Little girl pouting at playground

How to Ensure Your Toddler Understands No Means No

Dear Bob: No Means No


My toddler seems to have a hard time expressing himself with words. What can I do to help him? Actually there’s a lot you can do to help increase your toddler’s wordage. Here are some tips:


Mom talking to her son

How To Talk & Listen To Your Child

Most parenting articles stress the power of talking to your child—naming objects, talking about what you are doing. But, research has been showing that it’s important for you to also listen—giving your child time to say what he is trying to say rather than chiming in and making eye contact, and responding to what your child says.


Encourage Your Child To Use Words

Rather than handing your child the cookie after he grunts and points to the cookie, encourage him to speak. For instance, “Can you say, I want a cookie?”




Talk about what his interests include rather than your own interests.

How to Follow Your Child’s Lead

Talk about what his interests include rather than your own interests. If you are at a park, for example, and you see a dog, but your child seems fascinated with the stick that he just picked up, talk about his stick rather than the dog.


Talk Parentese

​Lots of experts discourage parents from talking baby talk with their child. For example, even though your child calls a bottle a Ba, you should refer to it as a bottle. That said, research shows that the sing-songy changes in tone that parents easily do with the kids actually helps them learn language better.


Mom talking to small child


The Importance of Reading To Your Child

​Reading increases vocabulary, and increasing vocabulary is important not only for speaking but also thinking. The more words a child has, the more he is able to think and process his world, which is great for overall mental health. Make reading interactive; ask questions, such as “how do you think the dog feels,” or talk about the details of the pictures, such as “what color is the man’s shirt?” And don’t limit reading together just at bedtime.

If your child isn’t babbling or talking, if he can’t string together two words by age 2, or if you can’t understand what he is saying by age 3, it could be a sign of a speech development issue. Seek out a professional to share your concerns.


Help Children Understand “No” Means “No”

Kids are pretty good at knowing just how far they can push you. If your child seems to ignore what you say and/or are constantly pushing back, the problem is that he’s learned to not take what you say seriously. They have learned that you’ll eventually give in, or they simply like the attention from you, even if it is negative attention.

The antidote is to take action. Decide in advance what you are going to do if they don’t listen to you, such as put him in his room for a time-out or take away the toy he is misusing. You want decisive action with no conversation or scolding. Planning it out will help you not have to try and think on your feet when you’re frustrated. Next, have a conversation with your child when you both are not upset, letting him know you are not going to keep repeating yourself. When you say something, they are expected to listen. Expect his pushing back or ignoring you the first couple of times; again, take action, no scolding. After things have cooled off, go back and talk about the situation. See if there is a problem you both need to solve so as to avoid repeating the problem. Finally, make sure you give him tons of positive feedback for complying. It’s a give-and-take type of situation that many parents struggle with, so don’t feel alone.


BOB TAIBBI is an author of 10 books and more than 300 articles—including the regular “Ask Bob” column in this magazine—Bob has 41 years of experience in couple and family work and is in private practice in Charlottesville (

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