“Stop,” “Don’t,” and “No”

Boy with Flower PotHow and Why to Stop Saying “Stop,” “Don’t,” and “No.”
Stop saying “Stop.”
Why I avoid saying ‘stop’:
Young children can’t stop. They don’t understand it yet; the only time they stop is when they’re sleeping. So I try to avoid saying “stop,” as that only tends to lead to frustration, both on my part and the children’s.
So what to do when children are doing something that you don’t like? Well, even though children can’t stop, they CAN do something else. So instead of saying, “stop banging your spoon on the table,” I say, “You can use your spoon to take a bite.” Instead of saying, “Stop throwing sand,” I say, “You can put that sand into a bucket.” Instead of saying, “Stop grabbing,” I say, “You can find a toy that nobody is using.”
When a child is interacting with another child in a way that they don’t like, I try not to say “stop.” Instead, I give them the words to talk to one another:
Sam comes up and tries to grab Harry’s toy.
Harry: Wah! (Looking at me)
Me: Harry, you can say, “I’m playing with this right now.”
Harry: I’m playing with this right now.
Sam: Wah!
Me: Oh, you wish you were playing with that?
Sam: (nod)
Me: Why don’t you say, “Can I use that when you’re done?”
Sam: Can I use that when you’re done?
Harry: Mine!
Me: Harry, you can say, “You can use this when I’m all done.”
When kids say “stop” to each other, I help them by translating very clearly what “stop” means. At Rainbow Bridge, “Stop means take your hands away.” I keep my ears out and whenever I hear a child saying “stop,” I turn around and watch, and remind them if needed, “Stop means take your hands away.” If they don’t, I’ll continue, “It looks like you need some help taking your hands away this time.”
Don’t say “Don’t.”
Why I avoid using the word don’t:
We all think with imagery, and children even more than adults. If I say, “Don’t run in the street,” what’s the image that comes into your head? Now, how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” The word “don’t” is a modifier that is very weak compared to the strong image created by the rest of the phrase. This is why, if you say “Don’t jump in the puddle,” the average two-year-old will go directly to the puddle and jump in it, and be slightly puzzled as to why you’re annoyed.
What I do instead
The solution is exactly the same as with “stop.” Instead of saying what you don’t want, say what you DO want the child to do. If a little boy is riding his bike towards his friends and knocks into them over and over again, I will say, “You can go around your friends.” If a child is leaning on a gate that is rickety, I’ll tell them, “Please stand up straight and tall.”
Because we think so strongly in images, I also use images to set the scene for children, telling them how I want them to act in an upcoming situation: “When I open the gate, everyone will walk calmly through, and wait on the other side until I latch it again. Then we’ll walk together on the sidewalk, stopping at each tree for me to catch up.” I don’t necessarily expect them to remember and obey, I’m just planting the seeds and setting the scene. Then I’ll remind them right before each step, what’s about to happen.
Why Not to say “No.”
Why I avoid saying ‘no.’
I try to avoid saying no because children hear it all the time, and it loses its effectiveness if used too much.
What I do instead
If a child needs a swift word to stop them from doing something, I will often clap twice, very loudly. This startles them and pauses them long enough for me to let them know what I DO want them to be doing.
If a child asks if they can do something or have something, I try to say Yes, with as many caveats as I need. If I’m up to the elbows in sudsy dishwater and a child asks me to tie a cape around their neck, I’ll say, “Yes. I’ll help you as soon as I’m done with the dishes.” If the child complains that they want it right now, we might brainstorm together: they could ask a friend for help, or try to do it themselves, or play with something else until I’m done.
If the child asks for something and the answer will always be no, I will either tell them what they CAN have, “You can have a red ball today,” and just be compassionate if that’s a disappointment; or I will say “yes” in my imagination: “If I had another green ball, I would give it to you for sure!” I often take this imagination and run with it, making it bigger and bigger, and then transforming it into another conversation: “In fact, if I had two green balls, I’d have one for you and one for me. And we could throw them back and forth. If we had three green balls, who would you give the third one to? What if we had a whole room full of balls? We could take them to the park and give one to every child we met! That would sure be fun. Remember last time we went to the park?” And on from there.
-Tell them when they CAN have/do what they want
The reason that I try to avoid saying stop, don’t, and no, isn’t because it will ruin a child’s self-esteem. I do it because it’s significantly more effective than the alternatives. And I do it because I enjoy my time with toddlers more when I’m not saying no all the time!


  1. Mindy Leone says

    Again, Thank you for your helpful posts! I find your advice to be very insightful. I am so glad that I have found your blog. I cannot wait to try these techniques and to get used to them like a second language. I imagine it will take practice but after a while it will become second nature.

  2. SonyaRose says

    Thank you so much for these reminders. It's so easy to slip back into the "no, don't, stop" pattern. I am wondering about thumb sucking. My daughter is 5 1/2 years old and still sucks her thumb. We want to avoid the "no, don't, stop" approach to her thumb sucking. Is it necessary to give it any attention at all? Are there particular concerns regarding prolonged thumb sucking.

