from age 4 to help me in the kitchen. But she wouldn’t use on on her own.
It is fine for rules to change, over time. What was a no when they were a baby may become a yes when they are toddlers. Climbing off the sofa is an example. Likewise, what used to be a yes as a baby may well become a no later on. I would not expect my nine-year-old to chew on a peg. Being flexible while being consistent and having the ability to apply and justify different rules for siblings of differing ages is a skill that takes practice and an unfaltering self-belief that what you are doing is right for them.
Teaching ‘no’ early on pays off. The girl recently had her CD-player removed over a silly thing. She knows where it is. She has not attempted to go and get it back herself. She goes to bed at 8.00pm and her lights are off at 8.30pm, whether or not I check. Her boundaries are clear and, for the most part, she adheres to them faultlessly. And she is a stubborn one, just like the boy. But in time, he, too, will learn. Because teaching them early on saves battles later, when they are much more able (and willing) to answer back. It’s why teaching them in year 7 means that when they get to year 11 they still respect what you say. Unless you never taught them ‘no’, of course.