The “No” Heard ‘Round the World

It has long  been debated as to when kids actually start learning the meaning behind certain words. But i figure now is as good a time as any to start laying the ground work for the basics, and what more simple and basic of a word to teach your little one than “No”. It’s certainly a word that she will come to love, as she starts using it against us. But at this point the power of “No” is on our side, so here we go.

It all started two weeks ago, as she had just entered the phase of grabbing for everything. We had taken notice of the things she liked to grab for in particular, which was everything. So i stayed close when i sat her on the love-seat in the living room while i was picking up toys on the floor to straighten up a little bit. Without fail, she started reaching for the PS3 controller on the ottoman off the edge of the couch. Immediately I interrupted her efforts since she was obviously about to take a head-first dive off the couch. This is when i decided to “lay it on”. I put on my “angry dad face” (which consists of a scrunched brow, wide-eyed cold stare, and flared nostrils) softly, yet firmly, pushed her back to the sitting up position, made eye contact, and let it rip.


Keep in mind, i used the “Mullen serious voice”. It’s not quite yelling, but its stern, a little louder than inside voice, and hits your brain like a clap of thunder. She held eye contact with me for a moment, scanning the expression on my face, and her look turned to confusion. She looked back down at the remote, then at my two fingers on her shoulder still holding her back in the sitting up position. I took my hand a way, and she reaches for the remote. Obviously the first dose didn’t take, i need to change it up a bit. So how bout i use her name in my “serious voice”?

“Emma. No!” as i once again push her back in the sitting up position.

Again, a look of confusion as she scans the expression on my face that she’s never seen before. I can only imagine how her brain is processing this right now, all i know is that she did not cry, or scream. Just stared back into my “angry dad face” trying to make sense of it. This was the first time, but it wouldn’t be the last. I knew that later, i’d really hit it home and perhaps she would gain understanding.

Throughout the progression of feeding, we eventually graduated into baby food being fed to her via bowl and spoon. This required also graduating her up to the high-chair which she had at this point grow accustomed to. The only issue is that she had a “chaser”. After each bite off of the spoon, she would immediately stick her thumb in her mouth. This would typically lead to getting food all over her hand which would then travel into her eyes or hair (or both). This of course meant we would need to clean her up more extensively, which she hates (and we find quite annoying). So it seemed that this was the perfect opportunity to truly enforce the meaning of “No” into her tiny little brain, and effectively put a stop to a habit that is inconvenient for all three of us. We got set up to feed, and the first three bites went off without a hitch. On the fourth however, we made history.

I saw it coming from a mile away, in the little nuances of your child that you start to notice as a parent. As soon as i was about to remove the spoon from her mouth, her hand started to take the form of a “thumbs up”, and slowly started lifting towards her face. The spoon exited, and the thumb went in. I immediately (albeit carefully) pulled her hand out of her mouth, put on the “face” and used the “tone”….”No!”.

Again my stern, unwavering stare was met with a fragile little face of confusion. She did not break this look as her hand went back down to the tray, and i fed her another spoonful. The dance began again: Spoon left her mouth, thumb went in, i removed it, put on the “face” and used the “tone”……”No Emma!” and that’s when the dam broke. She took in the deepest breath she possibly could, opened her mouth as wide as i’ve ever seen it, and let out the most horrific cry I’ve ever heard from a child’s mouth. A passerby to the kitchen window would have thought i just chopped her leg off and started eating it in front of her. She panted for a short time, stuck out her bottom lip in disappointment, then received the next spoonful.

Her hand and arm moved much slowly this time. She stared at me, tears streaming down her face, as ever so slowly she began returning the thumb to her mouth. I let it reach its destination, but only for a second. She’s testing me now.

Put on the “face”, remove the hand, use the “tone”: “No!”

That was it. Another massive cry to end all cry’s. Even to the point where she exhausted all of her breath, got beat red, and took a few seconds to take another massive breath in before continuing to release a torrent of noise and frustration. I tried my best not to pick her up and cuddle her. That inner part of me yearning to comfort my little lovie in her moment of need was poking me in the back of the brain. But i knew that doing so would just undo everything i’d done up to that point. So i let it slide, and continued the feeding.

Since that day, she has only maybe twice attempted sucking her thumb while feeding. Success. But now comes a challenge we all must face, when to use it and when not to use it. “Great power comes with great responsibility” and sometimes it takes a moment to decide when to use it and when not to use it. For instance, she has taken to start slapping and headbutting us on the chest. This can sometimes be painful and annoying, and i want to use our new “weapon” to make it stop, but there is an important thing we must all keep in mind: She is still discovering.

She’s just a baby, and all the new things in the world must go through her process of discovery so that she can come to understand it. Hitting, biting, licking, staring, scratching, and other actions are all part of her investigative process. So practice caution in using this tool of “No”. It can be your greatest ally, but take care not to abuse it.


-B.K. Mullen


4 thoughts on “The “No” Heard ‘Round the World”

  1. Right now, everything goes to my son’s mouth. Everything he can get his grubby little five-month-old hands on. The “no” hasn’t hit full force yet, but it is right around the corner, and I anticipate much of the same style of screaming in our future that your thumb-to-mouth showdown caused. Ahh, the power of “no!”

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