  3. avoid saying no, this should be part of my list, I never had any idea about how it can affect the child's way of thinking and reacting to a lot of things,


  4. Miss Faith says

    Hi Sonya Rose,

    I don't actually have a lot of experience with thumb-sucking, but I'd suggest doing what my mom did for me when I used to bite my nails: she would just calmly take my fingers down from my mouth, as many times as it took. There was no sense of blame or shame, and she didn't yell or snap at me. She usually didn't say anything, actually, or sometimes would just say calmly, "that's enough." Just remember that habits (esp. oral habits) are hard to break, so be patient with the process. One option might be to have a time/place where it's OK for her to do it (probably in bed?), so you can remind her of when she CAN do it. Has anyone else had success with thumb-sucking or nail-biting? What did you do?

  5. I've never really understood the parenting choice of excluding words like "no," "stop," or "don't," etc. In my opinion-and I've only parented one child so far, my almost 4 year old son-instilling boundaries in a baby/toddler is infinitely important, as is clearly explaining what behavior our society will expect of him. I would imagine if you told a child that was throwing toys to "perhaps find another way to play with the toys," instead of clearly stating that the act of throwing things is unacceptable and unsafe, the most important point of intervening would be lost on the child. They would not logically deduce on their own that they shouldn't throw; they would decide that they will play this way for now, but maybe later they will throw things some more. The boundary of what is acceptable was not established.
    I don't think the act of saying "no" to a child is an ineffective way to teach; the problem is that often, parents offer no follow-up explanation to the child afterwards. It seems mothers, fathers grow tired of constantly parenting their child (because the concept of "24 hours a day" seems to be understood only when you are literally doing so with your child ;)) so further guidance isn't offered after the command of "stop" or "don't!"
    Perhaps if one was to take the time to further explain to the little one why his or her actions caused the yell of "no," it would not have to be said as frequently.
    Additionally, it is often said that children crave boundaries. I agree with this wholeheartedly-when things seem to make sense and can be categorized as "right/wrong," or "acceptable/unacceptable," a person can feel more at ease than if they are met with constant grey areas. People like to be able to wrap their heads around an idea and put it neatly in a category in their minds. This seems to appear in children true-perhaps a part of true human nature. Not to say everyone should act what is "socially acceptable" and deviation should never occur…indeed art is made by stepping outside the box and spontaneity is what makes like beautiful! But developmentally…I think solid boundaries and "no" and "don't" are integral in the process of nurturing a crazy little miniature human being

    and ps: a child who never hears "no" sounds to me that they may have problems coping with the world as an adult when surely they will come face to face with "NO!" Disappointment plays a necessary part in developing the psyche in order not to inherit narcissistic tendencies.

    • Mum of 2 boys says

      totally agree!!!!!

      • love your thoughts. i agree with the original post as well, but there is a happy medium between both sides. i agree that there is definitely a time when “no, don’t or stop” are the best way to convey a message. love your point that it should be followed up w/ explanation–i get lazy with that part alot… i just get so tired of talking sometimes!!! lol.

        • 5kids+20yrpreschoolteacher says

          Clear boundaries are important, but the key to remember is this, before the age of 5 or even 6, little ones are simply NOT ABLE to decide for themselves categorically to give up, or cease a certain behavior. How easy would our job as parents and early childhood educators be if they could!! Not acknowledging this is to say that your child, by repeating an action that you have already said ‘no’ to, is being openly and purposefully defiant….not many children want to overtly oppose their parents in order to anger them. Enacting a consistent redirecting response every time your child acts out, whatever the behavior might be, is to simply take ALL the focus away from the ‘bad’ behavior, and move on in your day to something positive, constructive and above all something allowed! The more we dwell on ‘establishing boundaries’ at this age, when the children are really not able to limit or control their behavior alone, the more energy we are giving the unacceptable behavior, thereby reinforcing it….The desire to establish boundaries seems like such a tempting thing, as if to say, “we’ve talked about this…and now you know better…” but believe me, mostly, they don’t! And what’s more, even if they do, and they chose to do the ‘thing’ again, it isn’t because they want to be naughty! How many little ones would chose to do a behavior that they know is going to land them on ‘the naughty step’ or whatever consequence you may have in store for them. It’s simply an impulsive act that for whatever reason, seemed at the time like ‘the thing to do’!! It helps me, when I see the twinkle in the eye of a 2 or 3 yr old about to push a basket of blocks off the shelf for the umpteenth time, to remember the old cartoons, and picture the little devil and angel hovering above each shoulder of the little rascal…how hard to always listen to the angel, when the devil is as omnipresent with his cunning methods!! I know I have a hard time with that myself! I probably should have simply set the basket of blocks on the floor after the 2nd time it was pushed off, and then sat down with the child to see what awesome structure we can build together!
          Anyway, unfortunately, the bottom line here as far as I’m concerned is; They DON’T ‘know better,…’We’ve talked about this’ was nothing more than an amusing little anecdote at the time, and each and every episode that arises with this demographic requires a fresh view from us, a deep breath, a smile on our face and an imaginative alternative to ‘no’, ‘stop’ and ‘don’t’. I do agree that Baby George should simply be removed right away, but this action in itself, whilst ignoring the toddler battering him with whatever it was, speaks so much louder than anything one could dream up to say. “Hey, come and help me wash Baby George’s face! Can you find me a washcloth from the laundry basket? Which one should we use??”

  6. Afterthought: I feel like that came across as ranting…It is truly, however, just my opinion. I honestly respect the article and those who agree with it, I just felt an opposing side was not represented here. peace to the mamas!

  7. Miss Faith says

    Hi Karina, Thanks for taking the time to write! I appreciate your comments. I absolutely agree that children crave boundaries, and that instilling boundaries and teaching children what society will expect from them are "infinitely important" (as you so aptly put it). What I am suggesting, though, is that boundaries can be taught and maintained using positive language, and that in my observation of young children, this technique is actually MORE effective than telling them "stop" and giving explanations. For example, with throwing blocks, saying "Don't throw blocks. That might hurt someone," is far LESS effective in my experience than saying, "Blocks are for stacking. You can stack the blocks, or find a soft ball to throw." There is no "grey area" there. The boundaries are clear. But instead of just trying to stop what the child is doing, it's giving options for appropriate action as well. Telling children what IS appropriate is much more effective for behavior modification than explaining WHY something else is not appropriate, and hoping that they'll logically deduce what to do instead.

    I also agree that learning to deal with disappointment when they're not allowed to do something is vitally important–I wrote a post on it called "The Value of Saying No."

  8. awesome response-but wait a minute-a post titled "The Value of Saying N0?" Haha, it sounds like your beliefs are very well rounded 😉
    Thanks again for the intelligent opinions on this matter!

  9. Miss Faith says

    I know, lol! My only defense is that in the post I recommend using the word "No" as little as possible when denying young toddlers (under 2.5). So at least I'm *somewhat* consistent! The question is how to set firm boundaries (which involves "no" in word or in deed) without being punitive. I think the biggest part of all is consistency, so that children know what's expected at all times. And we can certainly do that without saying "no" all the time!

    • where that darn manual God sent with my kids?? it’s gotta be around here somewhere…. lol!
      is there ever an always-right answer?! love bouncing ideas around w/ other mommas who have different opinions.

  10. that was so helpful. thank you for being so specific!

  11. This all sounds so simple after reading this lol. I realize now that the times I’ve used this approach it’s more effective, my daughter seems to have more understanding. When we’re in the store and she pulls something off a shelf that she wants I’ve found saying “we don’t need that today” saves the trouble of a meltdown if I had just simply said no.

  12. Miss Faith I’ve been meaning to ask you this for AGES….I just was wondering if you think it is EVER appropriate to smack a child (calmly, controlled, and not hard of course) or if it is ALWAYS non-beneficial. Many thanks…

    • Thanks for writing, Ella, and what a fascinating question!

      I, personally, have never smacked a child, and never intend to. I’m not a fan of “punishment” in general–I think that children do the best that they can in any given circumstance (given how rested or tired they are, how calm or overstimulated they are, how connected or disconnected with us they feel, etc.). When children act out, they are generally trying to tell us that something is not right for them. Or it’s because our expectations are not age-appropriate.

      That being said, I put punishment in quotes because I DO believe that children benefit from having firm and consistent boundaries, which generally means that there are consequences to inappropriate behavior. So, if a child is out of control, I will bring them in to sit on my lap until they can calm down, even if they don’t want to. Or if they can’t keep their hands out of their drink at a meal, I will take it away. If they spill something, I expect them to help clean it up, even if they don’t want to. Are those punishments? In some ways, sure. But the difference is intent: I’m doing it to help the child learn to grow and act appropriately, not to punish him or her.

      Could you possibly hit a child purely with the intent of helping, and not to punish? It’s possible, I suppose, but extremely difficult. And even if we could, I still think that there are almost always better tools. Our goal as parents and caregivers should be to help our children grow into being as much of their “best selves” as possible, and I don’t see how smacking them would help in that process.

  13. I disagree that we should never say “No” to a child. My niece is three and she knows what it means. Not only that, but if she runs ahead while we are walking, and is about to run out in the middle of the road, a loud, sharp “NO” gets her attention in a way nothing else can. I won’t remember to clap twice. As part of that, she has to hold my hand for the rest of the time we are out, even if she doesn’t want to. I think the key is talking to your children, so that they understand which behavior exactly you don’t like or won’t tolerate.

    • Hi Kim,

      I absolutely think that a sharp “NO” is an appropriate response to running out in the street. AND…I think that a sharp ‘no’ is much MORE effective if that child isn’t being told ‘no’ so often that he becomes immune to it, which I see quite frequently. In this article I wanted to present the idea that it’s possible to hold firm boundaries and let children know exactly what’s acceptable and what’s not, without telling them ‘no’ all the time. And in fact, that telling them what we DO want them to do is more effective than telling them what we don’t want them to do.

  14. Thanks for these reminders and alternatives. While I do try to suggest alternatives, it also seems like there are days when I feel like all I I do is say no to set boundaries for our 3-year-old… and those days, he seems especially immune to it! Appreciate your post!

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